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Platform: PC, Mac
Release Date: 9 February 2016
Developer: Campo Santo
The walking simulator Firewatch is the first game to be released by the San Francisco based developer Campo Santo. It has been gathering a fair amount of attention in recent weeks, and rightfully so.
You play as a friendly chap called Henry, who finds work as a lookout in Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming. The job sounds simple enough - as the game's title suggests, it's up to Henry to prevent the outbreak of forest fires. He does this with the help of Delilah, a more experienced lookout working in another section of the forest. While you never get to meet Delilah face to face, she is ever present thanks to the nifty little walkie-talkie that Henry is equipped with at the start of the game.
By moving out to one of the most remote parts of the United States, Henry is effectively running away from his wife, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease. Throughout the game questions are raised as to whether the decision he made was the right one, or whether Henry is in fact running away from his own responsibilities. It's an interesting thought, that a person might want to drop their own responsibilities towards those close to them, in order to care for a small piece of mother nature.
I shan't go too deep into the plot, as so much of the game's appeal comes from its surprises that are gradually unveiled. However, I think it's safe to say that the story could have been longer - once that's complete there isn't much else to do.
The gameplay is a stripped back affair. As is typical of most walking simulators, Firewatch is played in a first-person perspective. Henry carries his walkie-talkie in his left hand, and can pick up items with his right hand - a map and compass also come in very handy, especially when you stray off the beaten track. The most interesting feature is the ability to choose Henry's responses when talking with Delilah. Many other games have tried and failed to pull this off. While the choices you make have little effect on the game's overall outcome, the dialogue is well written and it's a pleasure to listen to the two characters getting to know each other.
You can tell that the developers have put a great deal of effort into the visuals. Different parts of the forest have a different feel to them - some parts are lush, with strong greens; other parts are burnt out, exposing the harsh red earth that lies below. The lighting is superb, and every now and then it's worth stopping to watch the sun's rays trickle down between the trees.
For airy-fairy, arty-farty types such as myself, Firewatch is just what we've been waiting for. It shows that gaming can present a decent story with nuance, complete with all the trappings of a good movie or book. However, for others the focus on narrative rather than gameplay is precisely what is wrong with the game. I've had people ask me how Firewatch, or any other walking simulator for that matter, could possibly count as a game. It doesn't give you any room to make your own decisions, apart from selecting what to say when chatting with Delilah. There is no possibility of failure either - it lacks challenge, and the disembodied voice of Delilah is there to hold your hand right to the very end. Is it not the case that these games are trying that little bit too hard to mimic cinema or literature?
These are legitimate concerns, although I wouldn't let them hamper my experience of playing Firewatch if I were you. Regardless of whether or not walking simulators should be classified as some other sort of experience apart from gaming, Firewatch tells a truly enjoyable story.