Firewatch Review: A Beautiful Experience Scarred by Performance Issues

I played the entirety of this game on Xbox One. I cannot speak from experience about how well it may perform on other platforms. This is my first review in some time. I’ll get better. Please provide feedback.

Firewatch was developed by Campo Santo, an independent studio in San Francisco staffed by talented industry veterans whose resumes feature other works such as The Walking Dead by Telltale, Brutal Legend, The Godfather, and Ori and the Blind Forest to name a few. While the game is visually stunning and very well written, it is marred by frequent framerate issues.

The game begins with you, Henry, in a bar. You approach a girl and are prompted to make decisions about your interaction with her, and beyond that, your relationship with her going forward. The decisions start off light and fun, taking on a serious tone as the sequence progresses. After a few minutes you find yourself signing up for a summer in the wilderness of Wyoming as a firewatch. Upon arriving and finding your lookout tower you’re greeted by a lady named Delilah.

Delilah seems nice enough. She likes to talk, giving the impression she’s been alone out here for a long time. On more than one occasion she mentions rangers that pass through, but obviously not often enough as she is clearly deprived of attention. The first few days are spent playing 20 questions with her as she tries to figure out why you’re here. She knows nobody signs up to spend a summer as a lookout for fun. People are here because they’re running from something, herself included.

“More than once I found myself staring out of the tower while we discussed some heinous things.”

Something I immediately took notice of was the contrast between the scenery and relationships. Delilah or Henry may share a dark story about their past which is followed by a beautiful view from the tower, or a trek through the woods. More than once I found myself staring out of the tower while we discussed some heinous things. I wasn’t sure how to feel. Elated by the view or sad because of the conversation. I often found myself ignoring Delilah and going for walks so that I could take in the scenery and forget about our dark pasts for a while.

Speaking of scenery, I think you could take any still from the game, hang it on your wall, and it would be a standout piece in your collection. The team have created a striking aesthetic that wouldn’t be out of place in the mid 20th century. They’ve used simple shapes and palettes to great effect. By using this style, they’re able to use the scenery to tell a story and it works wonderfully.

A dark cloud in the distance is easy to discern from blue sky and mountains. You know immediately a storm is approaching. Flames and smoke set against trees and mountains immediately convey an ominous tone. Something is in this forest that should not be. Even with the implied destruction in the distance, I couldn’t help but be moved by it. Even in its simplicity, the art can tell so many stories.

Image Courtesy of Campo Santo and Firewatch
Points of interest

As you walk around the forest you’re able to interact on a very basic level with stash boxes, various items around campfires, and a few tools. The boxes are handy storage locations where rope, letters, and other useful things can be found throughout the story. There isn’t a lot of interaction, but what is there is meaningful or useful in moving the story forward. No action seems wasted. You also have access to a compass and map. Opening stash boxes around the world allows you to update your map with points of interest.

I experienced frame rate and stability issues from beginning to end. My problems started on the title screen. The first 4 or 5 times I loaded the game and tried to start a new story, the title screen locked up and never corrected itself. I restarted the game multiple times, ultimately uninstalling and reinstalling which fixed the issue. Once I moved past that, there were issues with stutter while walking around the world. It wasn’t enough to take me out of the experience, but it occurred often enough to be annoying.

While I love the look of Firewatch, the story is what drew me in. Have you ever met a stranger at a bus or train station, or maybe a coffee shop, and had a conversation? In most cases it’s a few short words and you part ways. But sometimes there’s something more. Sometimes you strike up a conversation with someone and you lose track of time, as if you’re in a sealed capsule while the world rushes by. Maybe you’re both interested in the same things. Maybe you’re sharing stories about wives or children.

Whatever the topic, you spend that moment in time together completely tuning out what is happening around you. At some point the conversation comes to a conclusion and you part ways. More often than not I’ve focused and hung on every word this person has said to the point where breaking that focus leaves me in a bit of a daze. I’ve been so in tune with, and paid so much attention to this person that I’ve become oblivious to my surroundings and need a moment to adjust.

Immediately after the conversation I wonder if we’ll ever meet again. Weeks, months, and sometimes years later I will remember a person and wonder where they are. What are they doing? Did they ever get back with their ex? Did their daughter get into the college she applied to? I didn’t know the person and may never meet them again, but I am forever a part of their life, and them, mine. This person and I shared a brief moment, a blip on the timeline that defines our lives on this planet

This is similar to how I felt at the end of Firewatch. Our capsule was the Wyoming forest. We spent an entire summer in that capsule learning about one another and working together. Outside of that capsule nothing mattered. In the end I was left dazed. I focused on her for so long that when it came time to exit that capsule I was taken aback and left confused and wanting more.

Through the early choices regarding Henry and his relationship, Campo Santo allowed me to take ownership of Henry’s story in a very real way. I got to know Delilah and she got to know me. What I came to appreciate after finishing the game is that all of this was achieved with dialogue I didn’t write. None of these words were mine and I think that goes a long way in speaking to how good the studio are at writing and direction.

I think the game is very much a story of discovery, regret, and in some ways, redemption. This is an experience I’ve not had since Gone Home or Dear Esther. It isn’t often a game causes me to be introspective to this degree. If you’re going to spend time looking inward and getting to know someone, you can’t go wrong with Firewatch as a beautiful backdrop.

PushStartPlay.com

For a very short time I wrote news releases for Push-Start Play. If I remember correctly, one of the administrators was familiar with my featured stories on Bitmob and reached out to me. Unfortunately my schedule at the time didn’t allow for much work to be done. I did learn a lot about how websites and content creation/distribution work in the industry.

Below are links to a few of the stories I posted for them.

Good Old Oldie

Must Have Mods: Skyrim

Toy Soldiers Receives PC Certification, Cold War gets Evil Empire DLC

Jordan Mechner Talks To The PA Report

Valve and Nexon Announce Counter-Strike Online 2 for Asian Markets

Sword and Sworcery EP coming to Mac and PC

 

When video games are more than just games

Here’s another story I had featured on the front page of Bitmob. There were editing mistakes made by the administrator, along with some of my own. With this story, again, there was a lot of heart behind it, but I was in that phase where I thought I needed to be dramatic to sell the story. I know now that isn’t always the case, if ever.

If I had an idea for a story, I put it together and published it as quick as possible, which looking back is easy to see. Some of the writing I did is rushed and not very well thought out. I think that’s a shame because there are some good story ideas that could have been better had I spent more time on them.

 

Transcending the Interactive Experience

Worth The Wait: Midnight Release Lines

Several years ago I was an active member of the Bitmob community. The website would feature stories written by community members. I was fortunate to have several stories featured on the front page. Bitmob was later purchased by VentureBeat.

It took me a while to learn that if you write and speak from the heart, you don’t need to fill your story with superlatives. Several of the things I wrote and now look back on make me cringe. I’m sure anyone who writes for a living has had the same experience. Having said that, for all of the effort I put into making my stories look professional on the outside (for better or worse), there was always heart and passion on the inside.

Worth The Wait: Midnight Release Lines

Interview with CJ Cowan

CJ started at Bungie in 2003 as a cinematic director on Halo 2. He left the company in 2016 after serving as the story creative lead on Destiny. This question and answer took place in 2005. The questions were emailed to him all at once, so I was unable to play off of his responses and delve further into his answers. That was equal parts the terms of the deal and a rookie mistake.

I was 19 at the time. This was my first question and answer with someone working in the video game industry. I am fully aware that the last question was and is terrible form. I apologize.

 
CJ Cowan Q&A: 2005