You want a truly well-done adult game? I don’t mean “adult” in the explicit, skeezy sense. I mean thematically adult — a game about longing and loyalty and love and tragedy. Play “Firewatch.” It’ll only take you a few hours, and it’s worth it.
Developed by Campo Santo for Windows, Mac, Linux, and PlayStation 4, “Firewatch” is, for lack of a better genre description, a first-person adventure game set in the 1980s. You play as Henry, a thirtysomething guy facing an unfolding personal tragedy — spoilers coming in this paragraph, but it’s all stuff that is revealed in the first 10 minutes of gameplay or so. Your wife, Julia, has developed early-onset dementia, and after realizing you can no longer care for her, you move her to assisted living and decide to get away for the summer, taking a seasonal job as a fire lookout in the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming.
Once you get there, your only sustained human contact is with Delilah, the supervisor at the other end of your two-way radio. You live in one lookout tower; she lives in another, far off in the distance. She gives you a series of tasks to perform — figure out who is setting off dangerous fireworks, for example, and tell them to stop — and as you hike around the wilderness, the two of you grow closer and closer via the radios, revealing details about each other’s lives.
The game looks great: The Wyoming landscape of lush forests, rolling hills, and rocky cliffs is rendered wonderfully. Through some tricks of the game’s visual language I can’t quite explain, Campo Santo managed to make the game world feel sprawling, even though it doesn’t actually cover all that large an area, especially by the standards of a modern open-world title. And sure, “Firewatch” does feature some of those almost-invisible obstacles that can come with the territory in open-world games — sometimes you can’t get over seemingly manageable inclines or ledges — but overall, navigating the world is quite satisfying.
“Firewatch” is mostly about story, though, and the narrative rests on two pillars: a series of mysteries involving some creepy person who appears to be monitoring Henry and Delilah’s movements and communication, and Henry and Delilah’s strange, burgeoning relationship. The mystery does keep things going, and includes some powerful moments, but the relationship subplot did a lot more for me.
This is a game about intimacy. Henry is facing the prospect of never again having real intimacy with someone with whom he has built a life, and suddenly he finds himself alone and vulnerable in the middle of nowhere, drawn to the only human voice in his ear. The level of longing and want and need is palpable at times, roiling just below the surface. It’s hard, playing as Henry, not to feel the sense of confusion and betrayal he is experiencing at . . . whatever it is that is building between him and Delilah. Henry’s wife, Julia, after all, is sitting somewhere far from Wyoming, mostly alone, a fog of permanent confusion thickening and closing in on her. It’s not an accident that the game makes sure to show you Henry’s wedding band whenever his hands are visible on-screen.
Most of the tasks are pretty easy to accomplish, there isn’t much “traditional” gameplay, and it’s over within a few hours. But “Firewatch” deserves recognition for stretching the boundaries of adult storytelling in games so impressively.