Video Game Review: ‘Firewatch’ by Campo Santo

Featured Reviews Videogames

There’s a point in Firewatch when you realize that this game is more than just a walk in the woods. What was an escapist wilderness adventure takes a dark turn into the realm of paranoia and fear, and now there’s something sinister at work in this forest… and it’s out to get you.

Hero takes a fall in Firewatch
Over the edge: things spin out of control in Firewatch. Image: Camp Santo.

Set in 1989, Firewatch is a first-person mystery game where you play Henry, a 40-something man who’s avoiding the mess his life has become by taking a summer job as a fire lookout deep in the heart of Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest. The job is simple enough–spot any fires in the forest surrounding the tower as soon as possible after they’ve started and report them so they don’t spread. It’s also a job of isolation, and Henry took it to hide from his problems.

The game plays a little like a choose-your-own-adventure story. It starts with scenes of Henry preparing for his journey into the wilderness. These are intercut with text-only flashbacks to his past that show the events of how he got where he is. As the backstory unfolds, you’re given choices for Henry to make. Often there’s only one option to select (which is a little odd) to advance the backstory, but sometimes you’re presented with two distinct alternatives. These choices seem to have some small impact on some of the things Henry sees and says during his sojourn in the woods. As the setup ends, Henry finishes his hike down the occasionally hard-to-see trail and arrives at his home for the summer–the Two Forks Lookout Tower.

Two Forks Fire Lookout Tower
The Two Forks Lookout Tower. Image: Campo Santo.

I’ve visited a number of fire lookout towers throughout California, and I was pleased that the game totally nailed the look and feel of these iconic structures. Here’s a look at the Firewatch splash screen.

Firewatch Start Screen
Firewatch splash page. Screenshot from Steam.

Compare that with the photo of the Needles Lookout Tower below, which once kept vigil over the Sequoia National Forest. (It burned down in the summer of 2011, just a few weeks after this photo was taken.)

Needles Lookout Tower, Sequoia National Forest
The Needles Lookout Tower, formerly in Sequoia National Forest. Photo from the author’s collection

After Henry climbs up the rickety steps of the Two Forks tower, he’s greeted by a call from Delilah, another fire lookout stationed at Thoroughfare Tower on the next mountain over, just visible in the distance. She’s Henry’s supervisor and his only real source of human contact throughout the game. She gives him some good-natured co-worker teasing before Henry collapses into bed.

Now Henry’s no saint. He’s made some questionable choices (some with your help) that have landed him in his current situation. And Delilah is a functioning alcoholic with a potty mouth. But all that lends the game a surprising bit of realism. There’s a ton of humanity in these characters, a trait that’s partially due to the excellent voice acting–Henry is voiced by Mad Men‘s Rich Sommer and the voice of Delilah is Cissy Jones, known for her work in The Walking Dead video game–and partially because they are flawed and make decisions based on their desires and fears. These are fun characters, and I really enjoyed watching their relationship develop.

The days of the game are separated by loading screens that display what day it is, like “Day 1,” “Day 3,” or “Day 79.” You don’t play every single day that Henry spends in the Wyoming wilderness, and these loading screens help you mark the passage of time. Day 1 begins the morning after Henry arrives and Delilah calls him again. Although her banter is still playful, this time she’s calling to discuss the business of being a fire lookout and spends some time going over Henry’s job (“Your job is whatever I say it is.”), including some deep details about the Osborne Fire Finder. I was a little disappointed that despite the amount of detail Delilah gives Henry about this device, you don’t actually get to use the finder to find any fires.

The Osborne Fire Finder in the Two Forks Lookout Tower
The Osborne Fire Finder, invented by William Osborne in 1914. Image: Campo Santo.

However, before Delilah can really get going she’s interrupted by someone setting off fireworks–a big no-no in the forest during the dry season–and after a profanity-laced rant (as Henry says, “Good God… language, lady.”), she sends Henry off to put a stop to it. So Henry somewhat reluctantly straps on his pack and heads off through the woods to deal with the problem. The adventure has begun!

