Firewatch is a visual novel for PC developed by Campio Studios and published by Panic. It was not a 'game' I intended to purchase or play, but I was interested when I saw all of the glowing reviews for it. I was curious if it really was a groundbreaking story, an amazing 'game', or something that would redefine the medium. Before I go much further, however, I want to get everyone on the same page with me about what Firewatch is, and what it isn't. The above two times is the last time I'll call this a game, because it's not. Game has a simple definition:
A form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.
I think people should know up front, before buying Firewatch, that it doesn't require any skill, or even any luck. It is not competitive, and there appears to be no loss condition, or challenge to overcome. Everyone considering Firewatch should know that it's a visual novel, even more so than the stories put out by Telltale games that have become so popular. There are no QTEs, puzzles, or riddles to solve. None of this is a bad thing, however. There is just as much of a place in the world for visual novels, popularly called 'walking simulators', as there is for traditional video games. I just think it's something that consumers need to know before spending any money on it. This is your spoiler warning as well. I will do my best to leave out the major parts, but some stuff must be talked about in order to put my thoughts into context.
The novel follows Henry, an unlikable man whose wife comes down with early onset Alzheimer's. After trying to take care of her as her heath deteriorates he lets her move home to Australia with her parents (based on my conversation selections). He stays home, and eventually takes a job as a fire lookout in the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming. Henry's only link to another person is his walkie-talkie, which is used to talk to Delilah, who is a lookout in a tower you can see across the forest. Henry begins to uncover clues to a strange mystery and gets paranoid about who might be watching, and what they are planning to do to Henry and his supervisor, Deliliah.
The novel is beautifully presented in a highly stylized art that reminds me of a movie from Pixar. It is, by far, the best part of the production. The artist deserves every credit for making striking visuals with a style that is unique, and even though it is inspired by others, it has elements all its own. The moving leaves, handwritten notes, labels, books, and drawings are all little details that make the experience interesting. It seems clear the most production time and resources went into making the art look good, and it wasn't wasted on anything. Even down to the labels on the peanut butter jars there's a great attention to detail. The artists also know where detail isn't needed, which showed some economy in design. There was no time spent creating a lot of detail where it wasn't needed. Where a lot of games make sure every blade of grass has to have just the right edges, and every rock needs to be scratched and weathered just right, this novel focuses on the details that matter and leaves the rest to a lovely, painted style that doesn't get in the way of the rest.
The sound effects were also great. The sounds of wind through the trees helps put you in the woods with the story. Climbing rocks, lapping water, and radio broadcasts are all well done and help with immersion into the world. Besides graphics, sound is one of the keys to immersion in my opinion, and terrible sound can make or break a game. Thankfully this novel doesn't skimp on the little auditory details that help simulate the sense and put you in the world of Firewatch. The voice acting is also very good, and helps make the story more interesting listening to the delivery. Most of the story is handled by just two voiced characters, and through it all it felt natural and polished.
Where I feel they went wrong with the design was the music. At first the music is constant, with very little theme, and some annoying repetition. Once you are through the first part, the prologue, and into the forest, the music seems to come at random. There are moments when it seems meant to enhance the drama, or foreshadow coming parts of the story, but that often serves to let you know something important is about to happen. It's something we see all the time in movies and shows, music coming at scenes of high drama, or conflict, and in the case of horror movies it's meant to heighten the sense of doom. When it's done right it feels like part of the rest of the production, in the background, subtle, and poignant. When done wrong it comes out as glaring, annoying, and distracting. With Firewatch the music falls into the latter, and made worse for the fact that it's entirely unmemorable. If the music had been more consistent, perhaps fallen into the background until needed to heighten some dramatic part of the story and settled into the background quietly when it wasn't needed, it might not have been so distracting when it did pick up and start playing.
Simplicity in Action
The mechanics of the novel are extremely simple. Like I said above, there is no fail state to any action that I could find. You don't have to time anything just right, or hit a button in just the right spot to get the desired effect. That is really what puts Firewatch squarely into the visual novel category for me. It has a handful of controls which are prompted on screen so it's impossible to forget them. You basically navigate the world by walking along paths in the woods, sometimes climbing rocks, slopes, or jumping across broken bridge-spans, all of which is done for you after you hit the required button to prompt the animation. You are able to jog in most of the novel, but where the story tellers have something they want you to pay attention to the run feature is nonfunctional. The one mechanic I really didn't like was the timer on conversations. I went through this novel in the morning while I was eating and had my hands full at one point and completely missed a conversation prompt because it was gone by the time I got back to the mouse. I could see this being a detriment to a player that gets distracted while playing this.
