I always know a video game has done something right when I’m thinking about it for days after the credits have rolled. At the grocery store, during The Walking Dead, or when I’m supposed to be paying attention to my boss’s "super important" activity brief. My body is present, but my mind is bobbing along that virtual path, achieving goals and pushing the story forward with the validity of my personal existence. This one universe will not be moved until I tell it to move. And that feeling, that you’re in the driver’s seat of a little off-shoot universe next door, is something that sets games apart. It's what keeps them lingering there. No matter how many times you watch Star Wars, Vader will always toss the Emperor down that weird cylindrical shaft. In games, the end might be similarly fixed, but the way you get there is yours, and yours alone.
Firewatch, the recent masterpiece from Campo Santo and Panic, invites you to get delightfully lost in the minutiae of one such glowing world. In this game the feeling of a unique, living alternate dimension was so amplified that I would often spend time frozen in indecision, knowing without a doubt that I was the architect of this man’s life, that I had slipped into his skin and would pivot his imaginary self towards damnation or redemption. It sounds grandiose, but what most games try to achieve with world-ending set pieces and exaggerated arsenals this game achieves with a few lines of text and a little ham radio.
Firewatch takes you into the wilderness of Wyoming in order to recover (or flee?) from an emotionally devastating few years. The unique flavor of your play-through is built upon the interpretation of this conflict, so I will leave the details vague. What I will say is that we rarely see such realism, heart, and complexity in modern video game stories, let alone in the first fifteen minutes. Your own engagement with the plight of your Henry (the wayward protagonist) is what will compel you through the storytelling rhythms of the game. And my oh my, is it compelling. In fact, it’s so compelling, and so accessible, that anyone can pick up the controls and take the lead in Henry’s life. If you hand the controller to someone who does’t play games and ask them to enjoy a round of Call of Duty for instance, they will absolutely destroy your kill death ratio and look at you like you stole their car. But do the same with Firewatch and you will see a person emotionally connect almost immediately, and wander through the forest looking for chances to speak to the lonely voice on the other end of the line. This game is what games can be: a dynamic storytelling medium that puts efficacy in the hands of the audience in a way that a movie or a book simply never could.
The game quickly leads you down an emotional path that gives you a motivation to explore your unique Henry and what makes him tick, but the lush and vivid environment will constantly beg you to explore the physical world he inhabits. The Wyoming wilderness is alive with stark colors, realistic sounds, and dynamic lighting. The passage of time is gentle, and the forests and cliff-sides begin to glow as the sun sets. Each color palette is a reflection of the stark movements of Henry’s internal world. In the mornings, the mist rises through the brush, and the wilderness seems to be bursting with possibility. In the evenings everything is still and cool, and the moon stares at you as you wonder just what, exactly, it is you're doing out here. All of this, encased in a sort of comic book nouveau vibrancy, allows you to lose yourself in the physical world of Firewatch while the subtleties of its storytelling tighten their grip around your heart.
Beyond the narrative depth, the brilliant art, and the otherworldliness, there is an elegant simplicity that elevates Firewatch from a popcorn indulgence to a living experience. The world you interact with has the advantage of being, at times, largely untethered to the plot or the gameplay of the story as it unfolds, and this can lead to organic moments that feel as unpredictable as real life.
For instance (and without revealing too much, because you really need to do yourself a favor and play this game right now): I was in my watchtower and I was listening to Delilah talk to me over the radio. Delilah is the lonely voice at the other end of the line who you share your summer isolation with, but her identity and what she means to you deeply varies from game to game. As she spoke, I opened the drawer of my desk (this is all “in-game,” as we say) and I noticed a twenty-sided die. I had my Henry pick it up, and turn it over in his hand, examining its sides while Delilah’s voice filled my ears, hinting at the events that would unfold. The twenty sided die is the great symbol of possibility for nerds everywhere, and it represents the difference between succeeding in spectacular fashion or falling on your face. As she spoke, I held down the “throw” button for a few moments and released it just as she was finishing her fraught speech (the content of which YOU WILL DISCOVER WHEN YOU PLAY THE GAME GO PLAY IT). The die hit my desk, rebounded into the air, and then… cut—fade to black. The chapter had ended right before I was able to examine the results of my roll—in fact, before the die had settled at all! In my universe, the answer to my question—will I succeed out here and find peace, or will I fail and lose myself—would have to be answered out in the world. The twenty-sided die was infinitely rolling in darkness. This is the kind of moment that you could simply program into a cut scene, but the fact that it arose organically out of a moment in the rhythm of the story was so effective and so loaded with meaning that I got out of my chair and walked around my apartment in disbelief for a full five minutes. The details of the world are lying there waiting for you, but your brain is the final piece, the last variable that gives the text its power and motion. The tools that Campo Santo provides for you to bring your meaning to the world are what launch Firewatch into the realm of storytelling mastery.
Now, combine that with stellar voice acting, brilliant pacing, and solid, reliable gameplay and in the mind of this writer you have an historically special game.
There is a keen and precise impact at the center of Firewatch, and it hints at the largely-untapped potential of video games. In the right hands they can impart stories that take deep root and inspire self-analysis. I keep returning to indulge in stories in all of their forms, for many reasons (some of which are mysterious to me still), and some of those reasons are defined here in such vivid clarity: The sensation that I’m peering into another world in an impossibly intimate way, and learning about the secrets of humanity and existence one little brushstroke at a time. The phenomenon of sharing someone’s freaking consciousness, and determining their path through the world using the influence of my particular perspective. This game is thoughtful and beautiful, and it’s one of the closest experiences I’ve ever had to true virtual reality—the chance to live a life in all of its complicated and tragic glory. Go play it.