Fear and Firewatch
How Firewatch Convinces us to be Afraid
There was a point, about halfway through playing Firewatch for the first time, where I really started to worry. It had gotten dark outside, and I hadn’t turned my lights on as night had started to fall. I was sitting with my back to the door, and with my headset in place, blocking out all other sound. I was starting to feel like maybe I was being watched, just like Henry. Now, when I play horror games, I like safety in numbers. Nothing like having a friend along for the ghost-train ride! I hadn’t planned on Firewatch being a horror game however: now I was alone, in the dark, and feeling a bit on edge, just like Jill Valentine must have done when she first entered that strange mansion on the edge of Raccoon City. Had I somehow stumbled into a world of survival horror?
Needless to say, from this point on THERE WILL BE MASSIVE FIREWATCH SPOILERS. If you somehow haven’t already played, then stop reading right now and go and get on with it. I’ll wait right here until you get back….
Okay, so here’s the spoiler: Firewatch isn’t a survival horror game. It’s actually impossible to kill Henry (trust me, I tried walking him off a cliff to check but he was having none of it). However, Firewatch very cleverly uses some concepts from the traditional horror genre, both films and games, to unsettle you as a player and keep you guessing. This article is going to look at the idea of control as a way to instil a feeling of horror in the player, and the different ways Firewatch uses this.
Horror games are intrinsically narrative games. Without a narrative - whether written, environmental, or dialogue - there can be no horror.
It can be argued that Firewatch is ultimately a story about control: specifically, that as human beings we have no real control over our lives and the belief that we do is an illusion. This is reinforced by the story of Firewatch from start to finish. At the beginning section, as you pick the direction of the branching backstory of Henry, you feel that you are making big decisions that will affect the outcome of the game. This is an illusion of control: no matter what you decide, as the player and as Henry, and no matter if you go back and change your decisions over and over, Julia will always get early-onset dementia. You – Henry – have no control over that happening.
No matter what decisions you make throughout the game, no matter whether you carry out all of the actions and quests the game asks of you, the game will always end with the ‘Big Fire’ – or whatever else you decided to name it – raging out of control and destroying the landscape and gamespace you thought you were protecting.
At the end of the game, as you are frantically making your way to safety through the hellish, smoking landscape that is no longer safe and recognisable, no matter how much you beg or plead with Delilah, she will not stay in her tower to talk to you.
Firewatch uses environmental narrative design, alongside the story and dialogue, to consistently reinforce the theme of control as you progress through the game.
One of the ways the horror gaming genre reinforces lack of control is through restricting resources. In most games we see this through limited ammo and health packs, forcing you into a defensive stance and ensuring you never feel in control of the situation you are in.
In Firewatch you are instead faced with being in possession of a film camera that only has a set number of shots that you must use wisely: however, as the player you have no idea what wisely means. Is it alright to take photographs of beautiful scenery, or should you be saving the shots to photograph evidence of what is happening in the Shoshone?
In a similar vein, at the start of the game you find a rope that allows you to rappel down a steep slope: however you only have enough for one slope, rendering the other steep drops inaccessible until later in the game.
Another resource you are given is a flashlight, a typical horror genre item. In games such as Doom 3 (id Software, 2004) you are given a flashlight to peer into dark, shadowy corners, but there is a catch: using your flashlight means not using your weapon, taking control away from the player as they have to make the decision between knowing what’s out there or defending yourself.
In Firewatch, you do not even have a weapon to protect yourself with until you pick up an axe later in the game, and even then you can only use it when given the option to by the game. No matter how unsafe you feel as you poke around sinister surveillance camps in the dark you cannot brandish the axe in front of you to feel more secure!
This restriction of resources is a clever play on the traditional horror genre, using the same ideas but for different items, and another way that Firewatch uses knowledge of the genre to give players the uneasy feel of not knowing quite what is going on.
Cutscenes are a recurrent tool in horror games, to move the story along and also to remind you of your limited control as a player. Whether you're playing Alien: Isolation or Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, you know as soon as a cutscene plays that something horrible is about to happen to your character, and you can only wait in tense anticipation for the scene to play out and control to be given back to you.
This happens time and again throughout the gameplay of Firewatch. Days finish and start when the game dictates: cutscenes of new days will happen when you are in the middle of walking, exploring, taking photographs, rappelling. The next day you have control of is whatever one the game wants you to experience: as the player at times you miss weeks of story-time. You don’t necessarily start the day logically, in your tower: sometimes you are forced into a setting you did not navigate to, disorientating you and taking away your control as a player.
Firewatch is not a survival horror game, and yet playing it for the first time can make you think otherwise as you chase shadowy figures in the dark and stumble across suspicious camps, unarmed and as confused as Henry is as to what is really going on. We have seen how Firewatch uses traditional generic tools and ideas to reinforce the thematic message of being out of control. Games scholar Ewan Kirkland says that 'the ultimate horror of survival horror is the suggestion that, despite our strongest feelings to the contrary, we are not the master of our own fate'. Firewatch may not be a survival horror game in the traditional sense, but when playing it, Kirkland's words certainly ring true.
This article was first published in Gamasutra.