Since the creation of language, we’ve been telling stories. Stories are told over campfires, through performances, the written word, and even through interactivity. As technology advances, so does our ability to tell stories.
Video games offer an almost super medium for creators to tell stories. With a book, you can only tell a story through words. With a movie, you can tell a story through acting, visual cues, musical cues, and editing. A video game uses all of these layers and adds one more. Interactivity.
The Stories We Play series will focus on the best stories in gaming and how the medium of video games creates the perfect way to tell a story. Today, we are looking at Firewatch, a video game about a man alone in the wilderness.
Firewatch Day One: Running Away
Henry and Julia are a couple, much like any other. They meet in college, fall in love, get married, and pursue their careers. They discuss having children, but that never materializes. Henry drinks a little too much, and Julia works too hard. They buy a house, get a dog, and then Julia gets sick.
The more sick Julia becomes, the more Henry drinks. She is diagnosed with early-onset dementia at 41, and Henry spends his nights in bars, nostalgic for a life that’s never coming back.
Nostalgia is a constant theme in Firewatch. The game is a period piece set in 1989 that takes place solely in the Shoshone National Forest of Wyoming. After Henry gets a DUI and Julia’s parents realize he can no longer care for their daughter, they take Julia home with them, leaving Henry alone. Henry tries to combat this loneliness by taking a summer job as a fire lookout in the aforementioned national forest.
Henry is the main protagonist of Firewatch and the only playable character in the game. You spend your time living life as Henry in one of the most mundane jobs known to man. You’re only companion is a voice on the radio. Delilah. The lead Firewatch and an unlikely companion to a sad and tired Henry.
Firewatch Day Two: Communication
The days go by slowly at first in Firewatch. Your first task is to tell off some teens shooting fireworks in a dangerously dry forest. Delilah is always present on the radio, giving you directions and lending an ear when Henry needs to unburden some of his weight. The voice acting delivered in Firewatch, notably Cissy Jones as Delilah, is impeccable. Delilah is never shown to the player, but her voice is ever-present. She is calm, soothing, flirty, precocious, and, most of all, a friend.
Loneliness is another constant theme in Firewatch. Henry is often left alone to travel the large game map as he sees fit. He rarely encounters another human, and when he does, it’s alarming. In this giant, serene, open world, another human’s presence is shocking and unsettling. Loneliness falls in stark contrast to the companionship being formed with Delilah. Marrying these two juxtaposing feelings so seamlessly is where developer Campo Santo truly shines.
Day Sixty-Four: Where There’s Smoke
A fire breaks out as you move further into the story and through the days. You watch it burn from your tower opposite Delilah. You are given the chance to name the fire and engage in playful, flirty banter with Delilah. It makes the player feel comforted and ashamed at the same time.
Your relationship with Delilah hasn’t crossed any boundaries. At this point, the player isn’t even sure about Henry’s relationship with Julia anymore. When the game begins, Henry is wearing his wedding ring. At some point, he removes it, and the player can put it back on. There is no backstory given to this decision. He could have just taken it off to sleep. Or he could have taken it off because he believes his wife is gone. Either way, it’s up to the player to decide what Henry does going forward.
Firewatch Day Seventy-Six: The Greater Mystery
Firewatch takes a while to get to its central plot point for a game that only lasts about four hours. There is a greater mystery at the Shoshone National Forest involving Henry and Delilah directly. Developer Campo Santo is able to keep the game engaging before the central conflict is revealed, and they do so by having created such a livable world.
Movies and books need to introduce a conflict early. Star Wars couldn’t spend the first hour and a half of the film with Luke walking around Tatooine. No matter how gorgeous George Lucas’s direction and sets were, it would have been monotonous and unengaging. But this is where video games set themselves apart and can shine in their storytelling.
Firewatch presents all of its themes through brief dialogue snippets and open exploration. We get a sense of loneliness just by exploring the world. We understand Henry’s pain because we hear it in his voice when he talks to Delilah. His anger is shown through dialogue options, not random exposition. The central plot doesn’t need to be evident because there is a plethora of items to interact with and secrets to uncover.
