When Henry gets into his truck and heads from Colorado to Wyoming, he’s looking to escape a marriage that’s essentially just a wedding band worn out of habit. Opportunity comes in the form of a seasonal position as a firewatcher – sitting in a tower during the dry months and making sure that the state park doesn’t turn into kindling. Over the course of a few months, he (and the player) forms an intimate bond with his supervisor, a woman named Delilah whom Henry only interacts with via walkie-talkie. That relationship is forged and tested over several eerie events, though Firewatch is at its best during the story’s quieter moments.
The summer begins with an encounter with some troublesome teens, and that interaction sets up weeks of paranoia and intrigue. Henry is free to roam around the woods, trails, and streams around his station – within reason. After all, he’s on the clock, not vacation. He’s accompanied in spirit by Delilah, whose own outpost only appears as a tiny speck on the horizon. Still, she’s a constant companion thanks to Henry’s ever-present radio. I was immediately drawn into the game’s world, partly because of the power of its simple text intro, and also because of the novelty of taking part in something so mundane. We’ve all saved the world in games; I like the appeal of helping characters find redemption or some sense of peace.
Henry and Delilah start chatting when he first arrives, and it carries through the entirety of the story. She’s been at the job for 13 years off and on, she tells him, and she’s able to provide context for all the new things that he’s seeing. It manifests itself in the game in a simple and elegant way – when players focus onto an object worth talking about, they can have Henry radio Delilah and talk. That can be something mundane like getting stung by a bee, or reporting a menacing figure lurking around at night. Conversations are fluid and interesting, and they can take different turns depending on how you choose to react.
Campo Santo’s debut game is devoid of action in any traditional sense, putting it in the company of games such as Gone Home or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. These kinds of games all too often end up making the player character a weirdo monologist or voyeur, which is something that Firewatch skillfully avoids by including interactive dialog. It’s a simple addition, but it breathes life into the game. Thanks to the excellent work of Rich Sommer (Mad Men) and Cissy Jones, the conversations have a flow that feels natural and engaging, rather than the stilted recitations that multiple-choice dialog often yields. Both characters are lonely in their own ways, and learning more about these complicated people is the highlight.
Firewatch is set in the late ‘80s after a massive wildfire wreaked havoc in Yellowstone, but it thankfully doesn’t lean heavily on cheap nostalgia. President Reagan is mentioned in cassette tapes, but the era is just a subtle backdrop. Talk focuses primarily on relationships and memories of people who have worked at the park over the years. Your decisions, both in conversations and action, pay off in small but interesting ways, which I appreciated. Your explorations can lead to things like a new pet or hearing a ridiculous ghost story, so it’s worth pushing around the boundaries to see what happens.
I enjoyed hiking around the forest and taking in the sights. The environments look like silkscreened poster art come to life, straddling the line between realism and graphic art. There are basic barriers in place to keep you along the right path, such as thick vegetation you need to chop through or spots where you need to attach a line and rappel, but you have enough flexibility to maintain the illusion that you’re not walking along a forested corridor. When I did get lost (which I have a tendency to do in real parks), it was easy to pull out a map and compass and find my way back to the trail.
The dialog and characterization is so natural that some of the events near the end are tonally jarring. Without saying too much, things aren’t what they appear to be at first, showing what can happen when people talk themselves over a dramatic cliff. At the same time, the resolution reminds me of an episode of Scooby-Doo, with a reveal and explanation that makes so little sense that it deflates what otherwise could have been a poignant and devastating moment. That mystery is the propelling force in the narrative, and when it falls apart in such a peculiar way it ends up tainting much of the experience. It’s silly and abrupt, and the characters – who we’ve seen handle so many other situations with candor and raw emotion – unpack it all in a way that rings false. Games like these live and die on the strength of their storytelling, and when the last 20 minutes land with a thud, it obscures the greatness of what came before.
I played through the game once and was disappointed by its unsatisfactory ending. After running through it again and making different choices, I have a better appreciation for how well the dialog is crafted and delivered, even if the mystery’s resolution was just as flat the second time around. My initial feeling of “That’s it?” gave way to a bittersweet feeling that, just as in real life, “That’s it?” is sometimes all there is.
Campo Santo delivers great dialog, but Firewatch's ending extinguishes its intriguing embers.