Review: 'Firewatch' is walkie-talkie therapy

A scene from "Firewatch," a video game with a plot about hiking. (Flickr/K putt)

It’s the middle of the night, and you’re alone in the woods. The trees, which seemed full of life during the day, sit dead, and the mountains, which looked so beckoning hours earlier are now grim reminders of the fact that you’re trapped. This is the world of “Firewatch,” one of the most compelling hiking simulators I’ve ever experienced.

The ‘80s were a weird time, and no one knows that better than protagonist and avid hiker Henry. The opening explains that Henry fell in love with Julia, only for her to develop early onset Alzheimer’s. The opening text actually does something unique by making the player click responses like “it gets worse,” to progress through it, which feels horrible, as though the player is becoming complicit in the disease’s rampage. There are also a couple of choices that, while meaningless, still make the player invested in Henry’s story.

The traumatic ordeal eventually results in Julia being taken away by her parents, and Henry subsequently takes a job at Shoshone national park as a fire watcher. The only other sign of life is Delilah, a fellow lookout who communicates orders and talks with Henry about his life through a small yellow walkie-talkie.

The writing in this game is superb, and it had better be since Delilah is the only other human being for miles. You get the sense that both of these characters are running from something in their past, and their chemistry is fantastic.

Even days after completing the game, Delilah sticks out to me as one of the best female characters that have ever been written in gaming. She displays an absolute rainbow of emotions as the game progresses, from funny and sarcastic to angry and even a little paranoid, depicting each one in a believable and engaging way. Delilah is just a great character, from her voice acting to her writing, and she really carries this game at times.

That brings us to the meat of the game, which is hiking around the national park. There are caves to explore, hills to climb and vistas to gawk at, but over time Henry and Delilah begin to discover something a little more sinister is going on. The pacing of the game is brilliant, as it ramps up the paranoia factor slowly but steadily until both the player and the protagonist are both looking over their shoulder and questioning reality.

The main downside to this game is that there’s just not a lot to do in the park. Delilah will call you and give you an objective halfway across the entire map, and then the only thing to do is trek over there and wait for more dialogue. The park is so big, though, and invisible walls so prominent, that you’ll often find yourself fumbling with the map and backtracking because you made a wrong turn and went a mile down the wrong trail.

However, the writing makes the whole journey worth it. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that made me laugh, recoil and shed a tear all in the span of a few hours, but “Firewatch” accomplishes just that. Once you start unraveling the mystery, you’re compelled to keep playing just to find out how it ends- a testament to the game’s writing.

Once you actually get to that ending, however, most players will probably feel it’s a disappointment. No spoilers, but the big reveal is severely underwhelming compared to what I was imaging in my head, and the game ends with very little closure for Delilah and Henry. A couple of side characters are suddenly thrust to the forefront, but I never cared as much for random people I never met as I did for the two main characters.

“Firewatch” is part of an increasingly large genre of games that has mediocre gameplay but excels at writing and storytelling. Although I was frequently bored in the early chapters of the game, when the mystery hasn’t been introduced, it’s worth it to experience the kind of paranoia that a game can deliver under the right circumstances.

Although the ending is disappointing, I don’t regret the journey I took with “Firewatch” for a second. It’s a great example of what games can show us about our own psyche, and how you react to what can only be described as oppressive isolation and loneliness will probably reveal a lot about yourself as well.


Edward Pankowski is life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at edward.pankowski@uconn.edu.