Firewatch Review (Switch): The Meaning in Nothing
It’s 1989 in Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming, as Henry starts his first day in Firewatch. Over the next 3 months he’ll be alone, in a Watchtower and reporting any forest fires burning on the horizon. As Firewatch members are alone in the wilderness, people come here to escape problems in their life. For Henry, his wife Julia has dementia.
The game starts with a beautiful (and very retro) text based section. Here, you’re introduced to Henry and Julia in an incredibly charming way. For example, we’re shown the first night they meet and even follow them for years afterwards. As a result, it’s heartbreaking when Julia deteriorates in front of our, and Henry’s eyes. The opening is emotional and doesn’t hold any punches, especially as you make some extremely tough decisions along the way.
But soon after arriving in Shoshone, Henry uncovers a long forgotten mystery hidden in the hills. You spend most of the game solving this mystery, walking around the forest and talking with your boss Delilah over Walkie Talkie. Overall, as with the introduction, the narrative was exceptional. The voice acting for Henry and Delilah was a personal highlight, as they felt like regular people you’d meet in everyday life. Admittedly, there were a few cringey lines where the developers tried too hard to create ‘banter’, but this was only an issue a handful of times.
In the first hour of gameplay, I enjoyed how mundane everything was. You stop teenagers from setting off fireworks and carry out your daily duties. It was a nice contrast to the second half of the game where you discover a government research facility and realise you’re being watched. At this point my imagination ran wild. I was constantly looking behind me, convinced I was being followed.
Unfortunately though, the game ends soon after hitting its stride. The conclusion is revealed and the reason behind everything is quite bland. As the mystery is so gripping, it’s dissapointing that there was no pay-off. You’re left wanting more and for everything to be rounded off. For example, a text based prologue where Henry is reunited with Julia would have been great. Having a similar ending to the introduction would not only have the same emotional weight, but it would bookend the game perfectly.
“I was invested in these characters and it’s frustrating that everything we did together meant nothing.”
I’m baffled that the game ends here. And how none of your decisions matter. Nothing you do has any consequence which makes the entire experience arguably pointless. Part of me thinks this is intentional as some form of high brow commentary on the futility of life. (After all, a summer in a Wyoming forest was never going to be as life changing as Henry thought). Personally though, and while I do appreciate ambiguity in storytelling, I would rather have left my mark on Henry’s life. I was invested in these characters and it’s frustrating that everything we did together meant nothing.
It’s a shame that the ending sours the overall experience as everything else is exceptional. For one, the art direction is stunning. It encourages you to slow down and simply admire what’s on show. Taking photos like you’re an explorer documenting wildlife is definitely a strong selling point.
You even get an in-game camera for this very reason, but all of your pictures are meaningless. I honestly thought they would be used as evidence to validate Henry’s side of the story. This would have led to an amazing reveal when Henry is arrested because you forgot to take photos at a crucial moment. There are even hints that Henry could be framed throughout the game, but they too meant nothing.
If you are thinking about playing Firewatch, I’d hold off on the Switch version. I know that playing this adventure in handheld mode is hard to resist, but there was constant popping of the environment across my playthrough. Things were much worse when sprinting. The game struggled to keep up and the frame rate dropped – a lot. It’s surprising considering how small Firewatch is and how bigger games, like the Witcher 3, are more efficiently optimised. What happened during the porting process is unclear, but the poor performance significantly hinders the game.
Firewatch Review – Final Thoughts
Firewatch is an outstanding narrative experience, 90% of the time. The intriguing mystery and beautiful landscape will have you hooked, but ultimately the bland conclusion ruins the experience. It ends with so many questions that will never be answered. We’ll never know what came of Henry, Julia and Delilah, or if anything changed after our summer together.
And that’s the frustrating thing about Firewatch. It lures you in with it’s beautiful world, believable characters and outstanding script, but provides no pay off. All of the endings I imagine will be of my own creation as there’s nothing to suggest otherwise. Firewatch ends, the credits roll and we move on. And maybe that’s the point.
In the end, after we did everything right, none of it even mattered. I really hope this isn’t true, but like with most things in Firewatch, I’ll never really know.
Thanks for reading my Firewatch Review.