How Firewatch reminded me to remember

March 2, 2016 by Jefferson Geiger

For Jefferson Geiger, Firewatch had a special personal significance.

Though I lived just 40 minutes south of the Colorado-Wyoming border for four years, I’ve never visited my northern neighbor. Yet six years ago, my brother and I spent the night in Firewatch’s Two Forks lookout tower. It was green, had no electricity and many more stairs, but it was Henry’s tower. Jon cooked eggs for breakfast on that stove. We taught ourselves backgammon from a box left on that shelf in the corner. Our tired bodies shared that bed. Olly Moss and Jane Ng’s attention to detail makes it possible for the digital tower to supersede my memories of the analog one.

The weekend getaway was a graduation gift from one of Jon’s professors at University of Colorado. Since I’d just graduated from high school, Jon thought the trip would be perfect to celebrate the next chapters in our lives. After being on the road for what felt like days, we reached the Jersey Jim lookout tower in the San Juan National Forest. Lugging the food, water and other supplies up 70 steps left us breathless, but the tower’s height made the unobstructed view of the Rockies even more magnificent. It was impossible to not gape at the 360 degree view of aspens. Nothing else was there except us and one of the largest organisms on the planet, miles away from anything.

After we watched a movie on his laptop Jon stood out on the deck. He urged me to join him to look at the stars and the moon. Instead I cocooned myself further into my sleeping bag.

“They’re just stars,” I mumbled to myself.

I could see them perfectly fine from inside the cabin, so I kept reading a paperback whose title I can no longer recall.

At the time I didn’t understand what he was so infatuated with. The stars in this part of Colorado are the same stars in any other part of the state, I thought to myself. However, I saw the heavenly bodies frequently and effortlessly because I live in the middle of nowhere. The light pollution in Boulder meant he rarely saw the Milky Way cut across the sky. I took it all for granted. 

***

Early on in Firewatch Henry finds a disposable camera. The player can use this camera to take 18 photos of flora and fauna in the Shoshone National Forest. Campo Santo, the game’s designers, will then develop the photos and mail them to any person who wants their memories made physical. It’s a smart way to always own a memento of a summer job that you didn’t really have.

I would like to hang these reproductions of the Wyoming wilderness next to my own photos of the Jersey Jim tower, but I can’t. For some reason, I didn’t bring my camera or open a single photography app on my smartphone. I’m fortunate that the trip wasn’t so long ago that I’ve forgotten it ever existed, yet that won’t always be the case. The only options I now have left to trigger my recollection are to peruse other people’s photos online or replay Firewatch for a surreal sense of digital deja vu.

***

Two years after that fire watchtower vacation my grandmother died from Alzheimer's. One day when she was still alive, my grandparents  had breakfast in their small cottage in Lancaster. “Today’s my birthday,” he said, breaking the silence. She responded in a deadpan tone, “That’s nice.” That’s when my family and I knew it was too late. However, like Henry, my grandfather stayed in denial about his wife until the very end.

Being the writer of my family, I was expected to say some words on behalf of the grandchildren at the funeral. This proved to be challenging, because most memories I have of my grandmother are from before I was ten, so it’s all a blurry mess. Jon, who is more experienced with clay and wood than with words, spoke instead. Guilt knotted my chest. Random people whom I never met until that day had more to say about her than me, her own kin. As Jon walked up and stood behind the podium, I stared down at my brown leather shoes to hide my emotions. His rushed and poorly-delivered speech, written on a napkin filled with mixed metaphors and bad grammar, was better than anything I could have ever said. Tears darkened the shoes  and I was glad that they didn’t stand out in a funeral home. Throughout Jon’s eulogy, I kept swearing under my breath, “I don’t remember. I don’t remember.” I was angry at my uselessness.

It turns out that Alzheimer’s may be hereditary. I could possibly have the malfunctioning gene that leads to memory loss. There are things that I can do to help mitigate the issue, like eating healthy brain foods such as fish and blueberries, and doing a lot of mental and physical exercise, but nothing is one hundred percent certain. Even the gene isn’t always a direct cause. The fear is probably irrational, but it has rooted itself in the dark corners of my mind, and I can’t shake it.

I’m afraid of forgetting that weekend at the tower and others like it. I’m terrified of the looming oblivion.

***

Though Henry’s camera can only take 18 pictures, there are ways to cheat the game. Anytime I wished to see a subject at a different angle I would take a screenshot rather than waste film. If I want more than just those handful of photos, I can load up a new save file, find the camera again, and keep the shutter clicking until I’m satisfied.

But real life doesn’t provide that luxury. Sure, I could rent out the watchtower again, but Jon is two time zones away, and it wouldn’t be the same. I need to be more mindful of my surroundings. I’m not going to live the rest of my life through a viewfinder, but I won’t be a passive observer who looks but doesn’t see. “Well,” Delilah radioed to Henry, “take a picture if you’re so keen to remember it.” Thank you for that reminder, Firewatch. I don’t want my past to disintegrate into ash.

I see the stars now, Jon. Every night. And I hope I never forget them.

Jefferson Geiger is a journalist and critic from Colorado. Along with ZAM, his work can be found at GameSpot, Memory Insufficient and Haywire Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @geigerjd or at his website.