(This piece contains spoilers for mid-game sections of Firewatch)
When I was six, my family moved from a small house in the city to a small house in the country, largely because my mother had wanted to live farther out. This was to be the new start to our life, so to speak. Me and my sister started at a new elementary school and our commutes to events in town took about an hour round-trip. It was a change, to say the least.
Oregon’s wilderness, even in the relatively close-to-society backwoods of Junction City, is very green. Lots of firs and moss. I’m sure you’ve seen pictures. The Pacific Northwest is really like that, believe it or not.
We lived at that house for about six years, until I was twelve, before moving back into the city after my grandfather passed. We kept the house for a while, initially because it was set to be ‘fixed up to sell’, then later rented to friends, and even later as a place for my father to live after my mom and him separated.
I never liked the place, at least not as much as my mother did. Probably not as much as my father, either. It was a symbol of a very weird time in my life, when I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with myself and I didn’t have too many friends — at least not any nearby. When you live outside of a city, your closest neighbors might be about a mile away, as mine were.
Wilderness and the country became a symbol for escapism. For loneliness, and the feeling of getting away from things. When I went through a particularly nasty breakup in early college, I drove — all the way out to the Oregon coast, just to… be there. Just to run away, for a minute.
In Firewatch, a 2016 game by Campo Santo, you play as Henry, a man staffing a fire watch cabin in the Wyoming wilderness. Henry is married, the history of the relationship between him and his wife being one of the first things you hear about in the game. Julia and Henry fell hard for each other. They were as good of a couple as one could imagine.
Julia is stricken by early-onset alzheimer’s disease and rapidly starts losing her memories, first with little things and then starting to forget even Henry. All their years together, gone. Everything just melted away. Julia moves away to receive better care than staying with Henry.
Faced with the inevitability of the disease and the rapid unraveling of his life, Henry runs.
He takes a job as a fire lookout far from Boulder, where he and Julia had made their home. When he’s there, he develops a relationship with the closest other fire-watcher, a woman named Delilah.
At one point in the game, Delilah asks Henry why he’s out here — so far from any sort of civilization, doing a job where he can only talk to someone who is miles away. When Delilah asks you this, you are given a dialogue choice.
I told her I — Henry needed to leave. That there was too much wrapped up in staying in Boulder, in that place with all the old memories still lingering. Spaces get soaked with memory, they become suffocating. You run. You keep running, until you can breathe again.
Midway through the game, a fire starts. It’s only a matter of time, really, the game is called ‘Firewatch’ after all.
I wanted to call it the Delilah Fire. Delilah said that would be unprofessional. We decided on the June Fire, after her middle name. The game was set in July. It was fittingly off-kilter. A romantic gesture gone awry, in a place Henry never should have been in anyway.
As a player, you don’t really do anything about it. Your only job as a fire watch is to report these incidents. Then sit, and watch. Update the situation if necessary, wait for help.
The game’s narrative doesn’t linger on this, but the message seemed clear enough to me: you can run, you can’t hide. You can keep running, if you want, but everything catches up to you. Delilah, on the radio, is asking where Henry’s going to go after this job’s over — if he was going to go and stay with Julia, or to go home to Boulder, alone.
To the south of your watchtower, the biggest fire of the summer is raging away. I chose to be as true to Delilah as I could. Not for Henry, but for me, as the player of the game. I told her I was going to run, again. Back to Boulder. She sounded disappointed, said that I should go to Julia, that it was the right thing to do. She’s right, of course. It is the right thing to do.
But that’s the thing about running away from your problems, you’re doing it because you don’t think you’d have the strength to face them, even if that is the right thing to do.
Later in the game, you find the body of a boy deep in a cave. It’s the son of the previous fire watchman. He was out there illegally, but Delilah didn’t call it in. Figured the boy would be fine. When their job was over, the boy and his father disappeared. Delilah assumed they had just left quietly. Didn’t think about anything worse.
When you tell Delilah this, over the radio, she takes all the blame on herself. Her fears about it being not safe enough out on the job were correct, and if she had only called it in — as protocol would demand — the boy might still be alive. It’s all too late for that now.
Henry ‘should have’ stayed with Julia. Delilah ‘should have’ called in that there was a minor at the fire watchtower. Henry ‘should have’ never taken the job. Delilah ‘should have’ never developed any feelings for a married man. Henry ‘should have’ never ran away.
Everything was an ‘I should have’. Or an ‘I could have’.
I don’t think my parents will ever tell me if they thought they were running from something when they bought that house. I think they saw themselves making a home there, that would be comfortably far from the hustle and bustle of city life. Maybe they thought it would be a place to rest. Maybe they thought they’d be there forever. That house feels a lot like things-that-could-have-been, remnants of my family and my grandfather’s things littering the property.
The wilderness of Wyoming is a lot different than that of Oregon. We don’t get nearly as many fires, for example. But I understood using it as a backdrop for a game about a person who was running away. I think my parents were running too, maybe they saw that their relationship wasn’t going to work out and banked hard on a drastic change. Maybe they just wanted a change of pace.
Every character in Firewatch carries regrets. The narrative tells about those regrets, and the spaces they occupy, like smoke set into an old jacket. They never really leave you. Everyone ran away here for a reason.
By the end of the story, nothing feels wrapped up completely. Firewatch doesn’t pretend otherwise. Henry goes home. Delilah leaves before you ever see her in person. The boy’s body still lies at the bottom of the cave, rotting and posed grotesque by gravity. Life goes on.
Firewatch is a game about people who fuck up. They don’t think. They make mistakes. They regret things, and for once in a game, I don’t find it hamfisted or awkwardly written. It’s very real. It hurts to watch. I recommend it wholeheartedly.