I thought I understood Firewatch before I played it. It’s a narrative game, set in the Wyoming wilderness of 1989, with a story that unfolds through dialogue between Henry (that’s you) and Delilah, the voice at the other end of your walkie talkie. I thought I’d played games like this before: games where I explored a confined virtual space and interacted with objects to prompt clues, dialogue, moments of discovery that nudged me along the path of a set story. Games like Gone Home.
But Firewatch is not that game, entirely due to its setting. This is a hard distinction to grasp until you’ve played it, but the open, explorable environment completely changes the way Firewatch doles out bites of story. It stretches the boundaries and structure of what I expect from a narrative-focused video game. I thought I had a mental category to put Firewatch in. Turns out, I don’t. I’m probably going to have to create a new one.
Which is great: it’s rare for a game to spill over the edges of the shapes we expect them to fill. In Firewatch’s case, there are a few elements that add up to this unusual shape.
The demo I played picks up about 45 minutes into the game, with Henry—marriage failing, DUI on his record, a little too much weight around the middle—starting his first day as a lookout for the forest service. It’s an escape from, well, mostly everything. The voice of Henry’s boss Delilah crackles over the radio to give him instructions: go find some unruly teenagers who were setting off fireworks and make sure they haven’t set the forest ablaze.
And from there, Firewatch opens up into an openly explorable chunk of wilderness. Not open world in the Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto sense, but a generously sized area that coaxes you towards points of interest but offers plenty of room to walk around. And I wanted to, because the game is so beautiful; I don’t know why it’s taken the entire history of the video game medium for someone to perfectly replicate the golden hour, but Firewatch has done so.
So, back to that unusual shape: part of it comes from the subtly of Firewatch’s level design. Gullies and canyons that funnel you to and from more open areas, chunky rock outcroppings that are identifiably climbable while still looking natural, paths that diverge and reconnect to give you multiple ways to move from one story point to another. In the area I played, Firewatch’s designers managed to balance the openness of a natural environment with the necessity of pushing you towards important places. It’s the kind of thing you may not even notice because it feels natural, but that’s the trick, isn’t it?
I did brush up against the edges of this little chunk of the game world, thick patches of trees and brush that blocked off my exploration, but these blockades still felt, more or less, like natural parts of the forest.
Firewatch further spills out of its container when you start talking to Delilah. Imagine the bits of commentary you got in classic point-and-click adventure games from looking at every object in the environment—protagonists like Monkey Island’s Guybrush Threepwood would talk to themselves, or you, the player—but turn that commentary into a conversation. Looking at any interactable object or an interesting location prompts Henry with the option to pull out the walkie talkie and talk to Delilah, with multiple dialogue choices that reflect how you want to play the character.
This is an old bit of game design doing something new: it’s building character, adding color commentary, and pushing the story forward all at once. It’s something that seems simple but is more ambitious the more you think about it: there’s tons of voiceover dialogue in the short 20 minute segment I played, and there were two options I didn’t hear for every bit of conversation I chose.
I talked to Firewatch designer Nels Anderson a bit about the volume of dialogue going into the game, and he explained that’s it’s only feasible for their small team because they don’t have to do any animation or lip syncing for voice. Firewatch is a first-person game, looking out of Henry's eyes (often at his endearingly chunky hands), and Delilah is a voice on a radio. That makes it relatively cheap and easy to throw new dialogue into Firewatch, which they’ve done to further flesh out the world.
In the demo, Henry eventually finds the troublesome teenagers skinny dipping in a lake, and has the option to pick up their boombox and do whatever with it. I carried it with me for about 10 minutes, but I could’ve thrown it in the lake. Earlier in development, that didn’t prompt any reaction from the teens, Anderson told me—which would’ve felt wrong. So they recorded more dialogue to make them react naturally.
The demo I played ends with a hike back up to Henry’s lookout tower as the sun sets, casting the environment in shades of orange and red and then the blue-purple of night. It introduces a bit of mystery and already shows an interesting relationship blossoming between Henry and Delilah. It’s the first ‘day’ of many which will make up Firewatch, with each day containing a piece of essential story that moves along a set narrative. According to Anderson, there will be freedom to explore within that structure, though, and new parts of the world will become accessible as time passes.
Days and nights don’t pass based on a time system in Firewatch—in other words, the events of ‘day seven’ are set, and the day won’t end until you experience that bit of story—but players can go off the beaten path to spend time in the wilderness before progressing the story.
Firewatch is telling a type of story on an environmental scale I don’t think we’ve seen before. It left me excited, but wondering if developer Campo Santo will be able to maintain the interesting dialogue and environmental design across a much larger world. I think it’s hard to pick up on the ambition, and how unusual this structure feels, until you’ve put hands on it. Anderson says that will happen sometime in the second half of 2015.