The first trick to locating the fireworks offender is finding your way around. Navigating Henry through the forest takes a bit of practice. The trails, by design, are not always easy to see, and it’s all too simple to wander off course until you hit an impassable section of vegetation or a sheer rock wall. Fortunately, Henry has access to a map and compass, which I found myself using a lot.

Find your way with map & compass. Image: Campo Santo.

Additionally, the section of forest that Henry wanders through includes a number of trail markers, landmarks, and other distinctive features that help point you in the right direction. After a little wandering around, you’ll get better at steering Henry where he needs to go.

A number of cache supply boxes have been strategically placed along the trails in the forest. Each is secured with a padlock (you learn the combination as needed) and can contain many useful things, like detailed maps you can use to enhance the accuracy of Henry’s map and ropes that can help Henry in rappelling down some of the steeper sections of trail. Occasionally there are books and other items, some of which become important as the story unfolds.

Firewatch Supply Cache
Landmarks in Firewatch. Image: Campo Santo.

It can take a long time for Henry to walk to his destinations, which is my biggest annoyance with the game. There are a few instances where you need to travel from one corner of the map to the other to retrieve a tool or a clue, and this can be aggravating, especially when you get turned around and have to backtrack.

Firewatch: Forest
A forest scene from Firewatch. Image: Campo Santo.

But Henry always carries his walkie-talkie with him, and Delilah is only the press of a button away. There’s a useful walkie-talkie symbol that pops up whenever Henry encounters something that Delilah can explain. Claw-scarred tree? Random decaying snowmobile? Strange rock formation? Fence blocking your path? Find a camera? No problem–just give Delilah a call. She’s happy to talk… usually.

Firewatch: Found a camera
Remember, this is 1989 — no cameras in phones. Image: Campo Santo.

When it comes to living the outdoor lifestyle, Henry is a babe in the woods, and that results in a good bit of humor throughout the game. For instance, there’s one scene when Henry finds a trowel left behind on a stump.

What's this trowel for anyway?
Image: Campo Santo.

If you’ve ever gone on a long, overnight hike, you’ll probably know what trowels are typically used for. (The adjacent toilet paper might give an additional notion.) Henry, however, remains clueless, which leads to a funny exchange with Delilah.

Of course, what would a game called Firewatch be without a forest fire, and at one point in the game, Delilah and Henry spot a fire that’s just started. The fun part here is you, through dialog with Delilah, get to name the fire.

The fire in Firewatch
Fire to the east. Image: Campo Santo.

There are at least two different names that I know of because the name I got was different from the one in the Campo Santo promo video.

The game has a pleasant, subtle soundtrack that plays in the background as Henry goes exploring (if you like it, it’s available on Bandcamp), and that helps make Henry’s forced marches a little more tolerable. The game also features immersive ambient background sounds that are rich with noises one expects to hear in the forest–babbling brooks, falling rocks, whispering breezes through the trees. Delilah talks about bears just enough to keep you waiting for the rumbling growl of a grizzly, and there’s just enough evidence of missing hikers to have you maybe hearing footsteps behind you.

I’ve only played through the game once, and that initial run-through took me five hours (and a lot of that was walking around). The game is billed as a mystery, and it certainly has an intense, intriguing build-up to the climax. Yet I found the conclusion to be a little dissatisfying and rushed with too little payoff.

However, in light of the game’s “choose your own adventure” setup there might be more secrets to uncover. After the game was over, there were still a number of unanswered plot threads. Were those additional clues? Or just red herring? Either way, I’m left curious enough that Firewatch warrants at least another go. If you like wilderness adventure and slow-burn stories with interesting, conflicted characters, then you might want to give it try.

Firewatch retails for $19.99 and is available through Steam (for Windows, Mac, and Linux) and the PlayStation Store (for PS4), but it’s 10% off through Steam (through Friday, 2/12) and 10% off for PS Plus members (until Tuesday, 2/16).

GeekDad received a Steam key for review purposes.

Liked it? Take a second to support GeekDad and GeekMom on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!