‘Firewatch’ burns with riveting drama, stunning scenery

Campo Santo/File

Much of what makes today’s entertainment so appealing is that it takes choice away from the user. When watching a television show, for example, one does not need to do anything except sit back, send those last Snapchats and let the images and sounds flood their brain. The same goes for music, movies and for the most part, reading. That’s why video games, with the plethora of decisions to be made and paths to explore, can be a great option for someone looking for a more active experience than living vicariously through the attractive people on the small screen.

Based on the 1989 Yellowstone Fires, indie developer Campo Santo’s debut PC and PS4 game, “Firewatch,” presents the player with a number of difficult choices right from the start. The protagonist, Henry, meets his wife Julia in college and the pair quickly fall in love. Sadly, however, the couple’s dreams of having children are dashed by long hours of work and ultimately, early-onset dementia for Julia. Reeling from this tragedy, Henry retreats to the beautiful Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming to serve as a fire lookout for the summer.

The player begins by taking care of the peaceful day-to-day activities while talking on a radio to his boss, Delilah, with whom a deep connection soon forms. But things quickly take a turn for the worse. Two girls go missing and a dark tragedy surrounding the national forest becomes entwined with increasingly strange occurrences.

The scenery is absolutely beautiful. Trees and leaves look as if they are painstakingly painted onto the canvas of the screen, and the mountains and wispy clouds in the sky combine to produce an atmosphere of peace when coupled with the understated, calming score. Every object or item is immaculately detailed, from the dust jacket of a lost book Henry finds in his cabin to wrinkles and faded ink on notes passed back and forth between two mischievous previous lookouts. These little details and playful, almost combative banter with Delilah (with a slight romantic inclination, even in this hopeless situation) make even just walking around and exploring an exciting task. Henry’s movement is both smooth in its gliding through the landscape and realistic in the need to stop and climb over obstacles.

The first person view of “Firewatch” in particular elevates the gameplay once the story actually builds up to its menacing, creepy ascent. Figures could be darting around the edge of the screen or following quietly behind Henry. Was that rustle a stalker or some leaves? Who has been taking notes of Delilah and Henry’s conversations? What is the experiment in the center of the forest? Eventually, Delilah and Henry become essentially trapped in the forest while a giant fire blazes, forced to figure out what’s going on before it figures them out.

The climax of the game arrives right at the ending. Either dramatically riveting or disappointingly anticlimactic to the player, the ending is definitely not what anyone could predict. While for the most part, players will all follow the same path to the ending, the following decision is one that forces the player to consider what they want out of a game and, without being too dramatic, life. The forest, while peaceful and restorative, comes off as almost fantastical in its perfection, and Henry must decide what to do after everything has ended.

Oftentimes, stories told in books and on screens can infuriate or even completely turn away followers with nonsensical endings. Viewers want to imagine their own ending, to tie connections in their mind to make the story fit the way they want to. “Firewatch” strikes a unique balance between choice and destiny in its ending. Henry can forget about what happened and the implications, or he can confront it and allow it to change him. In a similar way, viewers will have to ponder over the same choice regarding their own lives for a long time after saying goodbye to Delilah and to Shoshone onscreen.

Contact Kevin Lu at [email protected].