Critical Play: Firewatch — Nadin


Firewatch is a walking simulator game developed by Campo Santo. It’s available for several different platforms including PC, Mac, and Linux, although I played in handheld mode on my Nintendo Switch. It’s a single-player mystery where the player explores a Wyoming national park while being given more background on the main character, Henry. I would say that the target audience is teens and older since the game deals with some serious content, such as early-onset dementia.

Formal Elements + Types of Fun

Firewatch is a game where the single player plays against the game, and the goal of the game is to complete the entire quest / unlock the whole storyline. You play as Henry, a middle-aged man whose wife develops early-onset dementia and who decides to work in a Wyoming national park for the summer. Gameplay proceeds entirely from a first-person point of view and proceeds mainly in two different ways: Firstly, you explore the national park by walking around and exploring the wilderness while trying to figure out what is happening. Second, you talk to your supervisor, Delilah, over a walkie-talkie and get different dialogue options that affect how your relationship with her develops.

Firewatch is played from a first-person point of view.
The primary type of fun that Firewatch provides is Narrative: the player becomes invested in the story (both in Henry’s and his wife Julia’s, and the story of what’s happening in the national park, although I didn’t play far enough to unlock much of that). However, there is also some element of Discovery since the player can freely explore the park and look around in the wilderness to see what they find.
Firewatch does a lot of environmental storytelling by developing the story through evidence that Henry finds while he explores the national park. For example, one of the very first quests was to figure out who is setting off fireworks near one of the lakes in the park (since fireworks are prohibited because of the risk of forest fires). As I walked towards the lake, I found several beer cans, a pack of fireworks, as well as sets of clothes/underwear, which allowed me to piece together that people were drunkenly skinny dipping in the lake without having to be told this explicitly.

My Impressions

What Works

  • The graphics are beautiful: Mainly, the game is just very pretty! All of the nature scenes are done very well and it was pretty enjoyable to look around at the trees and at the sky as I walked around 🙂
  • The backstory is interesting: I found myself very invested in the backstory of Henry and his wife Julia, even though it wasn’t delivered in the most exciting way (mainly just text that you click through, while occasionally making choices about dialogue/actions — although these choices didn’t feel very consequential so I wonder how much they actually affected gameplay). I think the story was written very beautifully and the characters were fleshed out well even though I didn’t get that much time to read about them.

What Could Be Improved

I was surprised to find that I actually didn’t enjoy Firewatch very much, overall — I played for around 45 minutes before giving up and deciding to do something else instead because I wasn’t really having fun. I think this lack of enjoyment on my part stems from a few different reasons:

  • The controls aren’t intuitive: I don’t know whether this was just because I was playing on the Switch, and Firewatch maybe wasn’t originally designed as a console game, but the entire mechanic of pressing/letting go of ZL and ZR to select and confirm dialogue options felt incredibly clunky and I struggled with it every single time. I think it would have been much easier to have the dialogue controls be similar to other Switch games (e.g. using the joystick to switch between options and pressing A to confirm).
  • Gameplay felt too constrained: I didn’t feel like I had enough freedom in my exploration, especially for a game we’re calling a walking simulator. I’m unsure if this was just because the parts that I played were the tutorial for the game, but I felt like I was constantly being dragged between being given backstory through text on a screen, and having to walk to the next part for the storyline. One epic fail that I particularly remember was that I was just starting to get into the game (i.e. picking up different objects, seeing what I could do, etc.) when the game suddenly moved on to the next part and I was taken to another loading screen completely unexpectedly.
  • I was honestly just confused: I’m not a very outdoorsy person in real life, so I found the whole experience kind of frustrating (although vaguely realistic). I didn’t feel like the game gave me enough guidance on what to do — trying to read the in-game map was confusing and I found myself wandering off in the wrong direction multiple times, which didn’t feel productive, especially since there weren’t many interesting things to explore (in contrast, I am a huge fan of Zelda BOTW because every nook and cranny has something interesting to find, even if I don’t go in the “right” direction for the quest). Occasionally, I also noticed myself walking somewhere in between cut-scenes for no real reason (or so it seemed to me?). Overall, I think I was just confused about what was happening in the game more often than I would like, and I wish there had been some clearer exposition/guidance.

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