Firewatch: Fine Narrative Finesse with a Frustrating Fizzle
I finished this game over a weekend in early March, and it was my first foray into the world of narrative-heavy/gameplay-lite “walking simulators”. I must say that while the first half of the game showcased several impressive narrative elements that had me hooked, the second half of the game had me feeling less connected and far-less grounded in the story.
The intro had me reeling with grief based on the minimal text exposition and the well-chosen music. I loved that Firewatch gives players about 10 minutes of RPG-lite exposition to imagine the character as myself. This was done through simple text narrative that had me closely identifying with the types of choices I might make in my character’s situation. Soon however, you begin to play definitively as Henry as you’re solidified in his image and his voice. I’d say this entire game hinges completely on Henry and Delilah’s voice acting, and they are absolutely stellar. The dialogue is very well crafted and had me caring about each character. It was so good that the biggest driving factor to progress was merely to get Delilah to talk to me over the radio. Every time I picked up an object it was in service of the hope that Delilah would say something to progress Henry’s relationship with her.
I agree that the way isolation is presented is very effective. Pairing few objectives with minimal gameplay elements really put me in Henry’s shoes, but they soon became shoes I wasn’t excited to be in. It seemed that my and Henry’s only reprieve from boredom was Delilah’s voice.
There isn’t really any gameplay. There’s exploration, and there’s discovery, but there isn’t challenge. It’s akin to reading a book. Prerequisite skills include reading, WASD, and map navigation. Follow these steps and you’ll get to the end. I’m not big on exploration in games, but I do enjoy the map mechanics that force you do bring up your map rather than having it displayed at all times. The slow movement when the map is out disincentivizes having it out for any length of time.
There isn’t really any gameplay. There’s exploration, and there’s discovery, but there isn’t challenge. It’s akin to reading a book.
Navigating the world is the main “challenge” in the game.
Besides genre fans, I struggle to imagine to whom I’d want to recommend this game. Mostly because the second half of the game feels fairly uninspired, and the ending mostly inspires disappointment. I really liked the heavy focus around Henry’s wife in the exposition, but was saddened to discover that the game would barely touch upon these themes. Henry escapes into this Wyoming wilderness physically and mentally, and never seems to face the reason for his call of the wild. At one point D even asks Henry about Julia and he responds that “we’ll get into it”, but they barely do.
At a certain point when the mystery begins to build, the plot opens up, and there are near infinite things that could happen. It could be become a slasher game, a sci-fi conspiracy, the fire could spread to D and Henry, the teen girls could show up, Henry could hike for an hour or 2 to actually meet Delilah, etc. So many avenues ultimately end up being hinted at, but the ending feels rushed and deflating. As soon as the plot actually has abundant room to go places, I found myself yearning for the insights Delilah might impart upon Henry regarding his real-life predicament. I wanted the conversation to circle back to Julia. I wanted some semblance of character growth. I didn’t get either.
Next thing I knew I was already heading to Delilah’s lookout tower, knowing I was about to finish the game. I asked her to wait for me and she said she would. Part of me wants to think that the theme of being unable to escape from one’s troubles was what the fantasy build up but fizzling ending was supposed to invoke. Part of me thinks that because the game orchestrates Henry’s disappointment on-screen, the player is meant to feel disappointed in the game and the experience, and therein lies a lesson about the inability to escape the real world. Even though part of me wanted much more discussion around Julia and bonding with Delilah, maybe the game avoided it specifically to make the player feel emotionally trapped. Like, because Julia can’t get better, Henry can’t either, and his whole journey out here was futile. He’s back exactly where he started, and Delilah affirms this with her final words.
Part of me thinks that because the game orchestrates Henry’s disappointment on-screen, the player is meant to feel disappointed in the game.
Part of me wants to give the game grace for these feelings and interpretation, but even though I’m doing some mental gymnastics to make the ending become fulfilling, it didn’t feel fulfilling in the moment. The last note I’ll mention about the game is that around the half-way point when the game begins to delve into mystery, Henry removes his wedding ring. It’s almost as if he’s no longer processing his real life back home and actually allows himself to escape.
It’s right before the final moments that the player can choose to wear Henry’s ring once again. It’s at this moment that the story loses its conspiracy angle and crashes back to reality, and ultimately, disappointment. Without a sense of growth or lasting impact in the end, I was left with the feeling that Henry’s journey was mostly for naught. Kind of mostly like my own with Firewatch.
Recommend for fans of this genre (narrative games)? Maybe.
Recommended for non-fans of this genre? No.
Recommend for non-gamers? No.
Semi-arbitrary score: 5.5/10