A friend who was in the middle of playing Firewatch, and who had previously enjoyed Dear Esther, and Everybody’s Gone To the Rapture, recommended it to me. I was having a ‘grindy’ moment in Fallout 4, so I found it and downloaded it for $30 Australian (which I’m guessing is about $0.02 US Dollars?).
I wasn’t really sure what to expect, and getting some rather lovely music, with what appeared to be a very simplistic text-style ‘choose your own adventure’ wasn’t what I didn’t expect. Some of the choices are ‘choose between these two’, and some are really more ‘I’ve read this, now give me the next bit of story’.
Still, you eventually get shown the game world, from a first person perspective, rendered in a rather nice, leaning-towards-cell-shaded, style. These glimpses of the game world are interspersed with more of the story, until the game world becomes the story.
Now, I’m going to do something rather silly. I’m going to talk about a Story Explorer game, without talking much about the story. I’m still processing the story, and my thoughts on it, so I think that will be an entry of its own.
You play as Henry, who, for reasons that you work though in the beginning of the game, joins the Firewatch – a group of people that sit in their individual towers and look for fires. There’s a little more to it, as you might need to tell someone to “put that damned fire out” when it’s a high fire danger, or perhaps some maintenance to be done.
In Firewatch the story is told through discussions over the radio with your supervisor (Delilah), your own comments, and documents that are found in mostly story sensible locations. There are a few more activities than ‘Explore the Story’ such as interacting a little with the environment, and small puzzles to solve to continue.
The area that you ‘watch’ is largish with forests, rivers, a lake and a canyon. The various ‘missions’ that you’re given lead you through the landscape, while also pushing the story forwards.
Henry is not the most nimble. While he can climb up some blocks of stone, or even climb or rappel down larger cliffs, it’s all done slowly and with a lot of effort. He’s not in the best of shape, and the game makes that clear. Somewhat refreshing, actually. It also gives the game an excuse to keep you on certain paths. Maybe you or I could climb over those rocks, or up that steep but small cliff – but Henry can’t.
This is used quite well in limiting the initial areas you can walk, and then opening them up later as, for example, an impenetrable set of bushes are burned down, allowing you to pass. On the other hand, I found a couple of places where I knew I could go later, which just stopped me dead with an invisible wall.
The art style I alluded to earlier is great for this game. Despite my description of it being ‘leaning-towards-cell-shaded’ it’s very effective, and wonderfully renders the landscape around. Whether it’s rocks in a canyon, Aspen trees, brush, a lake, or even a dilapidated outhouse, it all feels right. Add to that he lighting that they use: whether it be the light of a sunset, or midday, or even the sun through bushfire smoke, it’s well observed and it helps the visual take on a deep atmosphere.
As someone who has been in the middle of a couple of bushfires, I can tell you the way they depict the smoke, ashes and general bushfire debris is really well done. Also trigger warning: if you have been through this yourself, this may trigger you.
The audio is nothing special, but it works reasonably well for the world. Beyond the various radio conversations you hear the wind in appropriate locations, footfalls, water and more. As I say, none of it is spectacular, but I’m not sure it should be. It does its job.
Movement around the world is mostly slow, with Henry seeming to amble everywhere. He can ‘jog’, and that helps. Except. I always imagine he’s power-walking instead, due to the way the camera moves, and the way his arms are animated.
While the world is well realised, I did hit a few issues that bugged me. Though you have to realise that seeing what breaks the game is second nature to me.
Firstly, there were times the game stuttered badly. It seemed to mostly be in the same places, places that it would make sense to be loading the next chunk of scenery, so perhaps that was what caused it.
Secondly, as briefly mentioned earlier, while the game does a great job of hiding the walls that trap you in the game area, I did come across a couple that stopped me where there was no logical reason to do so. What was strangest, is that one was still well within the map and didn’t seem to have a purpose at all.
Lastly, prompts appear when you can (for example) climb a rope, or hop over an obstacle. The ‘detection area’ for these seemed inconsistent, and I often (especially on my second play though) found the prompt appearing, then disappearing. I had to stop, back up, then wiggle the viewpoint around until I got it back again.
Still, none of these broke the game for me, and I did play through it twice.
From a technical point of view, I really love this game. The atmosphere is great, the banter between the two main characters (Henry and Delilah) is well written and acted, the lighting and graphics do their job perfectly.
The story? Well, that I’m still thinking about.