At its core, Firewatch doesn’t merely tell you about issues like depression, loneliness, and the ethics of escape; it uses game design to make you experience those themes yourself, and in that way, it shows what video game narratives can do when they engage with serious themes in a serious way.
Sometimes, life can become overwhelming, and escape—generally considered the coward’s way out—is a means of making sense out of everything that is happening, a way of taking stock that can only be achieved when the flurry of life and stress and disappointment is securely, and distantly, somewhere else. I remember a time when I experienced such a desire, such a need, to escape. It was about halfway through my college career: I had just broken up with my girlfriend, decided on a new career path, been forced to discover an entirely new set of friends, and I needed to move to a new apartment within a few weeks. All the while, I had four final papers and exams (as an English student, so long papers and exams) all scheduled within the same narrow time frame. In short, I was overwhelmed, and I took the opportunity to escape to my uncle’s farm back in my hometown.
Fancying myself a bit of a modern-day Thoreau, I took the essentials for surviving the weekend (though I was less than two minutes from civilization) and a notebook. And by the time that weekend was over, I had mostly filled that notebook from one cover to the other. I remember sitting underneath the shade of a pecan tree for the first day, just writing about life and what I wanted from it. And it helped. It helped a lot. You see, escape isn’t just about getting away from your problems. This misconception is probably why many people look down it as a viable coping mechanism. No, escape is about getting the chance to process something overwhelming, something you can’t face in the midst of everything else you have going on in your life. Like a secular form of sitting shiva, going with Fergus to “pierce the deep wood’s woven shade” is about getting the distance you need to look at all the things happening in your life with perspective. It’s about surfacing for air, getting a few moments to breathe and feel the warmth of the sunlight on your face before you dive back into the depths. It’s a reminder that even though we, as humans, are social animals, solitude has meaning for us in a way that can never exist for other creatures. We are singular in this way, and to deny ourselves the power of such experiences is to miss out on part of the human experience.
That pensive weekend away, even as the hot, muggy Alabama summer made my shirt cling to my back and the pages of my notebook damp under the sweat that constantly dripped from my head, that weekend was exactly what I needed to process what became a complete change in my life and its future direction. It also didn’t hurt that I chopped a lot of wood.
I bring all of this up because, at its heart, Firewatch is a game about the ethics of escaping from a tragedy much greater than that which faced me. Set in the 1989 Wyoming wilderness, it tells the story of Henry, who takes a job as a fire lookout in the Shoshone National Forest. Though the game starts innocently enough, with Henry developing an impromptu relationship with his supervisor, Delilah, over the radio, it quickly escalates as strange events continue to build up within and around the forest.
Firewatch is a game that uses narrative interaction—a storytelling method that only video games can truly engage with—to explore themes of depression, loneliness, and whether or not Henry should really be spending his summer isolated in the wilderness when so much of import still awaits him back at home. I won’t describe what exactly Henry is attempting to escape, mainly because it is so central to Firewatch‘s overall experience, but also because, at its core, Firewatch doesn’t merely tell you about issues like depression, loneliness, and the ethics of escape; it uses game design to make you experience those themes yourself, and in that way, it shows what video game narratives can do when they engage with serious themes in a serious way.
Let’s be honest here, most instances of video game storytelling over the past thirty years have consisted of juvenile, thinly-camouflaged, male power fantasies. Women in these games have rarely been more than throw-away tools, used mainly as sexual objects or trophies to be won and discarded. And, with video game narrative as a budding artform, this is not actually all that surprising. Every art has its growing pains, particularly in a formative period, and when taken at face value, video game narratives have often been in the service of aesthetic escapism. Like genre fiction, most of television, and early comic books, video games have traditionally functioned as a creative space wherein players can become characters they could never be in their real lives, or visit places they could never go on their own, or be the center of the universe in a way that only their own solipsistic isolation had made possible previously. It is specifically within the last few years, for both technological and market reasons, that video games have begun to dabble in more serious subject matter in a broadly popular way, and despite its flaws, Firewatch stands as one of the best examples such experimentation. It is part of a continuing trend that attempts to push the bounds of video game narrative (see also my reviews of Her Story and The Beginner’s Guide) and, in that way, represents genre shifts we have seen before, such as the advancement from comic books to graphic novels or D&D to Game of Thrones.
In terms of art design, world design, and overall storytelling (and I emphasize the overall nature of the story here, rather than its specifics), Firewatch simply cannot be matched. Its landscape is, at times, breathtakingly gorgeous, and it shows how a deliberate use of cell-shading can often bring out astonishing visuals. Yet, Firewatch is just as much about the deceptions of Henry’s experiences in the wilderness as it is about the beautiful veneer of his surroundings. Such dualism is reflected in the game’s title: sometimes we watch for fires, and sometimes, all we can do is watch them burn. It is also emphasized in some of the game’s more innovative moments, such a late game scene where Henry thinks he is losing his mind. Up to that point, whenever a player highlights an object in the game, he or she is presented with a label stating what that object is. At the moment I’m describing, however, those labels shift and change according to what Henry thinks is happening, rather than staying true to what those objects are. It is in moments like these, where Firewatch‘s designers were deliberately thinking through how to make players experience, rather than simply consume, a certain kind of narrative that the game truly shines.
That being said, the game’s ending is disappointingly abrupt, and it unfortunately decides to focus on a revelation about a series of side-characters as the overall story’s denouement. I felt cheated in a way by this moment, as though the story were attempting to force a kind of shocking-twist/revelation upon me that I didn’t actually care about. I think the goal of this moment (which I will not spoil) is to give the story’s other main character, Delilah, a narrative shock of her own and to emphasize that this is a tale of two people coping in the wilderness, rather than simply one. I think, however, such an interpretation is a bit more generous than Firewatch deserves, and in the end, the story just falls rather flat. Though I don’t think the ending’s failure undermines the rest of the game’s wonderfully constructed narrative, I do think it’s something to consider before you get too invested in the story beats. Be forewarned, it isn’t going to turn out how you expected.
The game also has pacing issues, particularly concerning a few instances wherein you must travel back and forth across the entire map multiple times. The game’s map is expansive for the pace at which Henry can walk, and you have no mini-map or guiding line telling you where to go. Inevitably, this leads to your character picking up a paper map, holding a compass next to it, and struggling to figure out which direction to go. Add to this the fact that Campo Santo appears to have purposefully made the trails and paths confusing to navigate, and plot points that have you traveling long distances in game end up being more frustrating than fulfilling. Although many of these long walks were clearly strategically planned so Henry and Delilah could have important conversations over the radio, such a context does not take away from the fact that these moments tend to slow the game down in frustrating ways.
Still, I consider these only minor gripes about a game that is, on the whole, fantastic. While I genuinely believe Campo Santo could have done more with Firewatch‘s ending (and that they left too much on the table), it is still a satisfying exploration of the human experience and tells a fun and engaging story to boot. In this way, Campo Santo’s first work continues to push video-game narrative into a future where there are more important issues at stake than collecting coins, stacking up kills, or finding the princess in another castle; and for that, Firewatch deserves your time and your appreciation, if nothing else.