Firewatch is a beautiful game.
It stands to remind players and developers alike what is possible with a little imagination and narrative focus. Superficially, it’s perhaps a good thing that Firewatch is so visually accomplished because its premise and mechanics might not instantly jump out and grab your attention. There’s no guns or violence here, just the quaint sound of running streams and the wind in the trees. Welcome to Firewatch.
Set amidst the wilderness of Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming, you play as Henry. He has taken a job as a fire-watcher in an effort to escape the realities of his life: a wife who suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and barely remembers herself, let alone her husband, and a life in which Henry’s whole world and all that made it up has prematurely fled from his grasp. The dreams and possibilities of life that he and his wife once shared forever destined to remain but that: dreams.
This barrage of emotional backstory comes at you right from the beginning through the second-person perspective and in the form of words coupled with emotion-inducing music, laying the foundations of choice (what dog do you have?) and cementing early on the illusion of its consequence. It presents a superficiality to minor details that cease to have any tangible relevance to the story. Rather than being to the detriment of its fiction, however, this only further beguiles the player, supplementing the narrative agenda and highlighting the follies of life, and the myth of autonomy.
Firewatch is a lonely game that explores the isolation and vulnerability of your character in an open space. This space, just like life, appears large, but is ultimately an illusion of possibility that many will never be able to take advantage of. This is not because we don’t want to, but because we can’t. What you see stretches out much further than the playing field, like a distant goal that you were never meant to reach. Henry’s only contact amid the solitude of the forest is Delilah – a woman he will spend the entire summer in the company of, and yet someone he may never meet.
The game is driven by the dialogue between Henry and Delilah, spoken in its entirety through walkie-talkies. Without facial cues or physical companionship, the emotions of their speech, their relationship, their entire lives as they presently appear, are manifested through dialogue which is expertly performed and drives the narrative straight to the heart. You can’t help but feel attached to Delilah, even if she’s nothing but a light with a voice in a distant tower, seemingly forever out of reach.
The slightest of emotions, be it fear or desire, or the faintest signs of warmth and possible companionship, are clearly and tantalizingly embodied through speech alone. The playfulness of the back-and-forth between Henry and Delilah, which even sometimes evinces modest flirting, is wonderfully apparent. We find ourselves soaking in the warmth of possibility perfectly echoed in the temperate locale and glowing orange rocks of the national park.
Firewatch does a magnificent job of making you feel like a small person completely out of your depth. The game is relatively short, lasting not much longer than four hours, but it appears huge. The open space of the park, emphasized by your perspective from the lofty perch in the tower, makes the game’s world seemingly never ending. There are distant peaks and valleys you will never reach, perhaps echoing the limited nature of choice in a world where personal agency and familial control have rapidly evaporated from Henry’s grasp. His plight shapes the direction of the first-person perspective in which we witness his summer in the sun. We might even start to feel guilty, given the precarious position of Henry’s wife juxtaposed against the warm summer glow of Henry’s escape to the wilderness, illustrated perfectly by the game’s visual design.
Henry’s isolation is further emphasized by the controlled use of background music. The majority of the game’s audio is composed of faint sounds of running streams, rustling leaves, and the early morning risers of nature twittering away like the busiest of social media aficionados. They remind the player that Henry’s physical environment is his only palpable companion; unlike everything else in Firewatch, which is seemingly out of his grasp – audible but immaterial – nature itself is present. Henry may use his environment to renew his search for identity but, like the fleeting notions of what made him Henry in a past life, nature itself remains precarious. The risk of fire to the destruction of the hinterland echoing Henry’s vulnerability and emotional state.
It makes sense, then, that the wilderness hides a riddle Henry must uncover. The mystery is so simple, beginning with a couple of distant silhouettes running amok amidst the beautiful landscape; they are but unruly teens that litter, start campfires, and destroy the peace. The game seems to go out of its way to make sure you never run into other people, though, they remain but shadows and silhouettes of distant objects forever only possessing the potential to be people. All we see is nature displaying remnants of a physical being; we are only in contact with the wild. What begins as nothing turns into something deep and compelling as nature itself seems to mold a playground of thrilling enigmas into a single coherent tale.
If there’s anything negative that could be said, it’s that the conclusion falls a little flat. The game does such a great job of building the suspense and compelling the player through its simple, mysterious arc, that when the game skips any form of narrative climax and jumps directly to a resolution, it rings hollow. Rather than being a wholly negative thing, however, this disappointment perhaps highlights how involved the game makes you feel up to that point. The build up is so well executed that it’s hard not to be disappointed by anything other than perfection in its conclusion. Sadly, the game’s final hour is its weakest part. By no means does it ruin this beautiful recital, however, as Firewatch stands out as a diamond of narrative possibility in video games.
Firewatch is a game of perfectly symmetrical ideas surmised through the illusions it presents. It appears large, but is ultimately small. Henry is physically alone in the forest, and yet mentally stretched between multiple locations: one being his wife, who has vacated the country and is no longer within reach, and then Delilah who is seemingly only within reach by voice. Ironically, the only place Henry never truly feels present is in his own skin, atop his perch in the tower, because his emotions and connections are elsewhere. As the player, we embody and control him. Henry might not be completely present, but we are; we see the whole thing from his perspective and possess his body, illustrating the removal of agency in his life. Henry’s life is like a wildfire. The mere use of interactivity that a game provides to the player perfectly represents the ultimate illusion of all: how little control Henry really has.