The walking-simulator fad shows no signs of waning, partly due to the ease of crafting an environment that affords only minimal interactive opportunities, then peppering it with fragments of a story to create an “experience,” and partly due to a handful of accomplished titles allowing some measure of hope for the much-maligned subgenre. Though Firewatch feels more like a survival game at first contact, its remote natural setting and the lack of human presence recalling underrated genre-granddaddy Miasmata, the resemblance is a superficial one born of mood and setting. Campo Santo’s game won’t have you searching its groves and riverbeds for rare plans; will not allow you to get lost without a flashlight in the dark; and will not kill you off for making a mistake—or, in fact, at all. It will, though, simply and gently nudge you along toward the intended story path to watch a series of events play out with minor alterations depending on your choices.
The game starts off by describing how the protagonist, Henry, first meets his future wife, Julia, and how their relationship develops over the next decade and a half. The sequence is text-and-music only, a bold choice that pays off by capturing the tranquil bliss of the couple’s early years, the sense of growing distance between husband and wife, and, most painfully, their mounting despair after Julia starts exhibiting symptoms of early-onset dementia. Henry’s clearly ill-equipped to deal with the situation and soon the in-laws show up to take their daughter back home to Australia. We meet Henry trying to cope with Julia’s absence, as well as his guilt for not being a better caretaker and, to that end, taking a job as a fire lookout somewhere on the Shoshone Mountains. There he can spend the summer clearing his head while staring at the scenery in total isolation, save the detached voice of his boss, Delilah, chirpily chiming in via walkie talkie to outline the day’s duties or to start a monotony-breaking conversation.
These early moments of exposition and characterization powerfully elicit genuine sympathy for Henry’s plight. Paradoxically, though, this identification becomes responsible for some of Firewatch’s problems. When Delilah’s playful questioning abruptly turns into inappropriately persistent flirting, the effect is, even more than awkward, immersion-shattering. Here’s a seemingly sympathetic stranger, one who’s aware of your background, but will nonetheless disregard your refusal to encourage her advances. “I wish I was over there. It’d be nice to be near somebody,” she confesses dreamily to a man whose life is in ruins and whom she’s only known for a few weeks. The lack of response doesn’t faze her: “We could talk. Without these radios. We could…umm, you know”—a point by which, given my unwavering resistance to her courtship, the game started veering off into an entirely untapped potential subgenre: the workplace harassment simulator.
Which isn’t to suggest that such uncomfortable moments should be expunged from gaming, but that they should be handled with the gravity they deserve. Firewatch merely provides us with a set of responses that fundamentally break down to either capitulating to or rudely ignoring Delilah—thus possibly leaving Henry without a human soul to contact for the rest of the summer. His goofy passivity becomes the reason why it’s hard to sell Delilah’s blunt insensitivity as a personality trait rather than just lazy writing; if this character is meant to incite a reaction then surely we should have been given a way to voice it, other than the (always available) option to turn off the radio or let the reply timer run out. Campo Santo’s misstep hijacks both player agency by restricting responses to a narrow, unsatisfying set, and Henry’s own personal history—not just the background tragedy, but the one happening during the playthrough, with his resistance to Delilah brushed off as inconsequential. It’s enough to taint the narrative in a game that has little else to offer.
Which is unfortunate because on every other level the game is glowing. The environments aren’t only gorgeous, but smartly designed to enhance the sense of exploration and the dialogues, when they cohere, are witty and well-delivered. At the end of the summer, after communication with Delilah has settled into a much more agreeable groove, and after dealing with invisible stalkers, drunken teenagers, and discovering the secret lying at the bottom of a blocked-off cave, players leave the Shoshones feeling as if Henry has been through enough to warrant a new perspective on life—and, at least in that sense, his character, maybe even the whole experience, can be viewed as a success. It’s a shame that Firewatch loses the player so early, and that it takes so much of its length to win one back.