The Beauty and The Emptiness
When was the last time a video game made you want to go outside, made you want to get up and leave the very spot where you are sitting? So much of what I see in modern gaming is concerned with the building and implementation of a massive world that is meant to suck the player in for untold hours of storytelling. Most games are concerned with making sure that the player sits as still as possible and absorbs only what’s in front of them onscreen. It takes a very special title that makes me want to seek out the real in the world. Firewatch is that game, a title that transported me back to the painful and the real that exists within all effective media.
Firewatch, the 2016 debut title by independent studio Campo Santo, finds beauty within its open world and short story. It’s the only game I know where emptiness and isolation is the point. It’s also a four hour game about nothing where the beginning of the game is the entire story. It’s a perfect game for summer vacation because it really is about that hazy period of time that covers so much of our lives, the ephemeral and succinct beauty of summer that becomes more impactful the longer we are away.
Some may find that very point to be off-putting, while I find that it’s a game that stands out for its brevity and specificity in between the bloat and carnage of modern gaming. It’s a tiny independent title that deals with vagaries and specifics of human nature, and the only people who matter to you will be blips of frequencies communicated via radio waves. The game understands the idiosyncrasies of human communication and applies them to a narrative that is more short story than most titles. Anyone who’s ever had a summer job will find the game to be familiar to their own story, a collection of moments between the boredom of collecting a check and knowing that you were growing older and losing days.
Firewatch is the story of Henry, a volunteer fire lookout working in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest in 1989. He takes the job due to a strained marriage. His wife Julia isn’t dead, but their relationship isn’t what it used to be since her medical condition became more complicated. When Julia’s family takes her away from him, Henry is lost and adrift. He takes up the lonely forest lookout job, and there he meets his (too?) friendly supervisor Delilah, with whom he builds up a surprisingly complex relationship over the course of the summer. There’s also a mystery involving the possible surveillance of Henry and Delilah as they form this bond, and just when Henry thought he was more alone than before he realizes that he’s being watched by... well...
Saying any more about the game would ruin the experience and drive of the game. I will say that Firewatch is the most human game I’ve played in years. So much of gaming media is focused on systems and representations, prizing the inorganic mechanics of games over the truly audacious creators at the heart of these interactive enterprises. Firewatch has none of these, instead focused almost entirely on narrative progression. That focus allowed me to care so much more about the game, a calming oasis in the middle of the gaming continuum I use for my work. Its relative lack of systems forces the player to engage on another level, almost purely via story. There are shared moments throughout the title that add to the experience, but it’s one controlled largely by the developer.
The limited controls of the game mean that the player must experience the woods of Shoshone simply via walking through it. Some have called it an empty experience due to the lack of player agency in affecting the world of Shoshone. It is, but not in the way that its critics discuss. Instead, the emptiness of the landscape matches the emptiness felt by Henry, the player character. The game pulls off an impressive trick by recreating the first ten minutes of Pixar's Up (2009) in an introductory sequence that takes place almost entirely via text (I’ll save you the surprise of the only visual aid). Here the player sees the magnitude of loss Henry has experienced, and it’s easy to see why he would escape to the Wyoming wilderness to get away from everything. In Shoshone National Forest he finds an emptiness that matches his own, an isolation from everyone else. It’s a vacation from his real pain, except that he can’t actually escape it, and this informs every action that the player-character takes.
It’s only via his connection with the unseen radio voice of fellow lookout Delilah that Henry — and the player— can find some bigger purpose with the game. There are menial tasks littered throughout the game that players will do, from trash pickup to telling campers to stop making noise and setting off dangerous fireworks. The daily monotony of working within the forest is thus broken up by the banter between Henry and Delilah, and soon that leads to an attraction that is undeniable, even when unseen. Soon those fireworks explode into forest fires, and we see these fires burn brighter as the chemistry between the two intensifies. It’s not a subtle metaphor, but it does make its point very well.
The immersion in this beautiful world and quasi-romance is accomplished by isolating the player away from other people, showing how we become reliant on Delilah and form our own bond with her through our experiences. By stripping away everything except the human connection mechanic of the radio and the exploratory elements of the map and compass, the player must find a way to purposefully explore Shoshone National Forest in all of its high-contrast and saturated-color glory. And what glory! I used to play video games to get away from the outdoors, so understand that it takes a truly great game to make me want to experience the great outdoors. When this game was over, I booked a weekend at Acadia National Park in Maine with the hope that I could experience something this truly beautiful and disconnected from this screened existence I have forced upon myself.
The other interesting thing about Henry is that he’s not a typical video game protagonist. The player-character in other games is rarely a pudgy middle-aged married man with anger and intimacy issues, so Henry’s flaws and defined personality was a refreshing difference from the bland homogeneity of most gaming heroes. Throughout the experience, my reactions to Henry and his actions ranged from shocked to bewildered, and yet I was the one in total control of the story. This placed me in a role of cognitive dissonance. Was I really the one in charge of this game, and if so, why did it feel like I was being driven by Henry’s actions instead of the other way around?
Firewatch isn’t alone in the rise of short, focused games emphasizing human connections. The Beginner’s Guide (2015) by Davey Wreden also briefly looks at what it means to be a person in this world. It stabs you in the back at the end with the revelation that not all is as it seems, and in fact your narrator has been hiding crucial information the whole time. While The Beginner’s Guide uses video games to tell a story that also comments on the medium of video games, Firewatch is a purely narrative-driven game. But both are stellar accomplishments of their smaller teams, emphasizing the human element that can be lost [found?] amidst the magnificent systems of game rulesets and controls.
Several critics have taken the game to task over its brevity, price point ($20 on digital platforms), and the lack of mechanics. They are approaching the title like a traditional game when it is not. They are approaching the title like a “walking simulator” (a game where the player has limited agency to interact with the game world beyond exploration) when it is so much more. By remaining isolated and alone throughout the entire experience, Firewatch affected me because it is set up around the idea that the player can also find themselves in the world of the Shoshone National Forest. It’s hyper-focused on the idea that getting lost in this game really means being separated from the dross of modern game mechanics and instead really losing oneself in the beauty of nature, conversation, and connection. More than anything, it accurately captures the aching sense of isolation that drives someone to make their home a place that is thousands of miles away from their problems, and that makes the voice at the end of that radio line the most important person in the world, sight unseen.
I still believe in Firewatch. Its short story has stayed with me many moons after its play-time ended. Like summer vacation, the halcyon time spent inside the forest has made me long for the hazy days and moonlight nights when I could be alone with my thoughts with the most important person in the world next to me as the possibilities opened up for us. Everything hard in our lives, everything that we couldn’t stop, it was all gone. Then I’d wake up and go back to work or school again, and my life was richer and poorer for it.
Getting lost in Shoshone National Forest was one of the best feelings I’ve had in a long time in commercial media. I can’t wait to return. See you there this summer.