"Four Times Up, Three Times Down" — The Stories Behind Firewatch

By Chris Allnutt on at

“I say you got fired from your job and have finally decided to write your novel. That’s the sort of bullshit reason you’ll find a man out in the woods.” — Delilah, Day 0

“Good night,” Henry replies curtly. After all, she’s right. As the sun rises on your first day in Firewatch, your typewriter and first journal entries already sit in front of you. You’ve fled responsibility for a summer of smoke-spotting adventure in the forests of Wyoming. Don’t feel too bad, though: you’re just the latest in a long line of literary-minded fire lookouts.

When Firewatch released in 2016, there was no shortage of praise for its narrative style: players quickly fell for the novelty of the job, the pace of the Shoshone National Forest and the walkie-talkie back-and-forth between Henry and his supervisor Delilah. It begins to feel like this could be the start of something new, something permanent...

[Spoilers for Firewatch follow]

So when the trees begin to burn and reality rears its ugly head, a sense of disappointment envelops the game’s finale. The series of events that seem like a shadowy government plot turn out to be nothing more than the tragic legacy of a former lookout – one that keeps you from Delilah all the same. In short, after weeks of wide-eyed hope and wonder, the game brings you back to reality with a bump.

That’s the point. In order to provide a satisfying experience for the player while still doing justice to the setting, Firewatch needs imagination to get the better of you.

In 1956, Jack Kerouac spent 63 days as a fire lookout in Washington State, picking blueberries and smoking his way through a dwindling supply of cigarettes, eventually adapting his experiences for the novels Desolation Angels and The Dharma Bums. In the latter, Kerouac’s protagonist flees the city and its responsibilities, seeking solitude and enlightenment atop Desolation Peak.

But his enthusiasm soon wanes, and he rejoices to hear the radio calling him down at the end of the season. A similar pattern occurs in Lonesome Traveler, in which Kerouac’s mountain-top epiphany leans even more explicitly into Firewatch’s territory: “I realized I didn't have to hide myself in desolation but could accept society for better or for worse, like a wife.”

In both books, the temporary nature of the fire lookout is pivotal: even with the right candidate (which Kerouac almost certainly wasn’t), the work grants a brief interlude from society and responsibility, before the season ends and the lookouts return to reality.

For Philip Whalen, friend and contemporary of Kerouac, the immovable mountains are a constant reminder of his own comings and goings, and his scorekeeping in the poem Sourdough Mountain Lookout has since become a mantra for lookouts:

“Like they say, ‘Four times up,
Three times down.’ I'm still on the mountain.”

Even more influential than Kerouac, according to Firewatch game designer Nels Anderson, were the accounts of Philip Connors, a Wall Street Journal editor who took to the tower in the face of an unwanted reassignment.

“In terms of the one that stuck with me the most, it was certainly Philip Connors' Fire Season,” Anderson says. “At least for me, the interest was a lot more in why people take the job and what the day-to-day of their lives are actually like while working.”

Connors describes the life of a lookout as “a blend of monotony, geometry and poetry, with healthy dollops of frivolity and sloth.” Firewatch embraces this wholeheartedly: grand conspiracy is eventually debunked, the stylised horizon is practically a protagonist, and literary pretension abounds.

Norman Maclean goes one step further in his USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky, as the narrator consciously begins to dramatise his time in the tower. He muses: “Somewhere along here I first became conscious of the feeling I talked about earlier – the feeling that comes when you first notice your life turning into a story.”

What you play in Firewatch is Henry’s stylised account of his summer: his typewriter recovers from its early defenestration, you see his journal entries stacking up over the course of the game, and Delilah suggests you’ll write about the experience in the final moments:

“Maybe put that typewriter to good use. Give me a sexy accent or something if you write about this.” — Delilah, Day 79

For such a plainly-drawn world, Firewatch takes time to draw your attention towards the books scattered around your environment. Unlike in, say, Skyrim, the volumes scattered around this wilderness are not readable beyond their front and back cover, but this does not stop them from pointing to a rich literary tradition of fire lookouts and clues towards the condition of the characters.

