SPOILERS for Firewatch.
When I first finished Firewatch, I thought the game’s ending was so anticlimactic that I must have misunderstood it. After all, Firewatch is a product of Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin, the two lead writers on Telltale’s Walking Dead Season 1, which marked a seminal story telling event in modern video game history at its release in 2012. The first 4/5ths of Firewatch admirably reaches the same level of writing quality with a wonderfully melancholic story about a pair of loners coming together in the middle of nowhere while strange events plague their safety and sanity. And then the final fifth of the game arrives with such a lack of apparent fanfare and relevance that it makes me question the point of the preceding four hours of buildup.
What’s especially weird about the ending is that it’s not like your typical incoherent video game story mess. Firewatch does wrap itself up. The lackluster ending is not a product of rushing the plot, abandoning themes, or negating the story’s internal logic. Rather it seemed like Firewatch ended on precisely the controlled, thematically relevant note that Vanaman and Rodkin wanted it to, which makes it all the more disappointing that the ending just doesn’t work. Maybe with certain tweaks to the pacing or presentation the Firewatch narrative could have been wrapped up with a gut punching flourish designed to subvert player expectations, but instead it just feels empty and disappointing.
There are two primary story threads in Firewatch. The first concerns mysterious events occurring in an unnamed Wyoming national park. This cleverly twists the plot along a spectrum of potential horror, sci-fi, and cerebral angles while the two main characters try to figure out what the hell is going on around them. The second major plot-thread focuses on the evolving relationship between Henry and Delilah, both of whom decided to work as firewatch guards in the middle of nowhere as a means of avoiding their enduring problems at home.
Both plot threads are resolved, but in completely anti-climactic ways which left me feeling distant and cheated.
The mysterious events in the park turn out not to be a product of government conspiracies, aliens, or Henry’s insanity, but of Ned Goodwin, a predecessor of Henry who took to hermit life in the woods after his son died while accompanying his father on the job. After Henry spotted Ned in the distance on his second day in the park, Ned launched a campaign to scare Henry and Delilah so they would leave the wilderness to let Ned live in peace.
This revelation is actually a great reinforcement of Firewatch’s themes. Like Henry and Delilah, Ned took to isolation as a means of escaping the consequences of his problems, and also like Henry and Delilah, the isolation took a toll on his mental state. Ultimately Ned is revealed to be a tragic character because instead of addressing his issues, he hides alone in the woods, haunts those who might end his isolation, and in the conclusion of the story he decides to retreat further into the wilderness even after he is discovered. Ned’s actions both mirror and contrast the eventual fate of Henry and Delilah at the end of the game.
As great as all of that is, the disconnect between the expectations built up by the game and the utter mundanity of its reveal completely deflated Firewatch for me. I’m not saying the game would have necessarily benefited from any one of the bombastic answers teased by the clues Henry and Delilah find, only that the long sought after explanation for all of the crazy events of the game was so comparatively uninteresting that it just left me feeling cheated. The thematic relevance of Ned to Henry and Delilah’s arcs was lost on me until well after I had completed the game. Granted, maybe this is my fault as a player, but it should be the goal of a storyteller to unify a narrative’s themes and art, and Firewatch’s twists were so tonally jarring that the developers apparently failed to do so.
It also doesn’t help that despite the culprit being comparatively grounded, explaining away all of the strange events with Ned is a considerable stretch. Ned goes to absurdly elaborate and convoluted lengths to scare Henry and Delilah despite there being little apparent reason to do so. Henry saw Ned as a silhouette in the distance with no means to identify him, and Ned’s hideout was so remote that Henry had no realistic chance of accidentally discovering it. Yet to combat the minuscule chance that he may be found, Ned assaults Henry, vandalizes his property (which seems like a really good way to get caught), pretends to be part of some sort of mind control experiment, and eventually burns the forest down, thereby forcing him to leave his home which he easily could have done on the very first day Henry spotted him to avoid this mess entirely. I suppose the eccentricity of Ned’s operation could be chalked up to his deteriorating mental state, but the simultaneous ineffectiveness and riskiness of his plans seem nonsensical.
