We love Firewatch, we hate Firewatch

by: Randy -
More On: Firewatch

[SPOILERS: This article is chock full of spoilers about Firewatch. If you don’t want major plotline elements revealed, look away now.]

Firewatch launched on February 9. The following week, it tore the Gaming Nexus staff to pieces. Some of us want to watch the game burn. Some of us will die on that hill defending it. Still others sit on the fence, figuring out when to jump in, if at all. This is what the unedited email thread looked like. Hold onto your hats. Some foul language erupts before we all shake hands and walk away from the carnage.

Firewatch is a first-person adventure game from Campo Santo Productions. It is their first game. Gaming Nexus writer Randy Kalista reviewed it. He fell in love. Others, not so much.

SEAN COLLELI

How did you all feel about Firewatch? I'm curious to hear your takes, because for me, it went from being superlatively promising in the first two hours to a rushed first-draft abortion that felt like the ending was turned in at the last minute. This is particularly galling with Telltale Walking Dead veterans penning the story.

Walking Dead's ending was so powerful because I followed Lee and Clementine on an emotional rollercoaster. Even though the end was tragic, it still felt complete and meaningful. Those characters had arcs, they grew. Firewatch builds up all this intriguing, heartbreaking backstory for Henry and Delilah, makes you feel really alone and paranoid, and then positively ruins it with an utterly batshit twist that completely breaks suspension of disbelief.

The worst part is at the end: neither Henry nor Delilah have grown or learned anything. Henry seems even more confused about his life's direction than before he took the job, and Delilah just runs away from her problems like she always has. I felt even worse for Henry, and I ended up hating Delilah for turning out to be so flaky and capricious. Somewhat realistic, sure, but not narratively satisfying in the slightest—and utterly meaningless after that last-minute M. Night Shyamalan twist.

Sorry for the rant, but I haven't been this disappointed in a game in ages. God, what a load of twee hipster walking sim bullshit.

RANDY KALISTA

*Blink blink*

*Reads Colleli's Firewatch rant*

*Falls to floor, clutching chest in pain*

"Neither Henry nor Delilah have grown or learned anything. Henry seems even more confused about his life's direction than before he took the job, and Delilah just runs away from her problems like she always has. I felt even worse for Henry and I ended up hating Delilah for turning out to be so flaky and capricious."

I 100 percent agree with this, Sean. But I think it's narratively brilliant—and messy and mature and unresolvable—versus narratively unsatisfying. What we're seeing in Firewatch is closer to what's found short realistic fiction stories. So, what's more stunning: solving the mystery or watching Henry and Delilah intertwine and unravel? The weirdness happening in the Shoshone Forest? That, in the grand tradition of mystery novels, is a red herring. Piecing together the main characters? That's the real mystery.

"Utterly meaningless after that last-minute M. Night Shyamalan twist."

Despite my defense of Firewatch, a part of me can't help but agree with you on this.

[Hit the jump for continued debate.]

JEREMY DUFF

At this point, Firewatch is sitting in a very secure spot for my games of the year. I absolutely loved every single second of that "twee hipster walking sim bullshit." I felt that the story unfolded perfectly, and had a much more realistic conclusion and direction than 99 percent of games and movies hitting the market today.

The game mimicked life. There aren't always happy, conclusive endings. I am not sure that I would say that neither one grew or learned anything; I thought it was just the opposite. One learned by natural course (Henry) and the other was being forced (Delilah). She lost her job and was being forced to head back to face reality—no more escaping to the wilderness for her. We didn't get to see her realization of all of this, but did we need to? Henry, on the other hand, learned that in his situation it wasn't something he could run from. He was able to put everything off and ignore things for long enough. But in the end, he ended up face to face with his problem(s) once again. Now it is time for him to face his demons, and again, do we need to see him actually do that to feel fulfilled?

SEAN COLLELI

I just feel bait-and-switched. The fact that the story ties up everything so quickly and improbably, and without any positive or negative emotional payoff for either character, in my opinion, really annoys me. It’s like a freaking Scooby Doo cartoon. "Surprise! It was the crazy old hermit living in the woods for a decade! He accidentally killed his son and couldn't face the consequences...so he managed to fake a government spy outpost, complete with high tech computers and listening equipment in 1989, just to cover his ass and fuck with some forest rangers! And he would've gotten away with it if it wasn't for those meddling kids." The actual fuck? Did they edit this at all?

I was expecting an absolutely gutting tragedy like the end of The Walking Dead Season 1. The beginning of Firewatch sets that up beautifully. But that ending is just...gah. "Well isn't it lucky that it was just some psycho in the woods messing with us, and all the incriminating evidence absolves both of us of wrongdoing? Sure is lucky those girls got caught stealing a tractor! Yesiree, no consequences at all! Now let's go back to our aimless, depressing lives and pretend nothing ever happened here." Fuck. That.

Seriously, this game feels half-finished to me. It skips like two months ahead, like it completely cuts out the second act of the story. I wanted more creeping paranoia as Henry and Delilah's budding, guilt-laced romance/friendship blossomed uncomfortably. I would've taken a tired, Fight Club "she doesn't really exist" twist over what we got. Instead, it just lurches ahead with the dead-kid-crazy-dad subplot that got increasingly transparent and ridiculous. And the main characters just...well, like you said, Randy, they unraveled. But I hate that. I hate being left hanging. I wanted to see a denouement like the beginning of the game where he does what Delilah says he should do, with corresponding degrees of fulfillment or tragedy. I want more Julia.

This "game" feels so half-baked, and its paper-thin gameplay, if you can call it that, just makes the crumbling plot all the more glaring.

