When Maps Come Alive: ‘Firewatch’ Never Feels Fenced In

Firewatch

Firewatch is an adventure mystery game from new developer Campo Santo. This article will not spoil any plot points for the game, so read at your leisure. Then take a gander at Nik’s past Twitch stream!

Self-described as “small but scrappy,” the Campo Santo studio is definitely one to watch. Firewatch deals a heavy emotional hand to the player, acting as the first-person perspective of Henry, the fire lookout protagonist, and his sole interactions with another lookout, Delilah, whose relationship with Henry is filtered through the use of a radio while on duty in the Wyoming wilderness. Characterization and dialogue are superb, yet it is the level design and map that absolutely excels. I wouldn’t have considered Firewatch if my friend hadn’t suggested it to me after Oxenfree, so tiny shoutout to her!

While watching the E3 trailer, the one thing that really grabbed me was the map. After all those colors, the witty dialogue, and that cliffhanger, the deciding moment for me was, “Holy moly. We’re using an actual map with an actual compass!” In an almost ubiquitous trend in games, the map is usually tucked into a corner or a separate screen the player has to toggle on and off, perhaps revealed as the player explores any given level. Useful and efficient, yes, but realistic and intriguing, no.

In Firewatch, the map is fluidly flipped up by Henry’s square hands, given a shake to help it stay rigid, and can be zoomed in on to check features and paths. The player can lower the map and jog about, flipping it back up if need be, and the map and compass can be visible either simultaneously or independently—one in Henry’s left hand, the other in his right. The compass is a standard issue one, spinning as Henry turns to face different directions. There is no option to place helpful markers down or an illuminated path directing you to your objective as you walk on this map. The player has to navigate the area to progress both their understanding of the setting and Henry’s skillset, just as would be required in reality, and that feels so authentic and organic.

Firewatch

Information gathered from supply caches and plot points are added or rectified in Henry’s pen or pencil scrawl—a personal and dynamic touch. The names of certain features are only revealed in optional conversations with Delilah or are dependent of the statements that Henry chooses to say. This map mechanic is both a refreshing change to moving unthinkingly from point A to point B, and a stellar complement to Henry’s excursion into the Shoshone Valley.

With a map and compass, its uses are very much grounded in reality, and getting lost could be easily done and easily forgiven. I’ve watched a few Let’s Players confidently go careening off in the wrong direction, which would have been painful to view in any other game. But getting lost in Firewatch gleans all sorts of stunning vistas. Mellow aspen groves with sunlight percolating through the branches of what Delilah informs Henry is a one root organism. A gap in the rocky boundaries flaunts a precarious cliff overlooking dark conifer forests and mountains, the tops of each jabbing into warm-toned blues of the cloudy morning sky. Stumbling across a natural rock bridge provides a visual double whammy in either aspect you choose to face; looking into the sun gleaming across the crude cuboids forming the canyon or casting Henry’s shadow into the paintbrush streak of pale blue-grey water underneath you.

It’s a lot to pack into a comparatively small map and limited locations, but crucially, Firewatch does not feel fenced in. Part of this is due to the whole map being available. I’m sure others have felt the frustration of gallivanting off into a dark corner of the map in hopes of ‘something cool,’ but have smacked straight into the steep edges of the level or a dead end. The other part is the seamless and structured environment of the world. Its artistic insight ensures that the research and memories of the developers have been to put to good use, designing a map that seems as alive as the forests it mimics.

The different segments of the Shoshone Valley are not cut and pasted, like gluing in a rock pile where the player needs cover for example. This is a biome and it has discernible structure—there’s fallen trees, dead things returning to the earth once again, grasslands and meadows where woodland would not survive. The terrain under Henry’s walking boots changes in response to what is near it. Stylistically, similar color schemes are used that subtly burnish the setting with lovely golden hues, and admittedly, the rocks are of comparable blocky shapes, but nothing feels recycled or repeated. The forest seems real in the slow sway of trees and little jitters of scrub, in colors that intensify and wash over the view over time, in the faint yet meticulous soundscape reacting to where Henry stands, and that is an impressive feat—first time game venture or not.

Firewatch

As a final point, it’s probably best to address the possibly hypocritical assertion that a much stylized representation of the Wyoming wilderness is realistic, so much so that I chose to pitch this. I believe the reason why this aesthetic works so magnificently is that Henry’s physicality is right at home here. He reflects the environment and the environment reflects him. It is bulky, big, blocky, rough around the edges. Looking at himself, the player sees boxy hands and a tubby middle, solid arms and a stocky shadow. Henry is clearly no Faith from Mirror’s Edge, but he handles the variable paths of the map sufficiently well.

Traveling over different zones is initiated with button pressing for jumps, climbs, drops down, vaults, and rappels, and this exploration feels like the player is exerting energy themselves and choosing the paths they take. Climbing takes some time, and Henry hauls himself up over the last rock using his upper body strength—not simply standing up with little trouble. Henry will grunt and gasp as traveling wears him out, emphasizing his presence in the world and his age rather endearingly.

Dropping down causes your stomach to lift in anticipation, hoping that he doesn’t land awkwardly, and the first fall Henry experiences, you really sympathize with. Essentially, Henry and the player are intrinsically connected to the setting, this final notion tying the knot between all of these elements to consummate an experience that is an authentic tribute to the aesthetic of national forests.

If anything could make the case that ‘video games are art,’ it would be Firewatch. It is an amalgamation of personal experience, the reality of shrewd research, unexpected insight in facets of design, and the careful balance of all ingredients required to create a strikingly memorable style that acts in tandem with gameplay. tl;dr–Campo Santo could release a game about a day in the life of a kitchen blind and I’d probably still buy it.

Additional Links

  1. Official Developer Site
  2. Developer Blog
  3. Official Game Site
  4. Firewatch on Steam [$19.99]
  5. The Art of Firewatch, GDC 2015
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