Firewatch: A Review

firewatch
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
                          – Robert Frost

An almost fitting poem for the characters of Firewatch, except none of them get past the first stanza. They sit idle staring at the paths before them, choosing instead to escape their reality and put off coping with their hardship. Firewatch is a game for adults. Not because of all the gratuitous sex (spoilers: there are none), not because of the copious amounts of drugs and “mature themes” (spoilers: there are none) and not because of language (spoilers: there is a lot).  The story of Firewatch, from beginning to conclusion, is an arc all to familiar to those who have put more than a few years behind them.

The game is what’s called, tongue in cheek, a walking simulator although the genre is really an iteration of interactive fiction. There are no monsters or skills or guns or any other of that video game crap. It is about exploration and narrative. You play as Henry, a man whose wife has early on-set dementia and has moved half way across the world to be with her family as she slowly forgets who everyone is. Henry is kind of a jerk, but not in a “this is the bad guy” way, but rather the kind of jerk we all have been. Instead of making up his mind about what to do (a theme established at the very instant of the game), he decides to spend the summer as a watchman in Shoshone National Park. The game is set in the 1980’s before mobile phones and all the other fancy stuff we are used to so deciding to chill in a tower in the middle of the woods for a summer is a lonesome experience. His only source of human contact is Delilah, his superior who manages a number of watchmen around the park. They chat together through walkie-talkies.

Basically, this boils down to you exploring the wilderness and being sent on errands by Delilah. You can choose to either be an ass, or not to respond to her when she talks, or be an extremely annoying helpless man by calling in every single small observation you make. I did the latter because the dialogue and voice acting is so good. So you run around the forest and check stuff out, go hiking, climbing, and yelling at teenagers and all is good and fun until you realize some things are not as they seem. You are not alone out here, and there is definitely some sinister plot against you. That’s the back of the box review. The real one is after these pretty pictures, because spoilers.

firewatch woods

firewatch mountains

I saw parts of myself in these characters because all of the main characters in the game are hiding from something. Like most people I would reckon, I have at times avoided taken responsibility or face the people I have wronged. Sometimes it’s easier to just say fuck it and pretend nothing happened or just run away. It’s perhaps the cowardly thing to do that comes with its own types of consequences. Sometimes though, you just really need a break to figure things out.

Henry is taking a break from confronting Julia and the feelings he now has about her and the future of their relationship. It’s not an easy decision – try to love someone who is not themselves and who doesn’t know who you are, or leave the one you vowed to care for knowing that you let them down in a major way. There is no right or wrong, there is just choice and pain, and later regret. No matter which one he ends up choosing.

Delilah has been doing this job for almost ten years. She has no one close to her. Perhaps being scarred once by a man in the past has made her decide not to open up again. Sometimes she’s flirty, sometimes she’s mean but she always keeps some emotional distance between her and Henry. Even if you go down the path of trying to initiate romance with her, she will not wait to meet Henry at the end of the game.  Of course Delilah was never going to let Henry meet her. She can’t handle that and she knows it, and she knows that by meeting him, she will be helping him run away from his responsibilities.

Ned, stunned by the fate of his son, decides to become a hermit in the woods. He lives by scavenging for supplies and sleeping in caves instead of actually returning to the real world and face the consequences of what had happened. When Henry comes close to discovering the truth about what happened to his son, he decides to try to scare him off rather than come clean or just leave.

Compared to “standard” video game and movie characters, these people are fuck ups. Compared to you and me, they are like you and me – everyday people. We are not used to stories about plain ordinary characters – especially in videogames. There is no hero arc, there is no final conclusion and release – it just ends. Hey man, that’s life.

There has been a lot of criticism of the game’s ending, saying that it was the weakest part but that’s because they miss the point.

But in looking back on it all, on reaching the end and figuring out what actually transpired, everything that came before seems like nonsense. It’s completely illogical for certain people to have acted in certain ways given what we learn in the denouement. (PC World)

Getting older doesn’t just mean you accumulate experiences and memories that Facebook keeps wanting us to share. With age comes wisdom, which means we realize we are just as clueless as we were as teenagers but we know how to fill out tax forms and we know which corner shop has the freshest tomatoes on a Tuesday. We start having less friends but the ones we do have are more important. We have work, and responsibilities, and bills and all this other horribly mundane stuff as our bodies start breaking down and going with the flow becomes more stressful than not.

Point is, for most of us older people in routines, we wish that life was exciting. We wish that when the time comes, we defend the Earth from invading aliens with our dying breath, our names remembered forever before the credits roll. We wish we were like James Bond, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Sherlock Holmes. We wish that everyday was filled with exciting adventure. In our minds, we want to be witty and smart and strong and the underdog all at the same time. So when Ned starts messing with Henry and Delilah, of course they want it to be a conspiracy, that for some reason a mysterious force or organization found their boring jobs and normal lives fascinating enough to experiment on. That would make them heroes because they know for a fact that in real life they are not. It is this very desire that Campo Santo uses to mislead us, giving us what we want before revealing that the truth is just mundane. It’s both brilliant and unfair.

On top of that, guilt is a wicked thing that like most strong and uncomfortable emotions make people do illogical things. That is the beauty of Firewatch, that is is a reflection of individual humanity on such a true scale that it makes us uncomfortable when we get it.  If we don’t, it makes us confused and we might feel let down when there is no pay off. Stories are supposed to have good, fuzzy endings where everything is neatly laid out like some hotel breakfast smorgasbord, right? Firewatch’s characters believing in the conspiracy directly reflects a lot of the criticism of the story. You made us believe there was a super interesting story here with all this stuff and now what? That’s it? But I wanted to escape and feel special with this videogame. Well played, Campo Santo. Well played.

That is what makes Firewatch good. Its sleight of hand in delivering an intriguing narrative of a conspiracy just to have it boil down to something mundane is a reflection of life. The complete disregard of how a videogame story should be is not only bold, it’s also honest. Brutally so. Your vacation is over. You ran away from your problems and now the whole forest is on fire. There’s a lesson in that.

 

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For a better written review of Firewatch, please read Emily Short’s great review:

Firewatch (Campo Santo)

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