Script after the cut.
Released in February of this year, Firewatch tells the story of Henry, a schlubby guy in his early 40’s who has taken up a post as a fire lookout after his wife has taken ill with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Once at his post he meets another fire lookout over the radio, Delilah, whose own lookout tower is only a few miles away. Over the summer they begin to get close (despite the physical distance between them) until they find a notepad containing transcripts of their intimate conversations. From there the game turns into something of a paranoia-laced thriller as the two try to figure out who is listening and why.
That Campo Santo decided to make Firewatch’s protagonist a 40-something year old with 40-something-year-old problems is one of the more remarkable things about the game. There aren’t a lot of games about getting older, or about what it means to be middle aged or approaching middle age. Part of that is a demographics thing – games are a young medium with young developers telling stories to often even younger players. Part of it is that it’s hard to tell nuanced stories about the subtle losses that come with aging in any medium, let alone in games which struggle so mightily to be about anything other than the physical. And part of that is just trying to figure out how to make games about a non-flashy and kind of depressing subject matter commercially viable. It’s just a hard subject for games to tackle. So the fact that Firewatch manages to achieve what it does with those ideas is pretty amazing.
But you wouldn’t know it to look at a lot of the response to the game. This is anecdotal on my part, but among a lot of my non-critic friends the general reaction to Firewatch is that it was really good… until the ending, and then it wasn’t. The reason for this, I think, is that the game set itself up a series of Checkov’s Guns and then refuses to fire them, and by most measures that’s bad storytelling. Just about every story the game implies it’s telling you just sort of… fizzles out instead. The girls in the woods that go missing and that Henry was the last to see alive? They’re found on a farm perfectly fine. Nothin’ to worry about, nothing to see here. That top secret research facility that was tracking your movements? It was a local botanist’s soil experiment. The whirlwind long distance romance between Delilah and Henry? She leaves the forest during the fire, and despite finally arriving at her tower Henry never even meets her. There’s a point about halfway through the game where you’re juggling worries about being wanted by the police for two dead girls, this secret military base spying on you, an interloper on the radio, and a blossoming summer love affair, and the resolution to all of them is “And then the problem went away and nothing happened.” And it’s easy to see how that unsatisfying ending leaves a sour taste in a lot of people’s mouths even if they loved all of the stuff that came before. I mean, imagine if halfway through Fellowship of the Ring Gandalf was suddenly like, “Oh, you know what? This isn’t the One Ring at all. That’s a completely different ring. My bad!”
But all of that disappointment is also kind of the point of the game. At some level Firewatch is a critique of escapism as a coping mechanism. Henry runs into the mountains to avoid confronting the reality of his wife’s condition and some of the ways he may have screwed up in responding to that situation. He doesn’t go out there to move on – she isn’t dead, and he’s still married to her. He doesn’t go out there to find himself, either. He goes out there to run away from reality for a little bit, to hide for a few months in a place he doesn’t feel as guilty and isn’t reminded of his wife’s absence every day. And the whole game is about how that decision to run away – and every decision afterwards that pushes him further and further from confronting his situation – is the wrong one.
This is perhaps made most clear with Ned, who is set up to be something of a dark analog to Henry. Like Henry, Ned suffered a family trauma when his son died in the park. And, like Henry, Ned rejected reality and retreated further into the park to avoid coming face to face with the consequences of what had happened – not just his son’s death, but the fact that he’s somewhat responsible for his son’s death. And in the process became something of a dangerous loner, listening in on other people’s conversations, hiding in a cave, and threatening people. He’s the closest thing the game has to an antagonist, and he got there by taking Henry’s refusal to face reality to its logical extreme. Henry can even end up defending Ned to Delilah in phrasing that could easily be mistaken for his own situation. Henry was supposed to look after Julia but failed. Like Ned, he also hasn’t figured things out, and like Ned, he doesn’t want to forget. So he also hides in the mountains.
