Firewatch, the walking simulator developed by Campo Santo, was five years old yesterday and I was reminded all over again as to why it remains one of the most memorable video game experiences. In fact, as the title, I kind of wish I could play it for the first time again.
I consider Firewatch my introduction into what Indie titles could be, and what they can achieve. Of course, Firewatch is a very successful indie experience, driven at least in part by personalities such as PewDiePie and Markeplier in Let’s Plays, but that doesn’t take away from its quality.
In the current climate where real life conversations are so sparse, away from the internet and work and other distractions, Firewatch might just emulate what so many people need right now.
“Firewatch might just emulate what so many people need right now.”
From minute one, Firewatch sucked me in with believable characters, a world that has emulated nature better than most and, most importantly, conversation.
The story of Henry is a sad one, and in all honesty continues to be a sad one throughout Firewatch. A man running away from his problems, deterred by uncertainty, punts himself toward the job of a fire lookout in the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming. Upon his arrival at his lookout post, he’s quickly approached by a fellow lookout named Delilah over walkie talkie.
What follows such a simple premise is a short but sweet journey that examines the boundaries of friendship and how it can and might cross over into something more personal. About how people seek solace in the company of others, even if they’re complete strangers.
Of course the whole experience is uplifted by excellent writing and acting throughout, but it’s a remarkably personal story that will hit anyone playing in some form or another. Henry’s motivation for his temporary escape to the wilderness, his wife, is one that people of all ages should be able to appreciate.
“the whole experience is uplifted by excellent writing and acting throughout”
Loss is something that can be experienced in multiple ways. An ex, the passing of friends or family, estranged siblings, or in this case, early-onset dementia.
I’m fortunate enough that I haven’t had to deal with dementia yet but many I know have, and the grief that Firewatch emulates, the way that Henry chooses to literally escape, is something that I’m sure they can all empathise with. It’s also something that feels accurately represented, at least from the outside looking in.
Everything I’ve said thus far probably paints Firewatch as a really miserable experience, but it’s anything but that. There’s multiple threads woven into Firewatch, but the primary theme is the idea of unconditional love, and the responsibility that comes with that.
In other games like Firewatch, good or bad, the lead character might talk to themselves, write in a diary, or otherwise inform the player as to their moment to moment thoughts. In Firewatch that is Delilah, the only other fire lookout and the only other person you’ll actually converse with throughout the 4-6 experience.
The conversations between Henry and Delilah stand as some of the most honest, believable, and more importantly human conversations I’ve seen in video games. When you sit back and think about it, conversations that feel natural in video games are relatively few and far between. As I’ve mentioned in reviews before, oftentimes they’re awkwardly paced, alternate dialogue options don’t sound equally mixed as other options, or a plethora of other issues.
In Firewatch, the conversations between Henry and Delilah just feel like two people… talking. Over time their relationship grows into something more poignant than just work buddies, but even from the get go there’s a casual feeling to it that’s hard to find in many games. In a period of time where Covid is a thing and friends and family find it difficult to get together, even if they can, there’s something to be said for a game like Firewatch. Something to be said for a game that so perfectly emulates what it’s like to have an ordinary conversation.
“In Firewatch, the conversations between Henry and Delilah just feel like two people… talking.”
The main story in Firewatch isn’t related to Henry or Delilah, but that’s certainly what the game is about. In amongst the mystery that the game delivers, the through-thread of friendship is something that I adored the first time I played, and the second, and the third. The way Henry chooses to avoid his problems is one many can understand, and the way he realises that he should be with his wife and her family is lovingly crafted through the hours you’ll spend in this world.
Delilah is the catalyst for the realisation that Henry is in the wrong place, but she’s much more than that as well. Part of why Firewatch succeeds as a story is that it allows room for two main characters, their motivations, their faults, and Delilah helps the overall narrative tremendously. So many of the moments between Henry and Delilah are seared into my brain that I can almost repeat the lines word for word.
That’s one of the reasons I’m writing today’s article to be honest. I know Firewatch so well, I’ve lived in Henry’s shoes so many times, that the game isn’t new to me anymore. Playing it now is like re-reading a book I’ve read a dozen times. I’ll do it, but some of the charm and excitement is lost. But it’s also one of the few single-player experiences where I haven’t found myself wishing for a sequel, or some kind of expansion that follows Henry and Delilah after the events of Firewatch. It’s a nearly flawless single player package revolving around two characters that I don’t think need fleshing out any more than they were.
As I said at the head of this article, prior to Firewatch indie games were an unknown quantity to me. Since then I’ve dived in wherever I have the time, playing games like Celeste, Spiritfarer, Edith Finch, Hob, Among Trees and more. The one consistent thing I run into is that I tend to value honest heartfelt experiences above all else.
Take Celeste, a rock hard platforming experience driven by the protagonist’s anxiety and depression, where she’s literally battling her own demons. Edith Finch, where she’s exploring her family’s long history with tragedy.
“It’s a nearly flawless single player package revolving around two characters that I don’t think need fleshing out any more than they were.”
Firewatch kicked off my appreciation for these more ‘real’ tales, no matter their presentation, and I’m quite sad I’ll never have that level of revelation again. It’s for this reason that I kind of wish I could erase my memory of playing it, so I could sit down and play it all over again. Every now and again a person stumbles upon a transformative piece of media. Something that shifts their perspectives and values beyond what was there before.
For books someone might say that Harry Potter, Lord of The Rings, I Robot, or other works changed what they needed and wanted from them. For movies someone might say Inception, Godfather, or Shawshank Redemption. Where games are concerned, I have previously stated that Halo: Combat Evolved and Mass Effect 2 changed the idea of what games could be and what they could mean to me, and I stand by that. Firewatch did exactly the same thing five years ago, and set a bar for a story-telling experience that has rarely been met since.
Firewatch really is a wonderful game, for more than the reasons I’ve discussed today, and what better time to play it than around its five year anniversary?