Normal human beings do not accept jobs that leave them isolated in the woods for months on end. This may not be true of all people, but it is true of the two characters that compose most of Firewatch. It’s the summer of 1989. Henry, ravaged by problems he cannot control, has retreated to a position as a fire lookout Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest. His supervisor, Delilah, casually opens their first conversation like this:
Delilah: So, what’s wrong with you?
Henry: Excuse me?
Delilah: People take this job to get away from something, so, what’s wrong?
Firewatch’s prologue casts Henry as a man driven to his breaking point, and the player has limited guidance over some of the decisions that pushed him there. You do not, however, direct total control over Henry’s temperament and action. Modern story-focused games try to cover a range of responses to the dialogue it presents. This typically allows the player to identify with the protagonist and imagine how they would react in the same scenario. Firewatch eludes this path by filtering Henry through an unwinnable situation and then shapes his responses as a companion to his irritability, desperation, and misery. Whether these vices are inane or newly adopted is just one of the questions Firewatch asks players to consider.
Delilah is Henry’s only catalyst for change. Her role as his boss facilitates Firewatch’s natural action and progression. Emotionally, however, Delilah is an opportunity of hope, potential of need, and constant beacon of curiosity. Like Henry, she is also a broken person. Her sarcasm, impulsiveness, and penchant for alcohol act as foil for Henry’s grouchy disposition, but he’s beholden to her for both direction and support. Delilah is Henry’s only option for basic human interaction.
Both of these characters are close to both sides of 40 and this is immediately interesting. When games explore the relationship between a man and a woman, whether it’s platonic or romantic, they usually don’t select two damaged people approaching middle-age. Novelty aside, Firewatch plays with character perspective by forcing a turbulent background, essentially replacing the model of blank slates with scarred and messy canvasses. Delilah and Henry have complications and dimensions that allow the player to picture them as characters outside of this story. This is an impressive feat for characters we only know by their voices.
What you actually do in Firewatch follows a model established by other story-focused games; you walk around cast your intuition on the environment. Shoshone National Forest is a deceptively large map and, while you’re free to go in any direction, certain parts are contextually gated off until they become relevant to the narrative. Getting around is fairly simple; Henry can run at a decent clip and making sense of the map is like a more digestible version of Miasmata. It’s kind of cool to rely compass (and it makes sense in Firewatch’s time and place) but it’s not an impediment to movement. By the end of the game I felt like I knew Firewatch’s sliver of Wyoming like I had actually been there.
Almost all of the dialogue in Firewatch comes through a radio frequency Delilah and Henry share with each other. What’s novel about this isn’t the range of options the player has over Henry’s responses, but instead the opportunities Firewatch presents for superficially innocuous conversation. It felt like every directive, be it checking out some unruly teens shooting off fireworks, investigating a downed phone line, or approaching a controlled burn, came loaded with revealing moments of character and personality. If basic relationships are defined by the way we speak to each other, Firewatch offers an exceptional level of uniquely human interaction. Delilah and Henry don’t feel like insipid plot-spewing machinations, but candid characters with realistic intentions.
Believable scenarios, snappy rapport, and stable progression are evidence of thoughtful and cultured writing. Performance, however, is where it all comes alive. Casting Rich Sommer as Henry is basically perfect, as his voice and passive aggression define Henry’s naked impatience, latent sense of duty, and increasing paranoia. Cissy Jones, who I only knew from the first season of The Walking Dead, turns in an even better for Delilah. Her voice has this manic instability that undermines her position as an authority and her relationship with Henry. Delilah’s enthusiasm and positivity aches to be her definition, and hearing her crumble creates a layer of anxiety over Henry’s actions.
Context helps to sell Firewatch’s characters. Prompts to radio Delilah appear in great frequency when Henry is out on patrol, and topics of discussion range from essential advice regarding local geography to the mundanity of an abandoned toilet. Regardless of my choices in dialogue, I made it a priority to keep Henry consistent. This manifested in a few unexpected ways, namely my insistence on keeping my living space tidy. As the days went by Henry kept leaving books and things all over the floor, and I felt I was bettering him by organizing everything whenever I returned. Shit started getting slightly more real when I caught him turning down a very important framed picture at the start of every day. I would put it back in its position, and yet every new day it would return to being face-down. I have no idea if this was a conscious choice on the part of Campo Santo (as a means of relating Henry’s personal conflict amid a fluctuating mental and social dynamic), but it struck me as a man losing his grip on what I felt was important to him. In the end, anyway, my actions felt justified.
An investment in character and circumstance allows Firewatch’s plot to flow naturally. Henry’s daily activities begin to reveal increasingly calamitous and vaguely connected situations that strike not only at his own mental and physical health, but right at the heart of his relationship with Delilah. Firewatch skips around with time a bit—the first two days are thoroughly explored before it makes significant leaps in time—but the player isn’t left wondering what happened in space in between. Environmental tells scattered around Henry’s living space, not to mention the tone and candor of his language with Delilah, tell the player all they need to know.
Firewatch also performs an admirable exhibition of J.J. Abrams’ concept of the mystery box. Scouring the Shoshone National Forest will reveal an escalating series of unknowns that are presumed to be unwrapped at the appropriate time. Rather than deploy MacGuffins that offer zero reasonable insight in plot or character, every reveal in the back half of Firewatch is treated as another opportunity to invest in its burgeoning fiction. “What happened here,” is as interesting a question as, “What’s happening here,” and allows Firewatch to operate in both the past and the present of its characters and environments. Answers at the end of paths are satisfying, and Firewatch creates enough reasonable red herrings to keep the player guessing until the very end.
Tension was an unexpected facet of an environment defined by enviable serenity and beauty. Firewatch’s visual presentation isn’t aiming for an Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture’s level of unabashed photorealism, but rather a moderately stylized approach to light and color that transforms Henry’s surroundings into their most idealistic visions. Everything you see is a few percentage points away from reality, lending Firewatch a dreamy aesthetic that provides definition to its locations. Thinking of it now, I can see the orange canyon rocks during the daytime, the ominous glow of my watchtower at night, and red and purple deluge of everything at dusk. Rarely is there a moment where it isn’t impressive.
For all of its confidence, restraint may be the most valuable aspect of Firewatch’s presentation. Music is used sparingly, called into service when it’s meant to punctuate the mood or tension of Henry’s condition. Ironically, for a game ablaze with surreal light and color, its best tricks are the sounds of a natural environment. Listening to the wind in the tower at night that provides a sense of honest desolation akin to the strongest parts of Metroid Prime or Shadow of the Colossus. The sense of being alone—and the lingering suspicion that maybe you’re not—rarely leaves your character.
Firewatch ultimately distinguishes itself through integrity of its structure and preservation of its characters. Allowing control over Henry and Delilah’s perilous connection provides a sense of ownership over the narrative and creates an important bond between action and place. Other story-focused games suffer from a damaging disconnect between agency and intention, almost as if they don’t trust the player to act reasonably in accountable situations. Firewatch proves this dynamic not only to be valuable, but necessary to go forward.