FIREWATCH is an very lonely game whose core plot does not revolve around solving a mystery in the forest. Instead, it explores the main character’s journey of processing grief.

FIREWATCH creates this theme within the first few minutes of the game. A text-based introduction explains that you are Henry, and you are falling in love. Her name is Julia, and you met at a bar in Colorado. The game very quickly jumps several years at a time: first you are flirting at a bar. You get married. You experience several events that showcase the deep love you share for one another. It’s the perfect picture of a perfect marriage. The introduction takes a turn, however, when your wife, Julia, starts displaying symptoms of early-onset dementia. Together, you make the decision that Julia should move back home so her parents can look after her. After this, you are alone for the first time in your marriage to confront your grief. Unsure of how to do so, you take a job as a fire watch ranger at the Shoshone National Forest.

When you begin the game, it is immediately apparent that you are completely alone. The watchtower you’re stationed at shows nothing but miles of tree line, as is appropriate for a fire watchtower. Your only buffer between sanity and total isolation is your boss, Delilah. She occupies another watchtower several miles north of yours, and communicates to you via a two-way radio. This, along with a map and compass, actually gets the player out of the watchtower and into the forest, thus beginning the story.

A small moutain valley in FIREWATCH
Image courtesy of Campo Santo

FIREWATCH’s Storytelling via Isolation

Grief and isolation have always seemed to be good friends. A desire to be left alone while grieving is extremely common, especially in response to a sudden, unexpected trauma. Many people impose this isolation upon themselves in order to process their feelings. It’s hard to relate to anyone who isn’t willing to talk about it. In any case, isolation as a response to recent trauma is expected, and this is no different for Henry.

FIREWATCH begins with Henry learning about his wife’s sudden diagnosis and struggling to take care of her by himself. After some deliberation, he makes the decision to take her to her parents’ house several thousand miles away. When he returns, Henry struggles with living in an empty house. Unable to help Julia anymore, he makes the understandable decision to isolate himself by taking the ranger job in Wyoming.

Here, we can see Henry responding to the grief about his wife the same way many people do: through isolation. Although, in Henry’s case, he seems to be using isolation as a tool to escape the situation rather than using it to process the fact that his wife is facing dementia. This is because Henry uses this opportunity to take a new job, instead of taking time to reflect. Most professionals suggest that sudden grief should be confronted and discussed, so we can already see that Henry is not constructively dealing with this sudden issue. But Henry’s personal life isn’t the only way we see his grief. We also see it reflected in the people around him.

A large canyon sunset in FIREWATCH
Image courtesy of Campo Santo

A Cautionary Tale

One of FIREWATCH’s main subplots revolves around a man named Ned and his son. As you’re getting to know her, Delilah tells you about the ranger who occupied your stand before you. She says he was a ranger named Ned, who frequently brought his nerdy son, Brian, to work with him so he could experience the outdoors. Despite breaking the rules, she looked the other way because she knew the effect isolation can have on a ranger. She tells you that one day, they both just disappeared and nobody knows what happened to them. This is your first indication that something isn’t right in the Shoshone.

By the end of FIREWATCH, you discover why the pair went missing. Brian had died deep in a cave during a climbing accident, under his father’s instruction. Because of this, Ned feels to blame and never returns home from his post.

This is one major clue that shows the player that Henry is on a similar path. Here, the player sees the effects of Ned’s actions and applies them to Henry. Doing this makes it easy to see the parallels between both rangers’ stories. Much like how Henry left his wife behind when she needed him most, Ned just left his son’s body where he died and isolated himself to avoid confronting the situation. Henry sees the effects of Ned’s decision first hand: he’s driven crazy, and instead of dealing with his grief constructively, he’s living in the forest while his son’s body is decomposing in a cave. It’s not the most subtle suggestion that he made the wrong decision about how to deal with the pain of losing his son, which ends up being one of the major ways Henry begins to realize he needs to return home.

A view of a lake in FIREWATCH
Image courtesy of Campo Santo

Coming Home

Though FIREWATCH does revolve around Henry, Delilah has her own reasons for living alone in the Shoshone. At one point in the story, Delilah reveals that she, too, took the job to deal with the pain of losing the one she loves. Her story seems to closely mirror Henry’s situation with Julia. Delilah even says: “I came out here with a broken heart, just like you.” Being able to connect with Delilah about their pain then becomes an important aspect of their relationship. Later on, after several more heart-to-heart conversations, Delilah drinks a little too much tequila and you seem to share a moment before it is interrupted. It’s the first real spark to an otherwise fairly professional relationship, which causes you to spend the rest of the game dissecting each of their conversations to see if there’s something more.

This all culminates at the end of the game when both you and Delilah leave the forest to go back home. You have the option of telling her to come back to Colorado with you, which feels like a triumphant moment for the player. However, Delilah sighs and tells you to go take care of Julia. This is an incredibly important moment for Henry, as he is now beginning to see that isolation only delayed him from confronting his personal situation. On top of that, his best friend and only point of contact for over two and a half months just left him as well.

Lessons to Learn

Delilah leaving Henry is finally the kick he needs to realize that he hasn’t handled his situation well. What happens next isn’t explicit, as the game ends here. With this moment, the player can easily connect Henry and Delilah’s story to his story with Julia. After several months of getting to know each other, Delilah leaves Henry when he feels like he needs her. He’s hurt and disappointed, but finally understands that moving to the Shoshone hasn’t helped him process his feelings toward Julia. He realizes that he needs to spend time with Julia to talk about the situation, and only after that can he truly grieve.

Seeing Henry’s journey through processing his wife’s dementia is very important because everyone has something to learn from it. It’s likely that each of us either has or will experience the death of a loved one at some point. It is important to know how to grieve. Not everyone grieves in exactly the same way, but experts suggest confronting grief and talking about it with loved ones is the most productive way to move forward. This is the most important lesson we can learn from Henry: ignoring your pain doesn’t help you move on, it only forces you to experience that same pain later.

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