Firewatch begins in a manner very similar to Pixar's Up, except it gives you the chance to make certain decisions as your character Henry meets and eventually marries Julia. But, just like Up, there's a tragic twist in their lives and this is what drives Henry to take a job in the middle of the Shoshone national forest, far from people.
He isn't entirely alone as his supervisor, Delilah, is on the other end of a walkie talkie and their burgeoning relationship is the backbone of the game's story. You are given different dialogue options which can shape and direct what Delilah means to Henry, choosing to remain, relatively, professional or getting a lot closer than a married man should.
Ostensibly your job is to keep an eye out for fires so that the forest isn't at risk of burning down, but you find yourself chasing after firework launching teens, worrying about bears and gradually peeling back a mystery within the wilderness. Things take an unsettling turn when you spot a mysterious figure observing you, shortly before your watchtower is broken into. The game walks a fine line, balancing the mundane and paranoia, keeping you unsure about what's really going on. Henry often can't see the forest for the trees.
Throughout you'll jump from one day to another, lurching through Henry's summer in the woods. This keeps the plot moving along briskly as it removes all the time he presumably spends just staring at the horizon. It also allows for wonderful shifts in how the forest looks. Changing through different times of the day lends itself to sharp blue skies, cooling greens of dappled glades and the earthy orange tones of sunset. There is such a strong visual aesthetic to Firewatch's relatively chunky world, just trekking from A to B is a feast for the eyes.
As you hike from one spot to another you will likely be chatting with Delilah. These conversations are excellent with strong performances from the two leads and writing that keeps you interested in what will come next. As the story advances, so too does Henry's ability to explore further afield. While not quite a Metroidvania, you do pick up items as the plot allows that open up new paths, letting you reach new areas or shortcuts. Henry has a map and a compass to help his navigation and if you're really that bad with directions, there are many signs pointing to specific destinations and trails to follow.
Firewatch is very much a story of Henry's vulnerability, having chosen a life of solitude during a difficult period of time. His interactions with Delilah and the pursuit of the mysteries they discover all feed into his attempts to deal with his personal problems and what sort of man he's going to be. It's hard not to like Henry and Delilah, the relationship they develop is believable and charming despite only ever interacting over the walkie talkie. Delilah's welcoming, reassuring, embracing, voice both mitigates and underlines Henry's isolation.
Firewatch leaves breadcrumbs trailing through its trees, leading you to question what's actually happening out in the wilderness, leaving you unsettled and unsure, exposing your vulnerabilities when alone in such a wild expanse. Ultimately it'll be Henry and Delilah who linger in your mind when you finally leave at the end of the summer. Their conversations, the warmth between them, the unspoken choices that linger amongst the darkening trees.