During the early days of Firewatch’s development, Washington-based indie studio Campo Santo made a point of speaking to real fire lookouts to get a sense of what it’s like to be stationed for months on the end, deep in a North American forest. “Why would you make a game out of this job?” some of their interviewees would say. “It’s the most boring job in the world.” And yet, despite that rather eye-opening reality check, the studio went away and created one of the most memorable games of this current generation.
Released back in 2016, Firewatch is many things – tense, intriguing, charming and a little frustrating – but it’s never, ever boring. It’s a walking simulator and proud of it, but it tells a very specific story about a very specific person as they attempt to cope with the heartbreaking truths that are defining their very specific life. It’s heartfelt, silly, unsettling and beguiling all in the space of its roughly six hours of story. It’s not perfect, and there are some noticeable technical sacrifices to justify its existence on Switch, but it’s no less essential.
The poignancy of Firewatch’s story is best enjoyed from start to finish on your own terms, so we won’t reveal the details of what drives main character Henry to take a fire lookout job at Shoshone National Forest in the northwest of Wyoming. However, we will say that even through a simple series of text-based screens in its prologue, Campo Santo manages to swiftly invest you in a story that tackles a subject we’ve never really seen in games before, deftly pulling at your heartstrings without too much cliche.
Henry takes the job to escape, but time hasn’t ground to a halt outside of the forest’s edge, and Firewatch sees him faced with unravelling a mystery amid the trees, rocks and rivers while coming to terms with the painful truths about himself and his loved ones. It also happens to be 1989, and with the worst forest fires in Yellowstone’s history having only occurred one year prior, the job of sitting in a tower and looking out for any smoke among the ferns becomes a very real responsibility.
The joy of Firewatch is how effortlessly it mingles the mundane and the mysterious into one immersive package. You’ll head down to a lake to discourage some drunken teens from setting off fireworks, collecting cans of beer and picking up supplies from cache boxes, but then stumble on some increasingly strange sites in the woods. Who is that stranger roaming the forests at night, and why is there a secret government facility in the middle of nowhere? The game never strays into survival horror territory, but it effectively uses its sense of isolation to create moments of palpable tension.
However, it’s the game’s script and the chemistry between Henry and Delilah – the lookout in another watchtower who serves as his disembodied guide – that keeps the story’s heart beating so fiercely. Connected to Henry via chunky walkie-talkie, the dialogue that’s exchanged by actors Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones is delivered so naturally and with so much subtle nuance that you really begin to invest in the unconventional friendship that blooms between them. Even with its branching dialogue choices, Henry is still snarky and snappy while Delilah hides her vulnerability behind sarcasm. As the two warm to one another, you get a real sense of the palpable character development at play.
As a port, Firewatch on Nintendo Switch is actually a lot smoother and far less choppy than the versions that appeared on PC and other consoles over two years ago. The original version had a tendency to chug or suffer moments of inopportune slowdown, and while it didn’t spoil the memorable storytelling the game presented, it did take off a little bit of its shine. There’s still the occasional bit of chug here – especially if you’re sprinting through the forest while playing in handheld mode – but for the most part, this portable iteration of Firewatch has been nicely optimised. There’s some pop-in and a little reduction in asset quality here and there, but this is, nevertheless, the full game in all its late ’80s glory. Loading times can take a little too long in places, but it’s not a deal breaker.
The Nintendo Switch port also benefits from the game’s September 2016 update, which patched in an audio commentary mode not too dissimilar to the one used in fellow walking simulator, Gone Home. Across the park, Henry will come across lots of stations containing cassette tapes. Via your very ’80s Walkman, you’ll get to hear (and see via some notice-boards adorned with concept art) some of the stories behind certain areas in the game, including building tension through the poignant soundtrack and how certain seemingly inconsequential sections caused Campo Santo serious developmental headaches. It’s the kind of extra that’s perfectly suited to this kind of game, and it really adds to a second playthrough.
It really doesn’t matter that Firewatch came out over two and a half years ago, because it’s just as engrossing and enchanting as it was the first time around. From the warm glow of its forests in the morning summer light to the subtle tension of exploring a rocky gorge in the isolating silence of night, Shoshone National Forest is a character in its own right. With a story that’s both funny and heartbreaking – and enhanced by some brilliant performances by its two central actors – this is an essential purchase, irrespective of whether you're playing it for the first time on Switch or simply using it as an excuse to revisit an old favourite.