Firewatch is a game that seems to fire on all cylinders. The top traits of the game come from incredible writing for engaging dialogue, beautiful art direction for a stunning world, and a thought-provoking theme that may need a few playthroughs to sink in. However, after I completed this game the aspect that kept me thinking the most was the theme.
Running From Things That Haunt You
Firewatch is modeled around the main theme of running from the things that haunt you. This theme has support in numerous areas of game design. The most powerful support comes from the characters.
You play as Henry, a man who fell in love with a professor at a bar, Julia. The player quickly learns that later in their relationship, Julia is diagnosed with dementia. No matter what choices Henry makes, it is decided that Julia would go back home to Australia where she will be under the care of her parents, leaving Henry alone in Colorado. Henry is face to face with his reality. The reality of his marriage falling apart, and the person he loves going through something so horrifying. This reality is too much for him. In an effort to deflect these demons, Henry decides to take a job as a fire lookout in a national park for the summer. Instead of facing his reality, Henry wants to run. He wants to run and forget about his darkness. As the player progresses, you meet other characters that support this same theme of running. Each character has a troubling reality that they are trying to run from. Delilah, running from an ended relationship, and Ned, running from the loss of his son.
Theme Through Game Environment
Another area of Firewatch that supports this theme is the environment. While the imagery and art of the environment are breathtaking by themselves, taking a closer look can seem a little unsettling. Being in a national park, the first thing that might come to mind could be wildlife. While I was playing through this game, I was fully expecting to see wildlife around nearly every turn, but that was not what Firewatch delivered. The lack of wildlife felt eerie to me when I first noticed it. It didn’t feel real to me at certain points.
This hints at a theme: wherever you run to won’t be the same as what you are running from. It won’t be real. There are exceptions here such as at the beginning of the game you come face to face with an elk, who then turns and runs from you. I feel as though this is depicting Henry creating this new reality for himself that is stunning in every which way, but as he stays longer in this false reality, it becomes more difficult to ignore the truth.
Theme Through Plot
A final area that supports this theme is through the plot. Henry meets Delilah at his fire lookout job. She is another fire lookout that has been on duty for a number of summers. Henry and Delilah never meet in person, they are only ever in contact through the radio. As the story progresses Henry discovers transcripts of his conversations with Delilah. Henry brings this up to Delilah and they begin to become extremely paranoid. Henry fully believes that there is a large government conspiracy and that he is being monitored. Although Delilah has been doing this job for a while with no prior evidence of this, she is convinced by Henry and she too believes they are being monitored. Here is evidence of Henry feeling desperate to run from his reality. He wants this to be real so that it will distract him from Julia. Delilah gives in almost without a fight, as she is struggling with her own demons of reality.
Firewatch is an incredible journey that will leave the player with a lot to think about. I believe that is an important aspect of game design. A developer should want a player to finish their game with thoughts of how that project impacted them, and Firewatch does just that.