PC, Mac, PS4
If I had to pick one of Firewatch's half-dozen or so fantastic ideas and apply it to gaming in general, it's the notion that "open-world" doesn't have to mean "enormous world". Firewatch takes place in a square of gorgeously rendered North American wilderness, where summer seems baked into the very earth. You can traverse the map at a walking speed in about fifteen minutes, and experience everything the game has to offer within five hours.
Yet Firewatch does a fantastic job of convincing you this self-contained landscape is vast, isolated and wild. The rugged, complex terrain requires your devoted attention to navigate, and it's incredibly easy to become, if not lost, then certainly disoriented. I've played plenty of walking simulators over the last five years, but this is gaming's first purpose-built hiking simulator, where the landscape is more than an accompaniment to a verbose monologue. It is a challenge in itself. Not a particularly stern challenge, but its rocky gorges and dense woodland provides just enough of an obstacle to facilitate Firewatch's intriguing approach to storytelling.
Firewatch places you in the boots of a man named Henry, who takes a job as a fire lookout in the Two Forks region of Wyoming, out of a desire to escape his old life in Boulder, Colorado which has been slowly falling apart over several years. Rather than gradually reveal the specifics of Henry's background as I expected. Firewatch front-ends Henry's past, narrating it by text as Henry approaches his watchtower, and letting you choose certain events from it, such as what kind of dog he used to own.
I'm avoiding too many specifics because the reasons behind Henry's desire for isolation are not what I anticipated, and your judgement of him will depend on how sympathetic you are toward his reasons for desiring isolation. This isn't the only time Firewatch subverted my expectations of it either. For the most part this is a good thing, but not completely, which we'll get into soon enough.
Upon arrival at his watchtower, Henry is immediately contacted by Delilah, a veteran fire-lookout who occupies the tower North of Henry's. The two communicate frequently over radio, and the game is primarily about the relationship between them. Initially, Delilah takes a boss/mentor role, instructing Henry in his duties and sending him out on jobs, such as to investigate someone setting fireworks at the lake near Henry's tower.
Henry's first foray out of the tower is an amusing little escapade that sets the tone for the first third of the game. Henry constantly jumps at shadows while Delilah quietly reassures him that it's Just The Forest. When Henry encounters a stranger in the dark, for example, Delilah remarks that it's "part of the fun."