Dating sims, first-person shooters, life simulators—video games give us ritual spaces for vicarious expression. They let us hold things we cannot otherwise hold. A few days ago, I thought about Robin, a girl I fell in love with in college, for the first time in a long time. Though she was the same year as me, she was in an accelerated program, but I didn’t learn that until it was too late. I was walking around the communications school after hours on one of the last days of the spring semester and stopped in front of the radio offices where she worked. Outside, there was a corkboard celebrating the graduating radio team, and Robin was on it. I never told her how I felt or asked her out, because it turns out I’m a very stupidly isolated person. Now I’d missed my chance. Last week, I had a dream about her, though I hadn’t seen her in three years. The next day, she posted on Instagram a photo of her at her new job, as a forest ranger in California.
I’d long been meaning to explore games as an art form, as more than just dungeon-crawling and stealing horses in Skyrim. And so partially to satisfy my critical ambitions and mostly to soothe my aching heart, I purchased Firewatch and popped it on. It’s a first-person indie mystery game from 2016, and a deeply melancholy one. Its designers, I’m sure, would encourage my mopey, yearning, miserable self to play it. In Firewatch, you’re Henry, a new hire at a Wyoming national park, complete with a tragic backstory and a funny and flirty but enigmatic woman speaking to you over the radio. It was both the game I needed at the moment and also the last thing I should have been playing.
The game has been out for four years and has sold extremely well. It’s both an experience you shouldn’t know anything about going in and a game that’s impossible to discuss without spoiling the best parts of the story. Just know that it’s great, that you should play it if you haven’t, that it’s only five hours long, and that this review is going to be full of spoilers.
Firewatch opens in Boulder, Colorado, in 1975, with sounds of bar ambiance. This bit isn’t animated; there’s just text on the screen, laying out the details. You see Julia, a professor from the local university, and you drunkenly mistake her for a student. After your blunder, you split a cheeseburger, start dating, fall in love, and cut to: summer 1979, you’ve adopted a dog (I got a beagle named Bucket) and are chatting kids. Firewatch asks you to make choices, like whether Julia should take a job 2,000 miles away or if you should speak to a professional when she starts having episodes at work. Then, the bombshell—Julia has early-onset dementia. She’s only 41. As your relationship falls apart, it’s clear why Henry decides to take that seasonal job as a fire lookout, holed up all summer, all alone, in a wooden tower overlooking Shoshone National Forest.
Delilah, the other lookout on the walkie-talkie, feeds you objectives. She’s a disembodied taskmaster, kind of like GLaDOS in Portal without the psychopathy. Delilah’s also there for conversation and comfort. She welcomes you on your first night, and over the course of the summer, you slowly learn about each other. You can radio her whenever you find something of note, like a forgotten backpack hanging from a tree or a derelict cave in the canyon. (Apparently, it’s possible to find a turtle and adopt it, and you and Delilah get to name it. I never found the turtle, which kind of pisses me off.) Using your dialogue tree to chat with Delilah means you can choose to flirt with her, humor her, stay casual, or stay mum, so Firewatch isn’t, at times, all too different from a dating sim.
At the moment, I’m also trudging through Doki Doki Literature Club, a Japanese dating sim that also parodies the genre, and there are echoes of dating sims in Firewatch. It’s 1989, so there’s an old tech charm to communicating with your walkie-talkies, like the kids in Moonrise Kingdom making grand romantic plans via letters. Your conversations with Delilah can get pretty suggestive, though I didn’t think that was the appropriate path for Henry. I think the game’s about his finding redemption—he trekked off into the woods to escape, and the other lookouts aren’t much different. “People take this job to get away from something,” Delilah tells you on your first night. She’s got a not-insignificant dependency on tequila, you learn, as well as a string of failed relationships. Henry’s running from a rotten deal, a partner who doesn’t recognize him anymore and is getting increasingly difficult to talk to. But since you never play as anyone other than Henry, the notion that Henry’s escape to Shoshone is kind of irresponsible always nagged at me. I understand his wanting to escape for a few months, but to run away from Julia and hook up with the first woman he meets in the woods feels like a scumbag move. The game’s narrative arc, for me, was about Henry realizing that he isn’t too far gone and that neither is his wife, and the story’s events should lead to you mustering up the courage to return to Henry’s abandoned life. Whether you choose to play Firewatch as a dating sim and not mention your ailing wife to Delilah, the game eventually forces you to face the hard truth. About halfway through Firewatch, you pick up your walkie-talkie, mumbling in your sleep, and mention Julia’s name. Delilah asks you about it, and your secret’s out.
Your relationship and those early days at the park are the game’s best elements, though eventually, a proper story comes knocking. You see a shadowy figure one night in the canyon, and there’s a locked gate in the cave and a mysterious fenced-off area in the meadow. Some reviewers have called Firewatch “Hitchcockian,” and that comparison crossed my mind a few times. The game gets tense, the music ramps up, and I spent the last third of Firewatch constantly looking over my shoulder. (I spent the last third getting lost a lot, too, which only helped the suspense.) Late in the game, you go on a nighttime mission to investigate a noise. It’s one of the first times the game sends you out of your tower after sundown, and by this point, you and Delilah know that someone is out there watching you, so it’s super creepy. The noise turns out to be an alarmed backpack duct-taped to a tree, though you don’t know whose backpack it is or why it’s been left for you to find. Delilah radios you after you’ve calmed down and says, “Well, you’re back in your tower. Maybe you need a drink too.” But you aren’t in your tower. You’re standing in the middle of the woods with an alarmed backpack. So who’s Delilah seeing? And will they still be there when you get back to your lookout?
