Firewatch is a great little game. It’s an interactive drama, with literal exploratory elements, that doesn’t overstay its welcome because it only takes 3-4 hours to complete. The voice acting is great, the art-style works well with the beautiful scenery, and the atmosphere of the game that is built through a combination of its writing, conversation-system, and exploration-mechanics, makes for a thoroughly gripping experience.
If that sounds like your cup-of-tea, then don’t read on too far, as I really recommend Firewatch as a unique, fun, narrative experience. Before you play though, it is very important to turn OFF the navigation marker, which is ON by default. I also highly recommend turning OFF the game music, and this is a point that forms a strong part of my criticism of the game.
While I did really enjoy this game by the end; just after it started – I hated it. I think it will be interesting to explore why I felt this way.
Minor spoilers after the jump.
In the game proper, the narrative thrust is primarily delivered through the conversations of player-character Henry, and his distant neighbour and companion Delilah, through their walkie-talkies. Both characters are fire-watchers living in separate lookout towers in parts of the deep wilderness. There’s a certain degree of player agency in the responses Henry can give Delilah to her questions, and even more interesting is that Henry can actually go through the entire game not replying or communicating with her at all.
The narrative also plays out through the environment, without direct player interaction. Henry witnesses certain happenings that impact the story and game-atmosphere. Early in the game, a mystery-man’s silhouette and flashlight are seen as he scurries away, which indicates that Henry is not as isolated in the wilderness as we thought. Manipulating the environment through unseen forces ramps-up tension throughout the game, and it’s impressive how effectively Firewatch manages this.
Furthermore, the ambient sound effects of the game work in establishing a believable setting. Crunchy-gravel under foot, birds chirping, and wind rustling through the leaves sound great and effectively immerse the player in the forest.
All things considered, the narrative is defined by the level of engagement the player chooses to take in the game, and for that reason it’s quite organic in regards to story-telling and the experience it provides.
But the introduction is not. Compared to the game itself which is mature and clever, the introduction is twee and melodramatic. The narrative perspective is different from the rest of the game. I really disliked it.
The game opens with a story card. In the background, a slow echoing-piano and echoing-guitar are playing tones, slowly going nowhere. This is the game’s music. It is not bad as far as atmospheric music goes, but it’s used to serve a purpose that feels awfully and obviously manipulative. Throughout the game, it attempts to stir feelings of sadness and melancholy at beats of the narrative that really would have worked better if aided simply with the earlier-mentioned, wonderful ambient sound-effects of the forest. You see a beautiful cluster of trees ahead of you, and you walk towards them; reaching them is a beautiful moment… that is undermined by the melancholy tones of echo-piano and echo-guitar with a slow melody (maybe?) seemingly going nowhere. To reiterate, it’s not bad music; however, in the context of the game, it’s contrived and unnecessary, when the strength of the characters and their interaction in an organic and believable manner is what really makes the game work. The sad and melancholic moments of the journey work fine without manipulative music trying to force a feeling in the player.
Spoilers for the introduction ahead
Now – back to the introduction! The player is presented with a series of cards detailing how Henry met his wife Julia. Some cards have a binary option for the player to choose, which slightly change the directions leading to the ultimate outcome of the over-arching situation presented. While their relationship was initially ‘perfect’ for them both; Julia starts wanting to raise a family, while Henry isn’t ready. Cracks start to show in their relationship until they seem to be on the verge of separation. Before that can happen though, Julia is tragically diagnosed with early-onset dementia, and Henry becomes her full-time carer.
It’s a very sad situation, and when summarised like this, it also seems relatable. However, it is all presented within a few minutes in the introduction as twee melodrama, which is tonally at odds with the rest of the game.
I think the biggest turn-off is that all the choices are worded as “You say…”, “You pick…”, “She drives you absolutely nuts.” It places ownership of the actions of Henry on the player, which is in contrast to the manner of how the narrative plays out for the majority of the game after. Later in the game, while the responses to Delilah’s questions are chosen by the player – the questions are not directed TO the player; they are directed to the character Henry. For me at least, this is a distinction that perhaps shaped my overall negative response to this introduction section of the game.
I hate all these choices. I hate all the short, twee, descriptions of Henry and Julia’s relationship. “You date for over a year.” the game tells you after University Professor Julia meets Henry (YOU) out drinking with his (YOUR) friends at some shitty bar. “She drives you absolutely nuts. It’s great.” the game tells you. You need to press A to continue. Fuck you, Firewatch.
I hated Henry from these text cards too. While later in the game, Henry is a well-voiced and acted character whose story and decisions unfold slowly as we get to know and empathise with him; the choices that the player is presented within the introduction are hamfisted and irritating. After deciding they (YOU and Julia) aren’t ready for children, Henry (YOU) takes Julia to buy a dog. Groan…
Naming a dog Bucket is bad enough, but why the hell is Henry suddenly some edgy dipshit who wants to name a dog Mayhem?? And that “YOU” again! No, I don’t want to adopt the Shepherd and name him Mayhem! Also, I don’t think people called buying a dog “adopting” it back in the 1970s. Anachronistic plot-hole!