If Henry’s summer in Wyoming is an attempted escape from reality, the in-game tomes reflect this: Dr Jonas Allard’s The Singular Mind explicitly sets out to examine “the power of the solitary mind”, while Richard Sturgeon’s crime thrillers would be enough to play tricks on any unburdened soul. As for Glory, by one Michelle Macmanus, the ridiculous blurb speaks for itself:

“In the year 1999 there are only a few farmers left. Marc Ruth and his wife Ramona are two of them... But when the President samples one of Ruth’s carrots, Ruth and his wife are quickly subsumed by the administration and brought far closer to great power than he could ever imagine.”

Isolation breeds imagination, and Henry’s only human contact in the forest comes from the other side of radios, lakes or cliff edges. It’s unsurprising both that the simple tragedy of a boy’s death escalates to government conspiracy in his mind, and that the game’s ending reveals it for the accident that it was. For fire lookouts, dashed expectations are almost part of the job description.

“A tower in the woods. Far away from all that sustains sanity,” writes Edward Abbey in his novel Black Sun, where the wilderness offers a student and a forest ranger a fleeting romance before reality – a jealous fiancé and hundreds of miles of uninhabitable desert – catches up. Her disappearance leaves the lookout as he started the summer: “alone in one of the loneliest places on earth.”

The experiences of writers and poets on the peaks are oft-depicted as adventures into the unknown, removed from reality, and without external reference points. As it does for Henry, literary imagination runs wild and is promptly dashed as the summer draws to a close.

Firewatch is an intensely literary experience – while the in-game volumes may just be easter eggs and embellishments, the game’s storytelling is structured in a manner that insists upon spectacle rather than agency.

Not only do you end up heading to Wyoming regardless of your choices in the opening ‘choose your own adventure’ scene, you do so while the game intersperses sections of the resulting hike. Days are selectively shown to players, editing out idle moments over the summer (in fact, nearly two-thirds of Henry’s summer is not seen by the player), while the day/night cycle is not regular but scripted to heighten tension at the right moments. Despite the opposite appearance, the Shoshone National Forest is a relatively linear world that is best (and often only) explored in conjunction with the narrative through-line.

Furthermore, just as the season for a lookout is inherently limited, in Firewatch your days are numbered. Literally: time-keeping title cards are both a ticking clock and constant reminder of the transitory nature of your stay.

“I harbor no illusion that our job will last forever,” writes Philip Connors in Fire Season. 10,000 people took to the towers in the 1950s; now only a few hundred do the same. Although the game is set in 1989, hindsight gives a clear understanding of the impermanence of the job. These features emphasise the inevitability of the game’s ending, just as the experience always does. Firewatch doesn’t allow the player to change the essence of the fire lookout, but it does give you a say in how you engage with the situation and, for Nels Anderson, this is at the heart of the game’s nature:

“One of the interesting things about literature as a storytelling medium is, just by the nature of what they are, it's a lot more possible to access the internality of their characters. You can pretty directly access what characters are thinking and feeling, in addition to how they are behaving.”

“The player in Firewatch both is and isn't Henry and that's an interesting departure from how the audience engages with the characters in film or TV, and maybe one closer to literary prose.”

The conversation choices, rather than hinting at ultimate control over your destiny, remind you to focus on your journey instead of its destination. Firewatch declines to show you Delilah in person, but it does give you a say in how you interact with her. And if meeting her was never an option, the dialogue trees exist simply to populate the forest with impressions that feel personal to you — a reminder that Henry can only run for so long before reality catches up and burns everything down.

Olly Moss, who designed the covers of Firewatch’s invented titles, wrote during the game’s development: “Perhaps these books were generously left behind by a previous lookout, or maybe they were just too crappy to bother carrying back to civilisation.” Whichever origin applies, they alone are permanent features of Shoshone National Forest.