'Firewatch' Is Less about Observing the Wilderness Than It Is about Observing a Relationship
Firewatch manages to tell a sometimes funny, sometimes melancholic story about two isolated people in a very big, very wild world.
FirewatchPublisher: Campo Santo
ESRB Rating: Mature
Developer: Campo Santo
Release Date: 2016-02-09
Following right on the heels of playing the heavily character-driven adventure game Oxenfree, I've had the chance to play through Firewatch, yet another character-driven adventure game. Oxenfree is superb, and Firewatch is quite good, too. It seems like 2016 is quite the year for the adventure game.
More specifically, what these two games have in common is some exceptional character development and a real sense of the player being a part of building engaging relationships between characters. In Oxenfree, it's a group of five teenagers that interact in interesting and engaging ways. Firewatch is more minimal in its approach. This is a game that is really just about two characters.
The premise of Firewatch is that you will be taking on the role of a man named Henry, who has experienced a terrible separation from the woman that he loves, his wife Julia, as the result of what appears to be an early onset of Alzheimer's Disease. Distraught over his wife's illness and having agreed to allow her parents to take care of her, Henry finds himself compelled to escape society and human relationships by taking a job for the summer of 1989 as a lookout in Shoshone National Park. He has placed himself on fire watch. He has relocated himself to a place that he, perhaps, feels will allow him solitude.
Of course, importantly, a lookout must have some contact with others. The lookout needs to check in to let people know if there is danger or not. So, on the first day of his arrival, Henry is acquainted with another solitary watcher, his manager, Delilah, who is in charge of him and her own watchtower. The two speak only via radio, creating only what seems like the most minimal of human contact for Henry and really for the player of the game overall.
Firewatch is played from the first person perspective, so most everything that the player sees, that Henry sees, is simply landscapes. Henry and Julia's conversations, as Henry goes about his duties, drive the story and are really what the game is all about.
Of course, a game purely about sitting in a tower and just watching the horizon (while very prettily drawn here) would be quite a boring experience and not much to hang a plot or game around. Thus, there are events that occur over the course of the summer that require Henry to explore and investigate the Park, while Julia acts as his aid and adviser over the radio. The game world itself is actually fairly small, and yet, while playing, one has a sense of the immensity of the wilderness surrounding Henry and his tiny tower. Campo Santo has done an excellent job of layering the world in just such a way that it gives the illusion of being vastly bigger than it really is.
So, the game is about exploring the Park, investigating some unusual happenings, and about exploring the relationship that evolves between Henry and Julia. You will frequently encounter books left behind by previous lookouts over the years, at your own tower or in supply caches around the park (seemingly lookouts traded reading material with one another through this system, sensible given the solitary nature of the job). Most of these books are mystery novels and thrillers, and as events grow more unusual in Henry's little corner of the wilderness, they become suggestive that Firewatch is not simply a mundane fire watch simulator. Instead, Firewatch seems to something of a thriller itself.
The thing is, though, while exploring and investigating become some of the central activities of the game, seemingly in support of the central mysteries and questions of its thriller-like plotline, it's still a game that keeps the focus on exploring human relationships more than anything else. Firewatch is reminiscent of Hitchcock in this sense. Hitchcock famously described the central goal and seeming purpose of many of the plots of his thrillers as being made up of one or more “MacGuffins”, plot devices that move the story along, but that truthfully the audience doesn't actually care much about. They are excuses for a plot, not the central interest of the plot. They just seem that way.
While Hitchcock made thrillers, he recognized that conspiracies and espionage are really less interesting than human drama itself. While seemingly Hitchcock's Notorious (1946) is about how Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant's characters will collect essential information by spying on a high ranking Nazi, we don't actually care about that information or really how it will save American lives as the result of their mission. We care only about the romantic relationship unfolding between Bergman and Grant. The Hitchcock thriller is really more often a human story, concerned with human relationships, not the fate of nations. The spies, espionage, and conspiracies exist only as excuses to explore individuals, which we can actually relate to.
In a nutshell, that is very much what Firewatch is, a game about people, two individuals who begin to really care about one another despite the narrowness of their ability to communicate. Due to its very well acted parts, its often lovely scenery, and its focus on exploring humanity rather than just another game world, Firewatch manages to tell a sometimes funny, sometimes melancholic story about two isolated people and how they sometimes try to flee from and sometimes try to flee to others for the sake of comfort and for the sake of feeling like there is someone to anchor them in a very big, very wild world.
Overall, it's quite a nice game and quite a nicely told story about two people and whether it's reasonable or not to attempt to escape your own troubles by being and remaining alone.