Firewatch: The (re)view from my lookout
This weekend, everybody seems to be playing Firewatch (myself included) and the experience is a divisive one. Firewatch is an experiential game that involves a lot of walking and interacting with the world—but not much else—and this has sparked the debate we have all heard before: is this style of game truly a ‘game’?
My opinion on this is simple: yes. Games can be many things and take many forms, including interactive narratives (such as the hypertext-style narrative you follow at the beginning of Firewatch) and the ‘snoop ‘em up’ genre (which is a term coined by Steven O’Donnell to reflect games resembling the remainder of Firewatch). This, however, is not an answer that everybody likes or agrees with.
Some people begin a game and are seeking something that is familiar through its genre, its mechanics, and even its narrative arc, but in many ways, Firewatch is new and unfamiliar. This game subverts the player’s expectations, and this can make the player uncomfortable. Sometimes this discomfort leads a player to have a negative reaction to the experience, but I love games that get under my skin like Firewatch has managed to.
This review contains spoilers.
Everything that I had seen about the game before I commenced my own playthrough involved exploring a beautiful forest that (I gathered from the title) the protagonist would need to protect. This meant that working through the opening narrative was peculiar: I had not been prepared to face decisions regarding Julia’s career and, eventually, her dementia. I found this sequence—which was occasionally interrupted by moments of Henry hiking to Two Forks—surprisingly impactful.
As the game progresses, it borrows techniques from the horror genre to make you paranoid. The true discomfort in these sequences, however, is not the paranoia, but the resolutions to the questions that are posed. Horror games have taught us to look for specific genre cues and recognise what these cues mean, but Firewatch refuses to adhere to our expectations here too. This has led to a number of critics feeling as though the ending of Firewatch is disappointing, when perhaps it was simply not what they were anticipating.
Henry is isolated in Shoshone National Forest, with only Delilah to talk to through a two-way radio. This isolation is a common trope of horror games, as is the forest setting, and leads us to wonder what violent or supernatural threat awaits us in the shadows. However, there are rarely shadows in Firewatch: the forest is usually well-lit and beautiful, and even the cave you traverse feels vibrant, with streams of light breaking their way through the crumbling rocks.
The resolutions to the mysteries you encounter throughout the game are as vibrant as the scenery: the teenagers Henry and Delilah thought were missing turn out to be safe (and criminals, which is unsurprisingly based on earlier interactions); the death of Brian Goodwin was a climbing accident; the person stalking Henry through the forest was Brian’s grief-stricken and terrified father, Ned; the research facility at Wapiti Station is simply a research facility; and Delilah really did just want to get out of the fire-ravaged forest as quickly as possible (as much as I thought she was leaving me stranded by disappearing in the last evacuation helicopter).
The fear felt by characters in Firewatch—and, by extension, felt by the player—are based in the real world. Characters are scared of the decisions they’ve made or that they must make, and in many ways these fears are worse than the violent and supernatural threats often found within the horror genre. Henry is isolated in the forest and scared of his surroundings, but it turns out he should be more afraid of surviving the self-doubt and shame that has manifested within him.
These negative emotions come from the realistic, human choices Henry makes in response to his relationship and the difficulties he faces with Julia. These choices culminate in Henry deciding to volunteer at Shoshone National Forest because he cannot handle Julia’s condition; this decision is founded in selfishness or cowardice, and can make Henry quite an unlikeable character.
Delilah also has traits that make her undesirable, as well as many redeeming qualities. Both her and Henry are flawed and human—they make mistakes, they can be lazy, they admit to not giving the ones they love enough attention—and this is what helps to develop the intimacy between them. Delilah sees something of herself in Henry, which is why she talks to him more than the other lookouts, and even flirts with him sometimes. But—regardless of whether the player chooses to make Henry reciprocate in these flirtatious moments—Delilah ultimately tells Henry he needs to go back to Julia, no matter how difficult it seems. This final conversation feels indicative of a true friendship and reminds the player that flirtation does not need to mean sex, and that not all male and female characters need to become romantically involved.
Firewatch is a fascinating game that takes the player on a journey through the forest as well as through the minds of flawed, human characters. It does not do what we expect as players searching for tropes and signals from the genres we are so familiar with, and in the process creates a relatable tale about making difficult choices and trying to be a better person.
This article was cross-posted at PlayWrite.