It’s rare to see an independent game that has been as highly awaited as Firewatch. The title, from developer Campo Santo, was released last week after months upon months of anticipation. First gaining the admiration of audiences back in 2014, the release of a gameplay trailer last year further intensified the hype surrounding the project.
When Firewatch saw release last week, it seemed for many that the anticipation was justified. The game has won huge plaudits for its storytelling, providing an intense and intriguing experience for those who have played it. A polished and powerful game, Firewatch was immediately seen by many as an example of video game storytelling done right.
The game has not been without criticism, though, and one of the widely circulated complaints regards the game’s ending. Some have stated that the finale of Firewatch is a damp squib in comparison to the mystery that came before it, bringing the user’s urgency to a halt. However, what some may see as a weak point may well be part of what makes Firewatch so special, fitting with the game’s themes perfectly.
A quick warning to the reader is needed at this point. Although spoilers will be kept to a minimum wherever possible, the game’s story and ending will be discussed within the article. With that out of the way, let’s talk a little more about why the game’s conclusion works incredibly well with the events that preceded it.
At its core, Firewatch acts as a narrative-focused mystery, from a team that had previously worked on Telltale’s The Walking Dead. The player is placed into the role of a forty year-old man who takes a summer job watching out for forest fires in a national park in Wyoming. However, along the way, a series of strange events will lead the player to suspect that things are not as they seem, from missing teenagers, to break-ins, and even physical assaults.
Throughout the game, the player character gets the sense that there is an ever-unravelling conspiracy against them. The player discovers that their radio calls are being monitored, and finds a camp full of high-tech equipment alongside more strange evidence that all is not as it seems. It’s a tense and suspenseful experience, as our review mentions, with the player not even trusting their only positive point of contact in the game, another guardian by the name of Delilah.
In the end, however, Firewatch takes a much more introspective and personal turn, with the entire mystery instead revolving around a tragic event that happened with a previous lookout and their family. There is no overarching conspiracy to be discovered, only the desperate attempts of a father to cover up the darkest moment of his past. Henry, the player character, could have been anyone; his role in the matter ends up being inconsequential.
As such, some players have found themselves disappointed in how the game ends, particularly with so little chance to change matters. However, this bittersweet pill ties in with some of the game’s themes, mainly issues of responsibility and permanency. In short, Campo Santo has made a game that is much more than just its direct plot line.
Firewatch is about one fleeting summer in the life of Henry. The man has faced tragedy and hardship, with his wife suffering from a form of Alzheimer’s, and takes this job as a means to escape, trying to find some time away from the problems of his life whilst his wife is in care. He is a man on the brink of an emotional breakdown, seeing this as a chance to find some kind of inner peace.
Of course, what Henry finds is anything but peaceful. However, there are moments where the character feels like they have found a way to become whole, experiencing the solace of the countryside and striking up a dialogue-only relationship with Delilah, who was artfully played by Cissy Jones. Henry’s overburdened responsibilities have been taken away, if only for a brief moment, and the player can choose how to respond to this freedom through a multitude of minor actions – and, of course, through how they respond to Delilah.
By the end of the game, however, it become apparent that no matter how Henry chooses to act, the summer will still end. Regardless of how the player treats Delilah, there is a sense that Henry will never hear from her again, whilst he will once more return to trying to care for his wife. The woods are overcome by fire, with Henry being given a chance to save what he can carry from simply becoming ash and memories of a summer gone.
Henry can uncover notes, pick up items, and keep them for himself, but aside from this and the solution of Firewatch’s mystery, the player has very little control over proceedings. No matter what the player does, it is too late to affect the outcome of the tragedy that drives the plot. The only life that can potentially be saved is that of a turtle, which Henry can pick up to keep as a pet early on in his summer, and once more take with him when it comes time to leave the Wyoming wilderness for good.
Henry’s relationship with Delilah is not up for discussion, either. Delilah will not join Henry, and Henry will not abandon his wife, no matter which way the player wants to play it. Instead, the player is granted the chance to play through exactly the same summer again, with different dialogue options resulting in different interactions. However, none will be able to affect the permanent makeup of this relationship, meaning that it is unlikely to be joining the list of gaming’s greatest couples.
By doing this, Firewatch plays with the player’s misconception of their importance. Throughout the game, the player gets the sense that something awful is about to happen. Personally, I took my turtle pet (which I obviously named Turt Reynolds) with me whenever out exploring Shoshone National Forest, dreading the possibility of something happening to my lookout tower whilst I was gone.
This makes each and every moment of Firewatch extremely important to the player. Every tidbit of information, every item to pick up, and every conversation to have, feels vital to Henry’s wellbeing. But in the end, one way or the other, the summer will finish, granting a permanency to the proceedings.
At the end of the day, the player is not as integral to the backstory of Firewatch as they may originally think. Henry is not the center of this story, and neither is Delilah, although her laissez-faire attitude is potentially one of the reasons why the aforementioned tragedy happened in the first place. All characters are passengers, reactive to events beyond their control.
As the credits roll, and the player’s photographs descend down the screen (which of course can be printed off in real life), one thing becomes apparent: there are no faces to put to names, and no real relationships made. All Henry has of his summer away is a mystery uncovered, and perhaps the solace that the remains of a missing person will be returned to someone who loved them. This grim finality, and the sense of realism that comes with it, is what makes Firewatch such a powerful narrative to experience.