The first hour or so of Firewatch is a pleasantly sedate experience. You explore the incredible sun-drenched environment created by Campo Santo, chatting with Delilah about things you discover on your travels, be it a spooky cave or a treacherous scree slope that Henry names "The Widowmaker." Henry has a rudimentary climbing ability, able to rappel down specific slopes and clamber across clearly marked rock-faces. But this isn't Tomb Raider, Firewatch is much more about navigation rather than the actual traversal, using your map and compass to plot the best route to your destination.
As the game progresses, Henry and Delilah's relationship becomes more intimate, despite the physical distance between them. The combination of wandering through sun-dappled forests and listening to Henry and Delilah talk about their past lives, discussing old friends, boyfriends and so forth, is gently entertaining in a way that is extremely rare and equally welcome for a video game. It's worth noting that both the writing and acting are absolutely first-rate, although this is not great surprise when you look at the individuals behind them. Firewatch is written by Sean Vanaman of Telltale's Walking Dead series, and voiced by Rich Sommer of Mad Men, and veteran gaming voice actor Cissy Jones.
I expected the majority of the game to be like this, exploring the Wyoming wilderness, doing odd jobs and enjoying the blossoming relationship between Henry and Delilah. So I was surprised when Firewatch suddenly Gets Serious. Basically, it becomes apparent that somebody is Out There in the woods, and their intentions toward Henry and Delilah may not be entirely benign. What's more, as the pair take it upon themselves to investigate, this only seems to compound the situation, triggering increasingly menacing responses from this unseen force in the forest.
Within the space of about half an hour, Firewatch transforms from being this relaxing hiking simulator into a thriller with paranoia levels cranked up to eleven. The lonely forests of Wyoming suddenly seem to have eyes everywhere, their gaze burning into the back of your neck like a brand. In its second half, Firewatch develops the kind of atmosphere you'd expect from a Frictional Game. Toward the end I was constantly looking over my shoulder, certain that someone was following me, skulking in the trees just a few yards behind.
The mystery Campo Santo set up is a good one, with a denouement that's gratifying and just about plausible. However, I do feel that Firewatch's story is missing a middle. It skips very quickly from the beginning of summer to the end, with several of the more intimate moments between the two lookouts told almost in montage form. I would have liked to see more of Henry performing his duties as a fire lookout, and let the friendship between him and Delilah cook for a little longer. Firewatch has such an enjoyably everyday premise and executes it so well, that the fact that it so quick to dismiss it in favour of SPOOKY MYSTERY is slightly disappointing.
In addition, some of the flaws from the narrative structure of the Walking Dead carry over into Firewatch, most notably giving you the illusion of choice and then railroading the story anyway. In one sequence about two-thirds of the way through, Delilah encourages Henry to do something rash, but the game lets you choose whether or not to go through with it. Yet even if you decide not to, the event occurs anyway. Mercifully such clumsy moments are few and far between, but it's irritating when a game pretends to give you a choice and then snatches it away because you chose the less narratively convenient option.
Although I wish Firewatch spent more time luxuriating in its own warm summery glow, and fully embraced the freewheeling wanderlust its gorgeous world inspires, there's no denying the quality of what Campo Santo have created, and I always appreciate a game that's confident enough to leave me wanting more. Firewatch absolutely does that. Every aspect of it has been so carefully considered, from dialogue to acting to art to level design, and bar those few moments where the plot forces your hand, it combines to form an game that's capable of being relaxing, gripping, and just a little bit terrifying.