Firewatch: A Misunderstood Masterpiece

Firewatch. This is a game that most people would look at and go: “that looks pretty, I wonder what it’s about?”

Upon further research, they would find that Firewatch is a completely story driven, dialogue focused game, that lasts the better part of four hours. This description itself is something that might turn gamers away, and is only part of Firewatch’s misunderstood manner.

Before continuing I must warn of spoilers to the game’s story, as well as this article revealing some of the secrets that are best to uncover yourself.

Still here? Awesome.

Since those who read this will likely have already players the game, I won’t delve too much into all the nitty gritty of facts but to clear up any confusion here’s a mini summary. In Firewatch you play as Henry, who takes a summer job as a fire lookout in the Shoshone park in the year 1989. This all takes place after a personal tragedy, which I’ll come back to later. Henry’s only human contact is head look out Delilah, who players only talk to via a radio. This is the premise, and as strange things begin happening in the park, thus begins the story.

Speaking of the personal tragedy, one way Firewatch is misunderstood in my eyes is how it develops characters. Lots of people may see Henry as being one of two ways: nice or nasty. When choosing to engage in chat with Delilah, you are given three dialogue choices, the majority of the time there is a regular nice guy option, an angry man option and some sort of other perhaps neutral choice. While it is easy to just assume you could warrant two goes at the game from that alone, so much more is revealed  from the prologue section, as well as other micro aspects players can do.

The prologue is purely text, and designed like a choose your own adventure story, all while accompanied with one of Chris Remo’s amazing songs (did I not mention the soundtrack of this game is amazing too?) It tells us of the tragic story of Henry and wide Julia, from their meeting to their marriage, to the tragedy of Julia’s revelation she is suffering from early dementia. Henry here can be seen as caring, making the smart choice by putting Julia in a home instead of straining them both by looking after her yourself. You can make Henry a slightly assertive character by choosing a dog of your choice instead of Julia’s. These choices not only carry through the game, but the beauty of Firewatch is in its microcosms.

A good example of not only the dialogue choices shaping character, but also the actions of the player, is seen early on in the game, when Henry has to deal with two teenage girls setting off fireworks. Henry’s job is to help protect the wilderness, spot for fires primarily but also whatever else Delilah asks. So when confronted with the teens camp, how do you as a player react? Do you walk straight past it and head for the teens with no contact to Delilah, simply more concerned about getting the job done and going back to relax, presenting you with a Henry who cares little for anything (this may also be reflected in your prologue choices.) Or perhaps do you expose a fun but reckless side, throwing the fireworks on the almost diminished fire, which sparks some humorous comments from Henry? Do you leave their whisky, or take it for yourself, showing perhaps a selfish attitude? Or do you actually do your job, report the important things to Delilah, confiscate the fireworks immediately, stamp out their campfire, clear up every single individual beer can and then go to talk to them? All these small actions almost seem meaningless, but in greater reflection show peoples misunderstanding, as they really go far into shaping Henry into the person you want him to be.

In dealing with the teens and in dialogue, Henry can be altered too. Again, different outcomes can be rattled off. Is your Henry a dick, who before even talking to the girls, picks up their stereo (blaring out a very nice “Push Play” by Cheap Trick I might add) and throws it straight in the lake. Is your Henry a total creep, who stands and states at their girls saying nothing? Is he a thief, who steals the stereo and leaves? Perhaps a confrontational man, who yells abuse at them or instead Mr nice guy, who apologises for bothering them. Generally, the outcome is the same with the girls running off and Henry heading back to his lookout. And this is where people misunderstand how little things really do make a masterpiece sometimes. Firewatch’s ability to mould a character by presenting all these options to players right from the get go leads to an overall personal feel, and no matter how many people you see play it, you always feel like you gain your own experience, something not even found in a lot of AAA games nowadays.

 

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Inquisitive, paranoid or determined? Shape Henry your way.

 

A lot of people misunderstand Firewatch’s ending, with one YouTube video up watched even calling it “brutal.”
It turns out there was no conspiracy, the teens who disappeared were found safe and sound, the research site was just for elk, ans the person listening to you was simply Ned Goodwin, the lookout who was a previous lookout who occupied your tower. The ending of: “pretty much everything was because of Ned” annoyed many players but here’s an easy sentence to sum the endings true meaning up, in my eyes at least: It’s realistic! Especially if you’ve played the game once already, if you really pay attention it’s easy to figure out certain aspects of the mystery, such as elk being tracked. A secret found towards the end of the game is a dead elk with a tracking collar around its neck. This, if interpreted right, also coupled with dialogue choices, leads you to the realisation that it was simply elk that was being tracked, and the research site was only foe university students who were on break while you were poking around.

Another big misunderstanding on the ending was not seeing Delilah. While I agree that it would have been nice to see her, it reinforces the theme of realism. Having played through the game a second time with the audio commentary, the game makers talk about how she would be feeling, depressive as she waits for this man she has bonded with and grown paranoid with over a whole summer, who also was the one to tell her a kid she was fond of is dead. Nobody would wait, they would leave. This is also powerful in its irony. Delilah herself says Henry should go back to Julia, and says he came to get away from his problems even though they’re still waiting for him. However, Delilah has just ran away from her own problem. This is also misunderstood as people don’t really understand the character of Delilah. While it is true this can be looked on in different ways, I see Delilah as a flirty but harsh human/lover. She talks about how she left an ex when his brother died because she didn’t know how to deal with it all, and dismisses Henry at the end, even if you choose to suggest she come to Boulder with you.

Now here’s the thing. The player, or admittedly Henry, however you’ve crafted him to be in your playing of the game, can really react to her dismissals in a few ways. Remember Firewatch is realistic, it looks at human paranoia and just plan human emotion. You/ Henry can take a knock from this dismissal and if you add this to your misunderstanding of the ending as a whole, you will come away feeling cheated. Or take it in your stride, leave the Shoshone and the game feeling changed, refreshed knowing that your Henry will go and do the right things whether that be seeing Julia or finding another way to be happy.

There are so many other aspects of Firewatch to discuss, from the subtle importance of the camera to the personalisation players can truly give in how they approach the lookout itself. But overall Firewatch is easy to praise on its visuals, voice acting and soundtrack, however when breaking it down and truly exploring its miniscule features, therein lies a true masterpiece of a game. A highly misunderstood masterpiece.

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