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Reading the end of Firewatch

Reviews that complain about the ending of Firewatch have misunderstood what the story is about -- though the midgame does contribute to that misreading.

Emily Short, Blogger

February 18, 2016

16 Min Read

This article originally appeared at Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling, and is reprinted with only minor edits.

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Firewatch is a new narrative-and-exploration game from Campo Santo, put together by a skilled crew including Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin, writers on season one of Telltale’s The Walking Dead.

It took me about five hours to play; people who are more efficient or look at fewer scenery objects might make it through in four. It is effectively a short story, with a single emotional arc and minimal branching. I’ve seen people comparing it to Gone Home, but more happens in the present setting of the game; I also found a few moments that reminded me of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, but it is ultimately a very different game from that as well.

Firewatch tells the story of Henry, a guy whose wife Julia is suffering from early-onset dementia. Henry isn’t really equipped to handle that fact. He volunteers for a position watching for fires all summer in Shoshone National Forest. His main – and for a long time really his only – point of contact with other people is through his radio, which allows him to communicate with his supervisor Delilah. He lives in one tower in the woods and Delilah lives in another, far away; Delilah manages other lookouts, but we never communicate with them. Over the course of the summer, Henry spends a lot of time hiking the woods to various spots to do errands at Delilah’s instruction. Gradually, they begin to realize that there are more people out here than they knew about, and that someone is watching Henry and Delilah specifically. There are also, here and there, notes from rangers who used to watch these woods but who have now gone on to other work elsewhere, and hints of the hikers who passed through these woods before.

The game sets up Henry’s backstory through a piece of choice-based text, a passage that could quite plausibly have been prototyped in Twine, interspersed with scenes of his arrival in the woods. The hypertext portion gives you a chance to do a little immediate personalization of Henry. I don’t have the impression your choices there pay into any major story changes, but they do lightly tweak what Henry will say about himself later, and a few props he has. We see the effects of this more or less right away in the game world, in that we pick one of two ways that Julia might have sketched Henry, and then shortly afterwards see the sketch itself: an early promise from the game that there will be perceivable consequences for your choices.

This is a daring move. It’s daring using hypertext as the intro to what is mostly a graphical game. It’s also daring because it introduces the protagonist in a less than flattering way. Even before Julia’s dementia sets in, he tends to drink a lot, to be a bit crass, to get pointlessly jealous of his wife when she goes out at night. Depending on your choices, he may stall his wife indefinitely on having kids until it’s too late for her to have them, rather than just saying outright that he’s not interested: this is a deeply, deeply jerky thing to do to someone. When Julia is offered a job at Yale, he doesn’t want to move, for no reason that’s really explained in the text. Throughout these passages I had the sense of Julia being too good for him – smarter, stronger, and more mature, a competent professional woman held back first by her husband and then by the brutally unfair onset of disease.

In retrospect, I think we need to consider point of view. This text is Henry’s inner monologue, and he’s feeling guilty about how he’s not able to care for Julia any more, so his version of their history may be shame-colored in retrospect. And some, if not all, of his bad decisions were made in a context where there really was no possibility of agood option. To send Julia to a nursing home feels cold and distancing, but he doesn’t have the resources to take care of her well himself.

I didn’t arrive at that level of charity towards Henry until quite a bit later in the story, though, and after replaying the opening to see the alternate branches. On my first playthrough, I mostly thought, who is this jerk? Which is an unusual place from which to start a video game. Henry is not a blank slate, not an innocent receiving the call to adventure, not an established hero, and not a powerful antihero either. He is a person composed more of weaknesses than of strengths, and one who has routinely avoided taking responsibility up to this point. In a medium often focused on making choices, he’s made a bunch of wrong ones, or avoided making choices at all, instead drifting along the path of least resistance. I felt I might dislike him if I met him in real life.

Henry needs to get his head straight, and so he’s spending some time alone in the great outdoors. A lot of what follows is a lovely man-vs-nature story, or perhaps a man-and-nature romance, told via the interaction. You’re not on the verge of starving or freezing to death at any point in the story, but navigating the terrain. Sometimes you get a little lost. You have a map, and it even auto-marks where you are on that map. Nonetheless, sometimes paths through the brush are confusing, or you need a rope to get past a particular steep rock face. Just occasionally I found myself exasperated that my path was being strategically blocked by a fairly wimpy bush – a variant of the old “oh come on, my able-bodied, fully-grown protagonist can’t get over that knee-high boulder?” problem common to video games for a long time. For the most part, though, you’re learning the space, becoming familiar with wilderness until it doesn’t really feel like wilderness any more.

It’s worth learning. That landscape is rendered with care and attention, and changes over the course of the summer. We see the forest at sunset and at dawn and in full daylight, under the stars and beneath an enormous moon. We see cold dawn fog early in our stay. Later, there is fine reddish dust in the air. Cottonwood puffs fall from the trees. The haze and the quality of the light are so effective at calling up summer in the mountains that they made me feel thirsty while I played. Even the rocks are beautiful and evocative of a particular time and place.

