I’ve always kept the great outdoors at arm’s distance. Growing up, I was strictly an indoors kid, attached to either an N64 controller or a thick paperback at any given time. Not much has changed since. Hell, I’m 25 years old and I still don’t know how to ride a fucking bicycle, which shows how much of an outdoorsman I am.
That’s perhaps why I enjoyed playing Firewatch quite so much. It offers all the beauty of the North American wilderness, captured and delivered to me in my run-down council flat in east London. I’m Henry, a new recruit to the Forest Service, a lookout tasked with spending the summer in a small tower in Wyoming, the first line of defense against the risk of forest fires. At first, my task is mundane enough – clean up some litter, tell off some drunk teens setting off fireworks – but before long it begins to look like there may be more afoot.
While I sit in my tower or wander the forest floor, my constant companion is Delilah, a fellow lookout with a few years more experience than myself. As much as the game is ostensibly about exploring the forest and solving the mystery, in reality it’s about Delilah and Henry. From the mundane to the intimate, the two chatter away throughout Firewatch over their walkie talkies. Conversation options allow me to help shape the nature of their relationship, as their trust and affection for one another ebbs and flows, though these are more nudges than anything else, playing with the finer details of a firmly fixed narrative path. This is the real gameplay. The two talk incessantly, and moments of silence are infrequent – and startling for it.
It’s in that silence, though, that the game shows its true beauty. The world that developer Campo Santo has built is exquisite, a stunning showcase of unnatural natural beauty. Dense woods give way to sun-dappled clearings, sparkling lakes contrasted with sharp ravines. Burnt out patches are a reminder of the ever-present threat of flames. As time passes each day, the light shifts, blue skies shifting to rich orange sunsets, altering the colors of the whole world with them.
It’s enough to stir something in me, some hesitation that perhaps I’ve been missing out all along. That there’s something wrong with the fact that the only trees I ever see are in the park I walk past on the way to the supermarket, that the only camping I ever do is at beer-soaked festivals. Sure, ‘outside’ is still riddled with bugs and mud, wild animals and the sort of people who choose to live in the countryside, but perhaps there are good bits too.
As I play Firewatch, as I wander these digital Rockies, I begin to imagine a different life for myself. Perhaps I could spend a summer in the wilderness, writing and thinking and exploring the world. I could grow out my beard, buy a load of check shirts and become deeply invested in the intricacies of rucksack features. Perhaps I could just finally learn how to ride a bloody bike, like any normal grown adult in the developed world.
So what saved me from this rich, fulfilling, rewarding existence as a rugged man of nature?
I remembered what had offered me this revelation: not a stunning hike, not a beautiful vista, not a challenging climb. A video game. In my flat, with ready access to cups of tea and good wi-fi. Firewatch is a testament to the beauty of nature, sure – but it’s also a testament to the beauty of games. That interactive environments are no longer clumps of pixels or blocky polygons, capable of being as beautiful as any setting they could hope to replicate, at times even more so.
I’m sure a summer sunset in the Rockies is a sight to behold; both harsh and lush, teeming with death and life, it represents nature at its extremes. But would the colors be quite as rich as they are here? Would the fading sunlight glow through the leaves in just that shade of burnished orange, bounce off the lake to leave such striking areas of light and shade?
Campo Santo is so confident in its artificial nature park that early on it even gives players access to a disposable camera. There’s no gameplay mechanic built around it, no need to snap photos for the sake of recording details or proving conspiracies. It’s just a chance to savor the game at its most vibrant, to photograph the sights that take your breath away, a keepsake of your time in the woods. That’s quite literal by the way – you have the option to develop the film, to buy physical prints of your snapshots, the artificial natural world encroaching on my real, unnatural one.
This is just another way that Firewatch manages to like a holiday, a summer vacation to the Rockies without ever stepping out of your front door. You can see the sights, explore, indulge in a little holiday walkie-talkie romance, and fill out a few pages in your photo album in the process. It’s travel made democratic – not many people can afford to fly halfway round the world every summer, but most of us can spare the funds for an indie game on Steam every now and then.
Sure, there’s an entertaining enough page-turner of a narrative, and the exploration of paranoia, doubt and memory is guaranteed to spark discussion. I’ll even admit I choked up in the choose-your-own-adventure intro, as you pick out the details of Henry’s wife’s descent into dementia. But they’re not what I’ll take with me from Firewatch. It’s those sunsets I’ll keep forever, that deep-hued world of oranges and greens I know so well, but have never set foot in.
I’m sure plenty of you are shaking your heads by now, bemoaning the poor, sheltered nerd who thinks a game could ever match nature at her finest. But if art can’t hope to even capture the world it exists in, how could it ever grapple with the complexities of love, of hate, of people? You can keep your nature, with all the blood, sweat and wasps that come with it. I’ll be here in my flat, travelling the world.