Sitting down to play Firewatch the first time, I knew I was a fire lookout and not much beyond that. What Campo Santo (The company behind Firewatch) delivered was passionate and moving. After seeing the credits roll, I walked away from Firewatch thinking about my own life and just what responsibilities I was running from. Firewatch is a game built on ideas about; life, relationship, and personal fears. It does have a classic mystery adventure story thrown in which keeps the pacing fun and exciting, even this part of the game though ties in to the overarching theme. Every character I encountered (aside from the scene with the girls at the lake) is dealing with something that is affecting them personally—on a deep level. This is where the game shines, and by the end each of these characters will resolve, for better or worse, just what is haunting them.
The opening of Firewatch goes back and forth between a choose your own adventure story and actual game play. Introducing the games protagonist Henry, the player decides who Henry is and where he’s at mentally/emotionally when he arrives at the Sashoni. The Sashoni may be a fictional place, but the game is firmly grounded in reality, the Yellowstone fire of ‘88 specifically. When both of these aspects combine, it allows the player to see they should take it slow, stay present, and expect nothing out of the ordinary. Even though strange things start happening, if the player has in the back of their mind “Oh yeah! This is about Henry and what personal issues he is dealing with”, then the player is able to approach each new day rationally.
The focus of the game is the relationship formed between Henry and Delilah (his boss), and by the end of their first conversation the player has established the relationship without knowing it. I believe Henry is a certain type of person and this can be seen in the dialog. There are certain dialog options I just don’t find as believable. They seem out of place, or just not rational, and play more like a video game than the game presented. Henry is dealing with something effecting him deeply, and he did become a fire lookout, in the words of Delilah, “to run away from something”. Delilah calls it before she even knows you, sure because she’s been on the job for over a decade but also to remind the player—hey this is what’s important, think about this.
Listening to Delilah and Henry’s relationship unfold is poignant and truthful, almost tangible. It’s one of the most realistic relationships I’ve encountered in video games. The fact that it’s a built solely upon walkie talkie’s is amazing. Firewatch is a short game, taking me a smidge over five hours to complete. So the game has to build this relationship fast over the course of a summer. Even the little things make it feel honest, from the journaling Henry does on his typewriter (which the player can choose to read or not), to the jokes that are formed through conversation the player is never part of but are alluded too. This builds the world and fills in gaps that would be missed otherwise. The player begins to see that Henry and Delilah care for each other and although they might have fleeting thoughts of the romantic kind about one another, it’s never said out right. Because who wouldn’t have these thoughts if only able to talk to one person, especially if it’s the sex you are attracted to.
The game throws an even bigger wrench in the whole thing when things start to play out as a mystery adventure. Introducing a few new characters, and while not talking to either the whole game, you learn their story, and it is heart wrenching. This game made me tear up a few times and this side story tied into Henry and Delilah’s relationship is mind blowing. Again presenting someone who is running from something personal to them, and how they are dealing with it. Without giving anything away, a certain character definitely goes into murky waters of the emotional pool. Henry wants to be in the woods so he can reflect on himself, even if he needs a little help without realizing it. He took the first step, and Delilah is able to keep him moving, playing out vice versa as well.
Walking through the Sashoni felt at times like I was actually there. The game has an almost painted art style, its round, soft, and this makes wandering through the woods quit tranquil. I stopped more than once to just take in the scenery and close my eyes to listen to the forest. The ambient sound of the game is just as serene. The Sashoni is full of life, from birds chirping, to trees swaying, and even twigs and brush crunching under Henry’s feet. All of this again, allows the player to slow down pause and reflect on what is happening around them, and what is important to Henry. How to proceed not only with what is going on in the Sashoni, but also what is going on with himself. All of these aspects of the game work well on their own, and harmonize to create a strong narrative.
The game really goes full force on the last day. Day 79 is a combination of all parts of the game coming together to hammer home what it’s trying to say. The game shows three different people and the choices they’ve made up to this point in life, how they are going to approach the emotional burden they’ve created for themselves, as well as deciding how Henry will resolve what he has been running from. It’s something familiar because most likely, the player has done one if not all of these things when it comes to personal decisions. The final bit of dialog between Delilah and Henry is so human, I couldn’t help but think about my own life. Henry has to make a choice and although the outcome isn’t revealed, I felt the full force of the decision I was making. Thus again, bringing me back to reflect on myself and what I could possibly be pushing to the back-burner. It is joy to be able to finish a game walk away from it, and begin to think about your own life.
Firewatch is something special, and I hope that it can help others in the way that it helped me.