None of this feels like gratuitous decoration. On the contrary, part of the meat of the game is simply the experience of being in this space, enjoying the tranquility or fearing the isolation, and also being to some degree responsible for the woods. You are, after all, there to watch for fires, and one of the first missions you undertake is to try to deal with a situation caused by reckless teenage campers who might set things ablaze if they are not more careful.

As I played, I kept thinking of Jacqueline Lott’s all-text game The Fire Tower (2004, parser IF; playable online). Aside from the obvious similarity of the names and destinations, The Fire Tower is also a love letter to a particular landscape, in this case a Great Smoky Mountains National Park trail that the author knows very well. It was written for the IF Art Show, a competition that focused on depth of implementation, and consequently it’s very lavishly implemented. As you explore the trail you can stop to smell flowers or listen to distant birds, dip your feet in the creek or head up a spur to catch an outlook view.

The Fire Tower is also the story of someone competent and experienced. The protagonist is expertly outfitted for her hike, she knows the ground she’s covering very well, and she is prepared to deal with most eventualities. Since the author was at the time a park service ranger, this is perhaps not surprising.

That comparison threw into high relief what I think I would already have noticed about Firewatch: Henry and Delilah are really bad at their jobs. They take foolish risks. They don’t follow established protocols about what to report in. They endanger themselves and others, and they interact with the public in a highly unprofessional way. Delilah has her own history of bad decision-making. As she and Henry talk and flirt their way through the summer, we find that they’re well-matched in their flaws. Delilah also drinks too much; she has also lost relationships by not showing up when needed; she also lies in order to avoid conflicts or extra effort.

In the mid-game, some strange things start to happen. At this point, it’s hard to tell what genre of story we’re even in: is it a personal, psychological tale, or is it something with thriller or supernatural elements? Clumsy and unheroic as Henry and Delilah may be, we don’t actually want to see them killed, and the suspense ratchets up.

Several of the Firewatch reviews I have read complain about the ending, in some cases saying that it doesn’t live up to promises made in the midgame. I tend to be peevish about games that offer a bunch of buildup and then don’t follow through, so after I saw these I was a bit apprehensive. But in fact, I quite liked the ending of Firewatch, and I’d like to discuss my thoughts in some detail. I think it is ultimately very coherent on the level of theme (perhaps even over-obvious about it, by literary standards), and that if there are missteps, they’re in the midgame rather than the endgame.

Inevitably, this is going to be hugely spoilery from here on. 

In the midgame, Henry and Delilah discover that someone else is out in the forest. Someone trashes Henry’s living space in the tower, and also ruins a campground where some teenage girls have been staying. Someone hits Henry over the back of the head at one point, knocking him out, and that person also has transcripts of the radio conversations he’s been having with Delilah all this time. There is also evidence of people having gone missing in the forest; we find a missing persons report, and some possessions that belonged to a kid named Brian Goodwin who was in the forest three years back. Then the teenage girls turn out to be missing as well, and Delilah has filed an untrue report about your interactions with them, because she didn’t want to bother answering any police questions.

Then Henry finds a fenced-off compound, Wapiti Station, with scientific equipment and what appear to be further notes, as well as some incongruous elements. There’s a soil grid, a bunch of wireless reception equipment, some tracking devices… but judging by the notes he finds, it appears that there is whole scientific base currently devoted to the purpose of surveilling him and Delilah. This is very weird – a point that isn’t lost on Henry – but the physical evidence is there.

We find more and more of Brian Goodwin’s stuff. We learn that the teenagers aren’t missing after all: they committed a petty crime and got arrested, but they are not dead and are not in the forest any longer. So Delilah is off the hook for misreporting what happened with them in the woods.

Then eventually a truth emerges: Brian Goodwin wasn’t murdered; he simply fell to his death during a caving adventure. Rather than report the death and deal with it, his father went into hiding. Ned Goodwin has been living in the forest this whole time, and is the person who has been messing with you and Delilah. Wapiti Station is usually used for other purposes, such as whatever the soil grid is for. Ned just planted a few props there to make you think that it was being used against you, trying to scare you out of the woods. Which is neatly symmetrical, given the way you tried to scare off the teenagers earlier in the game.

At this point, Delilah is overcome with guilt that she didn’t report Brian Goodwin’s unauthorized presence in the forest years ago when she had the opportunity. If she’d done so, he’d still be alive. And meanwhile, a fire at the research station has grown out of control and the whole forest is ablaze. There is nothing more you can do except be airlifted out by helicopter.

