“I look around at us and you know what I see? Losers. I mean, like, folks who have lost stuff.” When Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill says this in Guardians Of The Galaxy, it’s meant to be a rousing call to arms, a rallying moment to remind his team that they’ve all overcome hardships and come out stronger for it. Instead, his poorly phrased expression only underscores what a pathetic crew of misfits they are, doomed to repeated failure. Loss doesn’t make people stronger. The way we cope with loss, that’s where we see true character growth. The loss of a loved one, of a relationship, of a job, of trust, of sanity—these are challenges that reveal what type of person we truly are, what we’d like to be, and how hard we’re willing to work to get there.
Everybody in Firewatch is coping with loss in one manner or another. Some losses are petty, like the teenagers you meet early who lose their fireworks and their inflated sense of entitlement. Their coping mechanism—name-calling and vandalism—is as vapid and slight as their loss, and it informs us of their character. Your character, Henry, on the other hand, walls himself off from a recent personal loss by taking a job as a fire lookout in the wilds of Wyoming. It affords him some time and space to put his head together, but it is also the very definition of avoidance.
It’s a quiet and lonely job, sitting around the woods by himself, watching out for signs of danger, and Henry is mostly left to his own devices. He has time to reflect on his past, on his relationships and his decisions, and to explore the woods at his leisure. Most importantly, he has the opportunity to build a relationship with his supervisor, Delilah. She is Henry’s constant companion, a voice on the other end of the radio, keeping tabs on him from a distant watchtower. As his only tether to the outside world and to humanity altogether, the sarcastic and foul-mouthed Delilah is the most important bond Henry has. Many of the toughest decisions made in the game involve what to have Henry say to her.
The choice is yours regarding when and how Henry should be open with Delilah about his past, about the loss that he is running away from. Sharing too much might scare off your only friend and ally, but keeping too tight a lid might do the same. The reverse applies as well, as Delilah shares herself and her mistakes over the radio. When does Henry push for more information? When does he back off and leave his friend some privacy? How will the things he say affect the way she feels about him and vice versa? Conversations happen so quickly and casually, it’s easy to forget that they have consequence until they rear their heads later on. Both are so vulnerable from their past failures—so afraid of failing again—that keeping their dialogue alive feels more important than preventing the forest from burning down.
Over the course of a summer, Henry and Delilah learn about one another, themselves, and a secret hidden in the woods that threatens both of their lives. There is no fast-paced action or head-scratching puzzles, so the dialogue needs to carry a lot of Firewatch’s weight. Thankfully, the nuanced and intimate performances led by Mad Men’s Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones, of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, are more than up to the task. Every call from Jones’ Delilah is a radiant beacon of hope for a better tomorrow, and every world-weary recrimination from Sommer’s Henry is a reminder that life is not fair, that good guys still lose, and that all good things can be taken away in kind.
Some of the people in Firewatch do not cope well with their losses. They do the absolute wrong thing. They perform actions that make so little sense, it threatens any sense of immersion and investment you may have built. Even then, when the game’s efficacy is in question, the warmth between Henry and Delilah, the glow of their candor, serves as a reminder of the weight of our choices. The way we cope, the way we interact, the way we choose to carry on in the face of catastrophe—that is what makes us who we are. Henry and Delilah are not perfect people, but they’re damn likable, flaws and all.
Relationships are like fires. When they burn out, when they are lost, we are left with only charred landscape and our memories of what it was like, how they burned before. Firewatch is a reminder that flames always go out, eventually. What we do next, whether we rebuild on top of those ashes or move on somewhere else, that is the story of who we are and who we aspire to be.
Developer: Campo Santo
Publisher: Campo Santo, Panic Inc.
Platforms: Mac, PC, PlayStation 4
Reviewed on: Mac