- PlayStation 4
- Xbox One
It’s 1989. Your name is Henry. You’re standing in the elevator going to the underground garage. You’re about to take a trip to your new job: a fire lookout in Wyoming wilderness. The reason you took the job will be explained promptly. There’s nothing left to do other than get in the van. In a few short sequences you’ll arrive at the lookout tower. First trips out will be mundane, nothing much happens yet, you have time to get accustomed to traversing cliffs, opening storage boxes, using the compass and the map. Quite soon though some weird and creepy stuff will begin to happen. Two trespassing teenagers will disappear, somebody will raid your tower, wires will be cut preventing communication with the outside world. All the components of the classical horror are here, but is that really it?
It’s easy to draw parallels between Firewatch and Gone Home, to focus on what’s conspicuous. Both games make you spend a fair share of playtime walking, both have soundtracks composed by Chris Remo, both even have enclosed continuous worlds with parts that are initially locked. And yet these two are very different. Gone Home explored the possibilities of a static installation engulfing you in thousands of ordinary household items mixed with the occasional important note or a peculiar artifact. Firewatch dismisses such disjointed freeform approach in favor of directing. The beginning is sliced and mixed like a good trailer: a few seconds of looking around in a serene and lonely environment are followed by a story premise retold with nothing more than a text. The game even is generous enough to let you pick a more personalized version of happy memories. The horror that destroys them afterwards is as imminent as it is calculated. And then it fades to black and cuts to the next scene, and fades to black again and cuts to the next scene again. The increasing speed of these transitions isn’t supposed to erase protagonists’ problems or your memories of them. It’s just a reminder of lesson learned long before: running away doesn’t work.
Lush and colorful wilderness that you’re supposed to traverse with map and compass in hand is deceiving. Gigantic national forest disorients at first (especially if you turn off your position display on the map), but after a few hours of running various errands you start to see right through it. You get accustomed to it, like Henry got after living in the cabin for days.
It’s your home now, and it’s nothing more than a set of corridors loosely connected with shortcuts that will become available in time. Firewatch exploits metroidvania mechanics in a straightforward way: all those overgrown bushes will remain impassable until the very end when you finally lay your hands on the axe. The sequence is unbreakable and all that you’ll get from wandering too much around is an occasional easter egg or particularly scenic view of the sunset.
Small yellow hand radio is two things at once: your agency and director’s will. It tells you what to do next with the voice of Delilah, your supervisor. It lets you to react to the unfolding of the story and game’s world by selecting a remark from a list. The choice of words serves seemingly no purpose other than letting you feel the attachment to your bodiless guide. You don’t have a choice in what to do next, but at least you can express your opinion (or at least select one from a predetermined list). Dialogs are the beating heart, the rhythm of the game. There’s just the right amount of jokes and witty remarks to make you feel at ease and become attached to the invisible partner. And just enough guiding to go forward with the story.
Delilah tells you what to do, you try your best to not let her down. She relies on you to know what’s happening, you rely on her on what to make of it. You both struggle to make sense of what’s happening and both wait. It is your job after all to watch. It’s in the title. And of course it happens. The fire. The inevitable conclusion to your waiting, the backdrop to the mystery that you’ve been trying to solve and the catalyst for the final stretch to the finalé. It forces you to retreat from your temporary shelter back to the pain of the unsolved problem that you’ve ran away from.
The fire burns away not just trees, but the fabric of the game itself. You lose access to most parts of the world. Most importantly it destroys all the red herrings, that distracted you. The Truman Show atmosphere, the horror movie scares fade out in the smoke. The irony is unbearable. There’s nothing left but guilt, sorrow and emptiness. The single jumpscare (which is actually pretty hard to find) turns out nothing more than a joke. The explanation for all the disappearances and other mystical events is simpler that you would’ve prefered. The ending is anticlimactic, there’s no point to it other than sad truth that you’ve known right off the start. It’s time to get back to the city and move on.