You spend your last time in the forest trudging through an apocalyptic landscape full of smoke and blowing cinders. There’s a portion of the ending where you’re just walking north to your rendezvous point, walking for quite a long time in this smoky space, with music playing. This is a powerful emotional beat. In fact it reminded me of the last episode of The Walking Dead S1, when Lee has been bitten by zombies and knows he’s a goner, and has a scene where he’s walking through the crowd suddenly no longer afraid or cautious the way he used to be. There’s a sense of elevation, of freedom. The worst possible outcome has arrived, and because it’s here, there is nothing left to fear.

Finally, you arrive at the tower where Delilah has been stationed, and see her space: the bottle of tequila that she was always drinking; a stolen signpost from elsewhere in the forest that pays off some dialogue from much earlier; a sketch she made of you according to what you told her about yourself. Delilah herself is already gone, but you have a last radio conversation with her, one in which the two of you agree each to decide for the other what they should do next.

You have several options for what you say Delilah should do next, but she tells you that you should go back and see Julia. Whether you want a relationship with Delilah or not (and she has been hinting in that direction earlier in the game), she now encourages you to meet your responsibilities towards your wife. Soon the helicopter comes for you as well. Roll credits.

So here are some of the specific complaints I have seen:

Firewatch casts aside Delilah and Henry’s relationship, holding it at arm’s length in favor of a barely-holds-water mystery. It’s a bit like trying to have a heart-to-heart conversation about philosophy and love and middle-aged crises while Scooby Doo yammers in the background. – (PC World)

Or here:

There are so many problems with the final reveal that we barely know where to start. Although the fact that it makes no sense whatsoever is a good as place as any, as it completely contradicts discoveries earlier in the game. Or there’s the fact that a major subplot is hand-waved away in a line of dialogue right at the end, rendering a whole third of the game essentially irrelevant. – (Metro)

These complaints feel to me like they’re completely missing the point of the story; though I would say that they’re missing the point partly because of some feints Firewatch makes in the midgame. So the fault is shared.

But thematically, the mystery is not pasted on, and the teenagers (the “third of the game” rendered “essentially irrelevant” according to Metro) play an important part as well. In fact Delilah explicitly spells out the themes for you in some endgame dialogue, to a degree that I would consider Too Much if I encountered the same dialogue in a novel. Ned Goodwin is a bad father (she says): he didn’t step up and deal with his responsibilities to his son. Delilah herself didn’t do what she should have done in terms of reporting that Brian was in the woods to start with. She says that when you care about someone, you are supposed to figure out how to take care of them, even if it’s tough to do so: a clear reference to your relationship to Julia, and perhaps to the way that she herself let down her ex-boyfriend.

Meanwhile, the forest that you were supposed to care for is burning down around you, thanks to the carelessness or self-serving impulses of various characters. That too might have been avoided if Brian hadn’t died, if Ned hadn’t gone into hiding, if you and Delilah had been more open with the authorities instead of trying to cover your own tracks in various ways. You and Delilah are in your way not all that different from the drunk teenagers you had to deal with at the beginning.

So. This is not primarily a story about your romance with Delilah. Delilah is a counterpoint for Henry, suffering from the same decision-making, responsibility-taking problems. The best you can do for each other at the end is direct one another to do the right thing, if it’s too hard for you to direct yourselves. To my mind, that’s a more interesting and poignant outcome than some implied hookup would have been, and one that suggests a genuine intimacy between the characters.

Firewatch is also not primarily a story about a mysterious scientific station in the woods. These Lost-like moments, the reports on your personality and the fancy equipment, are a fake-out, as the horror stuff is in Gone Home. Ned Goodwin is gaslighting the protagonists, and the devs are sort of gaslighting the players, pretending in the midgame that this game is about something it’s not. The Ned and Brian arc belongs here thematically, but the science station is not a necessary feature.

I can see some reasons why it might be there. Maybe it seemed like the midgame needed more suspense to keep people going (though I bet one could have built suspense also just by focusing more on the Brian-and-Ned story and the loss of the teenagers). The science station also lets us find a new direction-finding gadget halfway through, which introduces a new interaction style and helps keep all this woods-wandering gameplay fresh.

Still, though, overall I think it might have been a mistake. The core of the game is elsewhere, in your interactions with the landscape, in your conversations with Delilah, in your more distant exchanges with the teenagers and Ned Goodwin and the far-away Julia. I would rather have seen more game time spent on those topics. Wapiti Station is a distraction, and it seems to have made some players think that the point of Firewatch was going to be a reveal of the terrible truth about what is really going on. Many games do work that way, after all.

The ending we actually get is more unusual, more mature, and more interesting, in my opinion, assuming we’re able to see what we’re looking at. It’s an ending that doesn’t really let Henry off the hook, or Delilah either. You screwed up. You’re responsible. And now you need to grow up and go do the scary and painful things that are your job.

Disclosure: I played a copy of Firewatch that I bought with my own money.

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