Summer is a time of mystic exploration; of sun that bakes the concrete of streets and the wheat of fields. It’s a time of discovering deep glens and things older than man that hum of mystery – to borrow a quote from Cormac McCarthy. But, Tom, why are you going off on one being all mistily romantic and embellishment mad? Because this is the language that Campo Santo and Santa Monica Studios’s Firewatch invoked to the fullest extent earlier this year. This is why Firewatch is the perfect summer game.
In a year when Pokémon was reimagined to global popularity and Blink 182 made a decent stab at creating relevant music, entertainment in 2016 seems to be retroactive. Netflix Original series Stranger Things is a similar entry in this capacity. A mis-mash of John Carpenter, Stephen King and Spielberg has created a show with an already frenzied audience. Often in 2016 we have looked at the past of summer entertainment in order to cultivate the present.
Enter Firewatch. Like Stranger Things, our imaginations are realised in an America of the 1980’s. It is 1989 in Wyoming. A summer of peril and adventure.
“Firewatch is nostalgic in a way that nostalgia should be”
It’s rare that video games are mentioned in the breadth of summer entertainment. Jaws popularised the summer blockbuster as Spielberg began to dominate the imaginations of denim-jacket wearing and bicycle-riding kids across the globe in the 1970’s. It was a time of American cinema that made going to the cool confines of a cinema screen as normal as diving into the neighbourhood pool. Solitudinous popcorn eating was the new pastime as kids left the sandlots behind and embraced the magical big-screen.
But, as video games have sharpened their narratives, as they have attracted big names in acting to make their scripts and characters manifest, they too can be seen as summer entertainment. Or, better put, summer immersion, cinematic engrossment. There are a number of reasons why Firewatch is a great summer game. Even able to hold its weight in what constitutes the canon of summer blockbusters. But first, let’s get that nostalgia thing out the way.
Firewatch is nostalgic in a way that nostalgia should be. Gaming and nostalgia is fast becoming an overwhelmingly trite discussion. But in Firewatch it’s an apt context. Not the nostalgia of revisiting old games that you used to play; it’s walking by a river that you never actually walked by. Experiencing something from a different time and world that you never knew existed until you are immersed in it. It’s longing for the forests of Wyoming in 1989, because you know you’ll never actually be there. Nostalgia in Firewatch is the process of feelings that come with playing the game. You don’t exactly want to be Henry, but you want to be there with him. It’s a pang of disappointment when you know you can’t be.
Like a kid enjoying the lazy adventure of summer holidays, in Firewatch your world is at once small and huge. The wilderness is deeper than you will ever know, but inclusive at the same time. At the end of the day, Henry still retreats to the same small cabin with the few remnants of the outside world hanging on its walls. Firewatch evokes summer in its size because its context is huge, but its still a small pocket of something larger. The whole world is out there, but for the summer the small space of the forest is the only world you’ll know.
“Like a kid enjoying the lazy adventure of summer holidays, in Firewatch your world is at once small and huge”
Firewatch is two-pronged in its approach and charm. It’s a fleeting yet deep discussion of memory and intimacy and promotes a deep mystery at the same time. Like summer itself. Equally a couple of months a year to ponder and to investigate the secrets that lie in the woods, at the edge of town. There are secrets in the woods and it’s your duty to investigate.
There has been a certain amount of dismay surrounding the ending of Firewatch. I understand why – but did not personally feel the same. The ending is perfect. It doesn’t exactly wrap up everything and loose ends remained frayed, but when in your life has everything felt utterly complete? Things are always left unsaid, sleeping dogs are let to lie untroubled.
It’s a mature game. Firewatch‘s story tackles a difficult subject while remaining sensitive, humorous and perceptive. It has the best opening experience of any video game so far. You experience growth of personality and character within Henry. You reach Henry at a crossroad in his life and it’s your duty to navigate the mature story in a way that your own intelligent character would. It’s remarkable to control a character in a difficult time of their life and the relationship between Henry and Delilah is one that will not be easily forgettable. Ultimate kudos to Sean Vanaman and the creative team behind the game; the story and characters they created are ones that would not feel out-of-place in any fictional character study – be it film, literature or music.
We feel like we learn something in Firewatch. It’s a process similar to learning about friendships, and adulthood through summer days and nights. It has something buried in its narrative to tell us. Something of commitment and bonding and danger and guilt. We are enriched by the experience simply because it is so enriching. The linear path of choices in Firewatch is not disappointing. Because that’s what happens a lot of the time. We think that we are on our own designated path but often we are being swept along by forces outside of our control. We are not so much destined to go down a certain path, but it was always going to be the path we took nonetheless.
“We feel like we learn something in Firewatch. It’s a process similar to learning about friendships, and adulthood through summer days and nights”
Before Firewatch cuts to black and we hear the opening bars of Etta James’ I’d Rather go Blind, the final buttom prompt by the game is to “go home”. Because after the adventure subsides and dusk rolls in – that’s what you do. You go home. It’s a fitting ending for the perfect summer video game. You explore the environment and how memory builds your own imagination and character and then at the end of the day you return home. Ready for another adventure. Until next Summer comes around.