Written for Haywire Magazine.
Firewatch is genuinely one of the most unnerving games I’ve played.
It tells a story about uncertainty in a serenely alien Wyoming wilderness. There is an otherness in these woods, an ethereal hostility, that turns the limited sightlines into a liability and the harmless noises of nature into something else entirely. It’s a hostile landscape that wants no interlopers and could hide anything.
Weirdly, it’s also one of the most comfortable games I’ve played.
Firewatch builds this dichotomous atmosphere via the player character, Henry. Henry is profoundly human as he wards off the uncanny world around him. He is introduced in the prologue, bit by bit, through narration about his life. He meets his wife, they get a dog, they face hardships and triumphs, they make difficult decisions, and life goes on. Although the narration is little vignettes of Henry’s life, told two to three sentences at a time, it does a really good job of sharing who Henry is. Interspersed with this are decisions the player and Henry make together, some of which are cute, some of which are heartbreaking. By the end of a messy life situation, Henry has taken a job at the firewatch tower and is destined to spend his summer there.
The player is made party to Henry’s choices, and the decisions themselves are frank, delivered in white text against a black screen. There’s an inescapable finality to Firewatch’s opening act, familiar enough to anyone who’s ever made a hard life decision. Within a few minutes, the player can empathetically understand Henry.
As the player’s avatar, Henry also feels familiar. He is a capable if cautious hiker, taking measured steps on steep cliffs, carefully calculating his jumps, and gingerly squatting before taking drops. He lands like he wants to have his knees and ankles by retirement. But he’s not a seasoned outdoorsman either; he takes everything at an unpracticed pace. In conversation, he stumbles his words when caught off-guard; he makes jokes or gets exasperated; he chuckles to himself when he makes a bad joke and groans when he slips and falls. He struggles through awkwardness, wavering uncertainly when faced with new situations or important decisions, and he has the option to ask questions if he doesn’t know the answer. Instead of a stoic totem of inhuman capability, Henry is just a guy. He has a few beers at the end of a hard work day, enjoys a cup of coffee in the morning, and deals with his problems the same way anyone else might. He’s not exceptional.
When Henry is faced with an impossible situation, his ears don’t ring, his vision doesn’t turn white, and he doesn’t succumb to his mental demons in an in-engine cutscene full of dramatic head-grabbing and anguished collapsing. He only panics if the player does. The woods move around him, noises come from all directions, but Henry’s only as paranoid as his player. Does he check his back every thirty seconds? Does he huff a bit with rightful nerves, or clutch the radio as a lifeline to his humanity?
Henry is perhaps one of the best examples of a character the player can feel comfortable in, a quality he maintains throughout. He isn’t a mute avatar like Gordon Freeman, a distant space hero like Shepard, or an extranormal figure like Riddick. He isn’t a trained detective, or a weapons expert, or a wizard. He’s just some guy, facing a rough patch in life one step at a time.
In Henry’s skin— between relaxed conversation, unsure mornings, and panicked hikes—things still feel okay. Henry’s problems are real, but they’re just a part of life. They aren’t solved by super soldiers or fated heroes, but by regular people. When Henry cracks jokes, it isn’t because it’s an ideal time to say something pithy or clever, it’s because he found a good opportunity to share a joke with a friend. When he climbs a mountain, it isn’t because there’s a warlock, but because that’s where his job needs for him to go. He isn’t some big fantasy hero; he’s Henry. He’s an easy character to relate to.
For a game about unnerving, isolating, and alienating, Firewatch is perhaps most successful in humanizing. At one point, Henry is asked to describe himself, and he flounders. He’s, uh… got a beard? No wit, no grandeur, no gravitas. Just a guy, out in the woods, chattering on a radio, strikingly human.