Henry and Delilah become increasingly agitated by the implicit threat of some unseen, unknown antagonist
Sure is pretty up here. It’s just as well, really, since in the absence of just about anything to do, scenery is all this Wyoming national park has to offer. That, and solitude: protagonist Henry spends the summer up here as a fire lookout and won’t see another face for the best part of three months. There are glimpses of other people, from time to time – a distant shadow, the flash of a torch – and the occasional old photo. But the Wyoming wilderness is an empty, lonely place. It’s the perfect spot for those looking to clear a confused head and mend a broken heart.
Henry has both. The love of his life has been spirited away from their Colorado home to live with her family in Melbourne, Australia, after being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s while still in her 30s. Campo Santo spends the first five minutes of Firewatch aiming straight for the heartstrings, and every shot hits home. It’s a devastating, delicately handled and thoroughly unexpected way to start a videogame. Henry finds himself alone not through infidelity, death or the slow romantic atrophy of a longterm relationship. Instead this is a game that begins by putting a full stop on a marriage neither party wanted to see end, leaving Henry grieving for someone who isn’t even dead.
He’s a sympathetic figure, then, yet you’re unsure about Henry before you’ve even taken control of him. He’s a man who, faced with problems, has chosen to turn and run, flouting the line in his wedding vows about sickness and health. While he’s clearly conflicted about the things he’s done and the choices he’s made, he settles a little too easily into his new gig.
Not that he has much choice. His first day brings an altercation with a couple of skinny-dipping teens who are setting off Roman candles in a park at peak fire risk. On his way back he glimpses a stranger who promptly vanishes, and when he gets back to his lookout he finds it’s been broken into and trashed. They’ve even stolen his sheets. It’s as elegant an introduction to this mysterious adventure as its heart-wrenching prologue, immediately putting you in a state of unease about who’s out there, what they want with you, and what you’re actually going to spend your summer doing. To talk about much more would be to spoil things, of course, but suffice it to say this is not the relaxing, cleansing summer Henry needed. There is suspicion, intrigue and a series of half-hints and semi-reveals before the central mystery, such as it is, is cleared up.
Henry isn’t entirely alone, thanks to the nearconstant availability on his handheld radio of Delilah, another lookout based a few miles away and veteran of a dozen summers out here. She is, by turns, Henry’s tutor, handler, quest-giver, sounding board and confidante, and while she’s aloof and dryly sarcastic at first, she soon warms up, and at times it’s clear that her interest in you extends beyond the professional. If you play it right, anyway. When it’s your turn to speak you’re given a handful of choices, including the option to not say anything, and the dynamic of your entire relationship can change if you’re not careful. Since she’s all you have out there, a gentle hand might be the best approach.
Conversation is Firewatch’s main mechanic, though even during moments of radio silence this is no on-rails stroll. Clambering, mantling and jumping are all mapped to the same, single button press; objects can be picked up and examined, some triggering new conversation threads and others revealing an essential item or clue when moved. Simple navigation is one of the game’s biggest challenges, requiring the use of a map and a compass that obscure your view and prevent sprinting when being used. While you’re free to explore for the most part, some gentle gear-gating prevents you from accessing a few routes until you’ve reached the part of the story where they make sense.
Henry and Delilah become increasingly agitated by the implicit threat of some unseen, unknown antagonist, and at times the player gets the same treatment from the game’s developer. Campo Santo might make you think you’re in for a slog from one corner of the map to the other, only to fade to black and wind the clock forward to the next chapter. When making a short, story-led game, you’d forgive a little padding, but the pacing here is masterfully judged. Little mechanics are introduced and made to feel vital for all of ten minutes before being subverted or abandoned. Your first task for Delilah involves rappelling down a shale slide, but the rope snaps when you’re halfway down. You see a few more hook points dotted about and assume this is Campo Santo’s way of gating off parts of the world – a feeling that lasts until the next day, when you find a backpack with an infinite supply of ropes. Dotted about are padlocked supply caches, which you expect will be hard to open and filled with goodies. Not only are they all unlocked with the same code (1-2-3-4, naturally), but they rarely yield more than a couple of books and a pinecone. The result is that Firewatch achieves this type of game’s greatest trick – the setting, and subverting, of expectations – in not just its narrative, but its mechanics too.
The story’s the star, of course. Campo Santo’s writers previously penned the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, which spun an elegant, affecting yarn about finding humanity where you least expect it. Firewatch, too, is a game of contradiction: one about a man grieving for someone who isn’t dead, falling for someone he’s never seen, fearing a place he expected to give comfort and, later, finding only sadness in safety. It conjures suspense and heartbreak from the tall trees and winding creeks of the Wyoming countryside, in a short game you won’t forget in a hurry.