While sick last week, I burned away my days playing a mystery called Firewatch. After reading some great reviews by Ewan Roxburgh and Simon Rankin, I wanted to talk about the ending and how it was both beautiful and not as developed as it could have been.
In an attempt to escape the struggles of living with a wife who has dementia, Henry takes a job in Shoshone National Forest as a fire lookout. He is quickly pulled into what looks like a conspiracy theory of epic proportions. Someone is listening into his radio conversations with Delilah, the only person he has any contact with. A previous fire lookout, Ned, and his son left mysteriously halfway through the job. Henry finds a mysterious fence, someone knocks him out and trashes his lookout, and two girls go missing.
However, when he discovers the body of Ned’s son at the bottom of a cave, the reality of the situation comes crashing down. There is no conspiracy. The fence only holds a research lab, which is watching deer, not him. Ned was only listening in on Henry’s conversations because he was bored hiding out in the woods, too afraid to confront his son’s death. And in the end he’s left with the hollow realization that he has to return to the normal world. Not even his brief fling with Delilah led to anything. She leaves before they can finally meet, just as unable as Ned to face the ruin her life has become.
A lot of people were disappointed with Firewatch’s ending. It was abrupt. It was brutal. It turns out this exciting adventure of conspiracies and strange happenings was just in your head, leaving you very little resolution. I disagree that the ending was disappointing, but I do think the game could have maneuvered us towards it a little better.
Ultimately I think most people were disappointed because they thought they were playing a game about conspiracies and action, a genre that requires a swelling ending with a clear-cut resolution and a joyful first meeting with Delilah. But that is not what this game is about. It’s about a man who is avoiding the reality of his situation, just as we as gamers are avoiding the real world by playing a video game. Both the player and Henry are willing to very quickly jump to the conclusion that something strange and eerie is going on because we’re looking for an adventure. It’s even easy to turn Delilah into a fantasy, a woman who is funny and interesting and, more importantly, interested in us. Even though it’s easy to fight with her and she tells us that she’s a person too, damaged by bad relationships, it’s easy to imagine that at the end of the game we could form a perfect, conflict-free relationship with her.
When considering the game through the lens of an emotional arc, the ending is beautiful. It’s an acknowledgement that Delilah isn’t a flawless, manic pixie dream girl who will solve all your problems. She’s perhaps even worse than you when it comes to relationships. In the end, no matter what you do, she isn’t there for you. And that realization echoes back through the whole game. This was all a fantasy you made up. There’s no great meaning waiting at the end. There’s no resolution. There’s no emotionally-satisfying conclusion. There’s just the pain of three people who are struggling to handle the harshness of reality.
Ned is perhaps the starkest example. He’s lost himself in the woods so he can completely ignore the death of his son. As the player, you actually have the option of taking this route too. Instead of getting in the helicopter at the end and going home, you can stay in Delilah’s tower and watch the helicopter leave without you. You can sink back into the forest and forget about reality – although, of course, it’s never that easy. The tranquil forest has become a raging inferno and ignoring reality might mean your ultimate demise.
That is why I love the ending of Firewatch. But it took me several hours of reading reviews and reddit threads to get there. I wouldn’t say I came out of the game disappointed, but I definitely came out of it confused. At the end, I still thought the research station was Ned’s and I kept struggling with the question of why there were three cots. Why was he studying us? Why would he lead us to the key to the cave if he didn’t want anyone to find out about his son? What was up with those conversations you overhead Delilah having? Even though I realized the answers eventually, the game would have benefited from allowing us to pause for just a moment, so we could realize what’s going on. With the current pacing, the gameplay leading up to the ending felt jumbled and messy, rather than being a tragic letdown to a beautiful emotional arc.
As a player, before you return to the cave to find Brian’s body, you can turn north instead and find the body of a dead elk. You find it because your signal tracker picks it up. This is the first moment when you can start to realize what’s actually going on. The research station was tracking elk, not you. The document that said ‘male refuses to copulate’ was, again, referring to an elk, not you. This is a great moment and I wish there had been a few more moments like this after you find Brian’s body. The ending comes so fast, I wasn’t able to process what was going on. There’s nothing wrong with ending quickly if the point is to leave your players empty and disappointed at the lack of fulfillment and happily ever after, but instead I was left confused and uncertain about some basic things. I wanted to be invested in the final dialogue with Delilah, in the realization that I had been going out of my way to create a non-existent adventure, but instead I was still trying to just get the facts straight, which made the ending less powerful.
On the other hand, there is absolutely merit in allowing the player to stay wrapped up in the conspiracy. It’s been interesting and weirdly meta to see some players get so caught up in the conspiracy, continuing to pick at it and make it even more twisty after gameplay is done. You are allowed to stay in the forest instead of facing reality. You don’t have to find the elk. You don’t even have to find Ned’s bunker or read his notes. Right up until that moment when Delilah says she’s leaving with the helicopters, you can be paranoid and suggest that you might have missed some crucial part of the conspiracy. You can still feel like you’re about to get jumped. I love that that’s an option. But I felt like, for those players who wanted to untangle themselves from the conspiracy on the first playthrough, there weren’t enough chances to do so. I wanted the option to talk more about the research station with Delilah, even if she doesn’t believe you, or further discuss Brian’s death. I wanted another optional event that brought more reality to light.
Firewatch is an amazingly emotional game that confronts the difficulty of reality in an amazing and unique fashion. The ending was perfect and brutal and I love how human Delilah was – frustrating and alcoholic and witty and passionate and desperate for human connection, all while being unable to truly trust and connect with Henry. I just wish we’d been allowed a little more realization within the game before the end.