Following on from Cibelle in my reviews, here’s another game that doesn’t offer much of a challenge and chooses to focus on story. It seems unfair to put the two together though: while Cibelle offers almost no gameplay, Firewatch is built on it. Campo Santo use the first person view coupled with some chunky animations to put you into the headspace of the character in a way that few games achieve. I’ve been a huge fan of Idle Thumbs, the podcast produced by Campo Santo members, for a long time, so I’m quite biased towards them, and it’s no surprise that I loved this game.
On recommendation from various sources, I played with the in-game navigation aid turned off. That leaves you with a map but no pointer to where you are, forcing you to learn the forest and navigate by landmarks. While not to everyone’s taste, this feature made the game for me: I knew my way around some parts of the forest perfectly, a little like a ranger might. When I went into unfamiliar places, I got lost, and when I found my way out I felt relief. At one point the story pushed me to run in a new direction and I barrelled headfirst into a completely new bit of woodland. As the adrenaline wore off i found myself utterly confused and unable to find a landmark. This kind of experience is impossible to find in any game that includes the classic map that we’ve come to expect. This collision of gameplay and story was wonderful.
The story is told through radio contact with another ranger. That alone could be a boring twist on audio logs, but the developers have managed to make the conversations interactive and interesting. Overall, the story pieces are a pleasantly light touch: a significant portion of the game is spent playing on your isolation. It’s not the isolation you find in System Shock 2, however - this time it’s your choice to be out in the forest, and that puts a whole new spin on it. As the plot thickens, the fire rages across the forest, marking time with a blackening sky.
I’m hard pressed to find bad things to say about Firewatch. It is short, and I wanted more, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be left hungry by art. This game demonstrates that gameplay is not directly tied to challenge and difficulty, but is instead a function of player controls and art. It’s a must for anyone who cares about games as a medium.