Let it burn
A couple of years ago, I traveled to California's Tahoe Forest for a night, driven by an intense feeling to just get away. I did it because of a rocky falling out I had with a certain someone. Removing myself from modern technology and distancing myself from this other person was the only thing I could do to deal with my emotions. It was a way for me to escape reality, if just for a few days. But even as I hiked, looking up at the tall trees and listening to the birds and the gentle swish of a stream, I still felt, in my chest, everything I was running from. Having this experience is what drew me to Firewatch, the very first game from developers Campo Santo.
In Firewatch, you play as Henry, a 39-year old who escapes into the Wyoming wilderness for a summer as a way to cope with the problems in his life. Sounds familiar, right?
Henry is a fire lookout and the only person he talks to is his boss, Delilah. Their crackling radio conversations are the driving force behind Firewatch’s five-hour narrative. These exchanges are, at times, charming, hilarious and devastating. The vocal performances from the two actors are some of the best in any video game, and the writing itself is meaningful without being at all preachy. Because of this, players get a real sense of the growing friendship between the two, and the inflections in their voices also hint at the growing tension of the overall story, as well as the unraveling mysteries of the forest.
I was Henry. Henry was me.
As Henry, players can dodge serious questions from Delilah, or respond truthfully. Every time a serious question came up, I hesitated to give her the real answers. I was invested in keeping Henry’s emotional state safe. I was there to stare into the sky, and enjoy the peace and quiet, not to be prodded by a voice in a walkie-talkie. Yet, a part of me really wanted Henry to open up. I was Henry. Henry was me. As I grew to understand Delilah, Henry talked more openly about his feelings.
Opening up to Delilah gave me a sense of relief, as if it was really me confessing to something I held deep down. But players have the option to ask Delilah questions too, and like any well-adjusted adult, she might not be ready to tell you everything on a whim. I thought about the questions and answers I wanted to give her, as if she were a real person on the other side of the screen. Suddenly, I was so invested that I felt compelled to pick the dialog options that I thought might reveal the most about these characters. I wanted them to talk out their personal problems as if they were my own, as if I were out there in the wilderness.
I attribute these feelings to the Firewatch’s fantastic performance and writing. The interesting bit about the dialogue is that, Campo Santo still managed to fit an entire game into Henry and Delilah’s conversations.
Delilah will often ask Henry to hike to a nearby power line and examine it, or make sure kids don’t burn down the forest with illegal fireworks. This gives you, the player, something to do, and as you’re hiking through the woods, Delilah may call you, since there’s not much else to do as a fire lookout except chat on a radio. You can take a bunch of in-game photos and have them delivered to you in real life, but otherwise, there's not a lot to actually do in Firewatch
Players can climb rock walls, jump between ledges, chop some trees and rappel from a rope. These are all actions that help the player get from where they are, to where they need to be. There isn’t any combat, and there aren’t any puzzles, but that’s okay. The game excels in its increasingly tense narrative and in its beautiful environment, and that’s the whole point, right?
It's in the narrative and the forest that that players will find Firewatch's possible themes and subtext.
Why do we isolate ourselves when we’re emotionally hurt? Don’t you love this person, why aren’t you with them when they need you most?
These questions are even more interesting when you take into consideration the idea of escapism, where one escapes from a painful reality with the help of a distraction or fantasy.
Bare with me here. The fact that Firewatch is a video game about a man escaping his daily reality to live in the middle of a forest, and on the other hand, video games can be argued as the ultimate form of escapism, playing Campo Santo's first title can be a very meta experience. To tie this idea back to the title, Henry is dealing with his problems in a manner some may call unhealthy, since we’re usually taught to face our problems head on, or at least, that’s what society and pop culture has conditioned us to believe. The fact that I like to play games to also escape sometimes, is also an interesting tidbit.
I’m not one to say that Henry's actions are right or wrong, but the game certainly made me think about how I’ll be handling my own decisions when problems arise. Will I run to try and escape a reality I know already exists, or will I hang tight and try to accept the hand that I’ve been dealt? There haven’t been many games that evoked these types of thoughts in me, and I have to commend the team at Campo Santo for doing so, and doing it in such a visually stunning manner.
Early in the game, players will come across supply caches that are sometimes full of classic literature, maps and notes left from previous lookouts. There are plenty of notes to read and supply caches to look for, all of which, Delilah can provide a little background on. These additions made the world of 1989 Wyoming feel lived in and adds to the possibility that Henry isn't alone.
I felt like I was hearing and seeing things that weren’t there.
Isolation in the woods for long periods of time and hearing only a voice in a radio can really mess with a person’s psyche though. After awhile, I felt like I was hearing and seeing things that weren’t there.
There were times where I stopped in a path because I heard something shaking in a nearby bush, or the sound of a twig cracking, which might have suggested an animal. The wind also blows with a calm serenity, but it also stirred doubt in my mind. Every now and then I’d cringe and prepare myself, expecting a horrific thing might happen as I was climbing up a rope. What was waiting for me at the top? Or when the day turned to night and I had to rummage through a cave with a flashlight, not knowing what lurked in the darkness.
Nature is beautiful. Nature is terrifying.
Firewatch reminded me of a Metroidvania because there's a lot of backtracking but the world is so darn gorgeous, I never felt exhausted from walking through the lush woods and looking up at the beautifully rendered light shafts that poked through the trees.
Despite all of it’s beauty, there are moments where I felt utterly lost and turned around. There are certain sections of the forest that look blocked off, but can be easily cleared if Henry has the necessary tools, which are unlocked as you progress. But since its a forest and everything kind of looks the same, some paths I believed to be explorable were simply invisible walls that cannot not be traversed, and that’s frustrating. There aren't button overlays or anything to tell the player that a particular path is an actual path designed by the game developers, at least not until you get close enough, and you have to be pretty close. Referring to the in-game map was tedious and clunky. Also, the flashlight is utterly useless. But these are minor quips in a great game.
When I hiked up to Tahoe Forest for a day, I went with a good friend of mine and even though we goofed off most of the time, I couldn’t help but talk about this other person I was running from. I felt them in my chest, I felt the reality back home in the forest trees and in the sky, I couldn’t escape. Fires rise even if you run from them, even when you can’t see them. And sometimes escaping isn’t the best bet. Sometimes you just have to sit and watch it burn. I believe that’s what the developers at Campo Santo are trying to get at with Firewatch. These were the ideas that ran through my head as I watched the “June Fire” light up the night in 1989 Wyoming.
When the credits to Firewatch rolled, I will admit that I felt a little disappointed. The ending isn’t something to write home about but it’s the only ending that could possibly fit the narrative Campo Santo created. It made me recall an emotionally difficult time in my life and after some reflection, I came away feeling like I had a better understanding of not just Henry, but also a better understanding of myself. And that’s never a bad thing.
Billy really likes video games and he's going to get that free burrito from Chipotle this week. Also, say hi to him at this year's Silicon Valley Comic Con and he'll buy you a drink! Follow him on Twitter @Billybyte.