Firewatch puts you in the shoes of Henry, a forty year old man working as a lookout in the US national forest of Shoshone in the year 1989. It’s your job - a Henry - to keep, well, a lookout, for local fires, and act to assist in preventing them. You’re not really a firefighter, but more of a watcher and warden of the park; indeed, on your first day your supervisor, Delilah, spots fireworks coming from a nearby lake, and it’s your duty to stop the park’s visitors from setting them off, which could spark a forest fire. The position isn’t glamourous, and shouldn’t be too exciting, but Henry finds mysterious occurrences in the woods, that require some investigation. You’re in near-constant contact with Delilah through a walkie-talkie; she’s miles off and can see your own tower, and is also responsible for maintaining contact with the other lookouts in different sectors.
Your first day is abnormally packed with activity. Upon investigating the source of the fireworks, you fight with two young women, and on your way back a mysterious figure shines a flashlight on you and promptly disappears into the woods. You discover a locked cave, and soon after, you discover your tower has been broken into and various belongings either trashed or straight up stolen. Not a good way to start your summer job, right? The next day, you’re set on a task to find the suspect campers and to investigate a broken communication line. You become acquainted with the park and the various trails all while developing a relationship with Delilah who is, in effect, the only other person you can expect to talk to (and not even see) for the duration of your position.
Indeed, Henry chose this remote job on purpose. The game doesn’t just start with you in the park; it begins with an emotional prologue detailing Henry’s relationship with his wife, Julia from start to present day. You’re also presented, during this story, with some choices for input. For example, one such option is deciding whether you (as a couple) adopt a beagle that you wife loves, or a german shepherd that would serve well to protect her. It presents some much more difficult decisions, and heartbreak when our couple discovers that Julia has early onset alzheimer’s, and when taking care of her becomes too much for Henry, her family swoops in and takes her back “home” to Australia. While the game doesn’t explicitly state it, it’s obvious that Henry has taken this job of solitude as an attempt to run away from his problems.
You get the opportunity to flesh out Henry’s story as the game progresses through your conversations with Delilah. With conversation prompts, you get to decide how much you get to share, and I have to assume that much of these decisions will lead to the same final conclusion, although there could be subtle differences. This type of progression through dialogue and choices is exactly what should be in more games; this is an immersive mechanic that draws you in with its organic feel. Having capable voice actors definitely helps quite a bit, and the subject matter is relatable. In my experience, at least, my grandmother’s struggle with alzheimer’s and dementia gives me a frame of reference for the type of struggles that a couple would go through day to day and what it could do to a relationship. Running away from your problems is not that far off from what I picture happening either, as the urge has certainly come across my own mind at times.
The story unfolding in the park is relevant as well, although not immediately obvious. You discover the backpack of a child named Brian; he’s the son of a lookout from years past. At the same time, it appears that somebody has been listening to your radio conversations, while mysterious happenings and objects combine to feed into a greater conspiracy theory. The game evokes suspense, as you wander the woods alone with your only life-line existing in the walkie talkie you carry around and the friend you’ve developed on the other end. When that link is “compromised” so to speak, you realize that everything could disappear within moments, and that you truly are alone in this world. As Henry mentioned at the beginning, it took him two days to hike to the watch tower to begin with, and the prospect of hiking out amidst a growing forest fire is not very appealing.
I really can’t go into much more detail without spoiling the story, which I absolutely will not do (perhaps I’ve said too much as it is). In no way was I expecting to sit down and finish the main game in one afternoon, but it happened: yes, the game was THAT engrossing. Sitting at about four hours of completion time, the game begs to be played again, with a focus on choosing slightly different dialogue options. The park area you have access to isn’t too overwhelming in size, and it’s quick to become acquainted with the well designed trails, making travel fairly quick when you want it to be. The other times, you’re going to want to go as slowly as possible, taking in the incredibly beautiful scenery and explore every nook and cranny of this fascinating world. At no point are you sent on a task and the journey there feels tedious; each day the game takes place over is well paced. If anything, it took me out of the day too quickly on a few occasions, like in one situation where you explore a damaged camp site and the dialogue wraps up what it needs to while you wanted to explore the area a bit more. With that said, when you finish the game you unlock the ability to explore the entire park at your leisure.
As a personal aside, I have to say this is the exact gaming experience I needed right now. Destiny has consumed my gaming life for a couple of years now; when I have some down time I find myself loading into a few player-vs-player matches or grinding out some repetitive missions all in the search for more loot and higher character levels. The thought of getting into a new game becomes daunting and in practice, has been difficult: I purchased The Witcher III on a Black Friday sale and tried it out, only to be intimidated by a large open world, and dozens upon dozens of instructions on every menu page, which seemed to go on forever. I know there is an “awareness hump” as I like to call it, just as there was in something like Skyrim (that is, getting used to all the actions, character abilities, inventory and so on, and on) but after getting wrecked by a seemingly introductory quest, I had to put the game down. Firewatch has been on my watch list since initial release, and I bought it nearly on impulse while browsing the Steam storefront. It’s easy to get into, with simple controls and seemingly relaxed gameplay. The story is interesting, compelling, and overall quite deep and satisfying. A perfect experience for a cold Sunday afternoon. Now excuse me while I go hug my cats.
Now form some thoughts - there are spoilers within.
One of the most significant moments in the game is waking up one day, and standing at your desk to inspect and gather your supplies. I noticed something that wasn’t there before: a gold band. It’s your wedding ring. And you can pick it up, inspect it, even put it on. But you could also just leave it on the table. Had enough time passed for Henry to consider his wife, no longer his wife? I put the ring on without regret: I didn’t want Henry to give up like that; he needs that ring on as a reminder of what brought him out here in the first place. Leaving it on the table and it could disappear, and in doing so, he may have slipped too far into depression and too far into his escape from reality, which doesn’t lead to good things, as we’ve seen in Ned’s character.
Our three main characters: Ned, Delilah and Henry, are all trying to escape something. It’s too late for Ned: he’s a hermit in the woods, living in isolation, fear and paranoia over the death of his son. Delilah is stuck in limbo, being in the same watchtower for years, forming all-too-brief relationship with her lookouts. Henry is running away from his problems and stress, but it’s not too late for him. As evidenced by the end of the story, in which Henry is asking Delilah what he should do: I chose dialogue options that would see Delilah and Henry get together, but she was insistent that I go see my wife. She was right though; Henry was in denial. I was in denial. You could hear the reality emerging through in his voice, then it was time to board the chopper and with that, came some peace. This summer, with all its crazy happenings, was just a short period of time that would not repeat itself. Henry’s relationship with Delilah was borne out of loneliness and self-reflection, both of them acting as a kind of therapist for the other. Delilah won’t take you up on your offer to come back home; it’s too late for her too, as she continues to run away from her issues. Maybe she’ll come back to the forest next year; maybe she’ll go to another one; regardless, she won’t ever see Henry, or even talk to him again. This game starts out sadly and ends sadly as well, but the experience is truly incredible.