Justin Keever | Feb 9 2016
Firewatch is a game about escaping from loss. Its central claim is that media gives us a way to remove ourselves from the problems in our real lives, and that using media in that way is unhealthy. It calls attention to the ephemeral nature of our relationships to fictional characters, insisting that we must return to the real, for our own sakes. It does this all in its final 5 minutes. I’d be impressed, if the rest of this game weren’t a paranoia thriller.
Firewatch pulls a trick that lots of first-person walkers seem to pull: it dons the guise of genre fiction, only to pull away in the last minute in a calculated anti-climax, only to claim that something far simpler and more tragic is going on. This is a trick that Gone Home pulled off fairly well, because it never actually pretended to be a horror game: it simply gestured to the genre while fulfilling its intended purpose as a teen melodrama. What Firewatch does is make the same mistake as Ether One: it buries itself within a genre only to emerge from it in its waning minutes, undoing its own narrative momentum and just kind of stopping. What gives Firewatch a leg up over Ether One is that Ether One’s anti-twist pulls the game out of science fiction and into a doctor’s office: the leap to reality feels absurd and unearned. Firewatch’s anti-twist feels slightly less ludicrous by comparison, and is clearly in service of the game’s central metaphor. Escaping consequences is destructive, it says. And yet the twist still doesn’t quite work, and the metaphor doesn’t quite land. The game’s transition from relationship melodrama to paranoia thriller is slow and deliberate; its quick conversion back again seems rushed and wholly inadequate. There is a better version of Firewatch that either commits to being a thriller or dispenses with that plot altogether, where Henry’s relationship with Julia and Delilah remains the game’s focus until the credits roll. What we have feels like a weird hybrid of the two.