DualShockers’ Game of the Year Awards: The Case for Firewatch

In our ongoing look at the staff's favorite games of 2016, Leif takes a look at his top pick for the year, the emotional and immersive adventure, Firewatch.

on January 18, 2017 10:00 AM

2016 has come to a close and while the new year ahead has plenty of games for us to look forward to, the beginning of the year is also the perfect time to reflect on the games that made the previous year so exceptional, with 2016 being no exceptional.

Earlier this year, DualShockers revealed our 2016 Game of the Year Awards from both our readers and staff, including the overall GOTY (which was Final Fantasy XV this year for both readers and staff), Biggest Shocker!, and many more.

However, now that the awards have been given out and games have been chosen, this week we’re diving into the staff’s selections for their top Game of the Year pick and favorite game of 2016. In this installment, staff writer Leif Conti-Groome makes the case for the emotional experiences of Campo Santo’s Firewatch. The previous feature in our series on Darkest Dungeon from Tomas can be read here.

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It’s always dangerous picking a smaller, narrative based game for ‘the best thing I played this year’ award. Defending so called ‘walking-sims’ can be an arduous task, especially for those that see the gameplay element of these experiences as severely lacking. Despite that, Firewatch was the game that resonated with me the most throughout the year. I had a lot of fun with DOOM and Killer Instinct: Season 3 this year as well, but after putting them down, the memories quickly faded away of all that time spent with them.

The basic premise is that you play as a man who takes up a rather odd job as a fire lookout at Yellowstone National Park. The wilderness and simplicity of the gig calls out to him as he leaves his past life behind, at least for the summer. The man, Henry, keeps an eye out for any fires and has a radio to contact his boss, Delilah, if anything catches ablaze. But stranger things soon start happening within the park and the two are left to figure out just what exactly is happening. Henry may have the friendly yet blunt banter of Delilah to keep him company, but truly he is by himself amongst the trees. Or, that would probably be the best situation…

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To me, Firewatch was about characters that I actually cared about and themes that aren’t explored enough in gaming. The protagonists, Henry and Delilah, are both deeply flawed as they struggle with the concepts of isolation, escapism, and responsibility. They find solace in one another as their begrudging friendship turns into something extremely intimate yet difficult to describe.

Special mentions need to be given to the actors Cissy Jones and Rich Sommer. Delilah’s friendly tones are usually underscored by a subtle unsureness that muddies her motivations. Henry tries to play the straight man to his boss’ prods, but his sheer exhaustion due to the weight of the world and his past life is hard to miss. As these characters, Cissy and Rich play and feed off each other’s lines in writers Sean Vanaman and Patrick Ewing’s amazing script. It’s no wonder that both actors and the story were all nominated for different categories in this year’s The Game Awards. How can you go wrong with exchanges like this:

Henry: Huh, I found a little trowel. Maybe I should take it with me, use it to pop open beers.
Delilah: Wow, um, 99% sure that’s for burying poop.
Henry: And I’m holding it.
Delilah: Maybe drop it?

Then there’s the mystery surrounding the narrative and the game itself. I remember thinking that I needed to play the game after seeing the first trailer just because it teased that something much deeper was going on beneath the surface. Missing persons, paranoia, tragedy; it’s all there and it’s hard to talk about these elements without spoiling everything. Let’s just say the twist and turns are unexpected and they make the already personal story that much more captivating and raw.

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More and more these days I’m noticing how each individual game has its own pace. I just reviewed Rise and Shine and felt that the transitions from action to puzzle solving to cutscene felt off; by comparison, all the elements in Firewatch were perfectly balanced, like a masterclass in pacing. The narrative and underlying mysteries push you forward while the dialogue options (including the possibility to just keep silent) give a nice touch of an individualized experience. Even the process of walking from point A to B works in conjunction with the pacing as you’re able to naturally take in the incredibly written dialogue. This design choice also gives you the ability to take in the breathtaking nature surrounding you in this national park.

That’s not to say the entire game is just a leisurely stroll in the park. There are moments where the story and music push you to go as fast as you can just to figure out what the hell is going on. There will be times where you feel anxious, uncomfortable, fearful, and most interestingly, alone. Of course this is offset with points where you will laugh (heartedly even) and that you will smile without realizing it. Each section of the game is tracked through the number of days you’ve been manning your watchtower, and you can feel your connection with all elements of the game grow.

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It’s hard to say goodbye to such prominent personalities like Henry and Delilah only after 4 hours with the game. They are all too human and it’s the contradictions and personal foibles they embody that make them so captivating. So if you haven’t, I highly recommend you grab your axe, repel down a hillside, and enjoy the great outdoors with Firewatch. Its impact already been recognized by authorities more impressive than me (The Game Awards 2016), and I think it will remain a shining example of the integration of narrative into a video game for years to come.

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Leif Conti-Groome is a staff writer at DualShockers who mainly focuses on indie games and crowdfunding campaigns. He was a contributor to the niche game podcast Total Control and he frequently lends his services to the Torontonian enthusiast group, The Hand Eye Society.