It’s lonely in the wilderness. All the more so when the only people you encounter lack the respect for the environment that you dearly cherish, instead littering at will, playing loud music, and even ransacking your watch tower for vandal kicks. For such a remote location, there’s little want for drama in this sun-parched region of Wyoming.
Nor fireworks, apparently. Our first order of business during the time we spend with an early build of Firewatch is to investigate rumours of that most virulent of complications: youths. Yeah, you know them, unkempt dealers of disorder, so they are. We’re told over the radio by our supervisor, Delilah, that a murder of free-spirited ne’er-do-wells are launching rockets amidst the dry, crispy woodstuff that makes up the forest we’ve been entrusted to protect. So, after a small bit of a hiccough during an abseil (hey, it’s a relatively new job, okay?), we set off.
What’s most striking (apart from our newfound desire to guard against forest fires) is how good the controls feel. From a glance, the game resembles the subgenre of first-person games derisively labelled ‘walking simulators’ by the terminally unimaginative. But while Campo Santo’s narrative focus and menacing undertones recall the likes of Dear Esther and Gone Home (no bad thing, may we stress), it boasts the kind of chunky feedback you’d expect from something more action led.
Don’t expect to parkour your way through all the crevices and ravines, though – Firewatch is all about drinking in the atmosphere, the environment, and the objects within it. When we reach the source of the fireworks we find a smouldering campfire strewn with empty beer bottles, some posh-looking whisky, and a bra dangling unceremoniously over a branch. You can pick up and examine most objects, and every time you do there’s the opportunity to radio in to Delilah and report your findings and progress.
But it’s far from the binary system that this might suggest: Campo Santo has worked hard to finesse the way you navigate dialogue trees. On our controller that entails holding the left trigger to bring up a selection of actions or responses, and then cycling through them with a few quick squeezes of the right trigger. Release the left trigger at this point, and you’ll make your selection. It’s an elegant and clever system that prevents any break in your immersion by functioning as an unobtrusive overlay that neither pauses the game nor prevents you from continuing to explore while you ponder your retort.
And you’ll certainly want to take some time to think about what you’re going to say, as Delilah’s opinion of you will change according to the way you behave and the manner with which you handle situations. For example, once we follow the breadcrumb trail of underwear down to a lake, we discover two teenagers skinny dipping near a small island at its centre, the devil’s rock music blaring from a boombox on the shore. They dash out of sight as we shout over some gentle but sage advice on the relative merits of launching rocket-propelled explosives in what is essentially acres of kindling, but their dismissive response does little to convince us of any contrition. They could just be uncomfortable at being undressed in the presence of a stranger; this is understandable. But we do what any reasonable person would in our shoes: toss their stereo into the water and walk away while yelling that we hope they drown.
Of course, it didn’t have to go that way, and we could have been more polite and reasonable about the whole thing. But Firewatch’s willingness to let you express yourself in a way that you choose – and the brilliantly funny and warm dialogue that goes with that – is a big part of its draw. We can’t wait to unravel the deeper mystery at the core of the game, but more exciting than that is finding out how the human relationships at its centre play out.