I never liked the term “walking simulator” as a description of games that task you with walking around an environment and discovering clues to solve a mystery. The slightly derogatory phrase implies that games must only present players with challenges that manifest physically — be it combat, platforming, puzzle-solving or some other test of skill or reflexes. Dialogue and environmental clues, while useful in fleshing out the backstory, are just that to many gamers: background elements. The inverse — combat without dialogue — is not in question as being a valid video game experience, but somehow dialogue without a physical contest is unacceptable.
Enter Firewatch, a PC/Mac, PS4, and soon to be Xbox One game in which you wander a national park in Wyoming as a fire lookout named Henry, communicating via radio with your boss, a woman named Delilah stationed in a far-off lookout tower. Developed by the 11-person team at Campo Santo, Firewatch uses the lonely, dusty Wyoming wilderness as a frame for both an unfolding mystery and a developing relationship between Henry and Delilah. It's more than a little similar to The Fullbright Company's acclaimed game Gone Home.
Though the concept of hiking around a national park seems to invite open-world gameplay, Firewatch’s variability comes in a much more subtle form than you might expect. You must choose how to respond to Delilah’s talky, sarcastic radio conversations, or even whether to respond at all, before a timer ticks down (a la Tellale games), and your dialogue choices can sometimes change the direction of the conversation. However, the story ends up in the same place regardless of your choices, and in general Delilah’s conversations will hit the same beats. There is some environmental gating via obstacles that require specific items, but there are a handful of items and locations that are not required for the story that you can find if you wander a bit rather than strictly following instructions.
The park is an ever-changing environment, with fires and human intervention subtly modifying your navigation paths as the game progresses. Firewatch rewards wandering and exploring with beautiful vistas and optional areas that provoke new dialogue options. The vibrant art direction makes lighting and color the focal point, contrasting solid colors with each other to create a graphic, poster art style and making heavy use of volumetric lighting. Go to an area at two different times of day and you may see two entirely different, equally beautiful versions of it.
By halfway through the game (that’s to say, only about 2 or 3 hours in), it’s clear that Firewatch isn’t just a game about walking around the wilderness. I won’t spoil the specifics, but a series of clues lead Henry and Delilah to believe that they are being manipulated by some shadowy third party. This paranoia is reflected in their conversations as well as the bluesy guitar background music, and amplified by the limited information you are provided (you never see Delilah's face, making her a somewhat unreliable companion). By the fourth hour even the ambient noises of the forest — rustling leaves, the cries of wildlife — were enough to make me look over my shoulder for pursuers.
That’s a fairly impressive feat, and a subtle way of creating a unique experience by prompting the player’s emotional response rather than spelling it out via obvious audiovisual cues like music. It’s possible to play Firewatch with no guile at all, following along with its fairly linear story. If, instead, you go off the beaten path and stop trusting Delilah's instructions, you can still complete it, though you may end up feeling totally different about the experience. The variation comes largely from how the player engages with and interprets the story, rather than the content of the story itself.
That said, it’s definitely disappointing that your choices never really change the outcome in any concrete way. The snarky dialogue between Henry and Delilah feels natural no matter what choices you make, in part thanks to great performances from Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones, but a second playthrough pulls aside the curtain to reveal how little your dialogue choices actually mean. This is largely an issue of expectations, albeit not unreasonable ones; for most players, dialogue choices tend to imply influence over the story in some form, even if cause and effect are not clearly, deterministically linked.
If nothing else, I appreciate that Firewatch continues the modern trend of video games as ways of putting ourselves in the unremarkable shoes of regular people in regular places. Despite a seeming focus on dialogue-based gameplay, Firewatch is really more about spending time in the wilderness taking in all of its beauty and danger with Henry and Delilah. By the end of the game, I felt like I had gotten to know the two characters, and I was able to quickly traverse the park with hardly a glance at my map. There’s a sense of satisfaction that comes from developing that familiarity with the world and the characters of a game.