Strike a match.
Consider it for a second. The way the flame devours the matchstick.
This simple chemical reaction taking place before your eyes requires only a trio of forces – oxygen (from the air), fuel (the wooden matchstick) and heat (created by striking the head against the box). We’ve understood how to ‘control’ fires for almost four hundred thousand years, long before we knew the dissociate elements that initiate them. Controlling fire has become so entwined in what it means to be human that we use it as an idiom – “fire up”, “like a house on fire” and so forth.
Firewatch begins as a game about this chemical reaction. The protagonist, Henry, imposes upon himself a period of incarceration in one of the world’s most beautiful prisons, a vast national park, taking up a job as a fire lookout. This in an attempt to escape from another prison – his relationship with wife Julia, rapidly deteriorating as she succumbs to the insidious slow burn of Alzheimer’s disease.
The connection between Henry and his wife is revealed to the player in a short prologue that details their meeting, falling in love and the way in which the relationship begins to wane as in the face of Henry’s selfishness and Julia’s sickness. This is quite an important note in the opening stanza of the game, one that establishes the reality of adult relationships and parallels them with the phases of a fire – the initial spark, the constant burning for another and the misfortune of a flame that begins to wane in the wind.
Importantly, it also demonstrates Henry’s desire to escape, to start anew, a fresh start.
We fear fire that we cannot control, as is often the case in Australia, where wildfires burn uncontrollably and threaten the places we inhabit. But not all uncontrolled fires are dangerous, in fact, fires are essential to the ecology of a forest. They are both the disease and the cure – absolute in their destruction, but with the power to regenerate and rejuvenate the forest in which they burn through. They devour the treeline, spread their finger-like flames toward the canopy and when their fuel expires and they flicker out, a basis for life to restart remains.
In this way, Henry’s perambulation through the Wyoming wilderness is to his spirit as a wildfire is to the forest it engulfs. A new beginning.
Shortly after taking up his position as fire lookout, Henry establishes a relationship with his supervisor Delilah via handheld radio. Her soft, warm voice feels just like the picturesque setting but holds a volatile sarcastic edge that seems to interest Henry (or disinterest, depending on your choices). Delilah takes responsibility for Henry from a distance as his supervisor, and throughout the game, the two communicate, share stories and begin a relationship of their own. It is her direction that pushes the plot forward and the two of you, together, unravel the central mystery of Firewatch.
Notably, although you control Henry throughout the game, he always feels like his own person and you a patient observer of his life. You can choose what he says, you can stray from the beaten path but you can never change why he is in the forest in the first place. Henry will always turn to the forest to try in an effort to cleanse himself of his feelings about Julia.
Delilah is designed to be the antithesis to Julia – someone almost overflowing with life, wielding her quick wit and clever tongue like an axe, chipping away at Henry’s stone wall. Romantic overtones punctuate their relationship as the game begins to develop and more honeyed details about both of their lives trickle out of their mouths. Delilah’s companionship helps Henry, ensuring even in the isolation of the woods, he is never quite alone.
We can control fire, to an extent. We do it daily to provide warmth, light and to cook and clean. We also employ it to perform ‘controlled burns’ – fire under the strictest guidance of human hands. A controlled burn is an effort in hazard reduction, an attempt to prevent future fires from raging out of control. We burn through the grasslands and plains to ensure that fuel will not build up and eventually create conditions that are ideal for fires to burn out of control when the mercury rises.
If Henry’s self-imposed sabbatical is a wildfire burning out of control, Delilah is a controlled burn.
At the end of Firewatch, a conflagration threatens the entire park, forcing both Henry and Delilah to evacuate. A chopper is scheduled to pick the two of them up from Delilah’s tower, on the other side of the park. You can ask Delilah to wait for you, but no matter the dialogue choices made, Delilah will not be waiting in the tower when you arrive. You always walk into an empty lookout, place your headphones on, pull the mic down in front of your face and speak to her, for one last time, via the radio.
She apologises for leaving, but muses that this summer is one that she looks at in isolation. The game leaves you with a sense that you will likely not see Delilah again. It’s 1989, after all, and there’s no social media to befriend Delilah on, there’s no phone number she leaves behind. She pulls that old party trick, taking a lit candle into her mouth and pulling it out, extinguished. Like that flame, she is gone.
Her departure is the perfect ending. The most controlled of all burns, lit to ensure that the Henry’s wildfire doesn’t swell out of control and consume him, leaving him guilt-ridden and alone. It ensures that wildfire carries on right up to the burn-line, allowing for rejuvenation and regeneration of his spirit. It allows him to go back to Julia, or not, with a burden lifted. In fact, it doesn’t matter what Henry does now, he is healed, he can begin again.
Firewatch begins as a game about a simple chemical reaction – a trio of forces coalescing to create fire. After wandering beneath the trees for six or so hours, Firewatch reveals itself as a game about chemical reactions far more complex than we yet understand – about human relationships, lasting or fleeting, and the toll they take on us.
Jackson is a scientist, not an arsonist (really). He can be found at @sciencejayz on twitter and on Disney XD’s GameFest.