Summer is the time for adventures. As the chilly April showers wane and the May flowers burst into blossom, June is an ideal month to write a new and exciting chapter in the story of our lives. For many of us, the warmer months don’t provide the same amount of boundless time as the summer vacations of our youth. In spite of this, we will carve out weeks from our busy lives to make a pilgrimage into unknown territory both near and far.
While the spike in temperature and daylight hours fills my heart with longing for fresh wilderness, a similar wanderlust grows in my gaming appetite. I seek out unique and compelling narratives that stray from the well-worn path of annual releases. Historically, the results of such journeys are rather divisive. I could discover a delightful game that provides an interesting twist on traditional mechanics, or I could find a disappointing title that fails to deliver both in gameplay and plot.
Despite the known risk of a wasted summer day, I decided to invest in just such a story-driven indie game that takes place in the Wyoming wilderness in 1989. And as with any journey into the unknown, I made sure to bring supplies from a tried-and-true brewery.
Of the numerous craft breweries that cover the rolling hills of these United States, the New Belgium Brewing Company stands out as one of my favorites. I tried their flagship beer Fat Tire many years ago while traveling with my girlfriend-now-wife. At the time, the delicious amber ale was not being distributed in our home state, so we relied on our various roaming friends to deliver rations of Fat Tire whenever they would visit.
Since those halcyon days, New Belgium has made their way into our neck of the woods, and we couldn’t be more pleased. They regularly release delicious seasonal experiments such as the Heavy Melon Lime Ale and the Pumpkick Spiced Ale (brewed with pumpkin and cranberry). Their variety packs often include a tasty limited re-brew of a discontinued beer from their 25 year history. And their year-round beers include some of my top brews of all time, including the 1554 Black Lager and the Shift Pale Lager.
Counted among New Belgium’s year-round beers is the Ranger IPA. This India pale ale serves as a tribute to the brewery’s Beer Rangers; their brand and brew ambassadors who, “span all states from the Pacific to the Atlantic.” This beer is made with three different hop varieties (Cascade, Chinook, and Simcoe) which impart distinct flavors during the brewing process (citrus, floral, and fruity, respectively). Ranger is also dry-hopped with Cascade, which means even more hop aroma and oils are imparted in the final product.
The result is a beer that pours with a brilliant golden color, orange sunset hues, and a powerful resinous hop aroma. There is a strong odor of pine on the nose, with hints of grapefruit in the background. Despite the intense hop scent, Ranger starts with the smooth taste of toasted bread. This malty flavor quickly gives way to the expected pine-hop crispness and finishes with a mild citrus flavor, leaving a lingering sweetness of oranges.
I will admit, I am not a Die-Hard Hop Head™. I have to be in a particular mood for a hoppy punch to the face. That being said, the malt profile of Ranger IPA serves to balance the bold hop character, resulting in a sessionable beer that makes an ideal companion for a virtual trek through the woods.
The wilderness of national parks can represent many things. For those who visit, the various flora and fauna could mean an opportunity to experience a world outside of the suburbs and cities. Land that is mostly untouched by man’s progress with a hint of danger and the unknown. For those who tend to these parks, the forests and streams are a responsibility. It is a ranger’s job to protect these lands from visitors who would do harm, whether through ignorance, maliciousness, or just plain laziness. They are educators and caretakers, stewards and evangelists.
The protagonist of Firewatch comes to the Shoshone National Forest as both visitor and ranger, but this protected land represents something else to him: an escape. From developer Campo Santo’s website:
“The year is 1989. You are a man named Henry who has retreated from your messy life to work as a fire lookout in the Wyoming wilderness. Perched atop a mountain, it’s your job to find smoke and keep the wilderness safe.
An especially hot, dry summer has everyone on edge. Your supervisor, a woman named Delilah, is available to you at all times over a small, handheld radio—and is your only contact with the world you’ve left behind.
But when something strange draws you out of your lookout tower and into the world below, you’ll explore a wild and unknown environment, facing questions and making interpersonal choices that can build or destroy the only meaningful relationship you have.”
While Firewatch opens with a very raw and emotional glimpse into the complexities of Henry’s life, the bulk of the game is spent exploring the gorgeous vistas of the Shoshone National Forest. As a novice fire lookout, Henry (and the player, by extension) will get a lay of the land rather organically through the functions of the job. With each day of the game’s plot, Henry is tasked by Delilah to investigate any abandoned campfires or law-breaking visitors to keep the park safe. There is no mini-map or overbearing quest marker to lead the player to each major destination or plot point. Just like Henry, I had to rely on the in-game map and compass to find my way.
There were times when this method of exploration proved frustrating. My progress from the watch tower to certain areas became a stuttering mess as I checked the map dozens of times to orient Henry in the correct direction. But on a whole, this minimalist approach to navigation contributed to the game narrative. I spent so much time exploring this beautiful game that the occasional logistic confusion didn’t sour the experience.
Since so much of this game’s appeal lies in how its story unfolds, I am going to avoid a deep dive into this powerful narrative. Suffice to say, Firewatch kept me engaged from start to finish. The real strength of the narrative comes from the conversations between the main characters, Henry and Delilah. Thanks to the voice actors’ heartfelt performances, I was thoroughly invested in the interpersonal drama as it unfolded across a simple handheld radio. Additionally, most of these conversations take place without interrupting gameplay, which keeps the story moving at a constant pace.
Now that I have completed this digital walk through the woods, I can confirm that Firewatch was exactly the sort of adventure I needed. The gorgeous visuals and engaging narrative provided a unique experience. The story doesn’t drag or overstay its welcome, which makes a perfect compliment to a sessionable beer like Ranger IPA. I would recommend this combination, especially to those of us who are looking for a worthwhile experience off the beaten path.