So what does all of that have to do with bad non-endings? Well, the game’s about how we deal with them. Bad endings, I mean. That’s part of why the game had to be about a forty year old guy and not a kid or young lover. At twenty or even maybe thirty you may have broken someone’s heart but you haven’t committed yourself to someone for years and made decisions that impact their life and reverberate through decades. That someone could be a partner or a child or someone else, but by middle age you’ve been able to watch your mistakes with them unfold with time. Not even mistakes, necessarily, but decisions: Less “I cheated on you with someone else” and more “You wanted to move to the other side of the country and I didn’t want to so I asked you give up your career for me” or “You really wanted kids but I kind of didn’t so I kept putting off the conversation entirely and now maybe it’s too late.” Or even “They say I shouldn’t take my kid out on this job but I’m sure it’ll be fine.” The sort of shitty, small compromises you make every day and the bigger choices that you carry with you for years that whether you want them to or not come to define who you are. The boring but important stuff that makes you a good partner, a good parent, a good son or daughter.
Ned watched his son die because he was irresponsible and pushed him to do something he didn’t really want to do, and his guilt consumed him. Henry has done some crappy things to Julia, and now that their marriage has fundamentally changed he doesn’t want to own up to them. Getting older means watching people you care deeply about begin to slip away one way or another, and often enough not in clean, happy ways. Sometimes it’s by death, sometimes it’s alzheimer’s, sometimes it’s just parting on kinda crappy terms. And when they leave us they do so in the way Firewatch ends its stories – not with a smashing, satisfying climax but mundanely, quietly, and often tragically. The question is, when things don’t end the way you want them to, what are you going to do? When you can’t make it right anymore, when you realize the pushed off decisions and bad choices can’t be fixed, how do control your guilt? This is why the fires are a recurring metaphor, which is hinted at by the “containment” language Delilah uses at the end of the game. Firewatch is about people who go out into the woods looking for damage that needs containing in an effort to avoid containing their own damage. How’s that for irony? Really, Firewatch is about how we live – how we cope – with unhappy endings.
So I get that people don’t like the ending of the game because it violates storytelling convention and pulls the rug out from anyone that thought it was really about to become a conspiracy thriller. At first blush the game’s story is basically a three hour version of “One time, I was in the forest, and I thought I was in trouble, but then it turned out I wasn’t.” It’s only when those unfired Checkov’s guns are viewed in the greater context of the themes that they make sense; that the disillusionment with the fantasy is intentional and not just poor storytelling.
Really, storytelling is one of the most interesting things about Firewatch. To tell Henry’s tale it borrows ideas from so many different places that all once felt experimental, and here makes them feel quite natural. For example, Firewatch mirrors the lonely nature walks of Dear Esther. The quiet interludes between dialogs let you focus on what had been said, and both Dear Esther and Firewatch use the technique to emphasize the desolation both feel about their broken relationships. Meanwhile Proteus and Firewatch both have a keen interest in selling nature as a place that’s awe inspiring and yet isolating. The opening of the game pulls from Twine and other hypertexts, providing its exposition via a short interactive story bit. It’s a wonderful trick, because it encourages you to envision Julia and Henry’s marriage as something you have a bit of ownership in – it’s not just exposition that gets dumped on you, it’s exposition you build. You decide how Henry first introduces himself, you decide what to name your dog, and you decide how he deals with Julia’s job offer. It gives you a stake in their relationship, and it does so with minimal cost to the developer and minimal time on the part of the player – it’s over before the title drops. It’s effective enough that I wonder why more RPGs with set characters don’t do something like it. Firewatch also takes notes from Gone Home’s environmental storytelling, using baubles and personal effects to sell a character’s mood or non-verbally provide exposition that goes as deep as the player wishes to probe. But it’s also in this confluence of approaches that I think there might be some unexpected tension in the way the game is framed – not necessarily in a way that hurts the work overall, but one that flips the player’s mindset when playing back and forth in a way that’s jarring.
