Firewatch
Developed by: Campo Santo
Published by: Panic
Available on: Mac, PC, PlayStation 4

Long before I started writing about video games, I noticed that my friends and I would sometimes refer to such software as what we were working on: as in, “I’m still working on getting the diplomacy ending in “Civilization IV.” Video games blur the relationship between entertainment and work. They demand time and concentration like other art forms but moving among them — especially leapfrogging between genres — often requires the accumulation of new skills and the establishment of long and short-term goals. When one also considers that games are typically the products of intensive labor practices, it seems only logical that more game designers should look toward the subject of work as an inspiration for their projects.

“Firewatch” is the first game from Campo Santo, a small developer composed of members who worked on Telltale’s adaptation of The Walking Dead series as well as Klei Entertainment’s stealth-action game “Mark of the Ninja.” Set in 1989, this first-person perspective, narrative-driven game tells the story of Henry, a thirty-nine year old who left his home in Boulder, Colorado, to take a summer job as a fire lookout in a Wyoming forest. His position comes at a delicate time in the American conservation movement as the Yellowstone Fires of 1988 still echoed in the memory of the general populace.

Henry, who is voiced by Rich Sommer of “Mad Men” fame (he played Harry Crane), is in flight from marital difficulties. Although the circumstances that fostered his decision to take up his post in a lonely, live-in tower are unique in their particulars, his wish to put some distance between himself and his past is not uncommon with the people attracted to such work — so says his boss Delilah, who is seductively voiced by Cissy Jones.

Delilah works out of another firewatch tower that’s inaccessible for most of the game. Though her interactions with Henry are restricted to communicating via walkie talkie, it’s their conversations that hold the game together. As her employee, you’re tasked with parochial duties like chiding teenagers for launching fireworks in the forest or checking on downed power lines. Your other closest companions in the game are a map and compass. In essence, “Firewatch” is a scavenger hunt for adults who know something of life’s disappointments.

As Henry sees to his duties, he and Delilah acclimate to each other. The exact tenor of that relationship, which Campo Santo co-founder Sean Vanaman called the game’s “core mechanic,” is left to the player to manipulate. You can choose how to respond to Delilah by selecting from on-screen conversational prompts. Fail to choose a prompt before a certain time limit or simply decide not to and Delilah might take it in stride or grow miffed. Annoy her, and she might not speak to you.

Delilah is the fantasy object of the game. Not only is she a witty boss that wants to understand you, she’s not above teasing you with an erotic scenario. With its simpatico boss and outdoor setting, “Firewatch” seems keyed into the dreams of office drones everywhere. Moreover, the game’s walkie-talkie mechanic is nostalgic bait perfectly suited to our own smartphone-addled era, for here’s an excuse to run around with a communication device in your hand that doesn’t aggressively seal you off from your environment.

During my playthrough, I allowed Henry to be easily swayed by Delilah’s charisma. Only a couple of times do I recall deflecting her inquiries. I liked how she carried the scars of her emotional relationships with a sense of bemusement. Over the length of the game, the two are, together, drawn into a mystery when Henry discovers that someone has been recording their conversations.

If you note the two main characters’ penchant for irony and have been paying attention to the clues in the game, such as the cheap mass market paperbacks scattered about the area, you’ll sense that the mystery isn’t on the level of some global alien conspiracy, but rather, like “Firewatch” itself, it’s something mundane and graspable. In the context of a medium that’s normally obsessed with feeding on the outlandish, I mean that as a compliment.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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