IGN First this month explores a small number of exceptional upcoming games, and we’re debuting with a deep look at Campo Santo’s unique and beautiful Firewatch. After revealing the premise of Firewatch a year ago, and exploring its promise at PAX later in 2014, Campo Santo is finally realizing its vision.
The first-person adventure game is about exploration, both when it comes to the beautiful Wyoming wilderness and its troubled protagonists’ personalities — and it’s one of the most intelligent, interesting games I’ve seen.
Firewatch focuses on flawed individuals: A fire lookout rookie named Henry, and his boss, Delilah. Henry is isolated in the wilderness while his marriage withers. Delilah makes questionable relationship decisions. Both characters have run afoul with alcohol, and are prone to believable shifts in attitude, up and down, based on how they speak with each other.
Tense, terse interactions obliterate the levity of previous scenes in a convincing, sobering way. An on-point joke could alleviate earlier stress. These dialogue choices don’t dictate the outcome of Henry’s story so much as cement a tone in his relationship with Delilah. Firewatch is mature, in the grown-up sense. These people barely know each other on Henry’s first day as a lookout, and they navigate each others’ emotions as high-strung, worn-out, middle-aged adults would.
Your approach to those scenarios creates the building blocks of their relationship all while exploring their personalities. Indulge Delilah’s insufferable puns and you’ll see Henry’s sardonic, self-aware side come out. Reject it, and Henry may feel like a bitter, joyless man. Maybe he is. It’s up to you. However each engagement ended, I always believed in the moments that led Henry there. With confidence, Campo Santo has created grounded, regular, imperfect people, and they are an incredibly strong emotional anchor for Firewatch’s intriguing mystery story.
Campo Santo has created grounded, regular, imperfect people.
In what we’ve seen of Firewatch so far, they engage exclusively via radio, which players can use at nearly any time. Delilah busts Henry’s balls, and Henry messes with Delilah, but it’s clear both of them are hiding something. Or a lot of things. Delilah’s apparent ambivalence toward some of Henry’s concerns in the forest make me wonder if she knows more than she’s letting on. That, or she’s been a lookout too long to care about the summer-job dread from a newcomer like Henry.
This mistrust taints everything. When Henry discovers someone in the woodland shadows looking at him, or finds his watchtower trashed by a mysterious vandal, it’s difficult to believe everything Delilah says. I buy into Henry as a person, even though he can be crass, or a curmudgeon, and that empathy makes me want to see which dark, strange places his summer goes.
“The goal is to just make that relationship feel as natural as possible,” Campo Santo Co-Founder Sean Vanaman told IGN. “The game is listening for quiet time, so if nothing is said for 20 seconds or so, Delilah will call you with a character moment.” You can engage or ignore however you deem appropriate.
Vanaman wants each player’s experience to feel completely natural, with the potential to turn out different from each other. The conversations Henry and Delilah have during those moments can create distinct inside jokes during your play through that I may never experience. It may also explore more of someone’s personality — good and bad.
The context of some of those conversations may change throughout Henry’s summer. As time passes, his and Delilah’s relationship becomes more complicated. Depending on when Henry discovers certain locations, Delilah’s responses will differ. By the end of the game, their relationship is “completely different,” and how they respond to each others’ inquiries will adjust accordingly.
I love everything Campo Santo is doing with its characters, exploration, conversation. Vanaman’s writing is sharp, convincing, and seriously funny. Firewatch is certainly a drama in tone, but the moments of levity lends the characters credibility — they’re not stiff, typical video game archetypes. I want to explore the forest Henry’s supposed to protect, if only because every inch is an opportunity to discover more about the fascinating, flawed humans at the center of it all.
Mitch Dyer is an Editor at IGN. He hosts IGN Arena, a podcast about MOBAs. Talk to Mitch about Dota 2, movies, books, and other stuff on Twitter at @MitchyD and subscribe to MitchyD on Twitch.