Firewatch

Art imitates life as we go on an unforgettable walk in the Wyoming wilderness – without ever leaving the couch
May 26, 2016Words by Jon Glatfelter

“Walking,” Hippocrates once wrote, “is man’s best medicine." This prescription is over two thousand years old, but generation after generation continues to take it in one form or another, even if they've never heard of 'the father of western medicine.’

Thoreau certainly did, by way of the popular Latin phrase, Solvitur ambulando, ‘it is solved by walking.’ As did Madison Avenue’s David Ogilvy, who in Confessions of an Ad Man credits many creative breakthroughs to the long walks he took through his garden. Though perhaps most telling of the broad healing and inspirational powers of walking can be found in, of all places, video games.

In an industry where subject matter and gameplay are usually dominated by violence, Firewatch begins not with over-the-top action or weapon upgrades, but a psychological vignette of a man desperately searching for a place to hide.

As the still-young industry continues to find greater footing as an artful, storytelling medium, we're seeing more and more thoughtfully-crafted games centered around these themes of rejuvenation and exploration of nature. Sure, Zelda has its fishing mini-game and FarmVille its gardens, but Campo Santo’s debut release, Firewatch, struck a much deeper chord in many of us here at Huckberry HQ – one we hadn't quite yet felt, but were hoping for. 

Firewatch is a first-person adventure game, in which you play Henry, a middle-aged guy who signs up for a summer-long shift as a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest. Henry's reason? Let's just say that it isn't exactly heroic. The opening sequence establishes the conflict – and Henry's running away from it – as tragic and ugly, but also honest and sympathetic. It's this early focus on character development, though, that makes the game so refreshing. In an industry where subject matter and gameplay are usually dominated by violence, Firewatch begins not with over-the-top action or weapon upgrades, but a psychological vignette of a man desperately searching for a place to hide. In this case, the Wyoming wilderness. 

As Henry exits his getaway truck at the road's end and the woods' beginning, and takes his first step into the sunlit grove, following a gurgling creek, hearing the distant birds chirping overhead, we can immediately sense all too well that the backpack he hoists onto his shoulder is far from the heaviest baggage he's carrying. Still, it's hard not to hope that this hiding place with all of its light and water and color doesn't also house a promise of healing and inspiration. After all, summer is long. There's a lot of walking ahead. And his – our – watch has just begun. 

A nice view from the trail in the game's opening. Moments before, I nearly dropped my controller
as an elk lunged in front of me only to vanish once more into the trees. 
Early mornings and evenings were my favorite time of the day throughout the game. 
The golds and reds of late summer give an otherworldliness to Shoshone National Forest.

Nature Calls

"Firewatch," the game's writer Sean Vanaman told me, "takes place right where I grew up. There's an area on the side of Yellowstone called the Thorofare near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. There’s this one road in and a trailhead and then nothing. Just lots of grizzly bears." And, guessing by how gorgeous this game looks, some incredible landscapes to boot.

You can order your in-game photos and Campo Santo will print them on gloss paper for a few bucks and mail them to you.

The world of Firewatch is as breathtaking as it is diverse. Lush green forests by Beartooth Creek in the southern sector, a boulder-strewn Wapiti Meadow, the immense red rock Thunder Canyon with its stream and cave, and Jonesy Lake –Sean's favorite. You'll explore all these spots and more, even if you do rush through the game. But stopping to smell the daisies is pretty hard to resist thanks to the endless vistas, which you can enjoy at sunrise, midday, twilight, and midnight. It's a good thing you find one of those old Kodak disposables in an abandoned hiker's pack.

Unfortunately – actually, thankfully – there's no selfie-stick as this game takes place in 1989. But if you play Firewatch on Steam (PC or Mac), you can order your in-game photos and Campo Santo will print them on gloss paper for a few bucks and mail them to you. Pretty neat. Just pick your targets carefully. Once the film's gone, the film's gone, making each photo that much more special. And don't worry about saving it for some mission. In a very real way, enjoying the Wyoming wilderness is the mission. 

The old cottonwood tree in the southwest sector and the disposable Kodak I found in an abandoned hiker's pack.
Snapping Camp Arapahoe in the Kodak's viewfinder. Only seven pics left and no end of worthy subjects in sight.

In Solitude

"Henry's in this giant wilderness," Sean explains, "but it feels like a prison." He credits among other things the use of contrasting elements to achieve this deep feeling of isolation. "I was obsessed with this idea where the world would be impossibly big, and then the thing that you find that turns the story is impossibly small. There's a part in the cave, where you look into a hole and there's a shoe. It's a tiny object in this huge cavernous space and it makes you feel this thing." I felt it alright: a chill up the back of my neck — a testament to just how alone the game makes you feel. To suddenly be made aware of my isolation – and simultaneously the fact that I might not be – was truly unsettling.

