Firewatch opens with the video game equivalent of rolling texts, a series of options for the player to choose to give him or her some agency over the backstory of Henry. This protagonist is a forty-something man who falls in love with Julie, marries her, and then begins to drift away as she develops early-onset dementia. Julia goes off to live with her family in Australia and Henry decides to spend the summer in Shoshone National Forest.
While there, he developers a relationship with the fellow fire lookout Delilah via radio only. They can spot each other’s watchtowers, but are left to imagine what each other looks like. Their flirty banter throughout the summer is interspersed between dealing with a couple of drunk girls shooting off fireworks and a fire during a fire ban. As things develop, things become more intense as Henry and Delilah discover something, or rather someone, is up to no good in Shoshone.
And it’s how the game resolves all this that becomes contentious for a lot of players. Similar to an arthouse film, Firewatch decides to leave a lot of things unanswered and unresolved. The general mystery reveals more about the characters and the place than it gives a satisfying reveal as to the core mysteries of the plot.
It’s hardly a problem unique to this medium. Plenty of arthouse film suffer similar criticisms of placing theme and characters over cogent and satisfying stories. Firewatch shows healthy growth by demonstrating that a game can be more than a compelling story. There’s room for character pieces and thematic depth being the driving experience of a game.
Fire serves as a metaphor of fire representing the problems Henry and Delilah. They both come to the forest to escape their problems, but it goes from being a small campfire to a roaring forest fire. Henry is even given the option to name the fire after Delilah. If the game is about anything, it’s about Henry deciding how he will deal with Julia. That’s the hook. That’s what the game hopes to explore and asks the player to resolve.
This leads to a lot of little moments where player expression is paramount. For example, there’s a moment where Henry wakes up and receives a radio call from Julia. It gives him a moment to converse with her even though this is obviously a dream sequence. What is said is more about what the player thinks Henry would express and how he feels about things at the moment.
Another great moment is when Henry walks by the desk and the player has the opportunity to pick up his wedding ring. He can put it on or place it back on the table. It in no ways affects the story, but it’s a small symbolic gesture the player can use to express whether or not the player thinks Henry should reunite with his wife, or consider moving on to another relationship.
It’s easy to deride this game as another walking simulator, or a game that fails to deliver on story, but that’s missing the point. Video games, like all mediums, can be much more than what mass audiences will find appealing. Firewatch is not a game made for everyone, but a game made to push the medium forward, to explore more of what games can do and express. And that’s a damn fine ambition for any game to have.
© 2016 James Blake Ewing