There are few things louder than silence. If you want to drown out guilt, grief, responsibility and other uncomfortable emotions that demand your attention and threaten to take over your life, your best bet is a trip away from society and industry where your only company is a really big forest. Forests don’t judge and demand nothing from you but mutual peace and quiet, and that quiet will form walls that keep out those pesky, hard-to-deal-with feelings. This is part of Henry’s logic, anyway, when he takes a job as a fire lookout in the Middle of Nowhere National Park, Wyoming, following his wife’s decline into early onset dementia and his inability to cope with this. He soon finds, though, that the silence of the forest is not as welcoming as it might have once seemed.
I have never been an outdoorsy kind of person, and though I hold a sense of love and awe for the beauty and wonder of nature, I’m very happy to admire it from afar or at least a position where I can head back to my suburban house at the end of the day. Being stuck in a tower in the middle of a forest, having to walk the length and breadth of the virtually empty (of human life, anyway) woodland, feat. scaling cliff faces, chopping through bushland and constantly wondering if I’m going to run into a bear (plus having to refer to a map and compass and my certifiably awful sense of direction) is basically on my list of worst nightmares. And not just because those woods could be crawling with backpacker murderers, wendigos, or (the horror) drunk camping college students—the fear of no one being out there is perhaps more valid than all of that. The absolute absence of human activity becomes a haunting concept.
Firewatch uses that deep-seated fear alongside that deep-seated awe and need to “get back to nature”—as I said, the woodlands are an escape for the game’s protagonist Henry, who’s moved out to this tranquil wilderness so he doesn’t have to deal with the heartache of taking care of his mentally ill wife. You might say it’s a cowardly move, and Henry agrees to this, but you the player follow the love story that becomes his marriage and then becomes a very real, very complicated tragedy, and so you can’t help but empathise with him. The same way you also condemn fellow lookout Delilah for running away to the fire-watching job following her own brush with guilt and grief, but can understand her too.
She jokingly (and it turns out drunkenly) asks Henry what he’s running away from when he first arrives, because everyone who takes the job is running away from something. And she laughs, but it’s very literal—everyone in the national park is running or hiding from their problems, and it leads to some real drama.
Delilah’s attitude to dealing with her problems is the same as her attitude to fire: she and Henry watch a fire (go figure) burn through the forest, and when Henry asks if they should do something about it she’s kind of like “Aw whatever, it’s not dangerous, I told the rangers about it and they’re doing what they can so it’s not our problem”. Later (without spoiling anything) Henry encounters a complicated situation regarding a bunch of stuff and Delilah literally suggests burning it down. To hide the evidence, but also just… to get it gone. Give that bullshit a Viking funeral, incinerate and delete it from her life. Which is very telling of how Delilah deals with everything—either drink to forget and hope someone else sorts it out, or raise Hell to erase the Bad Thing from existence so she can move on.
Except that… no one in Firewatch is moving on. They’re all running from their issues but their issues are still right there, so much so that they may as well be standing still. The biggest example of this is Ned, who (actual spoilers) has been hiding out living in a bunker in the national park to avoid going home and facing consequences/burying his dead son and officially saying goodbye/dealing with his trauma. Instead he’s become a master of avoidance, but in avoiding his problems he’s created even bigger ones for himself, to the point where he ends up orchestrating a ridiculously involved conspiracy plot to cover his relatively ordinary tracks.
You know how Delilah was like “that fire is fine” and also “burn it to the ground”? These two attitudes collide into one giant fire that finally flushes her, Henry and their avoidance issues back into the real world at the end of the game. Do not ignore the fire, even if you think it’s small and fine. Do not start more fires in the interest of avoiding your problems. They will gather into one bigass dangerous inescapable blaze that you have no choice to confront and it’s going to be way, way worse than if you’d just dealt with it when it was little.
Firewatch lands its protagonist in the oppressive stillness and wildness of a forest, the beautiful, stylised landscape as tranquil as it is terrifying in its isolation. The thing that Henry wanted becomes the source of mystery and fear (and sadness) and the entire national park experience almost feels, in its total contrast to everyday city living, like a fantasy world, a pocket of unreality that he’s wandered into to try and keep the monsters of the real one at bay. It doesn’t work—the forest becomes a frightening, tense place, and also, as I mentioned before, catches the hell on fire. He has to go back to humanity in the end, face his demons, because otherwise he’s going to end up as much of an irretrievable mess as Ned and Delilah and the burning forest.
A lot of people have complained that the end of the game was anti-climactic, but I think it fit with the overall tone and message of the story, which is about messy people dealing with their grief and guilt. You can run into the silence of a forest, but your problems will still be there on your shoulder… and if nothing else, the quiet could leave you nothing to do but think about your troubles, which you now cannot confront since you’ve hidden in the middle of the woods away from anyone you could talk to. And so the vicious cycle that invariably ends with wildfire begins. Don’t avoid processing your grief, kids—a “we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it” attitude won’t get you anywhere healthy.