I knew going into Firewatch that it was going to ultimately fail or succeed by way of its voice acting. This freshman effort from Canadian studio Campo Santo spends much of its run-time focusing on the dialogue between protagonist Henry and a lady on the other end of a walkie-talkie named Delilah. Having taken a job as a fire lookout in the Wyoming wilderness for the entirety of the summer, Henry is effectively isolated from all other human beings, his only real contact being with Delilah, who is the lookout in the next tower over.
Straight away I’d like to say that the dialogue between Henry and Delilah is both written and delivered brilliantly and is some of the best voice acting I've ever heard in a game. It constantly feels organic, mirroring the obvious virtues and flaws of the two characters. Henry is inexperienced and running from his unlucky past, while Delilah is able to keep her proverbial cards close to her chest owing to her considerable seniority. I was particularly struck by the fact that the pair are in their late 30s and early 40s. These aren’t your typical teenaged/young adult video game protagonists, out there to tear the forest a new one and get stuck into the action, they are both flawed, ageing, lonely people of the kind who take a job that ensures nobody will bother them for a whole summer. This was reflected very well in the dialogue between the two, which comes and goes with perfect timing, enabling the plot to unfold naturally whilst still allowing you to explore to your heart’s content.
Speaking of exploration, Firewatch takes place in a truly gorgeous slice of rural Canada, beautifully rendered in a colourful, cartoony style. The sunrise, silhouetting the smoke in the distant, burning woodland is a site which will stick with me for quite some time. The forest itself feels both comforting and eerie, constantly reminding me of the odd duality which causes us to both need and fear the wilderness. The game is always walking the line between chilled-out first-person wandering and the tense, pacey thriller which unfolds through the plot, often also bordering on the horror genre. The sense of never really knowing what’s just out of your line of site is ever-present, aided greatly by some absolutely masterpiece sound design and a gorgeous, reverb-driven score from composer Chris Remo who you may know from his fantastic work on ‘Gone Home’, itself a similarly tense game in an often claustrophobic environment. His droning guitar riffs come and go at just the right moments, never once becoming overbearing, but always adding to the tension.
But the truth is that all of this beauty and awe plays second fiddle to the plot, which is the focal point of Firewatch. I can’t imagine this being a good experience for younger gamers. The subject matter (loss of a loved one, the loneliness that comes with age, alienation when faced with youth) are all things that are clearly meant to connect with a more mature audience. To say much more would be to ruin the game for you, but I can assure you that for the first two acts of Firewatch, the plot is one of the most gripping I’ve ever experienced. The slow build up, combined with the constant foreshadowing plays like a ‘how to’ of storytelling. Should you trust your suspicions or trust Delilah’s considerable expertise or are neither of you really understanding what’s going on here? These are all questions that you’ll be asking yourself throughout the first two acts and most of act three.
Unfortunately, the game really comes apart at the very end. I’ve seen many Steam reviews complaining that the ending was a disappointment and that all of the promise built up during the mid-game was simply discarded. However, I’d have to disagree. I felt the ending was a great, if not bitter-sweet finale. But it was undoubtedly rushed. Characters that ought to have made a visual appearance conveniently left before the game really had a chance to explore them properly and then Firewatch just kind of fizzles out. This is really evidenced by the running time, which is about 4 hours (and I’m being generous there.) Given that the asking price is £15/$20, it’s hard to recommend Firewatch to anyone other than those who truly love a well told story. While I’m really glad I played it and I'm totally torn up about having to give this review a bad ending, I can’t help but feel that there are much better value-for-money games out there right now. Playing Firewatch is like being served the tastiest food in the World and then only being allowed to have a few bites of it before having your plate yanked away and being told to leave the restaurant.