In Firewatch, you get to name the fire that pops up to smoke out the Wyoming skyline early in your summer watch (I’m partial to The Big Fire myself). That’s not precisely how fire-naming works (the firefighters get to make that call), but that’s honestly the only thing even slightly less than realistic about the oncoming blaze. I spent my childhood in a region very similar to the Shoshone, where wildfires were an annual tradition as consistent and smoky as the 4th of July, and if you could see all of the sky in August, it was a pretty wet year. I played video games that whole time too, yet I’ve never seen a title do justice to that ominous, destructive, strangely beautiful phenomenon like Firewatch does.
From the moment the fire kicks off it feels way too real. We don’t get to see it when it’s a baby plum of smoke, but the tuft of crimson and orange fluff poking over the hill is still in its infancy. Over the next few weeks it expands into a massive, sky-choking blaze that fills up the entire southern horizon. Based on the one time I witnessed a wildfire start (from a safe distance of course), that’s exactly how it goes – a thin column of smoke steadily grew into a billowing plume that covered the sky in smog, like fog had descended over our camp. In the middle of the high desert. In August.
While getting that part right is nice, if expected, Firewatch’s soon proves it has an astounding eye for detail. Here’s a thing they don’t tell you about wildfires: sometimes you just get a bit of haze and a slight cough, and others the sky turns yellow and ash falls on your head like snow. I smiled a bit when Henry’s piece of the forest took on a dusky quality, enjoying the sense of progression, but was sure it was going to stop there. Call me when Henry has to shake grey junk out of his hair. Yet Campo Santo happily proved me a fool, the very next day the air was that perfect, softly acidic color, and a storm of cinders followed me wherever I went (something tells me we might’ve even gotten a pale red sun if that wouldn’t be mistaken for some kind of omen).
Rather than take the easy route by settling for what people might generally think a wildfire looks like, Firewatch commits to the accuracy of its vision, recreating a breathtaking natural disaster in all its terrible glory. I wasn’t exactly distraught at the lack of life-like forest fires in video games before now (what are you going to save the world from out in the brush? Juniper allergies and poison oak?), but seeing something so familiar perfectly and lovingly rendered warms my heart.
To some people, it’s just a fire, and that’s fine – but to me it’s a part of my story being recognized where it would usually go ignored. I love Firewatch’s inferno for making it clear, once again, that there’s room for all sorts of stories in the world of gaming – and for me, it’s telling an old classic.