Words About Video Games

Firewatch: Becoming Henry

You can't read the books beyond the blurb on the dust jacket. It didn't matter. I had to collect each one of them. Pick it up, carry it in one hand, bring it back to my lonely watchtower, and set it on the shelf, next to the others.

Firewatch is a game that often finds itself compared to narrative-driven experiences like Everybody's Gone to the Rapture or The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Philosophical genre pieces set in immaculately rendered worlds, inhabited only by the ghosts of the past. It's not a fair comparison. Firewatch is better in every conceivable way.

Take those books. The game remembers where they are. Leave one in a clearing in the woods one day and it will be there the next. Put them on your shelf, and they are yours until you leave. Perhaps even more effectively, you have to physically carry them. You are not a disembodied witness. You have hands and feet. Need to look at your map? Then you need to set down whatever you're carrying. You only have two hands, after all.

These are details, sure. Nothing requires you to pick up a single book. Nothing rewards you for collecting them. But when it comes to what Firewatch does best, it's the details that matter.

Firewatch is about embodying a character. From the choicebook style introduction, which invites you into the small triumphs and defeats of the character's past, laying the groundwork of experience which informs your approach to playing the character, to the way all dialogue is delivered through the physical radio in your hand, the game manages to build something truly special: a narrative exploration game where the player inhabits a character and helps shape their attitudes and desires, and where the story unfolds in the moment, and not as part of some slowly uncovered past. In some sense, Firewatch is an RPG for story-lovers, shorn of combat and stats, distilled to a pair of intense relationships.

And I love the story Firewatch tells. If you, like Henry, have been spending a lot of time in the woods, collecting the suspense novels left by bored park rangers in scattered wilderness supply caches, reading them to wile away the hours staring out of your watchtower for any sign of smoke ... If you, like Henry, had come to the woods to escape a life that had suddenly become more complicated than you could bear ... Wouldn't it be easy to find comfort in long meandering conversations with someone you've never met, a stranger at the other end of a radio, similarly bored? And wouldn't it be comforting in some way to think that the complications of your life had some purpose behind them, however sinister?

We often say that we play videogames to escape, but in Firewatch escape is not possible. Your problems come with you. The most you can hope for is distance, a little clarity, and the ability to return before those problems become the snare that traps you there, cutting you off from reality entirely.