I’m increasingly of the opinion that Gone Home represents a quiet but significant sea change in the realm of “major” indie games (as opposed to smaller, usually non-commercial affairs, which have been far more daring for a long time). All of a sudden you can have projects with reasonably sizeable budgets and high production values, created by veteran developers with years of experience working in the AAA space, that take the form of quiet romances or dramas. In the years since we’ve had Sunset, Everybody’s Gone to The Rapture, and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, all first-person affairs which, while dabbling to varying degrees in genre waters, ultimately concerned themselves with smaller, quieter stories. Soma and A Machine For Pigs used their SFF settings to deal with the sorts of heady topics that novels have been tackling for decades, but which are a comparative rarity in games
Campo Santo is a new studio that was obviously heavily influenced by Fullbright’s critical darling. Comprising a sort of super-team of developers who worked on acclaimed indie titles and featuring the artistic stylings of Olly Moss, their debut title takes the Gone Home formula (insofar as anything featured in a single game can be considered a formula) and takes it into brave new territory.
It’s 1987, and forty-something year old Henry escapes his complicated personal life by taking a summer job as a fire lookout in the Wyoming wilderness. He spends his days alone in his tower, scanning the horizon for signs of smoke, his only contact with the outside world coming in the form of a handheld radio and the voice on the other end. Delilah is henry’s supervisor, and although her acerbic and sarcastic sense of humour initially grates, the two quickly begin to form a closer relationship whose exact nature will vary depending on the player’s choices.
Things seem like they’re going well for old Henry, but when strange events start to happen to him he begins to fear that he may not be safe. It will be up to him and Delilah to get to the bottom of things and discover the truth, but can their budding friendship/relationship survive the strain?
That’s a very vague description of the plot of Firewatch. There’s a reason for that. Campo Santo were careful not to say too much about the game’s story pre-release, and going in knowing as little as possible is probably for the best. That’s not because there are huge plot twists waiting for you, but because the game creates an atmosphere of dread and paranoia by throwing a lot of odd little things at you and letting you work out whether they’re actually as sinister as they seem.
Despite the game’s cartoony art style and hefty dose of humour, it’s at times genuinely tense and unnerving. The idyllic wilderness that seems so inviting at first can become downright frightening when the sun’s sinking below the treeline and you’re creeping along an isolated trail, looking behind you to see if someone’s following. In that sense it’s similar to Gone Home’s tangential use of its setting to frighten the player– except that unlike in Gone Home there is actually something strange going on, and the characters have legitimate reasons to be worried.
I want to be clear about the fact that Firewatch is not a game about exploring an expansive wilderness. The area Henry has available to him is basically open for you to wander, restricted only by whether you’ve found the right tool to traverse obstacles, and the game gives you multiple chances to explore at your leisure, revisit locations you’ve already been to and generally poke around for optional dialogue options and interesting sights, but his section of wilderness isn’t large, and most of it is traversed along fairly discrete, linear paths.
I actually found that I could have done with an even smaller sandbox to play around in, as some areas feel like they were padded out to give a greater sense of scale. Firewatch comes alive when you find something you can use to strike up a conversation with Delilah, and a higher density of those moments would have helped the game’s pacing flow a little better.
More or less anything interesting or unusual you encounter out in the woods can be radioed in to Delilah; sometimes this results in short, canned conversations, but more often than not you’ll get the chance to make dialogue options that push Henry and Delilah’s relationship in new directions. A whole lot of these consist of the two leads goofing on each other or making bad jokes, which is where Firewatch’s writing really shines: for all the mystery and pathos underscoring these characters’ situations, I could have quite happily played an entire game of them trading terrible puns.
The eventual resolution of the mystery plotline has drawn some negative reactions from players and reviewers who found it anticlimactic or underwhelming, or who have criticised it for not making sense. I reject the first charge outright– the ending wraps up all the disparate and seemingly unrelated story threads very neatly as long as you pay attention to what it’s telling you– but I do have some sympathy with the latter complaint. There’s nothing about the story that’s outright nonsensical, but some of the twists it goes through to explain everything that Henry experienced during his summer in Wyoming strain credibility just a bit.
That’s not really a problem, because ultimately Firewatch isn’t about mysteries. It’s about two people’s guilt and regret, the measures they’ve gone through to escape them and whether or not they’re successful. It rejects easy answers and tidy resolutions; Henry and Delilah aren’t a quick fix for each other’s respective problems (which is good, since in the hands of a lesser story Delilah could easily have turned into a Manic Pixie Dream Girl or a similar shallow man-salve fantasy figure) and you could argue that they don’t really change or attain any great personal growth over the course of the story. Henry comes into the wilderness facing a certain personal problem; he leaves it having come no closer to solving that problem, save for a possible (depending on the player’s choices) resolution to maybe think about facing it at some time in the future. The wilderness isn’t where Henry goes to find himself or become a better man or any of that nonsense; it’s just a nice place to spend a summer goofing around with a new friend and solving mysteries.
At the end of Firewatch I found myself wanting more. More space to explore, more of Henry’s goofy sense of humour, more about Delilah’s past. The game is a summer vacation for adulthood, and I didn’t want it to end. In a time where most games seem to drag on past their expiration date, I consider that high praise indeed.