What Firewatch obviously tries to do, and fails if you're paying attention, is simulate a non-linear exploration style. The mechanics of the map and compass are cool, and yes, you can wander wherever you want. It's easy to get lost, but if you do leave the very linear path of the story nothing happens. There is nothing to see, do, or experience outside the line you are meant to follow for that particular part of the story. You get the illusion, due to the network of paths, cliffs, and canyons, that you can go wherever you want, and you can, but there's no real benefit to it. In other non-linear games one would find side quests, red herrings, or events that aren't necessarily related to the story but here it's quite literally nothing but the woods. If perhaps there had been other things to see, something to get distracted by, or turn you down a very different trail from the main story it would have done a better job of this.
There are some items in the novel that you use to perform certain actions, or collect to view later. Ropes, notes, tapes, an ax, and even a turtle are all things you can pick up, and often use. None of them are hard to find, all placed exactly where they need to be while the story leads you along. At no point was I missing any of the items I needed to complete the next task or overcome the next 'obstacle'. It is clearly intention in its design with this, giving far more focus on the story rather than collecting items and figuring out how to use them.
Have you seen Contact?
Contact is a frame of reference for me when it comes to movies, books, video games, or in this case visual novels. I felt, at the end of Firewatch, much like I felt at the end of that movie and I'll try to explain why. Firewatch starts out with a very non-visual prelude to set up our protagonist. If you read the basic story synopsis you know that the main character, Henry, falls for a woman named Julia, they get married, and she is diagnosed with Alzheimer's. All of which could have been done in a very quick montage, text crawl, or narration. The developers chose to make it a set of conversations mostly against a black screen with colored splashes, occasionally broken up by scenes of Henry starting his new job at the National Park. Right away I didn't really like the main character, and that was helped along by many of the conversation choices that were basically be an asshole, or be a bigger asshole. At one point Julia gets a job offer out of town, and as far as you can tell she has the better job of the two, but there is no conversation choice to move with her, it's basically force her to stay, or tell her to go alone, which causes her to stay. I often found myself staring at the words I could pick from and wondering, what is wrong with this guy, what a jerk, and I'd never do either one of those. If they were going to railroad this part of the story to get to basically the same outcome, it should have just been a narration, it would have been faster and then I could have disliked Henry without having to deal with the illusion that I might have a choice in the matter. The purpose of the prologue seems, to me, intended to set up Julia as the character we're supposed to care about and the protagonist as someone we aren't supposed to like. It's as if this is being set up as a redemption story for Henry, for him to grow and change over the course of the story. I think you'll find that he doesn't.
Once past the prologue the story becomes a bit more interesting, and so does the main character. You start out with a quick introduction to your partner through the story, another fire spotter named Delilah. Communication is strictly over the hand radio that you get early on, and conversation choices are a bit more varied. Almost right away Henry is a better person to the stranger on the other end of the mic than he was to Julia, which continued to make it hard for me to empathize with him. This plays out through the rest of the story, as the two seem to build a relationship through their chats, one that is encouraged by Delilah as much as it is by Henry. At one point during the story Delilah practically invites Henry for a romp in the woods, which in itself isn't such a big deal. It's a story about people after all, and such as they are people do these things, but when we get to the end of the story her sudden turnaround of feelings becomes nonsensical. I also found temporary consequences based on conversation choices, the most glaring one I'll touch on in a bit.
Early on Delilah probably is the most interesting character in the story. Despite some predictable character traits, and a few moments where I rolled my eyes at dialogue I've heard a million times, in a million movies before, she is the one character I came to empathize with. Like I said, there were moments in the story where Delilah's lines caused an audible groan. The most glaring was when you overhear a conversation between her and someone else, presumably on another radio, and she leaves her mic keyed up. You hear her talk about someone, you assume is the protagonist, but it's of course mysterious and strange, especially being one half of a conversation. When you ask her about it she gets upset and decides not to talk to you for awhile. In the call she's talking about Henry, behind his back in a sense, and she's the one that gets upset. The other conversation that stands out as an irritation is after Henry gets the call from his wife, that seems to be a dream. You wonder how Julia shows up on the other end of the radio, and in the morning Delilah tells you that you were basically talking in your sleep, but there's nothing else about it after that. Neither of them mention it much past that. It could have been a moment of clarity for Henry, something to spark some internal exposition, or at least a conversation between our two characters about Henry doing right by Julia, but it was just dropped like a hot stone.
