Firewatch has a simple enough premise: you play Henry, a man who takes a job watching over Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming as a lookout during the summer of 1989. Henry communicates with his supervisor, a woman named Delilah, via handheld radio; her tower, Thorofare Lookout, is visible from his own, Two Forks.
Firewatch explores the fragility of our confidence: questions and doubts arise, both about the choices Henry has made to bring him to this place in his life and the trustworthiness of the voice coming through the radio. Whether Delilah is a friend or something else is an ever-evolving mystery. Her voice and the sight of her lookout are nearly omnipresent, and yet despite the emotional intimacy of Henry’s conversations with her, the miles between them feel unbreachable.
One of the most vulnerable conversations they share comes when the first wildfire of the season begins; they discuss what to name it, voices dipping low and warm and gentle. Despite the reality of their distance, there is a sense of them sitting across a bonfire from one another on a perfect summer night, enjoying the sort of camaraderie that includes exchanging glances and smiles through wavering heat and glowing sparks.
Still, beyond the radio — which could be used to speak to any of the other lookouts or rangers, presumably — there is nothing of Delilah, nothing human, for Henry to hold on to. She tells him at one point that people come to work as lookouts to escape something in their lives, and this rings true for Henry. The events which bring him to seek solitude are deep and scarring. His need to be alone feels familiar: sometimes, we all need to escape, and there is nothing but escape from the weight of the everyday in Shoshone National Forest.
At first, the landscape around the Two Forks lookout feels vast and overwhelming, with so much to see, explore, and experience in this patch of miles Henry watches. Walking alongside a slender stream at the bottom of a canyon becomes an exercise in wonder: cliffs act as a frame for a cloud-studded expanse of crystalline blue skies, the colour and openness standing in stark contrast to the uneven, rocky earth beneath his feet. Watching the sun begin to set over a lake brings lengthening shadows and depth to the land, hinting at the safety of day fading into the dangers of night spent unprepared in the wilderness.
The player comes to know Henry’s territory, and this familiarity makes it feel smaller, a sensation mimicked by the aforementioned wildfire that begins off to the south and moves closer. Even as he learns the quickest paths between points of interest, sometimes forging his own, there is a sense that Henry is tolerated, but he does not belong here. The sound assists with this. Most of the time the player hears only leaves and grass rustling, birds singing, and water babbling. Delilah’s voice over the radio, or Henry calling for her, becomes an interruption to this natural soundtrack. At one point I approached a waterfall simply to appreciate the sight and sound of it, but the crunch of a beer can beneath Henry’s boot is startling enough that a moment of anger at the careless visitors who littered in my area of Shoshone National Forest seizes me.
Following up on these visitors begins the curious, intricate mystery at the core of Firewatch. As the story tightens around Henry, his confidence is shaken and his human sovereignty over Two Forks is challenged. The territory that once felt so expansive begins to feel too small, a claustrophobia created by threats from several sides. The environment mirrors Henry’s increasingly frustrated mental state while also contributing to it, an occurrence reflected powerfully in colour and sound, his surroundings shifting from healthy green to sickly yellow to dusty orange gold, the absence of the comforting sounds from his earliest days in Two Forks becoming noteworthy.
By the time I reached the denouement of the story, the complicated emotions thundering in my chest were only enhanced by steering Henry through the familiar but irreversibly altered landscape of Two Forks towards a part of Shoshone he hadn’t yet ventured to, despite having an intimate connection with it. Racing towards this place felt like fleeing the solitude Henry had committed himself to, the fire-scarred land a metaphor for the life he escaped by coming to the park. At the conclusion of Henry’s summertime journey, I felt surprised, slightly disappointed, and immensely relieved. Firewatch’s narrative sweeps through joy, sorrow, anger, confusion, and amusement with the same deftness our own lives do, its emotional highs and lows coming from devotion to honest portrayals of characters.
I’ve referred to Firewatch as a ‘first-person walkabout’, Henry’s journey in this untamed land just as spiritual as it is physical. There are players who ‘beat’ this game in two hours. I implore you not to be one of them. Doing so is akin to running along a hiking trail: sure, you’ll see the scenery, you’ll get fresh air, and you’ll reach the end, but your experience could be so much richer. You’ve cheated yourself. There’s too much here to appreciate simply to slap your run button and play the game like a race.