Other moments of solitude are less physical and more emotional. There's a part early on where we're tasked with fixing the tower's broken window. After collecting some wood boards, we hammer each one into place. Upon completion, the game takes over, just long enough for Henry's hand to pat the final board in satisfaction, giving us a glimpse of a wedding band on his finger. With this tiny brushstroke, much to Sean's credit and glee, this "impossibly small object" turns the otherwise mundane chore of mending a window into an emotional parable for the entire game. 

Walking, discovering, watching a sunset — from minute one, Firewatch is a breath of fresh air. As a casual gamer, I loved the
distinct absence of violence throughout. And it's anything but boring. 

"We wanted Firewatch to show people that you can make whatever you want. You can tell a really personal story if you make it high quality, respect the intelligence of the player, and their time. You don’t always have to make big budget entertainment. The audience is so big. You can make whatever you want."


— Sean Vanaman, Co-founder Campo Santo 

Lakeside-bound on a sunny morning. My plan is simple: catch a fish and feed the bear before he eats me. 

Walkie-Talkie

The work's theme of solitude tightly integrates with its gameplay. Henry's main tools are a map, a compass, a flashlight, and a walkie-talkie. Which brings us to Delilah. She's Henry's boss, and a fellow lookout stationed atop the visibly adjacent, but inaccessible mountain to the north. She greets you when you first arrive at your tower – and wakes you the next day – to go investigate the "fucking idiots" launching fireworks by the lake. Swearing aside, Delilah's a really sweet gal. Sometimes a bit chatty, but at any point players can choose not to respond by letting the reply timer deplete (about 10 seconds), thereby ending the conversation.

Over the course of the summer, the walkie-talkie transforms from a window into a mirror, reflecting some of the game's most interesting vistas.

While most video games give players a pistol with ammo resupplies, our main tool of advancement through Firewatch isn't a weapon at all. It's the choice to talk – or not – with another human being. The map, compass, and flashlight help us navigate a summer's worth of external mysteries, and the walkie-talkie is our means of internal orienteering. While these conversations may not affect the game's main events, they definitely affect the ending's emotional impact and the work's thematic sum. If players use it thoughtfully, they're rewarded with a window of insight into Delilah, who we learn has a past just like Henry does. In a beautiful way, over the course of the summer the walkie-talkie transforms from a window into a mirror, reflecting some of the game's most interesting vistas.

Firewatch is narrated by two stellar voice actors: Rich Sommers (Mad Men) and Cissy Jones (The Walking Dead video game). On my second playthrough, I was still discovering lots of new conversations. Keep an ear out for Delilah's puns. They're phone-nomenal

"I think what sets Firewatch apart from a game where you just sort of walk around and experience a story is the theme-gameplay connection that people pick up on or appreciate even if they haven’t identified it. And I think that’s really important."
 

— Sean Vanaman,  Co-founder Campo Santo

Across the ravine up the mountain sits Delilah's lookout. The forest you'll come to know best all lies south and behind you, but I always
really enjoyed the view from here.

The Art of Healing

Towards the end of our discussion, Sean describes Firewatch as a "rumination on human relationships inside of a crazy mystery inside of a beautiful wilderness experience." This is a great encapsulation, though having just completed the game for a second time, I tend to think of it more as a rumination becoming a meditation. Rumination is a psychological term that describes the tendency to focus on the symptoms of one's distress as opposed to their solutions. While Henry does dwell on the incident that brought him to the woods, the solution is never fully out of mind or sight. He knows he can – and should – leave.

But Henry's journey is also meditative for the player. Experiencing it from beginning to end is not unlike getting lost in a Bierstadt landscape or reading Cheryl Strayed's Wild. We as the audience can emerge from them changed, hopefully even edified, having vicariously experienced the struggle and beauty and inspiration found in nature. For us, Firewatch is not just eye-candy, but eye-protein; a healthy dose of inspiration to hit the outdoors. Maybe a summer-long walk through the woods is exactly the medicine we need.

If you want to take an unforgettable one, then lock yourself indoors for an afternoon and play Firewatch. [H]

One of my favorite views. 

When Jon Glatfelter isn't wearing his Huckberry Growth team hat, he's probably replaying
Bioshock or enjoying a big book. Would you kindly read along?


Images courtesy of Campo Santo

 

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