Campo Santo’s breezy hiking sim, Firewatch, is built on denying players any sense of catharsis. They step into the sneakers and shorts of Henry, a nigh-middle aged schlub who takes a job as park lookout to escape watching his wife’s mental health decline. There’s obvious appeal: beautiful scenery, a disconnect from all the problems back home, a sultry-voiced boss, Delilah, whose radio chatter is especially friendly. However, there’s also the crippling isolation, unaided by an escalating series of events, involving a third party listening in on Henry and Delilah’s conversations to some unknown end.
Functionally, Firewatch is somewhere between mid-budget snoop ’em ups (Gone Home, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture) and the dynamic dramatization of Kentucky Route Zero. You spend your days maneuvering Henry through the wilderness, picking up tools and rooting around for clues, but the highlights are talking with Delilah. Timed dialogue prompts (including no response) allow for their relationship to ebb and flow, bantering or arguing as the player sees fit. Discussion turns to relationship woes and shared love of booze, with a recurring insinuation the job attracts people looking for an escape from some sort of emotional damage (reinforced by a series of letters between two, unseen rangers). Other people, whether troublemaking teens or the elusive figure dogging Henry, exist as phantoms on the periphery, Delilah is his only contact.
Through this, writer Sean Vanaman is able to twist their relationship. The serene, sun-blasted vistas (rendered by Jane Ng, from paintings by Olly Moss) are crushingly lonely; every sudden noise puncturing the calm inspires a panicked, first-person glance. Once Henry discovers someone’s listening in, and is attacked, all manner of diabolical thoughts flood in. Radioing Delilah becomes positive feedback for Henry’s paranoia, often in the form of speculation about the figure who eludes them, and what the implications are. His fears spread to her, the way a fire the pair are meant to keep an eye on begins to grow, as they get lost in a fantasy, largely of their own making. Down a proverbial rabbit hole they plunge, seeking answers, only to find they were asking the wrong questions. Instead of some vast conspiracy, or even an enemy to throttle, they’re left desperate and wanting for closure. What Campo Santo posit is the way escapism only makes reality–both the one run from and the one before you–seem more obscure, staring too closely at flickers while the forest burns.