gdc 2015

Firewatch

Hands-On With Firewatch: Humor, Frenzy, And A Ton Of Intrigue
by Kimberley Wallace on Mar 07, 2015 at 04:11 AM
Publisher: Campo Santo
Developer: Campo Santo
Release:
Rating: Mature
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, Mac, Linux

Campo Santo holds a lot of promising talent with members who previously worked at studios such as Telltale, 2K Marin, Klei Entertainment, Double Fine, and Lionhead. Its debut game, Firewatch, has been largely under wraps with only a few clues trickled out here and there. With details so vague, many aren't sure what to expect from the game. Getting some hands-on time finally clarified a bit about the adventure, even if it still has an aura of mystery to it.

Some of the best storytelling only provides the audience a few details, letting them fill in the blanks. Firewatch capitalizes on this marvelously. When you start Firewatch, you know very little about the man whose shoes you're about to step into. The year is 1989, Henry has fallen on some hard times. His marriage is on the rocks and he's had a problem with drinking and driving. It's been a crappy year, and so Henry he needs a change of pace, taking a job as a fire lookout in Wyoming. Transported straight to the middle of nowhere, you begin your journey in first-person as Henry without even knowing if he's a good guy or not.

As Henry, you explore the Wyoming wilderness, making sure nothing has gone awry. It definitely has a Gone Home-vibe out of the gate, but still feels drastically different than Fullbright's adventure. Your only connection to anyone else is Delilah, Henry's supervisor, who he communicates with via radio. Your job is to report anything suspicious, and dialogue options appear as you find clues and talk to Delilah. Conversations can be about the situation at hand, or get as crazy as Delilah sharing she's hungover for your first day.

Being set into Wyoming is breathtaking, Firewatch's art style has always been unique, but there's something about actually being in it that makes it stand out all the more. The lighting makes every environment more mesmerizing. You see sunsets and night stars in all their glory. You're not just relegated to walking around and admiring Wyoming's beauty; Henry interacts with the environments in other ways as well, like climbing rocks and searching caves.

I explore and immediately spot my first clues: some beer cans. I'm then given the option to raise my radio and report the clue to Delilah. I also see whiskey, which I take and choose to put in my inventory along with some fireworks. Then Henry comes across some bras and panties. Delilah teases Henry as he attempts to report these garments. He's clearly embarrassed, and Delilah takes great delight in asking him if he's twelve.

The banter and great dialogue between Henry and Delilah immediately stands out. Conversations have a natural flow, and they're fun and unpredictable. It feels like Campo Santo allows the player to have a lot of fun in their choices, giving you plenty of places for fun quips. For instance, later in the demo, I explored a cave and could choose to yell for an echo. Henry then starts singing the chorus to Toto's Africa, "I've blessed the rains down in Africa!"

One of my favorite moments is when Henry tracks down the culprits: Two skinny-dipping teenage girls. To get their attention, I pick up their radio, which causes them to freak out. I'm given dialogue options on how I can to respond to them, but they don't seem apologetic at all. I get angry at their whining and decide to throw their radio in the water. They flip out calling me expletives, saying I can't harass girls in the woods. This scene can play out in a number of ways. You can merely yell at the girls and give them warning; you could even steal their radio and walk around with it. Appropriate dialogue plays that reacts to your decisions, and that's pretty impressive.

Besides messing with the bratty teenagers, the game also has a creepy vibe. When I explored off the beaten path, I found weird claw marks on a tree. Delilah insists it's a bear, but I'm not so sure. Later I spot a suspicious looking man in the distance. That's when Delilah insists that "bad things don't happen here," I'm skeptical. Some intense music starts to set the scene as I see a typewriter on the ground. As I go further up to my tower, I see broken glass, books thrown all over the ground, and missing bed sheets. Somebody has broken into Henry's place. Reporting things to Delilah, she asks me who I think it could be and I have options. I could blame the skinnydippers, point to the suspicious figure that ran off, or not pick a culprit. I blame the man I saw earlier and Delilah says she'll notify the police to be on the lookout for him. I hope I picked the right person, but the demo ends before I'll ever know the consequence to this choice.

Firewatch is my favorite game from GDC. It immediately hooked me, and I never knew what I would find next. The game will play out over the course of Henry's job; you start day one, but after a few consecutive days, the plot jumps forward in time. This allows you to see how Henry and his relationship with Delilah progresses. I can't wait to see where it all leads. I'm already looking at everything desperately. During the demo, I noticed Henry was still wearing a ring. I wondered if it represented his hope to save his marriage or his denial that it's over. I'm still thinking a lot about my time with Firewatch, and that says something.