John Steinbeck once wrote that “all great and precious things are lonely.” Sure, he was writing about the indomitable decency of Sam Hamilton in East of Eden, but this quote still resonates with millions of readers for a reason. We have an inherent understanding of loneliness and isolation, not as a punishment or symptom of mental decline, but as a necessary mechanic for navigating our own humanity. And one of the best indie games of 2016 (and all-time IMO) understands this better than anything else out there.
Firewatch from Campo Santo is, on its surface, a gorgeous and chill game.
You can watch a trailer and look at screenshots and get a vibe that makes you feel like this is a nice, relaxing adventure in the woods. But from the very opening montage all the way through its captivating mystery story, Firewatch delivers an emotional depth that delights and inspires.
Without delving too deeply into spoiler territory, Firewatch follows the journey of recently-widowed Henry as he wrestles with his grief in one of the most romantic ways possible: a summer spent in a firewatch tower.
It’s essentially a rustic studio apartment in a tower in the middle of a national forest, and his job is to (wait for it) watch for fires. He has a middling level of authority, like a bootleg park ranger, and takes instruction via CB radio from a woman named Delilah.
Gameplay-wise, there isn’t anything complex. Delilah gives Henry assignments for potential hazards, like people using fireworks or issues with power lines. It’s a first-person game that is mostly driven by puzzles, found narrative and decision trees. You might have to figure out how to fix a broken bridge or interact with rowdy teenagers, and then report what happened to Delilah. What you choose to tell her, or not to tell her, shapes your relationship.
And it's the relationship between Henry and Delilah that is the star of Firewatch. It’s clear Delilah has some issues of her own, and there’s a shared understanding that if you’re electing to spend an entire summer isolated and alone in a forest then you’re probably in need of some emotional space. But the antidote for loneliness is company. This creates tension as Henry and Delilah bond despite their walled-off personalities and coping mechanisms. It has the feeling of a great stage play, with masterful performances from Rich Sommer as Henry and Cissy Jones as Delilah.
Firewatch surprised a lot of people when it was released in 2016. That was an absolute banger of a year for indies (Stardew Valley, Inside, Oxenfree to name a few) but Campo Santa put itself on the map with a gorgeous journey into the heart of what makes us tick. It’s a game about what you do when you have to get to know a new version of yourself when circumstances beyond your control force you into an identity you didn’t want and didn’t expect.
And if that sounds heavy or boring, rest assured it’s not. Firewatch is full of heart and soul, it’s a gentle touch not a slap in the face. It has a lovely aesthetic, great music, some of the best acting in a video game or anywhere else, and a casual playtime of around six hours. Consider it self-care and give it a playthrough ASAP, you won’t regret it.
Firewatch is available now on Xbox Game Pass, and for sale on PlayStation, Nintendo Switch, and PC.