The Casual Humanity of Firewatch

This article is about Firewatch and will be heavy on spoilers. A short, spoiler-free review: Firewatch is great. It is like Gone Home in that it is not mechanics-heavy, but rather has a specific and deeply affecting story. 

If you haven't completed Firewatch, please turn back now unless you really don't care about spoilers. 

Firewatch disappointed me once during my 4 hours of gametime. At the very end of the game, I fully expected to finally meet Delilah, the woman who is your constant companion throughout albeit only via a radio. Henry, the player's avatar, came to know so much about the woman behind the voice. You understand her faults, her fears, and love underneath the harsh sarcasm. Henry needed to finally meet this woman whom I believe he loved. We deserved to meet her and talk to her face to face. I felt like I deserved a resolution.

The game had other plans.

Firewatch is an excellent example of interactive fiction in a well designed and wonderful video game. The story has real emotions fueling every interaction, and it contains some of the best dialogue you'll hear in any game, movie, TV show this year. It is a true achievement from indie developer, Campo Santo, and stands with Gone Home as a symbol of the untapped depth of video games. From the art style, beautiful landscapes, and characters, Firewatch accomplishes so much with a fraction of the resources of large sprawling sequels to well-known franchises. However, while the gameplay is straightforward, Firewatch is complex in ways that AAA games could never reach.

Firewatch struck a very personal chord with me. One point in my life I was involved in a very serious and complicated long-distance relationship. While the two Firewatch towers inhabited by Henry and Delilah were visible from each other, the distance felt astronomical.

I remember being entranced by the voice of someone that felt so special and so different from anyone I'd ever known. Interactions would come at odd times and be commonly intense. Most communication is accomplished with body language and eye contact. A strictly verbal relationship can be liberating but with a small veil of distrust. A few times in Firewatch, Henry tells or asks Delilah something personal, but you never know how she reacts physically. He can infer something from the tone of her voice, but doubt would rear its ugly head. I wondered along with Henry if Delilah was hiding something, and felt a strange relief when she reassured us of her honesty. There is a truly beautiful moment at night with a large forest fire raging in the background where Henry and Delilah express their feelings to each other.  The moment is understated, casual, and uncannily real.

Firewatch touched upon that convoluted and maddening emotion of regret. Henry's unwillingness to cope with Julia's (his wife) dementia drove him away, and I believe he disappointed himself greatly. Have you ever done or said something that seemed so antithetical to your own definition of who you really are? Maybe you realize those terrible and emotional traps that so often waylay other people also apply to your life. It is a scary and painful thing to honestly assess yourself. I don't believe Henry would have ever thought he'd ever abandon his wife. He probably believed at one time that he would love her and take care of her forever, but life isn't always so cut and dry. There is a conversation where Delilah implores Henry to go back to his wife. His answer was non-committal and I felt the deep pangs of regret and bottled up disappointment in himself.

The ending of Firewatch is what Henry and the player ultimately deserved.  Henry poured his love and affection into Delilah. In the end, you realize that everything - the fire lookout job, the writing, and Delilah - was Henry running away from his wife, from his regret. Like Delilah (and frankly Ned Goodwin), Henry needed to deal with his past before it consumed him like a all-encompassing forest fire left to burn itself out.

It is a remarkable thing that a video game can really delve into complex and deep emotions so succinctly. I wonder if we are not asking enough from today's games. In a video game market dominated by power fantasies and wish fulfillment, Firewatch presents humanity like it truly is - flawed, emotional, and immensely riveting.