This article contains some spoilers for Firewatch. So don't read on unless you've finished the game, or have no intention to. You should, though; it's a great game, and only takes three hours or so to get through.
Strange things happen in America's national parks. Perhaps you've read about Dennis Martin. Dennis was a six-year-old boy who, in 1969, went with his family for a camping trip to the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. During a game of hide and seek, Dennis's father saw him crouch down behind a bush – moments later, when Mr Martin went to find his son, Dennis had vanished. For almost a month, 1,400 people, including local law enforcement, FBI agents and the Army's Green Berets searched for Dennis, but no trace of him has ever been found.
Perhaps more strange is the case of Jaryd Atadero, a three-year-old boy who in 1999, went missing in the Comanche Peak wilderness of Northern Colorado. Four years after his disappearance, Jaryd's remains were discovered on a steep, rocky hill, 550 feet above the trail where he was last seen alive. Bobby Bizup, a 10-year-old boy who disappeared in August 1958, was discovered in similarly mysterious circumstances. His body was found more than three miles from where he had vanished, 2,500ft up at the summit of Mount Meeker.
The CanAm Missing Project has documented hundreds of disappearances in the national parks of Canada and North America, and also identified a handful of patterns and profiles. Sometimes victims are found next to a neat, folded pile of their clothes. Sometimes the missing people are found alive, but have no memory of where they have been since they were last seen. CanAm's book series, The Missing 411, stops short of drawing any conclusions. Penned by a former vice detective and SWAT officer, it never strays into conjecture or supernatural nonsense – it's simply a document of each case and the people who were involved.
And that's why it gets under my skin. The disappearances aren't connected. There isn't some big conspiracy, or paranormal phenomenon, that's kidnapping and killing people out in the wilderness. But strange things do happen in America's national parks. And the thought of someone I love vanishing, or dying, and then never finding out what happened to them, frightens me a great deal.
It was that fear, and those cases of missing people in Canada and North America, that kept running through my mind as I was playing Firewatch. This is a horror set in broad daylight, a suspense thriller that takes place across a sweeping, open landscape. I've never played anything like it before. Corridors, darkness, a predatory creature stalking you from one moment to the next – these are the staples of today's horror games. But Firewatch finds terror at the opposite pole. Its beaming sunshine and empty meadows feel just as threatening as a dank, narrow dungeon.
Your boss Delilah's tower, positioned high above the Thorofare, is an ominous reminder that you, as Henry, are constantly being watched. Your own tower, supposedly a safe place, high above the flames of any possible fire, identifies you for miles around – amidst the trees, caves and foliage, you are exposed. And then there's the silence, the constant, fragile silence. I personally enjoyed Firewatch a lot more once I'd gone into the options menu and turned the music off. Take a long hike through the forest, with nothing for company but the sound of creaking bark and the occasional crackle of your radio, and you'll experience a kind of dread that I don't think games have pulled off before.
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Typically in horror, it's the slamming door, the distant scream, the off-screen moan that makes me tense up. In Firewatch, it was the nothing. Silent Hill is a big town and you often feel like the only person left alive, but at least you have the monsters for company. Towards the end of Firewatch, it is, very literally, just you.
If games have used sandboxes for the same things over and over, filling them with missions, ambient challenges and collectibles, Firewatch is an open world with a different purpose: its empty expanse makes you feel abandoned. For that at least, I respect its makers, Campo Santo. So many teams, once they'd created a big, colourful world, would be unable to resist the temptation to put things in it – the pressure of convention would compel them to make a more populated sandbox. Firewatch could have easily had side-quests. Firewatch could have had animals scampering around, and if you snapped a photo of one, you unlocked an achievement.
But, to a fault, Campo Santo understands discipline. The same sense of restraint that makes Firewatch's script timid and overly vague makes its environment terrifying. So empty and quiet is Shoshone National Park that the act of simply turning around and looking behind you is loaded with dread – any artefact of another human presence, be it an empty beer can, a torn strip of clothing or a pulaski, shatters the perfect, untouched nature and with it your sense of security.
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I think that's the most interesting part of Firewatch. It's scary when you feel like you're utterly alone. But it's also scary when you feel like there's somebody else with you. It's hard to describe without completely spoiling the game's story, but Henry is in a similar dilemma – he arrives in Shoshone because he's running away from something, but he also wishes he could go back. Being isolated from people is something we all fear. At the same time, the idea of someone knowing you entirely, and sharing your most intimate secrets, is also threatening.
Firewatch plays on the very real fear of going missing and nobody finding you, or someone you love going missing, and never knowing what happened to them. But it's also a game about fear of company, exposure and emotional vulnerability – wandering around a desolate space, surveyed constantly by an unseen presence, it's a game about having your personal space abandoned and having it invaded. At how great a distance would you like to keep people? To what extent would you like to let them into your life?
Beneath Firewatch's primal fears, the fears of dying and being forgotten, and of being watched and stalked, there are deeper questions about our relationships to other people. I like to think that the very ending, where Henry literally reaches out and grabs somebody, is optimistic.
Firewatch is out now for PlayStation 4 and PC – read our (pretty much) spoilers-free conversation about the game here.
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