RANDY KALISTA

There are two perfect endings they could've pulled off, gameplay-wise. (1) Doing exactly as they did, rolling credits as the helicopter takes off, or (2) giving us a PowerPoint-styled outro like the intro with a few more pivotal choices to make.

But man, I gotta tell you, the seemingly premature cut-to-black ending does great things. It forces me to think about Firewatch much, much more in these subsequent 24 hours since I've finished. Dovetails? They're great for stories. I'm all for 'em. But loose threads? Goddamn if those don't give me food for thought, too, when done well. And that's, of course, where you and I diverge, Sean, in whether Firewatch's loose ends were handled well—if you're fond of well-working loose ends, that is.

JEREMY DUFF

Actually, Ned [the “crazy dad” - ed] didn't set that high tech stuff up. The true explanation for that equipment can be found in the park. He just used what he found. All I am saying.

ROB LARKIN

As for Firewatch, given the reported length and spoilers above, I won't be playing it until it is on some serious PSN or Steam sale for a massive discount. Hearing the whole game can be played through in three or so hours, and given this story controversy, it's going to have be in the sub $10 range for me to take that plunge.

SEAN COLLELI

Sorry if I spoiled the story for you, Rob. But yeah, that was my main issue—$20 for a really brief game with a disappointing story. I would be less frustrated if it were $10 or even $5.

RANDY KALISTA

2016 will be defined by games like Firewatch. $20 is a steal.

ROB LARKIN

Does it have serious replay value?

I'd liken a game like this to going to see a motion picture. If it's a one-off story, then I'll happily pay $7 to $10 for that one-off. I'm happy to fork over eight bucks and see that latest Avengers, expecting a two-and-a-half-hour run time (I'm not talking other genres and their 90-minute run times; that's why God invented Netflix). The Hobbit and other epic trilogies will climb into that $20 range because it's two to three hours each episode, spread over three sessions. So, even if the game is double a major motion picture, then $10 to $15 is fine for five to six hours. But if your game is clocking in at three hours-ish and you're trebling that dollar to time cost….

RANDY KALISTA

If you equate the dollar value of a video game to the dollar value of a movie...then no? Firewatch is less about replay and more about impact. But it sounds like you've got a pretty solid mathematical equation working in your favor. If that's your metric, then I'd go with it and wait on a sale for Firewatch.

SEAN COLLELI

Randy, defined by games like Firewatch? Vanishingly brief, no replay value, pretentious? Dear God, I hope not. No, I'm looking forward to Deus Ex Mankind Divided, The Long Dark, No Man's Sky and Dishonored 2. Big, meaty, cerebral adventures that take dozens of hours to beat and really make me think. And of course there's Doom, which just looks like good plain fun.

Firewatch isn't terrible. I let my temper and disappointment get the best of me. It has a breathtaking first act, magnificent art direction, and a captivating setting. But I still maintain that for what it is, it's ultimately too short, too expensive, and narratively disappointing. My main issue is that it just does not stick the landing after starting so well, at least for my satisfaction.

RANDY KALISTA

I was able to separate the angry backlash from the legit disappointment, Sean. But sure, I'm quite serious about Firewatch being a defining game of 2016. It'll be defining if for no other reason than Jeremy and I will be talking about it at the end of the year when it's Game of the Year time.

When I look at the things it does—those exact same things you mention—then I can easily put it on my top shelf with The Walking Dead and Life Is Strange, two other titles that are high-water marks for adventure gaming.

It may be weird to try and neatly drop Firewatch into any one category. "Walking simulator" seems to be the closest, though that term is exclusively used as a pejorative. But it starts off as a freaking text adventure, of all things, and then rolls back and forth between point-and-click adventure, interactive fiction, and the aforementioned walking simulation.

But man, even when I look at the reductive, individual components of Firewatch? It's still hard for me to put many other adventure games ahead of it. The character development is insane; how could these not be real people? The intimacy of the voice acting feels like Henry and Delilah are in the same room together, not on walkie-talkies. Huh. Maybe that's what we could call this burgeoning genre: "walkie-talkies." The art style is indeed like hiking through an Olly Moss travel poster. The storybeats had me rubberbanding between alpha male chest pounding and looking-over-my-shoulder paranoia. The music punctuated the silence cautiously but with richly layered intent. The setting? I mean, it's in the Shoshone National Forest during the Yellowstone Fires of 1988. That's so poignant and specific that no other game will ever be able to touch that wildland anymore without people drawing a line directly back to Firewatch. And the story? The characters flirt with a doomed romance and manage to lose faith in one another as a wildfire burns everything else down around them. I mean, that's the stuff, right there.

Yep, Firewatch is short. It sure is. But it wouldn't have benefited one bit from shoehorning 10 more hours in there. It's cinematically paced. It's a short story, not some 15-book Wheel of Time series. And I ain't gonna lie: It's kinda nice being able to finish a game with the relatively few hours I can dedicate to gaming. It's no one's fault but mine that I keep buying 100-hour RPGs that I can't finish, but yeah. Seeing a piece of short fiction through to its conclusion feels good, man.

* * *

And that was that. Sean Colleli is too much of a gentleman to drag it out any further. He makes his points. So, while it looks like Randy Kalista gets the last word, he only technically gets the last word, because Sean tires of beating a dead horse sooner than Randy does. Jeremy Duff is so deeply affected by Firewatch that discussing it further won’t shake him one way or the other. And Rob Larkin still has Firewatch on his radar; he’s just waiting until it flies at a lower price on his radar.

Randy Kalista reads between the lines more in our (non-spoilery) review.

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