Firewatch: is a game as good as its dialogues?

UPDATE: Campo Santo released a patch for the PS4 version of Firewatch that seems to address most of the points discussed in this article. I guess I’ll have to find time to play the game again and finally enjoy it to the fullest. Thanks Campo Santo!

Last week I got so hyped about the release of Firewatch that I literally couldn’t wait. “PC or PS4?”. PS4 is always my first answer, I prefer playing on the big screen, with my ass on a comfy sofa.  Yesterday night I finished the game, and I’m writing this blog post because I still need to understand what I think about Campo Santo’s work. I want to take this chance for thanking Firewatch’s developers for making this very unique games. Independently from my final opinion, I absolutely appreciate their work and support new and novel games like Firewatch.

First of all let me set things straight:

  • don’t get the PS4 version. Just don’t; get the PC version instead, if you have a decent rig. I do believe that part of the reasons why I didn’t fully enjoy Firewatch is because the team didn’t put enough love in the console version, which is evident from the look of the game, the terrible framerate and the unpolished controls (more about this later).
  • I liked Firewatch. I’m sure about it, I liked it. I like “walking simulator” and this one is probably the one with the most interesting format I’ve ever played.

I find myself in a very difficult position because part of me enjoyed the game, and another part felt quite disappointed. If you read some reviews, you probably found out that quite some people had complaints about the ending of the game. I think the ending was fine, but I also feel like it was not addressed in the best way (I’ll get there).

Firewatch

What is Firewatch?
Firewatch is a game set in the late 80s. The game starts in a super interesting way: text on screen introduces you to the premise of the story. You are a guy called Henry, and you’re in love with Julie, a smart woman who soon becomes your wife. The game allows you to follow different story branches by giving you the possibility to shape the Henry’s character. You can be excited at the idea of having kids with Julie, or you can tell her you’re not interested in making a family. You can be funny or you can be rude. All of this is just happening with plain text on screen. Each one of these choices, though, is followed by interactive first person sequences in which you are walking in the woods on your way to the Two Forks Lookout, where the entirety of the game takes place. Before you reach the lookout, another sequence reveals that Julie got really sick and eventually your life started falling to pieces. Taking a break spending the summer alone in the woods is what Henry thinks will help him finding himself again. The intro is probably one of my favorite parts of the game; it sets the mood of the entire game and is accompanied by a beautiful soundtrack.

A beautiful and memorable intro

A beautiful and memorable intro

What happens in Firewatch? (Mild spoilers)
Your task is to follow the orders of Delilah – your boss – who is giving you tasks via a walkie-talkie. On the first day there seems to be a small fire in the woods. You walk there to check what’s going on and it turns out there are two teenagers having a lot of fun (but also trashing the forest). Delilah tells you to make them stop and you do so. Time passes and eventually these two girls go missing following what seems to be an aggression. You are the last one who saw them and Delilah is pretty sure the police will question them about the girls. The game jumps forward in time several times, and a relationship between Henry and Delilah starts taking shape. You open up to her talking about your wife (if you want to), and she also reveals her weak side full of fears and memories about her summers in the woods. She talks about a man and his son who went missing years ago, and how she felt guilty for not having managed to track them down. Jumping forward in time again, and when Delilah reveals that she lied to the police by saying that she didn’t know anything about the missing girls, the game builds a set-up for a mystery/investigation sub-plot. Henry finds a mysterious area in the woods where somebody seem to be conducting scientific research of some sort, so you start wondering what the hell is going on in the woods. The mystery becomes the center of the plot when Henry gets hit by someone and finds out that they all his conversations with Delilah were recorded by someone. SPOOKY!

Firewatch’s mystery resolved (Very spoilers)
Henry eventually finds the dead body of the young kid Delilah was talking about, and the mystery is revealed. The kid fell in a cave by accident while hiking with his dad who – instead of reporting everything to the police – decided to hide in the woods for years. Ned Goodwin – that’s the name of the dad – just spent all his time in the woods trying to scare people off for….some reason, I guess? He installed crazy advanced wireless antennas in the woods, put a huge gate around the middle of the forest, assaulted two teenagers and you, because he didn’t want anyone to be in the woods…I guess? I mean, I liked the mystery and this is not even my main point of critique to the game. I think that the mystery was built in a nice way and I liked the fact that it was not what Henry and Delilah (as well as the player) thought it would be. But now that I think about some of these details I start feeling confused about Ned Goodwin motives: perhaps you can help me out in the comment section.

