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15 February 2016

Firewatch: the videogame that deals with dementia, loneliness, love and death

As a lookout in a Wyoming park, the indie game Firewatch brings mature and sensitive topics into gaming against a vivid backdrop of nature. 

By Emad Ahmed

Developed by Campo Santo, Firewatch is the debut title of the indie outfit based in San Francisco. The game is set in 1988, in the Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, where our character, Henry, has decided to spend the summer as a fire lookout.

The opening ten minutes are a devastating introduction to our protagonist, his backstory and what has led him to taking up this role.

We discover it’s because of the surprising diagnosis of his wife’s Alzheimer’s in her late thirties, and while she’s being looked after by her family in Australia, Henry is left alone across the ocean, seeking some kind of solitude.

You’re probably already thinking this is an insanely heavy plot for a videogame, and would instead make a great book or film of some kind instead.

But I found myself completely engrossed by the quiet allure of nature and being able to make active choices in Henry’s conversations with the warm but guarded Delilah, a fellow lookout in a distant tower, through a two-way radio. This isn’t 2016, where mobile phones and GPS devices would have dramatically altered the course of the game. You’re left with a handy map and compass to navigate your surroundings.

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The environment is an artistic achievement in the production of a unique landscape in gaming, with the absence of wildlife the only noticeable negative. Only The Witness can brag about creating a world heavily set in nature where you’ll want to get lost.

Throughout the game, you’re asked to wander around the park, collecting supplies and asking messy trespassers to leave before retreating back to your lookout. It sounds very simple and peaceful until strange events such as random wildfires and potentially sneaky intruders pop up.

I’ve only seen Todd Field’s superb, critically-acclaimed In the Bedroom once, but I remember it so vividly. The way it deals with a human story and quietly ratchets up the tension is like nothing else, and the way the lid suddenly blows off the story is incredible.

Firewatch builds up a similar level of tension and ambiguity through strange events and conversations with Delilah, which range from amusing battles of quick-wit, sharing personal tragedies or simply having company in the vast wilderness. It should be noted that you communicate solely using the two-way radio.

However, I can’t help but feel slightly let down by the lack of a similarly intense payoff in Firewatch, though it does remain personal, surprising and engaging nonetheless.

The voice acting by Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones is superb, and a perfect example of the importance of dialogue and sound for the usually visual-heavy medium of gaming. Indie developers usually excel in gameplay, making this an unusual highlight that heavyweight first-party developers should follow.

The game is definitely one of the few adult-oriented games to have ever been released, showing encounters with tragedy, death and illness all in the ways we humans deal with such issues: reclusiveness, humour and confusion. And Firewatch has buckets of emotion that will make those lingering thoughts about love and death you have each day last that little bit longer.