Whether you disparagingly label them as “walking simulators,” or enjoy them for what they are, games like Dear Esther, Gone Home, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, and now Firewatch share a number of characteristics: meticulously crafted environments, a sense of discovery, and stories that often suggest the mundane but ultimately point to something bigger.
Games have often been called escapist entertainment, but in the case of Firewatch, the way people literally and figuratively escape the problems in their lives is one of the over-arching themes of the game. Firewatch is a game with minimal focus on action but many layers of meaning and quite a few “ah ha” moments of revelation -- not so much about the characters or story, but about real life.
Firewatch begins with an unexpected emotional suckerpunch as it tells the story of Henry, courting, marrying, and living with his wife, a young college professor. When -- at the age of only 41 -- she develops early onset Alzheimer’s, Henry must make a series of difficult decisions as his life -- and her memory and behavior -- unravel. There are a lot of choices that the player makes in the opening minutes, but they will always end up with Henry walking up the path to the Two Forks fire watch tower in the Wyoming wilds.
The main character in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums spent a climactic summer on a Pacific Northwest lookout tower, using that time to get clean and get clear but there isn’t quite that much overt philosophizing in Firewatch. Instead, Henry develops a relationship -- whether it’s combative or congenial is up to the player -- with an unseen supervisor named Delilah. As their relationship becomes more complex, Henry investigates a dark mystery that reveals much about both Delilah and a former lookout.
Firewatch is a bit more action-oriented than most of the games in this genre, in that Henry can move more freely through the environment, interact with and collect objects, take photos, and make decisions and have conversations that make the experience feel far less passive than Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture or Gone Home, which are essentially about observing after the fact. That’s not to suggest that Firewatch is an action game. It isn’t.
Visually and artistically, Firewatch is nothing less than gorgeous, with photo-realistic natural landscapes made appropriately “unreal” through cel-shaded manipulation. The game is go good looking, in fact, that you can order a set of postcards taken from your in-game snapshots. The musical score, by Idle Thumbs podcast host Chris Remo, features a lot of lonely sounding guitar and electric piano, helping to fill in the sonic landscape while your character is exploring.
I can count on one hand the number of video games that allow something as heartbreaking as real-world Alzheimer’s disease anywhere near their stories or characters, let alone it being a significant element. Like Gone Home,Firewatch is a collection of moments that has a long-lasting impact but unlike the former game, Firewatch has a more immediate and participatory set of relationships with which to engage.
When faced with challenges of a certain magnitude, many people seek escape through emotional-altering substances, mindless activities, destructive relationships or even by escaping physically to someplace remote and isolating. Eventually, they come to realize -- perhaps suggested in Firewatch -- the ultimate futility of trying to escape that which they carry with them all the time and they begin to accept and understand themselves a little more clearly.