Firewatch’s first hour is not a good one for Henry and Delilah. Their phone lines are cut mysteriously without any replacement nearby. A fire starts in some nearby acres, and someone lurks out of the forest with malicious intent.
These are some very convenient inconveniences that seem to be perfect for psychological thrillers. The land they are stationed in is not just a peaceful backdrop for stunning sunset photos and all the wild scenes in The Postman. Firewatch is a master at identifying the location and avoiding the dangers that lurk in the often overlooked but often underrated scrub forests of the American Northwest. These fears are something I have never experienced before in a game. It makes them feel fresh, even though I haven’t touched them for years. You see, that’s where I grew up.
Henry and Delilah don’t live in Wyoming but in Oregon’s eastern half. The area between the Cascade Mountains and the Cascade Mountains is sparsely populated, so you can easily mistake the Deschutes National Forest for Smith Rock State Park. Firewatch is watching someone walk through the deserts and forests east of my home with a GoPro attached to their head. The viewfinder bounces over vast fields, massive rocky outcroppings and occasional burned-out houses. It would be indistinguishable if it were a half-collapsed shed.
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Henry is right. It’s calm most of the day and a place you can enjoy the beauty of nature, even though it’s only a few miles from the nearest general stores (which do exist). However, ‘peaceful and safe’ are not synonymous. Cell coverage is almost non-existent out there once you go deep enough into the scrub (or just a few miles from town – my phone becomes a brick when we go home for Christmas). Delilah doesn’t exaggerate when she tells Henry about the nearest phone station a few days away. It is an area where everyone has a gun and locks their doors. If you are in trouble, it is far too far to get help. One of my neighbours was able to see that I was suffering from heatstroke and rush me inside. The nearest hospital wouldn’t have been far away, have I taken a turn. You can’t be stopped by the sun.
In a genuine sense, it is a place where you can’t shout. People who don’t value serene-looking landscapes can make the worst. It’s not hard to imagine that two firewatchers might be lost in a place like this, where people disappear without a trace (sometimes because of foul play) and don’t appear to have been found for several months. Even from outside the area, I know that my schools spent almost as much time on wilderness survival as Lewis and Clark did. However, inexperienced campers and hikers don’t always have this knowledge and are often unaware until they find themselves lost in the woods with no compass and a depleted water bottle.
Firewatch’s precise folding in many terrifying things about the deserted area makes this idea even more frightening. Henry’s fear about bears is hilarious, but it’s not because of the large predators out there. Will get you killed if you get on their wrong side. My middle school had a cougar alert that prevented us from going outside for recess. Far Cry and all games with dangerous wildlife make it a thrilling adventure to fight wildcats and bears. Firewatch shows you what it is like to fear them and respect them.
Firewatch also understands that terrain poses a greater danger than the wilderness itself. Although Delilah’s joke about spelunkers getting killed in a cave close to Henry’s tower might seem silly, it’s a genuine possibility that you could get hurt if you don’t take the proper precautions. Bears maul ten hikers. Ten others fall off a ledge and get swept away in a river or slip into a ravine. Henry’s descent down “Cripple Gulch” is minor, but it’s one of the most frightening things that could happen.
There’s also the whole concept of wildfire. While you can manage cliffs with care and avoid animals (they taught us that in school and God save you if we mix up the protocols for bears or cougars), you can’t predict how a fire will behave. My parents took me along to the Skeleton Fire site, which decimated an area east of Bend in Oregon. Unnervingly, the results were unpredictable – most of their houses were destroyed, but some remained untouched. They were surrounded by piles and cinders that used to be their neighbours’ homes. It could have been worse because the fire was heading straight for the town, but it just happened to sputter out at the right time, sparing civilization from a stomach-turning chance.
Henry and Delilah’s reaction to the idea of fires – shrouded in concern that quickly fades to cavalier resignation- seems understated considering that information and doesn’t convey the true impact of such an event. It’s also exactly what people who deal with it every day do. Wildfire isn’t just a distant disaster that makes the sky look hazy for a few seconds; it’s a real threat that comes every summer to your backyard. You can go about your day and try not to worry. The worry is real. Henry and Delilah’s veiled concern about the dryness of the leaves, or Delilah’s immediate rage at seeing someone set off fireworks, are both signs that they understand how it feels to live in constant danger.
Firewatch is a real place when it surrounds its central terror with modest but genuine fears. This increases not only the paranoia of Firewatch but also its humanity. They were worried I would drown in a stream, be attacked by coyotes or get trapped in caves without being able to escape. It’s odd, but it’s true. Firewatch sees more than just trees and Old West knick-knacks.
Henry and Delilah are a story about deep and real fears. They fear losing loved ones, failing when it matters, and not knowing how to get on with their lives. It could have just stayed with these things, using Shoshone to provide a backdrop of Blair Witch-style, a shallowness that could have been anywhere. Firewatch shows us how real it is. It recognizes that the place exists and has its terrors. This helps to keep us on the verge of the final resolution. It’s the first game to reflect that experience truly. I remember crawling through dark caves and sprinting home at night to escape the strange sounds in my brush. My parents watched as wildfires rushed towards their house, back at me. Firewatch brings that feeling back to me after years of feeling this kind of dread.