Firewatch (and things we lost in the flames)

I’ve had a slightly strained relationship with so called ‘walking simulators’ in the past. The term itself is rather lazy, often describing games in which action and set pieces take a backseat to exposition. As I’m interested in how story can be relayed in games I’ve played a few examples of the genre lately. ‘Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture‘ left me cold as it had a fantastic setting but just felt like you were moving around having the events taking place in Yaughton told to you rather than finding out anything else for yourself. It also felt like you’d arrived after the fact, all the interesting stuff having long since passed you by.

Gone Home was a vast improvement that I actually enjoyed greatly. Taking place in a house unfamiliar to both the character and you as the player was a good step.The focus on your younger sister as the character you discover the most about through letters and everyday objects gives the game focus. It was also a story about family even though in the opening moments it seemed so much like a haunted mansion tale. It was shorter than Rapture but probably better for it.

SPOILER WARNING- The following text goes into a fair amount of depth about the storyline of Firewatch.

firewatch.jpg

Taking advantage of the price drop in the PSN January sale I picked up Firewatch. Having finished it a couple of evenings ago I can honestly say I’m very glad I did. Like ‘Rapture’ and ‘Gone Home’ it’s a first person game that features a main character with a very personal story.

Henry is a rather gruff man whose life has been dealt a shock because his 41 year old wife, Julia, has developed early onset dementia. As her condition worsens she goes back to see her parents in Melbourne whilst Henry takes a job as a Firewatch in the National Park of Wyoming. He is assigned a watch tower for the summer and has contact over the radio with another more experienced member of the watch called Delilah.

All of the background part of the story is pretty much ran though with a few multiple choice questions in the introduction. You have to decide what to name the dog you both buy, if Henry wants kids or not and if Julia accepts a job offer three hundred miles away. Apart from one phone call later in the game you never see or hear Julia. Usually I’d be frustrated that such a crucial part of this story is dealt with so quickly but Firewatch has a major difference in that all this is the part of Henry’s life he’s running away from. The information that you’ve skimmed over is what Henry wants to put in the back of his head. As a part of the overall narrative it works well.

I still started the game proper sort of hating Henry though. Here was a guy who had purposely travelled thousands of miles away from his wife to simply forget about her. Rather than be next to his wife in this difficult time he’s wandering Yellowstone Park instead. I felt like I was entering the shoes of a complete jackass. It isn’t that long into the game and the interplay between Delilah and Henry shines through. Whilst it is possible to render Henry a complete arse during your initial conversations with Delilah by batting back her questions I found myself really opening up to her. I chose not to lie about why I was in Wyoming and to tell her about Julia early on. This led to a good few conversations with the two joking back and forth. It’s then you realise that Henry has missed the style of conversation he’d usually get with his wife. Once that’s established Henry’s position makes much more sense.

There’s a lot of walking in Firewatch. It helps greatly that the game’s art style is so good meaning the park is a pleasure to wander around in. The first day opens with fireworks being set off near a lake as Henry goes off to investigate. He finds two drunk teenage girl skinny dipping. He mentions this over the radio to Delilah.

“I’ve found a bra”

“A what?”

“Please don’t make me say it again”.

“Why? Is it because you’re 12?”.

firewatch bra.jpg

From this moment on Firewatch unravels into a mystery as the two girls seem to vandalise Henry’s tower and then go missing. Then there’s the small matter of somebody listening into and recording the conversations between Delilah and Henry. As the story goes on the relationship between Henry and Delilah gets closer. There’s something of the internet chat relationship between the two as they have to imagine what each other looks like. At one point Delilah reveals she’s drawing a picture of Henry and you are given various choices as to how to describe yourself to her. I went for ‘the better looking brother of Tom Cruise’. There’s another moment in the game in which both are looking at a fire in the distance and Delilah mentions something about wishing ‘they were together’. I went along with the conversation which, although never actually fully mentioned, is obviously about to turn sexual in nature. The next morning, before Henry leaves for his hike, it’s possible to find his wedding ring on the table. I ended up picking it up and putting it back on. Henry’s struggle becomes that of the player very quickly.

Firewatch’s final stretch sees the forest in the middle of a huge inferno and helicopters coming in to evacuate everybody. Upon discovering who exactly had been spying on you both all summer you are told to hike towards Delilah’s watch tower as it’s right next to the evacuation point. It feels like the game is finally going to reveal Delilah and she’ll fall into Henry’s arms. It doesn’t work out that way however. Before Henry gets to the location Delilah says she must leave as the helicopter is doing rounds. Henry can protest but it feels in vain as she departs anyway. When you get to her tower you see the picture she drew of Henry and all the other things she referenced during your conversations. The helicopter then lands and waits. As Henry walks down the stairs I had a feeling that something was about to happen that would prevent him from escaping. Would Henry decide to stay? Would the helicopter leave him? The final exchange Delilah and Henry have over the radio is when Henry invites her to meet him back in Colorado. She seems to brush him off, saying that she might drop by sometime. You take the hand of the rescue personnel and fly away from the flames.

firewatch tower.jpg

There isn’t much actual interaction with the objects you find in Firewatch, you don’t actually really meet another human close up and there’s often a fair bit of wandering involved but unlike some other games you’re fully involved in the story. I might have started the game feeling that Henry was running away from his duty as a husband but as I spent time playing through Firewatch his situation and feelings became clearer. By the end I felt for him and understood him more. Credit must be given to the development team at Campo Santo for not only telling a good story but making the player feel much more than a bystander.

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