Maybe I wouldn’t have minded this introduction sequence if the pronouns were switched from personal pronouns to third-person ones. I think this is an important distinction. I’m happy to inhabit a character who is flawed, but I don’t like having these rail-roaded-dumb-binary-choices attributed to ME, when there is simply no reason for it to be worded in such a way. Example: “Henry and Julia date for over a year. / She drives him absolutely nuts. He loves it.” I could get on-board with that actually; it’s kind of cute.
Looking at the introduction functionally as a story though, I’ll grudgingly admit that the above ‘dog bit’ is an example of how the story-telling is effective in the introduction. It illustrates the situation poor Julia finds herself in; she deserves better than this loser who takes her to buy a dog when she wants, and is clearly mature enough, to raise children. It’s effective in basically presenting a situation without over-explanation, but still… why do I have to play as this guy? And why are HIS dumb actions presented as MINE?
And this echo-guitar and echo-piano in the background are really getting annoying! I don’t feel what you think I am feeling!!
Around this point, the melodrama really kicks into gear as Julia’s early-onset dementia makes its grim appearance… and I just didn’t care. In real life I know someone effected by early-onset dementia, and it’s a horrible disease. But I actively disliked both Henry and Julia only after a few minutes of being subjected to their story. I hated that their “real-life” twee interactions depicting their imperfect relationship were being attributed to me and my voice. I didn’t like Julia because she was my wife and had a dog she named Bucket, and I didn’t like Henry because he was an asshole, with his shit-head actions being attributed to ME.
I was angry at the game.
Not helping things is the fact that these text-cards are interspersed with player-controlled moments walking Henry to his truck and on his initial walk in the forest. As soon as I noticed he had legs, I looked all the way down, and held look-left. Try this – he spins around in circles, pivoting his feet like rubber – it’s hilariously stupid!
And then the introduction ended, and I was in the Firewatch tower after walking through the forest a bit. I ALT+F4-ed out.
A few months later I started the game again, wanting to give it a fair shot. I ploughed through the introduction, and Delilah’s greeting, and went to sleep. Henry woke up on Day 1, and received instructions from Delilah to go to check out a camping spot near a lake where some irresponsible campers were setting off fireworks. I was directed to use my map and compass to get there, and suddenly the real game presented itself. I was exploring the wilderness now, with only a map, a compass, and visual cues to find my way around. It was glorious. It was one of those special moments for me in gaming; a revelation of a terrific new game-type. After some time, Henry and Delilah started chatting on the walkie-talkies, and it was pleasant.
The game continued like this, and not too far in, I was taken by the two characters and along for the ride with them. The exploration mechanics are fun, though eventually you notice that the wilderness is actually a series of corridors. It doesn’t matter though, as the game is short enough that the sense of exploration stays fresh, despite being easier than initially expected.
To finish off – I think that the introduction didn’t need to happen. The game could have started with Henry waking up in the Firewatch tower on his first day, and his story with Julia developing over-time through his conversations with Delilah in an organic way, rather than through manipulative melodrama.
However, I think the developers took a risk presenting the story at the beginning using the tone and language they did. You can only really admire risk in the pursuit of creativity, considering how well aspects of it functioned from a story-telling perspective, but for me – and yes, I recognise that all of this is entirely subjective – I hated it. The drama and sadness of Julia’s disease fell-flat, and I hated Henry from how the text portrayed him/ME.
I’m thinking about The Room. That film is such a mess on so many levels, but specifically Tommy W. went for a dramatic tone throughout that was undermined by (among everything else) terrible writing and misused music. At the end, when he shoots himself and says “Forgive me God“, we all laugh, and I’m sure that he didn’t intend for the audience to react like that.
The Firewatch introduction is nowhere near as bad as The Room, but the intended tone of the introduction just did not work for me, when compared with how well the rest of the game did. This is, in large part, due to the writing and the narrative perspective employed in forcing the player to make alienating choices about unknown characters, all attributed to the player (you). Also, the on-the-nose manipulative music – it just gives the whole thing this melodrama that is at odds with the rest of the game. Everything about the introduction wanted me to feel sad at this story, but I was just angry and apathetic. The introduction story could have been something relatably tragic, if let to play out in a natural manner like the rest of the game’s narrative.
However, in a three-four hour experience; the introduction is such a minor part of the whole, and can be ploughed through and ignored. For me, Henry’s story starts when he wakes up on that first day in the lookout tower. While I have agency over his actions and some of his responses to a degree – it’s still his story; not mine.