Another amazing narrative game comes to the Switch.
Originally released in 2016, Firewatch is a story-driven adventure game by developer Campo Santo. The plot revolves around a man named Henry who leaves his hometown of Boulder to become a fire lookout after his wife’s dementia becomes severe and she is taken back to Australia to live with her parents. While the game is light on action and gameplay elements, the setting of the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming during the summertime provides a beautiful space to explore. The mysteries that develop over the course of the game add suspense and drive the story to an interesting but divisive conclusion.
Two clear strengths make Firewatch stand out: the writing and the voice-acting. The story begins with Henry meeting and falling in love with his wife Julia, and it details their relationship through on-screen text and a handful of dialogue choices. Years are displayed to show the passing of time, and this introduction to the game does much to paint Henry as a sympathetic figure dealing with a tragic situation. The dialogue options presented through the game and the way the rest of the story unfolds are meaningful and satisfying.
When Henry arrives in Wyoming and the view switches to first-person, we are introduced to Delilah, another lookout and Henry’s superior. The two communicate via hand-held radio, and the excellent voice work of Rich Sommer (of Mad Men fame) and Cissy Jones (who has voiced characters in numerous games, including The Walking Dead series and Destiny 2) helps the player bond with the characters and see them as real people. By the end of the game, I had connected so strongly with Henry and Delilah that I did not want their story to end; I wasn’t ready to say good-bye.
Another positive element is the attention to detail and the rewards for exploring thoroughly. Off the beaten path you can find books, notes, and other items that add to the story and flesh out the game world. There are references to other video games as well, and I delighted in scouring the environment for hidden clues and tucked-away areas. Firewatch takes place over a series of individual summer days, and each one presents different tasks and opportunities.
On the performance side, there is some stuttering, pop-in, and frame drops that are noticeable enough to impact the experience. On more than one occasion the game would stop for about a second or so, making me fear that the game would crash. While it’s certainly playable, it would have been nice to see the game perform a little better over the course of its four-hour runtime.
In terms of the audio and visuals, the music helps to create an effective ambiance and picks up as you get closer to pivotal story beats. Firewatch uses bright reds, oranges, yellows, and greens to make the wilderness come alive, and getting lost in the forest and canyon areas of the game never feels like a chore because the environment is so spectacular. The presentation expertly tricks the player into thinking that they are leisurely strolling through the woods, enjoying the sunshine and the great outdoors.
Like with other narrative-heavy video games, knowing too much of the story going in is likely to color your enjoyment of the game and change how it resonates with you. Even though it came to other platforms over two years ago, Firewatch is a game that has always been on my radar, and after playing through it, I regret that I waited this long to do so. Firewatch has an affective and engaging story that draws you in, and I couldn’t put the game down after the halfway point. What initially seems like more of a relaxing walking simulator becomes something more consequential and dire. Anyone interested in great stories—not just those told through video games—needs to pick up Firewatch. Like Celeste and GRIS, Firewatch is a triumph of artistic and thought-provoking game design, and it can remind you of summer as you bundle up for the cold winter ahead.