Firewatch’s ending (Total spoilers)
As a fire is spreading through the woods (I’m not even sure if that was the case actually), a helicopter comes to rescue Delilah and Henry. The only problem is that Henry is still pretty far away from Delilah’s lookout and the helicopter can’t wait forever! This part was great, I felt so nervous, I was begging Delilah to wait for me, the music was so beautiful and sad, it felt like everything was a huge build-up for something unforgettable.  I was constantly thinking “shit, shit, shit, please don’t leave me in the woods! Wait for me Delilah”, trying to talk to her via the walkie-talkie. The thing is…I think that the developers were expecting me to think “oh, finally I’m gonna meet Delilah!”. The game’s ending – in fact – is closing on the fact that Delilah left before you could see her, and you didn’t get to meet her. You have one last conversation with her via radio in which she says that it’s time for Henry to go back to what’s important in his life (his wife Julie) and that he should take good care of her. What I think didn’t work for me is that everything that Delilah told me in the ending sequence was already in my head. I never thought about leaving Julie in a hospital, and of course I knew that – being a responsible man – I would have gone back to help her after this adventure in the woods. In the end Delilah suggests they could maybe meet in the future, but I also find this closure very odd. In 60+ days in which the game takes place, Henry never ever decided to go and visit Delilah. She was always there, literally 15 minutes hiking distance from his lookout! And they always just talked via intercom and never met. Why would I care about meeting her all of a sudden in the last sequence while I’m trying to escape with a helicopter?

Is a game as good as its dialogues?

Everyone mentioned it and I can just confirm it. The script of Firewatch is probably the most realistic, mature and well-executed script I’ve experience in a videogame. At the end of the day I don’t care about how well-thought was the mystery sub-plot nor about the anti-climax I perceived at the ending. What makes Firewatch stand out are the beautiful dialogues, the silly jokes, the tense moments, the weaknesses of the characters and how they open up to each other throughout the game. If I had to judge Firewatch based on its dialogue, I’d consider it a masterpiece. But I think that a game is a huge mix of different elements and – in the case of Firewatch – I cannot ignore some disappointing bits.

Graphics

Firewatch has been prized for its beautiful art direction, and I feel like (but perhaps Olly Moss will disagree with me) the PS4 version is a huge fuck you to the art direction of the game. If I look at the PC version I really wish I got that one instead of the PS4 one. The main complaint that players moved regards the framerate. I thought “it’s not gonna be that bad”, but the thing is that it IS that bad. Every camera movement is choppy and laggy, I think most of the time the game ran at 20fps, which is unacceptable for such a beautiful and high-level production like Firewatch. I mean, The Witness’ fixed 60fps probably made this worse for me, but I was so mad all the time because I couldn’t fully appreciate the stunning visuals. And as if the framerate was not enough, the PS4 version had an insane amount of popup and an overall lack of polishing (there was even a part in which two parts of the terrain were not connected to each other so I could see through the geometries). I wish I played the PC version because beautiful visuals cannot shine if the game is not giving them the chance to do so.

Is that a visibly floating sign? (via @MiyukiMiyasaki)

Prevent floating signposts! (via @MiyukiMiyasaki)

 

Level design

I think the game map was designed in a very nice way. Despite the fact that at the beginning it’s quite easy to get lost, by the end of the game I was very aware of the map layout even with a surprising lack of landmarks (the only two lookouts you can see are not visible most of the time). It happened too many times, though, that the geometries were not guiding me enough, and the most painful thing is when you’re playing in front of other people (in my case Michelle and a friend were watching me play) and you cannot figure out how the hell to get where you’re supposed to go. It took me five good minutes to figure out that after finding Goodwin’s hideout I had to interact with THAT ONE ROCK. The game was telling me “go back in the cave”, so I thought I’d just backtrack (which was not possible, but the game was not guiding me).

Controls

Even the controls were a bit cumbersome. One thing that I absolutely loved about the game was the analog feeling of holding L2 to talk through the walkie-talkie. While I walk holding the left analog stick, I’d just press L2 to pick an answer and…guess what? I need to use the d-pad to select an answer. This means that I cannot hike while talking but I have to keep stopping whenever I have to say something to Delilah. Once again, I know how difficult it is to make games, but this design elements for me are a lot more important than many other aspects of the game. I felt like most of the time Henry was going very slow (even while running), and I get that part of the experience is to just go slowly and enjoy the nature, but when the game asks me to backtrack a long path…I already enjoyed that walk once. On top of this I was costantly fighting with the controller whenever I wanted to inspect an item or even the map (which is, like, the most important thing I have to use while navigating). I would always end up zooming in the wrong way or turning stuff around, I don’t even know…

Sticking the map right inside my eyes

Sticking the map right inside my eyes

Does it make any sense?

I used these three categories to wrap up what didn’t click for me and why I am struggling understanding how much I enjoyed Firewatch. I have no idea if what I wrote makes any sense for anyone else, but I think it does for me. What I am trying to say is that I liked it and that I absolutely respect and admire Campo Santo for creating such a unique adventure and for experimenting with the medium. Firewatch gave me many great moments, stunning landscapes and a beautifully performed script. My point, though, is that I think videogames becomes unforgettable when most of their elements work in amazing synergy, and I don’t think this was the case with Firewatch on PS4.

Perhaps I should have played it on PC.

Italian game designer and developer now living in Sweden. I make games, that's what I do. My latest autobiographical game, Memoir En Code is available on the Humble Store and itch.io.

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[…] weeks ago I talked about Firewatch and some of the technical problems I encountered. The developers released a patch fixing most of […]

[…] weeks ago I talked about Firewatch and some of the technical problems I encountered. The developers released a patch fixing most of […]

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