The plot thread concerning the relationship between Henry and Delilah mirrors the strengths and weaknesses of the other plot. After spending the entire game getting to know the funny, charming, sexy, magnetic, but off-kilter Delilah, and after possibly establishing some sort of quasi romantic-relationship with her, the player has the option as Henry to invite Delilah to stay with him back home now that their firewatch posts have been destroyed. Delilah refuses the offer and more or less vows to continuously move around the country so she never has to confront her real problems (ie. affection for an ex-boyfriend and intimacy issues). On the other hand, Henry is apparently confident enough in himself after this whole ordeal to return home and deal with his sick wife in some way.
Again, the thematic relevance of this decision is apparent and quite well constructed. Henry and Delilah were both trying to escape their problems at the beginning of the game, but the events of Firewatch pushed Henry to overcome his fears while Delilah apparently surrendered to them, just like Ned. Delilah is presented with a potentially fulfilling relationship with Henry, and is shown the consequences of her bad decisions with Ned’s son’s death being partially her fault (she failed to report the kid’s illegal presence to her superiors). But instead of taking personal responsibility for her actions, Delilah folds under the pressure and commits herself to a nomadic life likely filled with lots of minor romantic dalliances rather than make anything close to a serious commitment. Meanwhile, Henry concludes that his own problems back home are nothing compared to what he potentially faced on the job as a firewatchmen, and that life is much more manageable than he realized. In other words, Henry spent a chunk of the game thinking that he was being tracked by X-Files type government agents and/or going insane, and now his real problems with his sick wife don’t seem like such a big deal.
But as with the other plot thread, the reaction the game evoked in me while I was playing it did not align with its intended themes. Instead of feeling like the grand completion of two character arcs, it felt like a sputtering end to one of the most well-written character relationships I had ever seen in a video game. I loved Delilah as a character. Vanaman and Rodkin did a fantastic job of capturing that rare but realistic personality which induces an undeniable attraction along with a sneaking suspicion that the individual is not to be trusted. We have all met Delilahs at one point or another in our life, both in male and female form. With Delilah and Henry (one of the most sympathetic and thoughtful video game protagonists in years) the writers crafted a stellar character drama that kept me hanging on every word between the two to see what their interactions would lead to and what it would all mean in the end.
Just as with the mysterious events plot thread, I don’t think the game would have necessarily benefited from concluding with its teased implications, which in this case is Henry and Delilah starting some sort of romantic relationship. But with expectations built so high, the end of their relationship felt like another disappointing anti-climax. The player, as Henry, has the option to propose that Delilah follows Henry back to his home in Colorado, but Delilah flippantly refuses and leaves even before Henry has a chance to finally meet her in person. Again, just as with the other plot thread, this more grounded ending could have worked with certain tweaks, but in its current state, it made me feel empty, as if all of the wonderful emotional connections shared between Henry and myself (as the player) throughout the rest of the game had all been for naught.
In his podcasts (this one and this one), Shamus Young suggests that that the Ned twist was supposed to feel like a jarring letdown to the player so he or she can feel a connection to Henry as he undergoes his character arc. Both the player and Henry are taken for a ride as they flirt with a mysterious and charming woman, get harassed by unseen forces, and doubt the very nature of the game-world’s reality, but ultimately both individuals realized things are a lot more simple than they appear.
I agree with Young’s interpretation and I think that’s exactly what the writers were going for. But Firewatch just didn’t get that through to me while I was playing. Apparently it got through to Young, but with both major plot threads, I felt such a massive disconnect between the story’s potential and its actual events that the thematic implications were initially lost on me. After thinking about the game more and reading some opinions on it, I’ve come to appreciate what Vanaman and Rodkin tried to do, but I think they ultimately failed to effectively bring the themes and plot together in the final product. It was a miscalculation on their part to think the thematic resonance of the ending would shine through the purposeful let down of the game’s plot.