by Jed Pressgrove
In applying the “walking simulator” label, the gaming press and gamers miss what Firewatch is (a mystery/drama) and what action it emphasizes (hiking and conversing). If you wanted to be just as clueless as those labelers, you could call Firewatch a “hiking simulator,” as such a marketing term would overlook that the game barely tries to simulate what it feels like to traverse the wild. But the biggest failure of Firewatch involves its soap-opera view of humanity’s interaction with the natural world, a new form of the facile darkness that creators Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman pimped out in Telltale’s The Walking Dead.
You walk and talk as Henry, a middle-aged man who takes a job as a fire lookout in a national forest to escape the difficulty of dealing with his wife, who has developed early-onset dementia. You take orders from and report to supervisor Delilah, who also expresses a sad jadedness about the toughness of real life. As natural as the voice-acted dialogue can be between Henry and Delilah (especially when they trade sarcastic remarks), their eventual romance is hard to buy for the simple reason that you never see the two together. This limitation seems irrelevant, though, when you consider the dreaded purpose of Firewatch: dragging the player into a fatuous underbelly.
The story seems petty early on when Delilah, with little evidence of professional insight in her direction, tells Henry to chase off a couple of belligerent teenagers. He attempts to give orders to the teens, they run away, and on a later day, Delilah reveals the teenagers are missing. Later, Henry finds evidence that someone, maybe multiple people, is spying on him and Delilah and recording their conversations. Preposterously, all these weird details become tied to a former fire lookout who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder due to the Vietnam War. With this relevation, it’s clear Rodkin, Vanaman, and the rest of the story/direction crew seek to dumb down an important history of human struggle for the sake of character reflection, but only a cynic would think Henry has to be scared by such an exaggeration to consider the responsibility of being a husband.
Although Firewatch has been compared to Alfred Hitchcock more than once, no Hitchcock film ever moved as slow, but that’s by design. Developer Campo Santo intends to create an illusion of exploring nature the old-fashioned way, requiring you to hold up a compass and map rather than view a convenient map screen. Yet you’re confined to particular preset paths and will run into many invisible, illogical walls if you venture too much. The forest is thus unconvincing, and it’s almost a joke when a character uses the word “hike.” This detachment from sincere feeling and experience receives its trashiest expression with the disposable camera, which the developers want you to use so that you can sentimentalize their depiction of nature rather than understand why people get sentimental about nature. Firewatch may not have any zombies like The Walking Dead, but that only means it’s a more subtle version of a mindless doomsday vision when the big fire takes over the pretty sights at the end.