Firewatch Burns a New Path to Understanding

Answers appear on an auburn horizon

Firewatch Burns a New Path to Understanding
Source: Press Kit.

Games often define success in terms of the classic hero’s quest. Players have to slay a monstrous enemy to attain a precious goal. What if the monsters do not hide in a dark cave, but in the hollow of one’s own heart? No amount of quests or bravado can defeat them. Firewatch spotlights what one can do when they sink their claws into our lives.

Spoilers ahead for Firewatch.

On a tall tower

Henry, the protagonist of Firewatch, becomes a fire lookout in one of Wyoming’s national parks, Shoshone National Forest. He wants to run away from his life. The quiet of the forest might heal his psychological wounds. Or it might not.

Source: Press Kit.

See, the problems in his life aren’t things he can solve. He can only sit with them. Sit with them in a place that’s so different from his old existence that it resembles an alien planet, which might be appropriate because, even though he is approaching his 4th decade on earth, he wants to start a new life.

This would be the point where most heroes start their journey to gain new powers, slay the dragon, and save the princess. Real life doesn’t work that way, though. Normal people have to carry a weight with them, regardless of catharsis. And Firewatch is very much a game about normal people with extraordinary pain.

Sit on the couch

There are ways to deal with setbacks. It's not easy, but it involves talking about the problem. Therapy’s foundation is speech. We stare at a ceiling, talk about our inner landscapes, and hope the person next to us doesn’t flinch away from our truth.

Source: Press Kit.

Henry meets his confidante, Delilah, through a walkie talkie. It’s not a one-way sharing session, either. They are two broken people trying to prop up each other as winds buffet them from every direction.

Delilah is running away from the failure of a long-term relationship. Like Henry, she uses alcohol to try to dull the pain. It doesn’t improve the situation. This doesn’t stop the bottle from being an alluring option.

At least they still have their sense of humor. With their type of gallows humor, they can laugh about the thorns that dot one’s path. That way, one can forget about the pain for a couple of seconds. Lines like these illustrate the usual repartee:

 Delilah: …try not to get hit by lightning.
Henry: I’m not sure I got a lot of choice in being struck down.
Delilah: Especially not with your electric personality

The fact is that most people dislike talking about their emotions. Humor is also a way to sniff out if one can trust another to open up, though. As in Firewatch, jokes can pave the way for deep discussions in real life.

A secret in a discussion

Paranoia heightens as Henry and Delilah uncover dark secrets in the park. Firewatch doesn’t give us all the information. The blank spaces encourage us to theorize, which many players have done over the years.

Source: Press Kit.

Delilah herself has become the focus of several theories. Much of her life remains in the shadows, even after lengthy conversations. Henry, and us, do not even get to see her face throughout the time we spend in the beautiful landscapes.

That’s because Firewatch isn’t a typical game. It doesn’t want to give this relationship closure in the traditional sense, because Delilah isn’t a princess in a castle. She’s a person with a past, present, and future.

In the past, the damsel in distress trope remained enduring because it fed into certain preconceptions of the male savior. It often reduces a female character to a plot device, too. Firewatch goes against this tradition when it doesn’t take away Delilah’s agency. As a result, we get to see a more nuanced relationship develop during the events of the game.

Source: Press Kit.

Firewatch rejects the very concept of the couple going off into the sunset at the end. A relationship would not have solved their problems either, despite what society tells them. Burdens can only be lightened by the carriers themselves.

The worth of a response

We all have internal fights to confront during difficult times. They might not be flashy, but they are perhaps even harder because of their subdued nature. Henry tells himself he is worth the effort when he delves into his own thoughts and feelings. Sometimes, when a person feels worthless, that’s one of the hardest decisions to make.

The introspective message is quite rare in the medium of video games. It’s easier to make external actions exciting to a player, after all. Firewatch manages to, through its walkie talkie dialogues, make us care about two people’s personal struggles. The combination of mysteries, beautiful environments, a relatable protagonist, and tension holds our attention.

Source: Press Kit.

Our camera in the game is an important component. We, like Henry, leave the park with the photos, which represent our memories. But are memories alone inadequate? Perhaps not. They are the building blocks of a person’s life. As the credits roll, we look at our captured memories, hoping that Henry can use them to rebuild a semblance of peace in his life. Maybe that’s enough.

Sometimes we can only cling to a voice in a maelstrom. By doing so, we also give the other person a lifeline. We can speak with no goal other than to heal our wounds. When we hear our voice, we realize we aren’t powerless, nor are we inadequate. The first step is to venture to a place where there is space for our voice — in a place full of silence and peace.


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