The developers utilize every aspect of the game to tell a story. Henry falling down a cliff, looking at the beautifully designed landscapes, uncovering notes left by other fire lookouts: they all tell the story of Firewatch.
Day Seventy-Seven: Close To Home
The most tender and sincere moment comes about two-thirds of the way through the game. When the mystery starts to reveal itself, Henry questions everything. Henry has found a notepad that contains the conversations he’s been having with Delilah. It’s embarrassing and scary. Delilah is just as confused as Henry but reassures him there must be a logical explanation.
Henry believes he knows the logical explanation. He’s losing his mind just like Julia lost hers.
It’s this moment in the game where we feel the most like Henry, and we, too, wonder what is really going on. The game plays its mystery close to the vest, so there’s no way to uncover the true story early. At this point, we’ve just been harboring in the hiking boots of a normal middle-aged man. As the players, we know just as much about what’s going on as Henry does, and we start to think, maybe we are just crazy. Maybe there is no Delilah. Maybe Campo Santo will totally change game genres on us, and what we thought was an excellent walking sim is actually a secret horror game.
Thankfully for us, Campo Santo never betrays the player’s trust. There is no secret turn or magic element at play. There is just a mystery waiting to be uncovered.
But during this moment of panic, when we don’t know what’s going on and Henry is thoroughly freaked out, he turns to the one person he can trust. The one person we, as the player, can trust. Delilah. We ask Delilah for help and tell her we are struggling and we don’t know what is real. Delilah, in turn, puts down her radio and picks up a bottle of tequila.
Firewatch Day Day Seventy-Eight: Role Reversal
This moment in the game is one of the few moments we are truly alone. There is no one to talk to, and we are utterly confused about what will happen next. It’s impossible not to see the simile in Henry’s relationship with Delilah and the one with his wife, Julia. When Julia loses her mind to dementia, Henry copes with alcohol—leaving Julia alone on her journey.
In Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams tells a punk orphaned Matt Damon, “I’ve read Oliver Twist, but that doesn’t mean I know a thing about how you grew up.” He’s right. As much we can learn and feel from movies or books, it never gives us a true sense of what that experience is like. We can never know the fear or sorrow of losing a loved one to dementia. But Firewatch, a video game, gets us as close as possible.
After playing as a character for hours, controlling their every movement in an unfamiliar environment, we feel like Henry. The only solace we have through our game is Delilah’s voice. And just when things start to get scary. When we, as the player, start wondering what kind of game we are actually playing, Delilah leaves. She doesn’t just leave Henry. She leaves us the player. Alone and wandering around a dark, burning forest.
Firewatch Day Seventy-Nine: Home
Firewatch plays around with many themes and genres. There is a mystery element, a walking sim element, and even a romance element. Not all of these tie together nicely by the end of the game, but we do get a definitive conclusion to the game’s central mystery.
It’s wise for Camp Santo to tie up this loose end because the real conflict of the Firewatch, a man mourning the loss of his still-living wife, is never resolved.
At the end of the game, the fire found earlier has begun ravaging the forest. Henry has to go to Delilah’s tower to be picked up by a helicopter and evacuated from the inferno. Delilah tells Henry she is leaving before he gets there. Henry begs her to stay and wait for him. She says she will. She lies.
Your last conversation with Delilah is when Henry arrives at her tower and realizes she is gone. Henry, or rather you, the player, are upset. You can choose how you want to respond to Delilah. You can be understanding, angry, or tender. Eventually, she asks you what you think she should do now that her forest has burned down. The answer that sticks out in most players’ minds is to ask her to come to Colorado. To see you. She turns you down, not even having the decency to lie.
Henry then boards a helicopter and leaves. The game ends, and the credits roll.
The story of Firewatch would not have near the impact it does if it weren’t for it being a video game. Experiencing Henry’s story as an active user instead of a passive participant is what makes Firewatch so special.
Firwatch gives you a brief back story and allows you to live as a man during the most challenging time of his life. There is a mystery to solve and pinecones to pick up, but really, Firewatch is about trauma. And how you and Henry will deal with it.