The first hour of Firewatch doesn't go so well for main characters Henry and Delilah - their phone lines are mysteriously cut without a replacement anywhere nearby, leaving them no way to call for help, while a fire kicks off in some nearby acreage and something comes lurking out of the forest with ill intent.
Those are some mighty convenient inconveniences, seemingly fantastic and tailor-made for a psychological thriller. But the land where they're stationed, as peaceful as it looks, was never just a faceless backdrop for epic sunset selfies and all the wilderness scenes in the Postman - it will kill you if you don't take its dangers seriously. Firewatch knows the place where it's set, absolutely nailing the terrors lurking in the regularly ignored, often underestimated scrub forests of the American northwest. I've never seen a game touch on those fears before, and it makes them seem fresh again when I haven't felt them in years. See, I grew up there.
Not in western Wyoming where Henry and Delilah are stationed, but in the eastern half of Oregon, which isn't much different - everything on the less-lush side of the Cascade mountain range is a sparsely-inhabited desert, and you could easily confuse the Deschutes National Forest or Smith Rock State Park for part of the Shoshone National Forest. Scrubby desert trees grow right alongside robust evergreens and acres of dry grasses, and you don't have to go too far to find the odd, volcano-carved cave perfect for an afternoon of spelunking (seriously, there was one behind my elementary school). Playing Firewatch is like watching someone wander the forests and deserts east of my hometown with a GoPro strapped to their head, viewfinder bouncing over expansive fields, huge rocky outcroppings, and the occasional burnt-out hovel. If only it were a half-collapsed barn, then it would indistinguishable.
Just as Henry expects, it's peaceful most of the time, a place where you can enjoy nature even if it's just a few dozen miles away from the nearest general store (which do exist). But 'peaceful' and 'safe' aren't synonymous. Out there, cell coverage is virtually non-existent once you get deep enough into the scrub (or a few miles outside of town - my phone turns into a brick when I go home for Christmas), and Delilah isn't exaggerating when she tells Henry that the closest phone is at a ranger's station several days away. This is an area where no one locks their doors but everyone owns a gun, because if trouble is headed your way, the closest town is a day too far for anyone to come to your rescue. I'm still deeply grateful to one of my neighbors for noticing I was in the early stages of heat stroke one summer and rushing me inside, because the closest hospital would have been too far away if I took a turn. Even the damn sun will get you.
It is, in a very real sense, a place where no one can hear you scream. The worst can happen when people don't take those serene-looking landscapes seriously. In a place like that, where people vanish without a trace (sometimes due to foul play) and aren't found for months or longer, the thought that two unfortunate firewatchers could be in the wrong place at the wrong time doesn't seem so farfetched. Especially if they're not local - my schools devoted almost as much time to wilderness survival as they did to Lewis and Clark (read: a lot), but inexperienced hikers and campers don't always have that knowledge, and don't notice until they're stuck in the woods with no compass, an empty water bottle, and rapidly waning daylight.
That idea is made even more unsettling by the way Firewatch folds in, with pinpoint accuracy, many of the most frightening things about that deserted outland that usually go ignored. As hilarious as Henry's fear of bears is, it's actually not at all because big predators are out there, and will kill you if you get on their bad sides. Sometimes we couldn't go outside for recess at my middle school because there was an honest-to-goodness cougar alert, and I'm only two degrees away from someone who was attacked by a cougar while out walking his dog. Games like Far Cry (and really, any game with dangerous wildlife) make fighting bears and wildcats into a thrilling flight of fancy. Firewatch hits at what it really feels like to fear and respect them.
However, that's not what you have to worry about most out in the great wide wilderness - the terrain is a much greater threat, and Firewatch understands that too. Delilah's crack about spelunkers dying in the closed off cave near Henry's tower may seem like a flippant bit of atmosphere, but that's a very real way you can actually die if you don't take the necessary precautions. For every hiker mauled by a bear, there are ten who slip off a ledge, get swept away by a river, or trip into a ravine and aren't able to recover. Henry's trip down 'Cripple Gulch', minor as it ends up being, is easily one of the most terrifying things that can happen out there.
And, of course, there's the entire concept of wildfire, which is easily the scariest for locals - you can treat cliffs with caution and escape from animals (they actually trained us how to do that in school, and God help you if you mix up the procedures for bears and cougars), but you can't really predict what a fire will do. Once the ashes were cool, my parents took me to see the remains of the Skeleton Fire, a blaze that decimated a neighborhood east of Bend, Oregon. The results were unnervingly erratic - most houses were gone, but some of them survived, untouched, surrounded by piles of cinders where their neighbor's homes used to stand. And it could have been so much worse, because the fire was headed straight for town and just happened to sputter out in time, sparing civilization by stomach-turning chance.
It's a force that can't be easily stopped or readily predicted, because even when it sweeps through an area there's no telling what damage it will do. Henry and Delilah's response to the concept of fires - shrouded concern that quickly fades into cavalier resignation - seems understated given that information, and doesn't communicate the true impact of such a disaster. But it's also exactly how people who deal with it all the time act. When wildfire isn't a far-off disaster that turns the sky hazy for a while, but a very real threat in your backyard that arrives every summer (it's not a question of if, but when and how bad), going about your life and trying not to worry really is all you can do. But the worry is there. Henry and Delilah's veiled trepidation about how dry the foliage is, or Delilah's instant burst of rage when she sees someone setting off fireworks, nails how it feels to live with wildfire as a constant possibility.
Surrounding its semi-fantastic central terror with these modest but genuine fears grounds Firewatch in a real place and time. That builds up not only the strength of its paranoia, but its humanity too. When I was growing up, my parents weren't afraid of break-ins or muggings - they were scared I'd drown in a creek, or be attacked by coyotes, or get trapped in a cave and not be able to find my way back out. Odd as it sounds, it makes me happy - where others see just another bunch of trees and some Old West knick-knacks, Firewatch sees a real place with its own identity.
Henry and Delilah's story is about sincere and deeply felt fears that are difficult to navigate - the fear of losing loved ones, of failing when it counts, of not knowing how to move on because life is like a wildfire you can't predict. It could've just stuck with those things, using Shoshone as a shallow, Blair Witch-style backdrop that could have been anywhere. But instead, Firewatch proves just how real it is by recognizing that this place is real, with terrors all its own, using that to bolster the uncertainty that keeps us inching to the final resolution. It's the first game that's really reflected that place - where I crawled through pitch-black caves, sprinted home at night to outrun the strange sounds in the brush, and watched my parents watch wildfires inch toward our house - back at me. It's been years since I felt that kind of dread, but Firewatch brings it all roaring back.