I wasn’t completely sold on the mystery once we started getting answers. The plot hinges on the Goodwins, two people Delilah mentions a few times but whom you never meet. They are the former watchman, Ned, and his 12-year-old son, Brian. They hung out with Delilah, and the son played in her tower a few times. Since it’s against regulation to bring family to the lookout towers, Delilah never told anyone about Brian. Then one day, the Goodwins suddenly just left. They’re clearly never far from Delilah’s mind, though she doesn’t bring them up very often.
Soon, you have more important things to worry about, like the mystery man in your tower, the disappearances of two teenage girls, and someone who’s tapping your radios. All signs point to answers in that sealed-off cave in the canyon. Henry breaks in, rappels down, and takes out his flashlight. Having not read anything about Firewatch, I was worried the game would take a hard left into supernatural horror, or a killer was waiting down there, or I would find the bear Delilah mentioned at the beginning of the summer. But no, it’s Brian’s twisted, mangled body; he died in a climbing accident and was never found. His father had been hiding out in the forest ever since, unable to process Brian’s death, tapping your radios and setting up fences to keep anyone from finding his son’s remains. As motivations go, it’s probably a bit too Scooby-Doo for some, but I like the way Firewatch’s characters are dealing with trauma and how they’re processing their individual griefs. Delilah decided to work as a lookout for 13 years, while Ned couldn’t return to society and chose instead to live in the woods as a hermit.
The game does a good job of building to this denouement. There’s a wildfire raging out of control nearby, you’re trying to get to the bottom of the cave, and neither you nor Delilah knows how things are going to turn out. The game literally gets murkier and darker the longer it goes. You do more and more missions at night until your final day in Shoshone, when you battle through thick ochre smoke, the air rife with ashes and cinders, making your way north to rescue. There’s no happy ending or satisfying conclusion to the main story, just like there wasn’t with Brian and his father. Just a wildfire burning out of control, and then you’re airlifted out.
I think lots of players are pissed off by Firewatch’s ending. The entire game builds Henry and Delilah’s relationship from the ground up, yet the two of them never meet. The player never sees Delilah’s face, and that’s regardless of which ending you choose, I checked. Still, you can follow through on your summer-long courtship—there’s a conversation option at the end of the game where you can invite Delilah to live with you in Boulder, but I didn’t pick it. “I’ll see you when I see you,” is all I said. Henry and Delilah only knew each other for a summer. They probably wound up saying more to each other than I said to Robin in three years of going to the same school and attending the same classes. That the game wound up being far more than just a dating sim in the woods helped to alleviate my dumb little heart. The game lets you throw Henry at Delilah if you want, but at a certain point, you realize that these two people have only known each other for a few months and there’s still so much Henry doesn’t know about her. They’re strangers revolving in elliptical paths around intimacy. All the meaning Delilah’s words have is what the player ascribes to them. Henry and Delilah never meeting, in the end, felt like the game kicking me in the face and saying, “See how stupid this idealized romance shit is? You’re strangers. Cut it the fuck out.”
Wildfires, like grief, can burn out of control if given enough fuel and time. But there’s also something regenerative about a wildfire; many ecosystems have grown to depend on them, and they’re good at clearing out the moldy, dead stuff at the bottom of the forest. Certain seeds only germinate in their intense heat. Others need brush cleared away to reduce competition. The ashes dramatically increase the nutrients available in the soil. Before things take a turn, Henry’s in his outpost watching a nearby wildfire burning at night, the trees incandescent against the black. Delilah already called it in, so there’s nothing they can do but stand there, each in their own tower, miles apart, with their own traumas and troubles to keep them awake. “Why don’t we both just watch this fire and try to imagine all the old dead things inside?” Delilah says.
Firewatch excels at creating and maintaining a depressing and devastating mood, even before you’re descending into ominous caves or racing through wildfire smoke. About halfway through the game, Henry’s standing in a lush grove of trees learning about the park from Delilah. Nothing’s really at stake yet, so you can listen to her and take in Firewatch’s soothing soundscape and dynamic, gorgeously animated environments. But a feeling starts to gnaw at you that none of this is going to turn out well. It’s a five-hour game, yet it took me a whole week to finish. Henry would reach the end of a day, and I would take a break, get up to make dinner, but everything just ached, my eyes felt heavy—it was the first time I played a video game that made me feel like that.
It’s silly that I bought a game because I was feeling depressed from a dream I had of someone I hadn’t seen for three years. Like, that’s the dumbest thing ever. But the people we fall in love with stick around, if only as the idealized version of them our brain invents because we don’t actually know what they were like. I know that Robin went camping instead of attending her graduation ceremony, but I had no idea she wanted to be a park ranger. I suppose I really don’t know that much about her. I keep thinking about when I left a movie at Cornell University’s theater and saw her tying her shoes in the lobby. And before I could say hi, she walked out of the door into the December night and disappeared up the cobblestone path. Dreams come and go, and she’ll likely pop up in another. I doubt I’ll ever meet her again, but I’ll think of her whenever I check the news and see that another wildfire’s moving through California. Now, at least, I have Firewatch, a really beautiful, profoundly upsetting game, and I’m immensely grateful for how this game has helped me through this rut. The next time I’m horribly, painfully depressed, it likely won’t be about Robin. There are plenty of other things, including nothing at all, to be depressed about. But when it comes, I can return to Firewatch, bring Henry back to Shoshone and maybe try to find that fucking pet turtle.
CLEMENT TYLER OBROPTA is a Culture editor at MAYDAY. He studied film and English at Ithaca College, and his work can also be found with Film Inquiry, The Slice, and Gen Z Critics. He also serves as photo editor with Wanderlust Journal.