For a game whose opening chapter covers ground ranging from the use of illegal fireworks at peak fire season to anxieties of dislocation and purposelessness—and whose narrative auguries are quite literally forecasted—Firewatch seques the player into its world with surprising gentleness. Chris Remo (alongside a rather rhetorical choice system) ferries us through Henry’s emotional traumas with a subtly and appropriately bruised score; the notes of which are, as with the cosmic heartsick of his work on Gone Home, acutely tender. Moreover, Firewatch‘s willingness to tear the bandage from Henry’s past for the player in a single and relatively quick motion, detailing but not dwelling on it, keeps the game’s prologue from feeling heavy-lidded and mawkish, despite the fact that we find ourselves in the Wyoming wilds after a series of fades in and out from black akin to the false awakenings of a hot, restless morning.
While I question the need for this front-loading of expositional player choice, as it could have been embedded in the system already present through the rest of the game via Henry and Delilah’s radio conversations, in which the player makes these same kinds of choices anyway when deciding how to respond to her friendly inquiries about his past, it is Delilah and not Julie (Henry’s estranged but omnipresent wife) who gives the story its glow. Indeed, her kittenish but openly clawed charisma is clear within seconds of Henry’s lifting the walkie talkie from its cradle and betraying his greenness both as a fire watch and a lost pup. Campo Santo‘s intent here, as with the moments preceding it, appears to be to establish a directness with the player—to characterize the experience early, and with candour, so as to afterward surprise them on level ground. The virtue of this strategy is that the compounding mystery later in the game feels genuinely mysterious and not merely masked. The story is able to play its hands, in other words, without resorting to tricks.
This is not to say that Firewatch is without its distortions. Artist Olly Moss‘s pastel forest, flush with gossamery midsummer heat, assumes both a buoyancy and the monodimensionality of a cutout animation, the effect of which bending more toward one or the other depending on the time of day or night; the shadows of the aspens convoluted in the wind or rotating as if by sun or moondial. When the plot begins to cash in on its earlier thunderstorms and the ilk and takes turns toward hazards ostensibly more serious than fires, the weather, and “problem bears”, this environment begins to suffocate Henry and Delilah’s (and the player’s) thoughts. Prior to these turns, Delilah’s radio assistance reliably keeps Henry par for the course and in bright spirits, but little by little her words lose their irreverent good nature and become kindling for his paranoia. (And vice versa.)
I won’t ruin what results, except to say that Henry and Delilah are eventually able to piece together a kind of cracked mirror, thematically speaking, of their relationship with one another. But while said turns give the game urgency and mystery, its most urgent, universal questions go unresolved. This is so by necessity and not design, though Campo Santo’s awareness of the fact makes the distinction as thin as air at elevation. Firewatch, like all good stories, only partially satisfies; it knows that the answers to the fundamental questions it raises are less crucial than their pursuit. The central “quests” for these characters, to put it in videogame terms, precede the opening credits and survive the closing ones. In this sense the Wyoming wilderness, and its ‘watch’, are a game not only for the player but for them as well: a remove from reality both geographical and psychological, only one of these evidently a success. (When Delilah admits her own storied hardships in response to Henry’s, declaring that the two of them are “both fucked up”, she does not say “were”.)
As both a game experience and a narrative one, Firewatch shows a level of restraint rare for the medium—especially when considering its subject matter. This restraint is, however, despite the developer’s good intentions, the reason for its shortcomings as much as its strengths. On one hand, Henry and Delilah’s patent need for one another is painted in neither saccharine nor manipulative strokes (even fading to black rather than showing the one moment in which direct transmissions of their intimacy are sent and received in seriousness); on the other hand, the game hits some of its most critical beats without giving them quite enough space to satisfyingly breathe. Once the plot is in stark ascent toward its climax, the experience is remarkably tense; but this intensity gains too much momentum without pause, I think, and with too much haste, the game’s apparent concern over trespassing on the player’s time such that it sacrifices its own. These self-awarenesses do not stop the game from excellence, but may be ultimately what stop it short of greatness.
Even so, the takeaway here may be how small a difference that makes. Firewatch is, semantics aside, thoroughly beautiful work. Subtle, but also confident; and able to balance devastation with rejuvenation, to handle difficult subject matter with sensitivity and frankness, but also humour and a healthy measure of uncertainty; it is, really, a class act. From a purely “game” standpoint, yes, the vast majority of Firewatch is spent walking, talking and listening; and the environment which envelopes these activities is as much a solicitude as solace. Crows quill the treeline and shadows warp the flaxen ground and thirsting creeks. At dusk and dawn particularly, the forest often resembles the very thing the player is tasked with protecting it from. But if reality as we experience it is, as the game implies, so much of our own making, then scorched earth is a lost cause only if we apostacize it. If we can accept what is for what is and not paint failure as the end, perhaps we can be as forests, or avatars in a game: regenerated, and better with each restart.