First, Firewatch leans hard on environmental storytelling. It’s used in a lot of the post-intro exposition delivery. Whether it’s Ned’s secret hideout, or the Wapiti research facility, or even just Henry’s lookout post, the game wants to use objects scattered around the environment to establish what either the player or Henry don’t experience directly. That is: Henry and the player can infer Ned’s story from his home, while the player can infer a lot of what’s going on with Henry by poking around his lookout tower as the game progresses. Firewatch asks players to walk around and absorb as many details as they can, because that’s how the game is communicating itself to you. The story isn’t told so much as it is inferred from environmental cues.
The game’s environment is also important in a more literal way – Firewatch also wants to sell you on the whole forest thing. It offers some carrots for exploration, like maps and a side-story told through notes and an optional pet turtle. But more than active exploration the forest map is used to sell the physicality of the space you find yourself in – the distance between destinations, the paths you have to walk, the vistas you see. These long corridors between points of interest don’t have as much going on from a “look at all the details and infer a story” approach, but are instead important by nature of being space that has to be traversed and learned. You map them in your head as Henry charts them out on paper. You calmly hike preset routes at the beginning of the game, and by the end find yourself figuring out the fastest routes across the map. The scope and shape of the forest are used to convey isolation through quiet walks alone, intimacy by sharing a fire across several miles of space, and alien spaces by placing Wapiti Meadow’s secret facility as far away from the player’s base as possible. Between pushing environmental stories through found objects and walks through corridors that emphasize tone and distance and geography, the player’s constantly getting one clear message – space and time matter.
But that relationship between player-character and their environment is undercut by another storytelling approach: jump cuts! There’s a sort of unspoken tension between those two approaches, I think. Like I said in my video on Blendo’s stuff, I love the idea of experimenting with real-time editing and producing a game that has a snappy pacing or a juxtaposition of images to sell its meaning. But these jump cuts aren’t there to juxtapose scenes – a few seconds of loading between each day prevents that from really happening. And I can’t say they’re there to control pacing, exactly, because so much of the rest of the game encourages you to get lost or take your time. They’re there yadda yadda yadda over bits of the summer the game doesn’t consider interesting, but in doing so they remove the sense that time and space matter and instead put the focus squarely on written narrative. And you can see this happening as you play the game – the wandering parts of the game are all about what’s happening in the forest – Go stop those girls from starting a fir! What’s happening at Wapiti Station? Get back to your tower there’s someone there! But the highly edited parts of the game stick around just long enough for the conversations they deliver and then they abruptly end. You can’t wander around in the deep red of the sunset the evening you find out the girls go missing, even though taking pictures of the natural beauty of the forest is something the game encourages you to do. You may want to go back for the pet Turtle on day two but if report on the note left by the teenagers first then the game will proceed to cut without warning. And it’s a jarring shift that occurs without warning – the game goes from environmental to scripted and edited with little warning. It makes the day indicators dramatic, but it also makes the core design feel a bit conflicted – is this a game about space and environment or a game about writing? Not that a game can’t be about both, but this game refuses to be about both at the same time. And again, that doesn’t make either part bad – I love sitting on my balcony looking out at the June Fire while talking to Delilah and focusing on their relationship just as much as I love the long quiet hikes that put me in Henry’s headspace. It just means the game bumpily transitions between approaches while trying to tell Henry’s story
But even if this convergence of different storytelling techniques don’t always gel, it’s really neat to see a game combine them. It’s something of a Rosetta stone for the past few years of experiments in game storytelling. Less maybe graffiti on walls as a means of exposition delivery. No, wait, no, it’s got that too. It doesn’t break new ground, but it sells its story in ways both recent and old – modern unbroken first person narratives go back to at least Half-Life, and the hypertexts that inspired Twine go back decades. The point is, Firewatch is an effective parable about aging, responsibility, and loss, and it’s told with just about every trick in the book in a way that lands more often than not.