Before I even begin, I’m going to address the fact that I’ve never felt any distaste or enmity for the expression “walking simulator”. For the uninitiated, “walking simulator” refers to any of the great number of indie games that have been released in the past five years or so that seem to get everyone into an argument over whether they’re really games or not. They’re usually first person, story-heavy, and lack the numerous mechanics and heavy interactions that we’ve come to expect from video games in the 21st century.
It’s a term that I think was initially coined as an insult: the idea being that your character walks and does little else. But I’ve never had a problem with it. Mostly because when I use the expression “walking simulator”, most gamers know precisely what I’m talking about. It’s the same way that the term “playwright” came into use: a derogatory term that just became the norm. It’s true: look it up. I say all of this because that expression, “walking simulator”, is going to come up a lot here. And I think it’s a fine term. After all, the best way to take the power away from an insult is to adopt it and make it your own. That’s why I called myself “tons of fun” in high school.
Firewatch was released in February of 2016 for PC and Playstation 4 by Campo Santo, a game design company led by the creative developers of games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Mark Of The Ninja. The story centers around Henry, a new fire lookout for a state park in Wyoming, and the relationship he develops with a woman named Delilah during the summer of 1989.
It’s easy to see why so many of the details of Campo Santo’s first project were so secretive leading up to its release. So much of what makes Firewatch such an engaging experience comes from the earliest moments of getting to know our main characters. And with the writing and voice acting put forth here, getting to know Henry and Delilah is as simple as turning up the volume and listening. The dialogue of Firewatch might be some of the best I’ve ever heard in a video game. The characters are real, fleshed out people. Too many characters in gaming before have been one trick ponies. If the character has had a sad life, he or she is nearly always moody and bleak. The tough guys are always tough guys. The happy ones are always happy ones. But real people don’t work that way, and the writers of Firewatch have done a brilliant job of introducing their players to characters that seem incredibly real.
This is made all the more impressive by the fact that the characters never see each other: Henry and Delilah spend the entire game interacting entirely by walkie-talkie. But it in no way feels gimmicky or cheap. On the contrary: the fact that their interactions are basically the eighties version of an AOL chatroom makes the development of their relationship all the more meaningful. As the summer wears on, Henry and Delilah find themselves in the middle of a plot that drives their isolation and loneliness toward paranoia and fear.
It’s a terrific mystery that you find yourself in the center of, and during my four hours of gameplay, I found myself laughing and frightened in equal measures.
A complaint often levelled against so-called walking simulators is that a good number of them aren’t really part of the story at large: they seem to take place after the story is over, with the protagonist picking up the pieces of what’s already happened, and putting them together to see the bigger picture. And I think that’s what makes Firewatch such an intriguing addition to the genre. Because, like other walking simulators, you’ll find yourself walking and talking a lot. A lot. So much, in fact, that a central mechanic of the game is using a compass and map to find your way around the state park. It doesn’t sound like much, but I found this aspect of the game to be fascinating. As you play you’ll update your map with routes, names, and updates, and it was a genuinely fun way to keep track of your progression. And it’s stuff like that which makes Firewatch so fresh. It seems to be halfway between walking simulator and adventure game. Because while you’re absolutely on an adventure, I wouldn’t call this an adventure game in the traditional gaming terminology. There aren’t really any puzzles, and no failure state either, from what I could see. You have fascinating direct involvement with the world around you, but not in the traditional “find item A for slot B” sense. Like most walking simulators, it’s about atmosphere around you and the story unfolding piece by piece.
And what an atmosphere it is. The art direction of Firewatch is stunning. The Wyoming landscape is full and saturated with color. The ambient sound of the park around you both enriches the beauty of the wilderness, and drives home the isolation that you’re feeling. On the sparse occasions that music is used, it’s lovely and perfectly suited for the story.
I did run into a few instances of clipping and odd graphical errors here and there. At several points in the game, the wide open Wyoming sky flashed from blue to black to blue again in rapid succession. It wasn’t a dealbreaker, but for such a gorgeous game, it was definitely a shame to deal with. Moments like these were, thankfully, few and far between.
At four hours, Firewatch is a relatively short game, and while you have many opportunities to choose your dialogue, none of it leads toward anything like multiple endings or outcomes, so replay value really has everything to do with how much you enjoy the story itself, such as it is.
UPDATE: Just as I was posting this review online, I came to find that there are indeed a few ways that players have found to experience different endings to Firewatch. This actually ups the replay value quite a bit in my eyes, even if I was already feeling that its value was quite high.
But personally, I found the story and the world so beautiful and lovingly crafted that I have no problem seeing myself returning to this game in the future. I found Firewatch to be simultaneously beautiful, funny, haunting, melancholy, and thought provoking. It’s a story about memory and loneliness. It is a lovely journey to go on, and if you’ll excuse the expression: I think it might be among the greatest “walking simulator” games ever made.