Campo Santo’s Firewatch has attracted a lot more attention than a game of its type usually would, and there are several very good reasons for that. The art direction, for example, is stunning, and the story is effective in a way that other ‘walking simulator’ games, such as Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, fail to match. There’s a lot that’s been said about the superb and believable voice acting, while others have discussed the serenity of the world that main characters Henry and Delilah inhabit. In short, Firewatch gets a lot of stuff right, most of which is covered in our video below:
For this writer, however, Firewatch excels in its efforts at connecting with players through the protagonist, Henry, and his story, in which he makes choices that are reasonable to imagine a real person making. By accurately depicting the way that people in real life can be tired and cowardly, as opposed to the emotionally unflinching heroes that video games usually feature, Firewatch succeeded in making a real connection with me.
The game opens with a short sequence where the player forms the protagonist’s back story. The end outcome is always the same; that Henry’s wife, Julia, contracts early onset dementia, placing great strain on their marriage until Henry accepts a job as a fire lookout in the middle of nowhere. However, the game allows the player to choose the nuances of Henry’s emotional path to the wilderness, which allows the player to identify with Henry’s often selfish choices more effectively than some other multiple-choice games.
The poignant intro sequence, effectively an old-school text adventure with no visuals at all, works very well to set the tone for Firewatch, and to secure the player’s empathy. The lack of visuals mean that you fill in the blanks; you can envisage Julia as your real-life girlfriend, your real-life wife. From the off, you know that your character is running away from something; whether that be guilt or failure, which every player will be able to identify with.
In my playthrough, which I played alone, I chose to put Julia into a care home in order for her to receive the best support possible. The guilt is then ramped up when your in-game friends question your choice. My girlfriend, during her playthrough, chose to continue to look after Julia until her family insisted that they would look after her instead. I quietly wondered what that said about my real-life relationship.
It’s rare that I know within the first fifteen minutes of starting a new game that I will see it through to the end, but with Firewatch, and its stirring of such strong empathy, I knew.
Henry’s conflict between Julia and Delilah further adds to this empathy. In an age where internet dating is prevalent, people are often forming meaningful relationships with just voices, text or otherwise. Deep friendships can be formed with people that you may barely, or even never, see. Delilah, your chatty supervisor on the other end of the radio, is the in-game manifestation of this. Over the game’s five or so hours, Delilah is Henry’s only human companion, and interacting with her as you traverse Firewatch’s vibrant world gives life to the experience.
I’m all for a good flirt, so my playthrough saw Henry react warmly to Delilah’s quips, quickly form a trusting relationship with her, and reveal the tragic circumstances behind Henry’s presence in the area.
The game then hits you with a call from Julia, in which Henry responds to his wife with little to no enthusiasm. I was annoyed by the options; I would have preferred warmer responses from Henry, which seems ridiculous when I had spent the previous hour trying to charm the woman on the other end of the radio. I saw where the game wanted to take Henry, and by extension, me. To revisit an earlier statement, Delilah is Henry’s only human companion, but by engaging with her in the most positive way, you’re forgetting about Jules. You’re giving up on her.
Firewatch justifies my observation here by making Julia absent for the rest of the game. The game tries to makes it easier to move on from Julia, and focus on the happier conversations with Delilah, reaching a point where you find that Henry’s removed his wedding ring and left it on his desk. I make him put it back on. Every time the game returns to Henry’s watchtower, the photo of Henry and Julia together is lying face down on the desk, and I make Henry set it upright. I feel uneasy about the romantic conversation that Henry and Delilah have one late serene night, and even more so about the implied sexual conversation once the scene has cut to black.
It can be argued at this point that Firewatch doesn’t give you too much of an option regarding Julia. The little ways that I chose to preserve Henry’s relationship with his wife – the ring, the photo, etc – were my own in-game choices, not active choices that you’re asked to make, and so they don’t actually have any bearing on the development of the game. I even tried to cut back on the warmth towards Delilah, refusing to provide any further information about Jules, and she responds by getting annoyed and leaving the radio for a short time, which means my game is temporarily a bit duller. It starts to feel like the game isn’t asking you to make a direct choice, but is instead asking you to determine the tone of Henry’s slow abandonment of Julia.
And I guess there lies the (hopefully) intentional emotional point of Firewatch. The actual plot of the game, involving the sad fate of the antagonist, doesn’t detract from Firewatch‘s main focus; a man’s resignation to his fate, and unwillingness to continue fighting against the tide. In Henry, a realistic character has been created, one that is different from the typical givers of enduring love that entertainment will usually provide, one that continues shedding his past despite knowing that he’s being a dick in doing so.
This mirrors real-life, where you’ll often make decisions knowing full well that you just don’t care anymore when you really should; when you know you’re giving up on something important; when you know you’re being selfish; when you know you’re doing wrong.
Even though she’s unseen, Delilah is an endearing foil for Henry; she’s likeable, she’s adorable, and she’s the perfect woman to help Henry move past Julia. If that’s not enough for you to compromise on your morals, the game will subtly (and sometimes not subtly) guide the player towards Delilah, culminating in the end sequence in which it’s impossible to climb those final steps without some sort of notion of romance in your mind. By the end of the game, I was fully aware that Henry was still wearing his wedding ring, and yet, I still wanted a romantic ending for the two main characters.
In creating a character as flawed and as realistic as Henry, and by removing the emotional distance from the plot afforded to me as a video-game player, Firewatch makes sure that it endures in your memory long after the end credits have rolled. I wondered about the choices I had made regarding Delilah; were these decisions I would have made if it was me in the tower, or were they options limited to Henry? Would I respond in a way as cowardly as Henry did if I faced such overwhelming tragedy? Would I run away?