I bought Firewatch a few months ago when it went on sale. I’d been really looking forward to the game before it came out because I loved all of the promotional art, and I was hoping that it might deliver a gaming experience that matched that obviously high level of design.
However, the initial reviews were a bit lukewarm, so I didn’t pick it up immediately when it came out. When I did finally buy it, it sat on my PS4 unplayed for a few months because I have more games than I have time to play them. (This is also true about books, movies and TV shows, much to my annoyance; if I could freeze time, I’d use my powers to catch up on pop culture.)
I finally played through the game a few weeks ago, and I can definitely see why the reactions were so mixed. It’s gorgeous to look at, and it’s am ambitious hybrid of storytelling and interaction, but unfortunately all of that good work is undermined by flawed storytelling. I’m going to go into nitty-gritty spoilers here, so if you care about such things, now is the time to stop reading.
One of the best parts about Firewatch is its text-only intro sequence, where you learn the fate of the main character, Henry’s, wife. This intro sets the tone perfectly, and was more than enough to get me misty-eyed and invested in the story.
After that emotional gut-punch, the first few chapters of the game are imbued with a melancholic nostalgia that slowly but surely develops into dread. It feels obvious that something terrible is going to happen during Henry’s long summer in Wyoming. When he stumbles upon teenage girls drinking and swimming in a lake, it is only inevitable that they will disappear under mysterious circumstances.
This mystery is the driving force of Firewatch for a long time, and when more strange things start happening in the forest, it starts to seem like everything is connected. People are disappearing and the government may be conducting bizarre experiments on Henry and Delilah, his supervisor.
Before long, Firewatch starts feeling a bit overstuffed with mysteries, but it doesn’t fatally stumble until the truth is revealed. It turns out that the missing teenage girls have nothing to do with the strange events in the forest. In fact, their story is resolved with a single throwaway line, i.e. “Those girls are fine, they just ran off somewhere and stole a car. Don’t worry about it!”
The reason this feels like such a cheat is that it doesn’t deliver on the promises of the first act. The girls are made to seem significant when they’re actually just a red herring, resolved almost as an afterthought. The last act of the story focuses on another mystery entirely, but we don’t have the same emotional investment in that story because it is overshadowed by the missing girls for such a long time.
It actually reminded me a lot of the last act of LA Noire, which resorts to an even more ham-handed bait-and-switch when you suddenly start playing as a completely new character. LA Noire had a lot of other problems that the final act only compounded, but Firewatch was actually a pretty decent game until it completely whiffed the ending. When a game is almost entirely about the story, that is definitely a fatal flaw.
I think the biggest problem is the way the reveal is handled. If Henry discovered what happened to the girls on his own, it might have been okay for them to be nothing but misdirection. Instead, resolving that seemingly giant mystery with a single off-handed line of dialogue made the whole thing feel rushed and underwhelming.
It’s a huge shame, too, because there is still so much to like about Firewatch. I’m definitely in favor of the recent trend towards story-driven games, I just want them to get the same level of care that writers give to other mediums. Story can’t be an afterthought in the world of “interactive fiction”.