Seeing the Trees
Disclaimer: This piece is going to discuss, in full, the story of Firewatch. There will be multiple spoilers throughout the article.
There are likely few tasks as daunting as trying to tell a story in a videogame. It’s a medium thats non-linearity makes it hard to work in, and its consumer base is notoriously fickle about both the quality and quantity of plot in their games, with some even branding those with more narrative than gameplay as “walking simulators.” As is the trend with these games, Campo Santo’s recently released Firewatch is taking a lot of heat for how it handles its storytelling.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the ire against Firewatch comes from its own marketing setting up unrealistic expectations. During its development, programmer Will Armstrong stated it was “a thriller through and through.” Its store pages bill it, immediately, as “a single-player first-person mystery” and later list “[a]n edge-of-your-seat mystery” in the title’s feature list. While it is true that there are some tense moments and elements of mystery, it’s a big stretch to throw Firewatch in those genres.
I won’t say that the people going into the game expecting a ‘70s-esque thriller are unjustified in their disappointment. However, I think Firewatch would lose much of what makes it remarkable if it had stuck to the expectations established by its marketing.
The strength in Campo Santo’s storytelling doesn’t come from an overarching narrative. It comes from what is established in the game’s first five minutes: a string of simple conversations and scenarios, punctuated with choices that shape who the Henry the player plays as is and how he deals with the loss that comes from his wife Julia’s early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Those choices continue as Firewatch follows Henry into the Wyoming wilderness and interacts with his superior, Delilah. Player choice shapes if Henry is a broken man, focusing on his job to forget his wife the way she forgot him, stomping out his pain and regrets just as he would an abandoned campfire. Conversely, Henry could be a man looking to begin anew, using the job at the national park to clear his head, work through his issues, and maybe even find love again.
The smaller scale, interpersonal stories are where Firewatch’s real quality lies. It’s a risky prospect, trying to rope a player into the head of a man faced with impossibly difficult choices that have no right or wrong answer. For some, it’s a mindset they can’t get in, leaving them to fall back on the light mystery and thriller elements of the game as its sole plot. For those that do see the world through Henry’s eyes, though, Firewatch is a gripping story about how people handle loss and deal with their own personal struggles.
Even when the game ramps up its tension with mystery and thriller aspects, character reaction is still at the forefront. Henry and Delilah both let themselves get roped into the idea that a vast conspiracy is taking place behind the park’s fenced area, feeding into each other’s fears and their desire to escape their grief. Even after finding the cause of all the strange happenings, Delilah expresses regret at how mundane reality turns out to be.
The biggest complaint thrown against Firewatch is the anti-climax of its ending. From a macro perspective, this is a valid complaint. From the micro perspective, though, the conclusion is appropriately climactic. Henry and Delilah discover Ned’s attempts to pit them against each other to distract from his own presence, going so far as the create a second fire to join the already roaring June Fire. They discover the loss of his son, Brian, and his self-imposed seclusion over his guilt. The pair learn that, despite all that’s happened, he still plans to live in exodus, deeper in the forest. Delilah is left to deal with the loss of Brian and her anger at Ned, unwilling to believe the death was a simple accident. The player, as Henry, is on hand to respond to Delilah’s breakdown, potentially tied into one of his own.
As the Thorofare Fire engulfs the park, Henry and Delilah evacuate via helicopter, potentially making plans to see each other after their debriefing regarding the blaze is over, potentially parting to never see each other again. If the player’s been in Henry’s head long enough, he or she likely knows the answer. After all, Henry, just like Firewatch’s story, is what the player makes of him.
I understand the frustration many feel over how Firewatch’s narrative unfolds. I’m no stranger to being felt like I was misled, or that a company pulled a bait and switch on me. I think, though, that Campo Santo has crafted a wonderful story about human nature, the strength and frailty of the spirit, and how, sometimes, we can find enough reason to keep going in the simple, everyday beats of life.
Firewatch isn’t a game about an all-engulfing blaze, a mysterious man prowling the forest, or a shady organization conducting an elaborate psychological experiment. It’s about a man trying to find his way after the loss of his wife’s mind, a woman trying to move on after breaking up with her lover, a father crippled with guilt over the death of his son, and two lookouts hiding a relationship while sharing a copy of Jane Eyre with each other on the trail. Firewatch isn’t about the forest; it’s about the trees.