Review: Firewatch

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As ridiculous as the concept may sound, I’ve always toyed with the idea of creating a mountaineering video game.  Although Firewatch is heavily story driven, it toys with the idea of hiking in an almost metroidvania level design, and it works! Although some rules of the game are a bit questionable from the perspective of an outdoorsman, the game combines it’s story, setting, and mechanics quite well. Even so, it is by no means above criticism; let’s dig in!

Beware: the following sections contain spoilers, which for this game would be ruinous to your experience.

Dialogue:

The common assumption in gaming that the only way to motivate predominantly male players is to appeal to their sexual urges by using a flirtatious female guide or boss is not only offensive, 1-dimensionalization of their audience, but also just lazy writing. If we’re all mature enough to be playing a supposedly intricate and adult-themed game, aren’t we mature enough to engage with it on a less juvenile level? Although Delilah’s engendering of your player’s guilt is thematically interesting, the developer emphasized the “flirtation simulator” aspect of Firewatch as selling point. (This can be seen in how the trailers highlight Delilah’s line: “I don’t talk to the other lookouts as much as I talk to you. Not in the same way.”)

Although the absence of physically present people is an interesting stylistic choice that helps the feeling of loneliness for most of the game, when Delilah is not in her tower at the end, it felt more like a design copout than anything else. This was clearly invoked to avoid technical considerations for her implementation; when Half Life 2 shined with its lifelike characters over a decade ago, its interesting that new games can get away with so much less in a setting where personal characters matter even more.

Mountaineering:

There were a lot of invisible walls. How the game decided which relatively flat boulders the player can scramble onto was unclear and frustrating. Henry rappelled with his bare hands. Most of the “unclimbable” rappel points were easily scalable scree slopes.

(Geology Rant: The shoshone range, especially Thorofare creek where the game is set, is volcanoclastic strata, plutons, and sandstone. In game a rappel slope was called shale. This use of language betrays writers who know only through association rather than experience.)

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Plot:

While the plot was interesting, it became clear that the player’s choices had no bearing on the run of events. This was probably to minimize effort in technical considerations, and the result is very weak. Why give the player a choice at all if they’re just a spectator? Some choices had tiny, superficial effects, like the image in a diary entry or the name of a fire, but players want to choose things that affect the game world; that is the point of a game: the player affects it by playing. All choices in beginning sequence, reporting encounter with teens, not starting the observation station fire, and asking to meet Delilah were meaningless because the game decided it needed certain events to happen to satisfy their tension devices and story arc. Writing multiple plots is challenging, but this would have been the distinguishing feature that would have made a good game an excellent game.

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