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Ashes to ashes

Games often subject us to the same experiences over and over, usually with a one-size-fits-all ending we can’t change: rescuing a princess, killing a terrorist, saving the world. But there’s a grain of truth in the way that approach appeals to us, and why it works. Partly why games may be so effective emotionally is that, similarly, life is about the journey, not the destination. It is how we overcome the challenges laid out before us, where we find our enjoyment and potential enlightenment. Also, the ability for people to interact with games allows the medium to simulate emotions at an intensity that other methods often struggle to convey. Most often, they are emotions of empowerment or fantasy fulfillment. When games are at their most remarkable, though, is when they illustrate the emotions we’d rather not face.

Firewatch bravely chooses to buck trends and explores the grief and pain that comes with a sense of loss. It does so in a way that provides a rare, realistic jolt when you are brought to understand how deeply one person cared for another, and find yourself caring about them, too. So, when the game starts with you finding out the wife of our protagonist, Henry, has developed early onset dementia, it is a punch to the gut that feels all too real—especially if, like myself, you’ve had any sort of family member suffer from a mental health issue.

Henry’s immediate relatability has to do with how Firewatch begins. The game does not start by introducing players to the situation through a dynamic, visual bombardment of information. Instead, you are given lines of text explaining who Henry is, but like a “choose your own adventure book” you are given simple choices that allow you to insert yourself into the scenario. They are choices many of us will likely make over the course of our lives, or can at least relate to, and which prove to be completely inconsequential to the main story. These choices help paint a picture of Henry for when the game truly starts, though. Is Henry more crass than charismatic? The game gives you a chance to decide who Henry is to an extent, priming you to be more inclined towards certain dialogue decisions later in the game—even if they have no bearing on the narrative’s eventual outcome. It is not as deep as character customization in an RPG per say, but it helps with immersion once you do take full control. And it is enough so that when you are blindsided by the news of Henry’s wife, you find yourself just as shaken as he would be, the sense of loss transcending the game.

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When Firewatch proper starts, you’ve just arrived in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest, nominally to work a summer job as a firewatch patrolman, but with the underlying hope that a chance to commune with nature—and the quiet time to focus on writing the Great American Novel—will serve as a distraction or otherwise help soften the grief. Then, we meet Delilah, Henry’s supervisor at another tower and his only link to the outside world. Somewhat isolated, the two of you can only communicate via a handheld two-way radio.

Delilah will walk you through the entire game, evolving from a motherly wilderness guide to a friend and confidant. You will also learn about Delilah and other people in the forest who have dealt with losses of their own as you perform humdrum tasks, before stumbling upon a mystery that has been growing in the forest for years.

Even with that small twist, the bulk of Firewatch boils down to Henry running around while he and Delilah get to know one another, swapping stories, and lending each other strength in times of need. That probably doesn’t sound exciting, especially with the choices you make in conversations with Delilah having no bearing on the end game, much like the opening text. Well, it’s not, really, but that shouldn’t (and doesn’t) mean it’s automatically bad, either. Excitement does not make or break an experience. The illusion of choice—expertly maintained thanks to Campo Santo co-founder Sean Vanaman’s Telltale pedigree, no doubt—builds up the liveliness of the world and lends a quieter sort of allure: that of building a new relationship.

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From a more practical standpoint, the surface of Firewatch bares scars akin to a forest after a careless spark ignited some kindling on a dry, summer afternoon. Although its message is poignant and powerful, some might miss it when the fantasy shatters due to jarring and frequent framerate drops in the second half of the game. Yes, the visuals are gorgeous—courtesy of artist Olly Moss—highlighted by bright colors spread across the landscape in wide ribbons that dominate your first-person sightlines. But they are also simple, making the technical issues both surprising and disappointing.

Also, even if you adjust to the lower stakes of Firewatch, you may still find yourself cursing the glacial rhythm at a few points. When the mystery deepens and tensions begins to rise, Henry’s slow plodding across the Wyoming wilderness hurts pacing, turning what should’ve been a three- or four-hour experience into the five- to six-hour one we ended up with.

There are also likely some who will be left unsatisfied by the game’s resolution and ending. To this I say, that’s sort of the point. There’s a streak running through Firewatch that you might call “realistic” or “naturalistic” that would be ruined by something more conventionally crowd-pleasing. Any story, fictional or otherwise, can wrap everything up with a happily ever after and then pretend time stopped forever. Opting for something less naive serves as a reminder there’s another, more nuanced approach.

I’ll admit, I don’t typically enjoy games like this very much. Brothers and Gone Home are among the many critically acclaimed tearjerkers that left me unaffected and unimpressed. But Firewatch—technical issues be damned—actually moved me. I slipped into Henry’s persona as easily as feet do worn loafers. Part of this I feel was due to its audacious intro, with the game being only the aftermath of a devastating life moment that would rattle any person to their core; the rebuilding of a soul after it was burnt to the ground. That said, Firewatch’s subject matter may be too much for some, and those more superficial players will likely be unable to see past the game’s surface flaws, but those who are willing to make the trek with Henry will be rewarded. With a bit of patience and perseverance, the journey through Firewatch reveals a well-written adventure with an artful dedication to exploring themes and emotions that are rarely tackled in gaming, but so often essential to how we define ourselves as humans.

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Developer: Campo Santo • Publisher: Panic Inc. • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 02.09.16
8.0
Through the grounded reality it portrays and simple jobs players are tasked with, Firewatch sneaks up and surprises you when it zeroes in on a powerful message about the human condition.
The Good A heartfelt, well-told tale that should resonate with everyone on some level.
The Bad Routine framerate drops throughout the later stages of the game.
The Ugly We’re all headed for the same destination.
Firewatch is available on PS4 and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Campo Santo for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.
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