I make it a point to buy games based on how my friends react to them on Twitter as much as my own preferences: we generally have similar tastes and being able to discuss as you play is always an enjoyable experience. That was my intention with Firewatch, but about twenty minutes into the game, I stopped tweeting and completely lost myself in the experience. I did, unusually enough, take notes as I played though, so coalescing them into an essay seemed like the right way to go about relaying my thoughts on the game.
Let’s start with an overwrought, back of the box quote about my Firewatch experience: “This is the first time where playing as a (presumed) heterosexual white male actually felt warranted by the game!” Really!
All jokes aside, Firewatch has many strengths, not the least of which is putting you in the shoes of a shitty white dude. Henry, shockingly, actually realizes he’s being shitty, oddly enough making him likable and relatable. Ah, self aware protagonists: the Holy Grail of game writing! Too often have I winced at the inane one liners gruffly delivered by the try hard antihero du jour. You know the type: fit, white, scruffy, convinced he’s witty and hilarious. It feels like triple A games have been serving me this particular bland potato of a character slathered in every sauce they could come up with: westerns, gang wars, greek mythology. I’m told this is simply the industry catering to young men’s power fantasies, but I can’t fathom why anyone would want to be the insufferable blowhard at the gym that keeps grunting while he counts reps. I like my characters with a measure of depth and introspection, you know, the things that make us vulnerable and human. This is not to say the two can’t overlap, but there’s definitely a dearth of self aware beefcakes in games -and it’s not the beefcake part we’re sorely lacking.
Firewatch’s Henry is no beefcake, though he does spend most of the game trekking the vast expanse of the Shoshone, being in turn a shitty then great human. The game doesn’t sugar coat this so guilt played a big part in my playthrough. Despite that, I finished the game in one sitting because I just couldn’t stop playing and that is a good thing. The game itself is so gorgeous that you’ll often find yourself stopping to admire the scenery. As you make your way to the tower you’ve been assigned in the forest to do the titular fire watching, the game tells you Henry’s story through text. You’re prompted to participate at multiple key points of his life as the game recounts it and your choices affect the game in small but noticeable ways. The writing itself is powerful: I found myself tearing up a mere minutes in. This text sequence is punctuated by brief segments where you control Henry as he makes his way to the tower, cleverly allowing you to familiarize yourself with the gameplay. It’s fairly simple and unobtrusive, leaving you free to focus on Henry and Delilah’s long talkie-walkie conversations. These conversations are without a doubt Firewatch at its very best.
If the little I’ve said so far appeals to you and you haven’t played the game yet, then please, go ahead and play it because the rest of this will assume you have. It will spoil aspects of the narrative for you, so go on. Go play it, it’s worth your time.
Everyone good? Good.
When I finished Firewatch, the first comparison that came to mind was Gone Home. Of course I’m not the first to draw that parallel and I say it as flattery, . For the longest time I sat anxiously, weeding through the forest and expecting some serious supernatural shit to go down, as I had while I played Gone Home. I lived in fear of some horror trope ambushing me in every shadowy closet. Just like being in a big, empty house with a storm raging outside would make me uneasy, so does trekking through the vast expanse of a beautiful forest while losing sunlight. The atmosphere is wonderfully crafted and delightfully oppressive. I’m not used to nuance in games, so I immediately assumed werewolves were going to eat my insides, as games tend to do. After completing the game, I wonder if the oppressive atmosphere was an external manifestation of the guilt Henry constantly feels for having practically abandoned his wife to the clutches of dementia while he hides from his pain in the forest.
The game painstakingly alters itself to convey the right mood: the time of day shifts to accommodate the drama (night time when you first spot a stranger with a flashlight, a quick setting dusk as you’re stalking through the fenced off “secret” area), the music swells and disappears to punctuate conversations and the voice acting is excellent and subtle in its range of emotions. The devil of Firewatch is in the details, though you might also find it lurking a few steps behind you…
I found myself anxiously following Delilah’s instructions over the radio, wondering what fresh hell this woman was sending me to investigate next. The story took a backseat to the character building and the game was all the better for it. I appreciate the mystery tying the plot together but the big reveal felt… underwhelming, personally. The way stories tend to end in real life, with loose ends and unanswered questions. It was oddly fitting and satisfying.
Firewatch shines emotionally. It’s been awhile since I’ve felt so connected to my avatar and other characters, so enthralled by the quiet beauty unfolding around me. The anxiety that permeated the game took me back to my school days -no I’m not about to go Proust on you- when I’d lose myself in Guy de Maupassant’s books. He’s a french author often associated with the naturalist literary movement, which focused on writing about the misery of everyday folks as opposed to the dalliances of the bourgeoisie. He was my favorite author: gritty, miserable and deeply human (you can probably infer what kind of teenager I was). He shied at nothing when exposing the humanity of the less fortunate, from peasants to sex workers. The merits of the naturalists’ methods are subject to discussion, but one of the best aspects of De Maupassant’s work —the thing that kept me hooked- was the sensuality and uneasiness that permeated his prose. Unlike most naturalists, he strayed into the realms of the gothic novel, and was unafraid to blend genres and pull at the fine thread of his characters’ sanity. At times he was sensual, arousing, at times he toyed with the mystery of a woman leading you into a dark corridor, at times she was a ghost. With his short stories, you never really knew. There was always an uneasy “what if”, ripe with possibility, that hung in the air when you read him. I loved him and Firewatch for the same reasons.
What if there was a werewolf waiting to eat me in the forest? What if the spirit of my wife called me in the middle of the night to tell me she loves me? (Even if she’s not even dead, just sick) What if it was just Delilah? What if someone was watching us? What if two young girls were kidnapped?
Firewatch toys with you and it feels tense, but it’s a good tension. It’s the kind of tension that keeps you playing, keeps you listening, keeps you picking up every expired protein bar —just in case.
I heartily recommend it. I’ll be playing it again.