Explore Wyoming forest and uncover a mystery in Firewatch
Independent studio Campo Santo developers behind games like The Walking Dead and Bioshock
Firewatch is the second game in a little under a month to take old-fashioned point-and-click adventures as a main source of inspiration, but goes in a very different direction with it.
The Witness took the foundation of 1993's Myst to create a labyrinthine puzzle landscape with only the barest suggestions of a recognizable plot.
Instead Campo Santo, an 11-person team with past credits like The Walking Dead, Mark of the Ninja and Bioshock on its creators' resumes, dives into the story-rich history of the genre, paved by classics like Tales from Monkey Island or Grim Fandango.
"The thing with a lot of those old '90s-era adventure games is that they were kind of good despite their gameplay, not because of it," says Campo Santo designer and programmer Nels Anderson.
"Nobody plays them for the really obtuse puzzles where you have to put maple syrup on cat hair to make a mustache." (That actually happened, in 1999's Gabriel Knight 3.)
And while genre standbys like exploration and mystery are key to the game, this is ultimately a story about loneliness, middle age, parenthood and guilt.
Set after 1988 Yellowstone wildfires
Firewatch is set in the forests of Wyoming in 1989, a year after wildfires devastated most of Yellowstone National Park. The government has begun to repopulate old lookout towers, and you play as Henry, who took the job for the summer mainly to get away from his past.
At the start of the game, you'll learn more about Henry's relationship with his wife Julia in a short text-based prelude. You have to make multiple choices through Henry's point of view, shaping his past and his choices at some very critical junctions in his life.
Like many relationships, though, things don't always go according to plan, and after a touching intro that hits similar notes to Pixar's Up, Henry eventually finds himself in Wyoming's Shoshone National Park, where the game begins proper.
Henry's only other comrade in the forest is Delilah, another lookout in a tower a few miles away. Henry, played by Mad Men's Rich Sommer, and Delilah (Cissy Jones) get to know each other and build a nuanced relationship purely through walkie-talkie conversations.
Henry's job starts out mundane — you start out by tracking a couple of drunk teens skinny dipping and setting off fireworks in the flammable parklands — but soon enough strange things start to happen around you, and the ploy pivots more toward a psychological thriller along the lines of Black Swan or Upstream Color.
Sommer and Jones' performances are the real stars of the game. You'll spend most of the time listening to the pair's conversations, choosing Henry's responses to Delilah's advice, orders, and frequent prodding into his personal life.
You aren't creating your own "version" of Henry as in other role-playing games like Mass Effect. All dialogue choices available will seem like plausible things he would say based on what you've already learned about him. It's more a matter of figuring out what mood he's in at that moment: whether you want him to be more reasonable and cautious, or impulsive and aggressive in response to a given situation.
Sommer gives life to a man trying to get to grips with the life he's temporarily run away from. Jones's Delilah plays a sultry muse to the player from afar, even as we learn more about her own life's mistakes and regrets. Their performances pull the player in, aided by a poignant and realistic script, especially by video game writing standards.
Striking landscape and a personal story
Anderson, who grew up in Wyoming but is currently based in Vancouver, says Campo Santo wanted to make a game with "the stuff that everybody remembers fondly about the old adventure games, like a really interesting, well-embodied setting, very tangible, real characters that you get to spend more time with ... in this very explorable space."
And what a space it is: thanks to art direction from artist Olly Moss (known for his work for Lucasfilm and Studio Ghibli) and Jane Ng. Exploring Firewatch's slice of Wyoming is like wandering into a postcard of a smoky sunset, with a distant mountain range rendered in soft watercolours.
The striking beauty almost feels like a waste, since there aren't quite enough areas to simply explore and get lost in. A wider expanse wouldn't fit in a focused story like Firewatch's, but one can't help but wonder what a more open-world game in Moss's art style would be like.
Longtime gamers will probably be disappointed without a metaphysical plot twist the likes of Bioshock, and some interesting side stories either evaporate into red herrings, or leave too many unanswered questions to feel completely satisfying.
But Campo Santo took a big risk in telling a four- to five-hour story ultimately about human weakness at its core. In doing so they've made an eccentric game with a mournful, grown-up flavour all its own.
Firewatch is available on the Sony PlayStation 4 and PC for $19.99. In the week since launch, many players on the PS4 have noticed occasional screen stuttering and frame rate issues hampering the otherwise-gorgeous visuals. Developer Sean Vanaman promised on a reddit thread that they're working to patch out the glitches.