You’re alone in the woods, in a national park, miles from civilisation. An untouched expanse of nature, of beautiful trees, harsh, unforgiving mountains, and icy, deep water. You don’t see another living person the entire time you’re there. It’s an escape from it all. The doldrums of modern life. The honk of cars and the hum of fluorescent lighting. A break from the hell that is other people.
It might sound glorious to you. Or maybe it sounds utterly terrifying. Either way, it’s a common trope, as obvious as the wise old man or the unlikely hero. Ever since humans have had something to get away from besides a lion or a bear, they’ve wanted to get away from it.
Firewatch, the gorgeous debut game from fresh indie studio Campo Santo, is centred around this idea. You play as Henry, as he takes a job watching for fires in an American National Park over the summer. His only contact is Delilah, his boss on the radio, who he has never met in person.
The game opens with text appearing on screen, telling you about Henry, prompting you to make decisions about his life up until this point. Does he use a cheesy chat up line on his future wife, or play it cool? Does he go for the vicious dog or the cute puppy? Does he tell his wife that he doesn’t want to move for her big job opportunity, or does he tell her that he wants her to commute across the country for him?
It doesn’t take a whole lot of foresight to realise that things go wrong for Henry. After all, this is only the start of the game. As we see these choose-your-own-adventure style options play out, we control Henry for small vignettes. He crosses a parking lot to hop into his truck. He arrives at the National Park. He climbs the stairs to his tower, his lonely, haunting home for the summer. As he moves towards his destination, we experience the life span of his relationship with his wife and him.
It’s tough, its heart breaking, and we feel for Henry before we’ve even heard his voice. The ability to make choices about your relationship with your wife bleeds into the main game, but it’s telling that one of the first lines of dialogue Delilah delivers asks, in a roundabout way, what are you running from?
The love of Henry’s life has early onset Alzheimer’s. She’s in a home, and scarcely remembers who he is. He used to visit every day, now it’s less and less frequent. Now that he’s in the park, he won’t see her for months. She’s back in Australia, being looked after by her family. They don’t think much of Henry.
Depending on the dialogue you choose, your Henry can be slightly different. Does he put his wife in the home, or does he refuse to? Does he remain devoted, or slowly drift away? Either way, Henry is flawed. He’s weak and selfish. He wants his old wife back, he can’t deal with his grief. He wants to run.
Delilah is running from something too, and as Henry explores the park and gets a feel for his job there, they become fast friends, and then, there are hints of something more than that. The park is a character in of itself, you begin to learn its nooks and crannies as you navigate by map and compass. You don’t follow an arrow, you’re told that its west of the lake, north of your tower, east of the fence.
You’re alone, eerily so. You chastise drunken teens for setting off fireworks, and they go missing. A man has been watching you. Someone has vandalised your tower. As the game goes on, the mystery deepens, culminating in a heart breaking denouement, as two large fires join and begin to engulf the park.
To Firewatch’s immense credit, it spins many threads of a mystery that for the most part, come together in the end. Even though there are holes in the story that could be picked, the true tale here is about Henry, and Delilah, and their relationship and the lies and truths they tell each other.
You don’t walk away from Firewatch feeling that Henry has been healed. There is no tidy resolution of relationships, no matter how much you want it. Delilah has made it clear that she runs from pain and commitment, at every chance she gets. Why else would she be here, summer after summer? Why would this time be any different?
Throughout the game, you talk to her through your radio. You have to choose to respond, and you have to choose what you say. You could just ignore it, and ignore her. Let the dialogue indicator tick down. Let her give up on trying to engage with you. You could even just the bad responses. Chastise her for drinking, mock her hangovers, side against her when it becomes clear that there’s a third party involved who might bear ill will for both of you.
The option is there to be horrible to Delilah. To keep her at arm’s length, to avoid more pain. Why would you fall into friendship and love again at the risk of fresh pain? The thing is; Delilah and Henry are so perfectly painted, their relationship rings so true. Their performance and the script they follow are equally incredible. You’re alone in the woods, living an existence that is in turns mundane and frightening lonely. Why wouldn’t you cling to the one friend you have?
I couldn’t ignore Delilah. Ignoring her felt like ignoring a true friend, or a loved one. I didn’t want her to stop talking; I didn’t want her to leave. At the end of it all, I wanted the happy ending that I knew wasn’t coming, because this isn’t that kind of story. Firewatch wasn’t about getting better, about a magical solution to heal all wounds. Henry is not a perfect guy. No matter what you say at the start of the game, it still ends up with you running from your problems to be alone in the woods.
Firewatch is about being imperfectly perfect, in the way that we all are. There is no good or bad ending. No best timeline where you collect all the trinkets or make the right choices and everything is okay. It’s about realising what your pain was doing to you, and moving on from it. There’s a perfect line towards the end, if you say the right thing to Delilah, to comfort her, and why wouldn’t you? She’s your radio psychiatrist, the voice on the other side that you’ll never meet, save for a fleeting journey into her tower after she had already left.
You see her bed. Her crossword puzzles. The picture she drew of you at the start. A white guy with shorts, that’s all she knows. You can tell her about your eyes or your beard. Like, or tell the truth, it doesn’t matter.
You are Henry and Henry is you, and as you comfort Delilah, you tell her that someday, there will be enough distance between her and the pain that she can forgive herself for what happened, for what she did, or didn’t do. We all deserve that forgiveness. Henry too. The chance to be wrong, to make mistakes, and to slowly move on, not to a happily ever after, but to something else.
That is not a video game, that is life.