When the credits rolled after my virtual summer job as a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest, I realized how horrific the whole thing actually was. Beside the scrolling names of the video game geniuses at Campo Santo—the ones responsible for Firewatch—were the photos from the disposable camera I’d been using to document my adventure. While I’d had opportunities to snap shots of numerous breathtaking sunsets and a little turtle I named Shelley Duvall, nothing in the camera roll focused on the good. Instead, I had pictures of a wrecked campsite, evidence that I was being actively stalked and harassed, and even a child’s corpse. These were the images that best represented my attempt at a career in fire safety.
Firewatch’s aesthetic beauty is overshadowed by its palpable sense of mounting terror and that’s why the experience is so effective. The Wyoming forest that serves as the game’s setting is definitely what drew me in, but the mystery at its core kept me glued to the controller (I played on the PS4) as if I were in an interactive horror novel. It’s no mistake, either. Firewatch uses a well worn story mechanic wielded by genre masters like Poe and Lovecraft, gradually working on the player’s mind like a narrative mental thumbscrew. It allows the player to soak in all sorts of bone chilling, potentially supernatural possibilities before exposing them to a single harsh reality. The only real monster in Firewatch is your imagination.
Fear of the unknown is the greatest horror, and in Firewatch, the unknown takes a special, all encompassing form. The entire game builds to a climactic point of existential doubt in which a fully immersed player becomes incapable of determining anything about the game’s reality. The first person narrator is alone and unreliable, his circumstances are intangible, and you are given multiple reasons to doubt even the existence of the trees around you. The familiar becomes unknown as you find yourself surrounded by terrible possibilities, all equally plausible.
Within that grey area anything can be real, which also means anything can be a deception. The girls you think are terrorizing you for revenge might be dead and you could be the prime suspect in their murder, but they could also be alive. The entity terrorizing you could be a conspiracy of men, the manifestation of your own internal demons, or a sad man whose son fell to his death. The key to understanding how all of these contradictory possibilities could be true in a single moment is hidden in the game’s introduction.
From the beginning, Firewatch is setting a psychological snare trap. You make multiple narrative decisions that amount to a character building exercise, preparing you for the proper first person adventure that makes up the game’s bulk. The choices are small and feel real and sometimes they break your heart, but in terms of plot mechanics they do two very important things. First, they tell you that Henry, the protagonist, is not you; Henry might not be as smart as you, or as compassionate. He might make mistakes. He might see the world differently, and to him Firewatch is not a game.
Second, because the prologue deals directly with the topic of dementia, it plants a seed in the player’s mind. Thanks to countless psychological thriller narratives that have come before Firewatch, we are conditioned to prepare for the possibility of narrative deception when certain signifiers show up at the beginning of a story. Dementia, a core piece of Henry’s backstory, is one of those signifiers. Mention of the disease opens up the possibility for characters in the story to experience realities beyond the normative one we all depend on to differentiate between the real and the imaginary.
From there, the game has done all the work needed to tell an effective horror story. With the exception of the two girls setting off fireworks at the lake on your first day, the only person you encounter until the end of the game is a mysterious shadowman. Beyond that, your only human interactions are over a radio with Delilah, your co-worker in an area of the forest that’s off limits to you. Your personal experience is all you can rely on, affirmed only by the disembodied voice of a person you’ve never met. Eventually, the aforementioned shadowman’s harassment gets to her too, and even Delilah, the voice inside your head that you can normally bounce ideas off of, is adrift along with you in an infinite sea of unknown potential realities.
The effect that had on me as a player can be seen in the way I used the disposable camera. Every time I encountered something scary or violent or potentially incriminating, I snapped the Kodak, wound it back, and kept it safe for the next uncanny sight that awaited me. It all culminated when I took a picture of a dead boy using his own camera because I wanted tangible proof that we were both actually there. The device meant to preserve fleeting moments of beauty too important to trust to memory became my only anchor to reality. I was seeing these things and I needed people to believe me. I was not crazy. I was the victim in a horror story.
Between the possibility of self-delusion and reliable narration, Firewatch chooses reality and that’s why the game as a whole is more of a creepy mystery than a true tale of horror. But the themes of isolation, mourning, and loneliness hit hard because of what the narrative borrows from the traditions of the scarier of the two genres. By suspending our sense of reality, Firewatch lets our imagination run wild with fantastical possibility before grounding us in real tragedy, making it all hit so much harder. When it comes to pain and heartbreak, fictional boogeymen are always easier to handle than the real thing.