It has been roughly 4 years since the first season of Telltale’s game-changing adventure series, The Walking Dead. This licensed video game wasn’t only important because it was definitely the best of its kind at that point in time, but also how it served at updating the adventure game genre for a modern audience and how it drastically levelled-up the standard of storytelling for the game industry as a whole. Since that point, game stories year-after-year have generally gotten a lot better and I would give a lot of credit to Telltale’s award-winning series on pushing the importance of narrative to a mainstream audience. Adventure games, on the other hand, haven’t been thriving in a similar fashion. Up until now, that is.
There’s been a potent salvo of interesting, if deeply flawed adventure titles with games like Oxenfree and The Witness hitting early this year hard, and this trend continues with Campo Santo's debut title, Firewatch. Hailing from a powerful video game development lineage with the creative individuals behind strong indie titles such as The Walking Dead Season 1 and Mark of the Ninja, in addition to all of this internet sensation Olly Moss was brought on for the art design role. All of this combined made walking into Firewatch feel like a major event. In the end though, Firewatch’s deceivingly small scale and major performance issues on the PlayStation 4 prevent it from ever reaching the heights of its popular predecessors.
Firewatch has you assuming the perspective of Henry, a middle-aged man who escapes to the wilderness of Wyoming Shoshone National Forest to serve as a fire lookout during the blazing hot summer of 1989. Looking to seek refuge in the wilds, Henry looks to gain some space between himself and some poignant issues that are unveiled in the introductory moments of the game. As Henry settles in, he begins to form a particular friendship with a fellow fire lookout, Delilah, through a handheld radio. But as the alien wilderness begins to press in on Henry’s mind, strangers in the night, aloof campers and previously forgotten mysteries begin to impose difficult decisions and stretch taught the newfound relationship between Henry and Delilah.
It’s a brilliant and unique set-up that is practically literary in its execution. There's a lot of incredible nuances to be gleam in every aspect of Firewatch’s narrative and world-building, including some rather pointed commentary on player agency and choice in video games, and the wonderful performances of Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones as Henry and Delilah respectively kept me engaged throughout. But Firewatch feels too short for its own good. The script is kept tight with no moment wasted in service of the grander narrative, thus is felt choked of life and substance. By the end, the parting message Firewatch leaves you is a potent one, but feels rushed to with large thematic elements and character arcs unresolved or lacking in depth. Firewatch should be a grand novel thanks to its ambitious aspirations, but instead feels like the barest foundations for a short story.
What I really fell in love with though was the wonderfully realized world and presentation of Firewatch. Olly Moss’ rich, colorful influence is heavily felt throughout, and gives Firewatch a unique look that is all its own. The world design serves its first-person adventure gameplay well, giving you a gorgeous, sometimes darkly alien wilderness to hike and orient across. The game even allows you to pick-up and examine objects in the world, and to find and utilize tools to carve out new pathways throughout the Shoshone National Forest. These exploration elements unfortunately fall flat, as these moments of interaction with the world are alarmingly limited in frequency. Sometimes you can examine a gnarled tree or cut through a thicket, but these interactions are distressing few-and-far between.
This is even without taking into regard the miserable performance of the PlayStation 4 version, which was unfortunately the version I played Firewatch on. The game constantly is chugging at an inconsistent and variable framerate which made me feel more like some disorderly drunk camper instead of a man at war with himself and the surrounding unconquered wilderness. As the game progresses the issues only escalated for me, until coming to a crescendo at the end with the strangest and most disconcerting crash that I’ve ever experienced in a game before. These performance issues had a distinct negative impact upon the delicate atmospheric experience and the otherwise perfect art design of Firewatch, which gave me quite a bitter taste in my mouth.
And when all is finally said and done, Firewatch is a game of incredible potential yet mixed execution. For every positive trait, an equally ruinous oddity balanced it out, leaving me walking away from it at the end rather confused and fairly disappointed. The story and plot have a lot of powerful craft to be recognized, but aren’t given the time or room to really ignite. This in turn makes the wondrous world that Firewatch builds feel rather small and empty, which betrays its complex desires, motivations and goals for its narrative, world design, thematic musings, and damaged characters. Add to that the hellfire that is the quality of the PlayStation 4 version, and Firewatch feels like a compromised, uneven experience throughout.
THREE OUT OF FIVE
(A balanced game that has a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, meaning that it alternates between being good and bad in mostly equal measure.)