Into the Emotional Core of Indie Game ‘Firewatch’

Firewatch is hamstrung by the constraints of being a video game, but it could not exist in any other form. At its core, the debut of indie developer Campo Santo would probably best be described as narrative-driven “adventure” game, but that description — which derives from a line of puzzle-solving games, rather than interactive narrative — would not do justice to the emotional core revealed to anyone willing to work within the confines of its mechanics.

Players control Henry, a middle-aged man who takes a job as a park scout in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest for the summer of 1989, following a painful separation from his wife. The job, which requires him to live in a tower two days from civilization for 90 days, severs all communication to the outside world. (Literary fans may remember such a tower from Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels.)

Henry’s only human connection is his boss, a veteran scout named Delilah, who lives miles away in the next tower and communicates with him by radio. Over the course of Henry’s time in the woods, which players can experience from start to finish in five hours, give or take, Henry is drawn into a mystery involving him, Delilah, the park’s visitors and past fire scouts.

Firewatch consistently gives off the distinct impression that it has two stories to tell. There’s the thriller aspect, which explains why this is a novel time and place to experience, and there is the story of Henry’s “escape” to the woods. While one story informs the other, and does so effectively, the two never completely fuse into a singular tale.

The interactive component of the game essentially boils down to a “hiking simulator.” Players engage the story mainly by pointing to objects and “reporting” them to Delilah, triggering new dialogue and, often a new location to explore. Armed with only a map and a compass at first, Henry has to climb, rappel, bushwhack and sometime just take the long way around to get from point A to point B.

Much of the story lives in the dialogue between Henry and the disembodied voice of Delilah. There’s natural chemistry between voice actors Rich Sommer and Cissi Jones, which makes even mundane conversations convey the fragile growth of a meaningful relationship. You can call and “report” just about anything to Delilah, prompting at least a short back-and-forth, and though most are purely optional, there’s never a time when you won’t want to hear more.

And while it might sound silly, wandering around without purpose in Shoshone feels enjoyable. Finding a way down one side of a ravine and up the other doesn’t feel like an accomplishment, but there’s pleasure in the doing. The routes you’ll take are varied and feel natural, and the park feels large enough to give the impression that going from one end to the other is a feat, of sorts. There’s room to get lost, and that feeling binds you to Henry, who’s looking for exactly the sort of zen-like satisfaction that you get on a hike.

This may explain why the strength of the game’s inter-personal story surpasses its structural backbone. There are very few video game thrillers that aren’t overt horror stories; a consequence of a mode that excels at granting power fantasies. Unlike those games, there’s no way to lose Firewatch; whatever happens will happen. Obviously, that’s the way most narratives work, but with the added emotional investment of control, seeing a story play out simply doesn’t feel like enough, especially when there’s a meaningful consequence for failure.

Firewatch, however, suffers from no such failings, although it’s hard to explain why without spoiling the story. In the later half of the game, Henry’s emotional journey still looms, even when it’s supposed to take a back seat to winding exposition. There were moments when I wished the thriller would just go away, and let me deal with Henry’s story, which, while mundane, felt nuanced and powerful in the way that only emotional stories — far too rarely the purview of video games — can achieve.