There is a place in Firewatch where you can stand on the lip of a cliff and the game will throw up the words, “That view….” I stopped there, of course. The game can be pretty insistent, especially, in its latter half, about you getting from place to place, but I knew as a player that it didn’t really matter. So I stopped, I looked out from my perch, and I took a picture. This was the most I had done to appreciate nature perhaps in my entire life.
It’s not like I want to dislike nature. It’s just, for the most part, nature hates me. I have severe allergies and have never been too athletic. As a black woman, nature poses a significant hurdle in any state that I style my hair. Is it gonna rain out there? Is it gonna ruin my blow out? It’s not just vanity – in its purest state I’d rather shave my head than deal with my hot, heavy hair in my eyes and food and literally fucking everything, catching on trees and tangling on branches. I am not made to be outdoors for long periods of time. Except at the beach. You can be cute on the beach.
Firewatch offers me a world where none of the above matters. I can enjoy nature without the burden that actually being in nature places on me. It’s a beautiful game, thanks in large part to the artists Olly Moss and Jane Ng. Firewatch offers me a view of nature I simply can’t have in life. I understand, walking those virtual trails, why people walk trails in the first place.
Many words have already been said about Firewatch’s beauty, but it’s most impressive accomplishment is that it frames its beauty in such a way that the player becomes empathetic, almost unconsciously, to the point of view of the game. Almost against my will I began to smell the pines and feel the dirt under my feet. Against my will I wanted to swim into the middle of the lake. The game even offers you a camera, so you can carry these memories with you. The valleys, the sweeping vistas, the calm, clear waters. You can order physical prints of these. The game knows you will want them. I ordered them as soon as the credits rolled.
The problem with this is that after a certain point it becomes hard to actually enjoy the beauty. There’s a moment where Firewatch seems to remember, suddenly, that it is a videogame. In his review for Game Revolution, Gil Almogi says, “While I’m entranced and getting lost in a new, mysterious land… Firewatch reminds me that I’m in a game with its own ability upgrade system.” It’s not an ability upgrade system as one would normally think of it – there’s not a tree with branches to tick off – but after a few hours of pleasant wandering, you suddenly get gear upgrades and new tools to uncover new paths.
Whenever Firewatch remembers it is a videogame the magic of these woods is broken. In the latter half, when the game abruptly gains a plot, you’re tasked not with just taking care of the woods and speaking with Delilah, but with uncovering a mystery. There is no mystery that would be as satisfying as exploring Henry himself, who is a tangled knot of regret and denial. There is no mystery as fulfilling as learning a little more about Delilah, who is refreshing, funny, and a completely full character.
At times I feel as if I am liking Firewatch despite itself. So many times did I end up walking in circles, getting lost, because the game sent me on what amounted to a banal fetch quest, where the prize would be new dialogue. I want the game to just let me get lost. I want to just get lost.
Getting lost in the woods with just a map and compass is actually one of my real life fears. Awareness of cardinal directions and map reading are not in my skillset. But Firewatch makes those things pleasant, until it starts making those things a chore. I walked the entire map once because I did not understand what the game wanted from me, grinding my teeth as I went. In the first hour, that activity was delightful. When I knew I had to walk with purpose, to advance the narrative, it was frustrating beyond belief.
Firewatch made me understand something fundamental about nature that I did not understand beforehand: frankly, it is beautiful in a way that is almost beyond comprehension. That we live on this Earth, with such amazing sights is sometimes unbelievable to me. Sometimes when the sun sets over the empty lot across from my apartment window, the sun reflecting in the sky makes the clouds turn pink. Firewatch makes me want to go to the Grand Canyon. In its most wonderful moments, Firewatch makes me want to travel back in time, take my younger self who scowled in the face of California’s redwood trees and slap her in the face.
In a way, Firewatch’s unrelenting gaminess in its second half is what I needed to remind myself that what it depicts is a fantasy. I will not go camping after playing this game. If I do, I will face all those same struggles: runny nose, itchy eyes, fifteen minutes spent trying to detangle myself from a bush. The world may be beautiful but I am safer enjoying it from inside my apartment, where I am free from invasive pollens.
But still I wish that Firewatch had let me enjoy the game as I wanted to enjoy it. As I write this, I am awaiting my prints of the photographs from the game. I will hang them on my walls, and when I have guests over I can tell them, oh yes, this was Shoshone National Park. This picture I took is a memory of a place that never existed, a place that floored me with its beauty. When I look at it, I remember something that I can’t really ever experience, not with this much power: the almost holy grace of the sun setting over pine trees.
Gita Jackson is Paste’s assistant comedy editor.