Back to the first part of the story itself, this is where the mystery behind the novel starts to take shape. Your first task as a fire spotter is to go see who is setting off fireworks and get them to stop. You find two girls who have decided to go skinny dipping, swimming out to an island in a lake, to set off fireworks. I could probably go on for pages about how much none of that makes sense. Did they swim one-handed, with the fireworks above their heads to keep them dry, to stand naked on an island and fire them off? Maybe, but then they get mad at Henry for being present, call him a creep, and swim away. Away from their clothing, gear and camp. The rest of their story doesn't make any more sense, but I'd hate to spoil a major reason for the paranoia that descends on Henry through the rest of the novel.
The second part of the story, the middle act I guess, is where the novel starts to get interesting. The writers do a good job of setting up events; the disappearance of the girls, cutting off the only phone line out of the forest, and the mysterious stranger that appears, all lending themselves to a mystery that plays on the solitude and paranoia of our main character. I was always guessing, and changing my guesses about what was happening and who might be responsible for what. I thought maybe Delilah was some part of a plot against Henry, that maybe Julia was involved in a plot against both of them, and quite a few other thoughts I can't recall now. Through the novel you get clues about previous lookouts, including a father and his son, but none of it seems important, so when the mystery finally culminates with what is supposed to be a dramatic and tragic discovery I didn't care quite as much as the writers probably wanted me to. The dialogue through this part is good, despite some of the predictable moments noted above. This is also where the relationship between Henry and Delilah starts to build, and they talk about getting together and she comes onto him pretty obviously in places, just as much as he hits on her. It really seems like it's setting up a story that will end with these two people falling in love and Henry letting his wife live her life blissfully unaware he has moved on.
Despite all of that I liked this part of the story quite a lot. It had a real sense of foreboding and paranoia throughout. Traveling through the woods, with a large fire now burning in the distance, and wondering when someone was going to sneak up behind me and hit me again, was actually a good experience. You collect a lot of clues about past spotters, and come to know, and like, Delilah a lot more. Unfortunately since the novel isn't very long that doesn't last.
The story doesn't pay off
Unfortunately the mystery comes together in a very convoluted mess that, like earlier parts of the story, just don't make sense. The fires have spread and it's time to be evacuated from the park. Delilah has given you directions to her tower, where the choppers are landing. On your way there you come across one last note, a tape really, that explains everything. Then you find the hideout of the novel's villain. The antagonist, the dark figure, has absolutely no reason to do what he does. The reason that's given really doesn't click and seem completely random. I guess it boils down to shame causing the antagonist to go off the grid, but why he starts spying on Henry and Delilah, monitoring their radio conversations, and creating a fake science research facility is beyond me. When he's finally close to being discovered, he just moves on. It's exceedingly anti-climactic, and starts the downward spiral to the Contact ending that I mentioned early on.
The lack of consequences or resolution has been a theme through the the story so far, and is a detriment to what is supposed to be a climactic ending. After finding the antagonist's hideout the mystery starts to get unraveled as Delilah and Henry talk it through. There is a sense of urgency that the writers really want you to feel; fires all around, choppers waiting far to the north. Will you get there in time, will you get out? Honestly, I didn't feel it. There had not been any sort of fail state previously, so no reason for me to expect anything would happen outside of what the writers wanted to happen. If Henry was destined to die in the story, I knew there was not a thing I could do about it, so I traveled to Delilah's tower without any sense of urgency. My only hope as a player was that I would finally get to see the only character in the novel I'd come to care two bits about. That's not the last disappointment the end of the story delivers.
Ultimately there's no conflict resolution for anyone in the story. At one point I wondered if Henry was going to create a life with someone new, which isn't something I would do, but I can see that being a logical conclusion. Then I thought he might reconcile his duty to his wife, and realize that even though she's sick he vowed to devote himself to her despite that. The end choice that Henry makes is lackluster at best. It's kind of like the ending of Contact, where a decent story seems to be building to this great reveal, all these effects leading to what we all hope is a really cool alien world, but she gets there and it's her dad...on a beach. The end of Firewatch left me feeling the same way. The relatively interesting 3 hours I just spend in this story just doesn't pay off at the end. You don't even get to see the one character that I found most interesting in the story.