Spoiler Warning: The following article contains spoilers for the plot of 2016’s ‘Firewatch’.
Well, it only took me a whole year to get around to it, but I finally sat down and played through one of 2016’s more interesting adventures, Firewatch, developed by Campo Santo. Frankly, I’m quite disappointed in myself for letting this one sit on my PS4 for over seven months before finally seeing what it had to offer. It was a beautiful game with an emotional, intriguing and, at times, terrifying story that ended on a bittersweet, yet satisfying note. But while it was certainly a wonderful story to experience, I found myself far more interested in the key tool that Firewatch used to tell it: the concept of isolation.
Even if it doesn’t really feel like it, you spend all of Firewatch’s story completely alone. You could argue that Firewatch does contain a small cast of characters you can interact with. Hell, you spend nearly all of the game talking to fellow fire lookout, Delilah, via walkie-talkie. But while you’re aware of their existence, you never actually see these characters in person, at least not face to face. From the game’s start in an empty parking lot, you spend the entirety of Firewatch’s story completely alone, only to finally interact with someone right as the story comes to a close. By doing this Campo Santo is able to use this feeling of isolation to not only completely change the story’s tone to tell a much more captivating tale, but also help the player connect with its main character, Henry, on a much more personal level.
Henry is a man running away from his problems. His wife has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, he starts having troubles with drinking as a result, and is currently living alone after his wife is taken back to Australia by her family. He chooses this fire lookout job because he needs to get away from everything, including his friends, city life, and potentially the further temptation to drink. And you know all of this because the game makes you experience all of Henry’s problems with him thanks to the “choose-your-own-adventure” style opening.
By not only presenting you with Henry’s problems, but also forcing you to take part in them, you feel the same way that Henry does when this opening ends. You’ve been hit with so many heavy life choices that you both want a change, you both want to get away from the difficult decisions. The isolation that you experience in the beginning hours of Firewatch are used to make you feel calm and the world around you seem awe-inspiring and tranquil. Being alone in the peaceful wilderness makes you think you’ve escaped the unfortunate events you experienced in the opening moments of the game..
But then something goes wrong.
Around the game’s mid-point, Henry finds something incredibly distressing during one of his mundane excursions out in the wilderness: a written log containing some of the personal conversations between himself and Delilah. Before he can investigate this any further, Henry is suddenly attacked from behind and knocked unconscious. And suddenly, the once peaceful tone the game has delivered up until this point has been flipped on its head. For the first time, you’re in actual physical danger.
What’s genius about this moment is that it doesn’t happen at night, as you would expect a suddenly shocking moment like this to take place. Instead this takes place in broad daylight. Suddenly you start to think that you could be attacked again at any moment. And now, the peaceful and lonely wilderness becomes something much more sinister: a hiding spot for something, or someone, that could spring out and attack you at any moment.
Once you reach this point in the game, the feeling of isolation transforms your previous sense of peace into one of stress and paranoia. From this moment on, you’ll be checking your surroundings constantly, quickly looking behind you whenever you hear the sounds of foliage rustling or twigs cracking, and even dreading the idea of going out at night. And despite being given constant company by Delilah over the walkie-talkie, you don’t feel in any less danger, all because the tranquil first half of the game makes you understand that you are completely alone. Delilah may be able to provide moral support, but if you’re in any physical danger, she’s too far away to help you. You’re stuck in a national park with a potential psychopath.
Even more interesting is that, with no other characters around to distract you, you’re forced to focus on the disturbing things happening to Henry. You start linking things together, coming up with your own conspiracies and plot threads based on small pieces of evidence you’ve found. You start to wonder if Delilah may know more than she is letting on, or maybe Henry is an unknowing participant in a government thought experiment.
But in the end, this tension eventually fades as Henry, and in turn the player, have to let go of this feeling of isolation. The park you’ve spent the game exploring is burning down, Henry has discovered the answers to the strange goings on, and he gives a bittersweet goodbye to Delilah. There’s nothing left to keep Henry or the player in the park, no reason to stay isolated anymore.
Thus, Henry and the player make the first and only human interaction they’ve experienced over the course of the story as they both face the real world once again and leave their time in isolation behind.