No matter your opinion of the overall game, Firewatch undoubtedly taps into a visceral part of the human psyche. Its story is far from clichéd, which is a good first step in telling a masterful tale. My review of Firewatch, as well as Nick Calandra and my YouTube ending discussion, highlight many of the faults within the gameplay and story alike. Nevertheless, it’s still worth discussing the hidden gems and disappointing plot points found within Firewatch; most notably the stellar dialogue between Henry and Delilah, all over a handheld walkie-talkie. The conversation amongst these two characters is the bulk of the game’s mercurial narration. Taking into account the lackluster gameplay, the dialogue serves as the majority of Firewatch’s appeal as well. I must warn that spoilers follow as we analyze the plot and narration of Camp Santo’s indie adventure title, Firewatch.
Read our previous Narrative Analysis article here, covering Oxenfree.
Firewatch starts off with Henry’s personal life trials as a prelude to the main story. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, and meets a woman named Julia. Henry, a bar-hopper and seemingly lost soul, starts a love affair with Julia, who quickly becomes the center of his life. As the player, you start off by making rather inconsequential decisions concerning Henry and Julia’s relationship. The initial story is presented in a choose-which-side manner: either this or that. Right from the start, Firewatch feels like a game that will require heartfelt, weighted decisions on your part. Everything seems perfect, but trouble quickly interlopes upon paradise. Amid onscreen narrative that illustrates Julia’s ever-declining health into dementia, you trek through various paths in a forest–giving you a taste for what is to come. These sporadic, short adventures in the woods seem to analogize Henry’s adrift mind; whenever you have a hard decision to make, an outdoor trip, breathing in the open forest air without any obvious destination, always clears the mind. It may also allude to Henry trying to escape his problems. And in the end, he indeed decides to flee his problems by becoming a firewatch lookout in the Wyoming wilderness.
When Henry’s secluded job as a firewatch lookout begins, two – possibly three – concurrent storylines manifest to varying degrees. You’re given a walkie-talkie in order to stay in communication with your boss, Delilah. Nearly everywhere you go and throughout the entire journey, Delilah is present via the radio. Delilah and Henry’s blooming relationship is by far the most intriguing of the Firewatch storylines. The job begins by completing menial tasks assigned by Delilah. These tasks run parallel to the other two storylines as Henry starts to uncover a mystery concerning both him and Delilah. However, let’s first focus on analyzing the narration of these two characters.
Though at first Delilah and Henry seem to have rather opposing personalities, similarities become apparent as the game progresses: they’re both trying to elude their past, including a trend of messy relationships. Delilah remarks early in the game: You have to be running away from something to take on this job. People ignore life’s problems in unique ways, but Delilah and Henry end up in the same place, utilizing an all-consuming job to distract them from their ghosts back home. We all do this to different degrees, and this is where Firewatch evokes a personal affinity for Delilah and Henry. Their isolationist, antiphysical relationship strikes a chord with us. In the review, I mention a semblance to their relationship to ones I’ve had with players around the world in MMOs. You could spend an inordinate amount of time with people who you don’t really know but yet end up forming a bond with. The bond between Henry and Delilah feels authentic, because you are the one deciding what to say to her. It latches onto you as a player, not just Henry as a character. As your relationship continues to develop throughout the game, you begin to associate her with a real human being. Your words have an impact on her while you both divulge your past. A particular important part of her history is her association with the Goodwin family, a son and father who spent a summer in the Wyoming forest during her post before they disappeared unexpectedly.
Her history with the Goodwin family is one aspect of Firewatch that feels disconnected and irrelevant. It has an immense import on the storyline, but yet it comes across flat. Since you learn about the abusive Goodwin family secondhand from Delilah, their existence is insignificant. It’s a case of secondhand storytelling that culminates in an ineffectual plot twist. One reason Delilah and Henry’s relationship is so poignant is because you witness it, steering it firsthand. The Goodwin family is a detached part of the plot that is weaved into the main storyline, so it’s no wonder the mystery and climax falls flat. There is no doubt that finding the boy’s body was consequential to Delilah, but much less so to Henry and thus you, the player.
The mystery aspect of Firewatch, which was compelling at first, also hinged on the Goodwin family. Ned, the father, was the one stalking Henry, therefore causing the issues surrounding Delilah and him. However, much like the boy’s death, the truth behind the mystery was dull. Considering how short-lived the enigma was and that the whole story was contingent on Ned, its climax wasn’t engrossing. Despite the mystery initially having an “A Beautiful Mind” or “Fight Club” aura, it was quickly extinguished. It can be argued that the whole “Is all of this in my mind?” is a tiresome trope. However, I believe in the case of Firewatch, the story would have benefited had it been left up to the player instead of assigning it to an indifferent character like Ned. There is still a case to be made, though, that the question of what was real or imaginary still remains.
The climax of Henry and Delilah’s storyline also missed its intended mark. The fact that Delilah abandons Henry in the end leads to a rinse and repeat impression. Delilah abandons boyfriend; Henry abandons Julia; Delilah abandons Henry; Delilah and Henry abandon their post and the forest, leaving it to burn. I understand why the game creators didn’t want us to actually see Delilah. I’m sure my picture of her is different from yours and showing Delilah’s true image to us would shatter each of our singular interpretations. Possibly due in part to this, the ending of Firewatch lent to questioning its very point in the first place. If Henry never received any sort of reconciliation with Delilah or himself, how did his character grow? How is he different now when he returns home or goes to visit Julia? Wouldn’t it have been emotionally-wrenching for us to be forced to choose between Delilah (Henry’s new life) and Julia (his old life)? Or, at the very least, to have rolled the credits after Henry got into the helicopter, knowing Delilah is inside, but never showing them physically meeting.
Despite these unsatisfying plot devices, the dialogue in Firewatch is nearly flawless. The conversations between Delilah and Henry that make up the bulk of the story are genuinely stirring. Even though the choices and exchanges ultimately have little sway over the actual plot or character progression, the dialogue has still made a lasting impression. If I were ever asked: “What’s the best dialogue of any game you’ve played?” Firewatch would almost certainly come to the forefront of my mind. So what they’ve managed to do here is to highlight the significance of video game dialogue, and that’s nothing to scoff at.
Let’s hope Firewatch has set forth a precedent of great dialogue that will inevitably influence future titles; all of this in spite of its failure to redeem itself on behalf of its other suffering aspects. Firewatch’s conversational narration alone would have made it a force to be reckoned with had it not been heavily bogged down by its secondhand storytelling, ineffectual decision-making, lack of strong gameplay mechanics and cliffhanger ending. Nonetheless, I still believe Firewatch to be a game you should experience firsthand, as it surely is an experience. Everyone will walk away with a different taste in their mouth at the end, and it’s still a worthwhile adventure – if not just for my sake to hear a differing opinion and others’ individual takeaway.
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