FBT is Walker, Wyoming Ranger.
Is Firewatch a Walking Sim? Yeah, kinda. An adventure game? Sort of. An art game? I suppose. I don’t really know what it is, other than one of my favourite games of the year.
Henry is a regular guy who takes up the job of fire lookout at Shoshone National Forest after his beloved wife takes ill and he can no longer care for her. Henry is just looking for somewhere he can be left alone and avoid facing up to what life has thrown at him, but even out here in the wilderness life can still throw things.
On his first day, his supervisor Delilah, aka “D” contacts him over the radio, setting some ground-rules; the most important being she’s not the silent type. She pesters and chats away, curious about him and why he’d take this job. Naturally Henry evades all her probing questions, and focuses on being equally pleased and appalled at what life in the forest means – an outside toilet?
Henry’s early chores are monotonous, repetitive and ‘Day X’ keeps popping up to show how long we’ve been doing nothing. But it’s strangely compelling. We know Henry is here to avoid what’s happening at home, and he’s not really suited to the outdoors life, but D keeps teasing out parts of his life he’s been trying to avoid. A lot of the time you’re just walking while Henry reports on obstacles and rock-falls or just gives location updates – it should be incredibly boring, but it’s the exactly opposite. Somehow you fall for Henry and just want the guy to find some peace. Shame D won’t give him any.
Later, D sends him to investigate some fireworks. Henry discovers they were set off by a couple of drunk girls, who accuse him of perving before running off. Soon after, Henry’s lookout is vandalised and more seriously, the radio communications are cut – suspecting it’s the teens, D sends him to scare them off, but he discovers their camp seemingly destroyed and them nowhere to be seen.
Henry and D begin to suspect they’re being watched – Henry finds a note detailing their conversations and clues lead to an unmarked, gated-off area under Government control. As a distant fire threatens to blow toward their towers, the two become increasingly paranoid and focused on who is watching them.
In a way this is quite Hitchcockian – it kinda reminds you of Rear Window but in opposite – D, stuck in her tower like James Stewart, sends Henry (that is, Grace Kelly) on increasingly risky trips to uncover the secrets of the park. But it might just be in the bored head of D – or is she messing with him? Is he part of some experiment? Is D in Henry’s head?
The look of Firewatch is fairly basic, almost cartoony, so you can’t really argue the wilderness is realistic enough to feel lost in, but meandering the Park feels peaceful, ruined only by Henry’s constant worry about bears and falling off cliffs. What really gets to you is how satisfyingly mundane Henry’s life is – just how he wanted it; you get why Henry took this job, and when the mystery pops up again, the missing girls, the strange goings on and legend of a missing ranger, it’s unsettling.
One thing I did realise though, I could never be a park ranger. To navigate you use a map and compass, learn the landmarks, orientate yourself. But not once did I strike out in the right direction. More than a few times I’d leave my station, manly walk toward wherever D had sent me, and suddenly find myself back at the station. Even with a map, a compass and two drunk, naked college girls to find, I still go in circles.
The real star of the game isn’t the Park or the mysteries it holds, it’s Henry’s relationship with D. Conversations are always realistic and sweetly pointless, D is also sly, and occasionally flirty – especially when she’s got the Tequila on the go. You become reliant on anything she says, desperate for some sort of human connection; you realise how important just chatting is and how broken Henry is. A moment they share looking at a fire in moonlight is beyond special, but the key thing is they’re both so real.
During the radio chats you often have multiple choice answers, and while key events are linear, how their relationship evolves is up to you – you can even entirely ignore her/find yourself unable to share if you want, and at times she would press me on details that I, at that stage, wasn’t ready to confront, let alone share. It’s incredibly involving; and when Henry suspects D might be involved in the mystery we're uncovering, it's a jolt.
The ending polarised critics, and it’s easy to see why, but for me it was perfect. The whole thing has a Hal Hartley meets Wes Anderson vibe, and you shoulda seen it coming, it was never about what was happening in the woods, it was about what was happening in Henry’s world. It’s not a walking sim, it’s not an adventure game, it is art. We’re just along for the ride, and it’s an occasionally scary, exciting, mysterious, moving, engrossing and beautiful ride.