When a gamer’s evenings are overwhelmed with large, long games, from the Grand Theft Autos to the Assassins Creeds to the Final Fantasies, from time to time it’s good to take a step back and look at what else is out there – and that is 1 of the major blessings of Indie video games. Back then, smaller studios would be given the opportunity to experiment and create what can be seen as cult classics at this point and paved the way for others. Many of those studios are no longer around, however the technology is more readily available than ever before and a D.I.Y. gaming industry has risen from it for those who are ready to experience the steep learning curve. From this, a studio called Campo Santo came, and with the production of 1 painting by Olly Moss, we are led to a project that would bring them into the cult-forefront. That project was Firewatch.
Set in 1989 in Shoshone National Park in the State of Wyoming, USA, our story revolves around 2 characters; Henry and Delilah. We play as Henry, and he interacts with Delilah through a walkie-talkie as she gently educates him in the ways of the Fire Lookout. After Henry’s wife, Julia, was diagnosed with dementia and she was moved to live with her family in Australia, Henry took the job on a whim, and also as a way to escape from the ‘reality at home’. To clear his head. However as he finds out, there is more to his time in Shosane than meets the eye.
Now to talk about the different areas of this metaphorical park:
The Graphics and Art Style are not Triple-A game level, but where it lacks in detail it more than makes up for in stylisation. The colours are very vivid and we’re presented with an excellent balance; as the distance has a vector style while the mid ground reveals more details and the foreground more texture and colours (as this approach can be seen as a way to save space). When we are looking at how the people are meant to look in the photographs, I’m also reminded of the art books that Disney like to put out for their animated films. It’s a wonderful touch.
The Level Design and Gameplay, for me anyway, are the least impressive building-blocks. The level design is like a loose diary, some in-game days could last many dozens of minutes (depending on how well you follow the map and interact with stuff), while other days are just over within a minute (such as the 1 day when Henry goes to get supplies for the tower). At the same time, if you’re new to the game, you will need the map and compass to get around. Rather than have the map in the corner of the screen like a lot of games, Henry will actually have to hold the map out in front of him, as well as the compass, and read them both like a normal person. In the process, you’re constantly looking at them, and then putting them away as you try to navigate yourself around the park and coming across a lot more misleads and dead ends than you might realise, because the map actually blocks your view when it’s out. Also Henry can only climb what he can interact with. You will not rush up the mountainside – the game does not allow it. You can however eat granola bars and apple slices if Henry finds them. Yay…!
The Story and characters are…wow, but particularly the characters. They are not only the best aspects of the game, but they are better than a lot of games already out there with bigger budgets. The interactions between Henry and Delilah are that of 2 people in their late 30s/early 40s being lovingly sarcastic and snarky towards each other…and I absolutely love that. It is all very funny and brings me back to TV shows that I grew up watching (and still enjoy). We see how these 2 characters get to know each other, and at the same time the story can be taken in so many different ways. By the end of the game, we’re still asking questions. Still pondering as to what really happened in that park. A mystery that can be taken at face value or explored with layers upon layers of backtracking and treasure hunting. In the end, our dialogue choices put us in the shoes of Henry, as he seems to know about as much of what’s going on as we do. He is the new fish in the pond, as are we.
The Music is minimal, but plays its role very well and comes in at the right time. It was made by Chris Remo, who is also 1 of the designers and writers of the game, and he also did the music for another little indie game called Gone Home. It’s very atmospheric, and it knows how to create tension, especially when the game kicks into thriller-mode (which was enough to keep me hungry to get to the end).
Would I recommend Firewatch? Yes I would, especially if you want a change of pace, enjoy well written characters and a great mystery story, and, if you like long games, don’t mind that this game can be completed is about 4 or 5 hours. This is a game that could be talked about over drinks or coffee, and I’m happy to have experienced it.
Art Style: ****1/2
Level Design: ***1/2