SPEAK UP, FIREWATCH

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THIS POST INCLUDES TOTAL SPOILERS FOR FIREWATCH

The opening of Firewatch is awful. I understand that you’re supposed to be shaping your character and that it acts as a kind of alternative customisation screen where instead of physical attributes you assign him a personality and a history, but it’s so obvious and jarring – considering how much the rest of the game pulls back and leaves emotions and events to percolate, putting your character’s life and history in literal writing, and framing it as a cheap choose your own adventure story, starts Firewatch off on a deafening wrong note. That intro could just be chopped entirely. All of the stuff about Julia, her relationship to Henry, her condition and why he’s taken this job is pretty much covered, or at least sufficiently hinted at, during conversations with Delilah later on. That text at the start is useless fat.

The ending, too, could have been trimmed. There’s a fantastic moment, during Henry’s climactic hike to the extraction point at Thorofare Tower, where Delilah tells him that she’s getting on a helicopter now and leaving. After a few casual goodbyes she boards the chopper and leaves, and for the first time in Firewatch, you’re truly, utterly alone, no Delilah on the radio, no teenagers swimming in the distance, no Ned snooping around the caves. It’s just you now, walking through the burning forest. And that’s a wonderful, visually wonderful ending, the central character, wandering by himself, through the flaming wreckage of the game and by extension the events that bought him to this point. Even when you arrive at Thorofare itself, the power of that ending is still intact – looking through the former living quarters of the now departed Delilah, you get an all important sense of loss and wanting. You don’t really know her. You never really knew her. Jesus, do you really know anybody?

But then you sit down to call your own evacuation helicopter and Delilah is on the line, and in your final conversation you tie off a couple of loose threads: Henry decides to go (or not go, depending on your dialogue choice) to see Julia, and Delilah says she won’t have time to meet Henry for a date. Ambiguous endings often feel like cheats, as if the writer, in lieu of knowing how to resolve her story just left it wide open, and then dressed her indecision up as meaning. But Firewatch I think genuinely earns a vague conclusion. The game’s dialogue choices don’t mean much, roaming the landscape provides little in the way of tangible videogame reward and the very nature of Henry and Delilah’s job is seclusion – Firewatch’s core, Hitchcockian mystery involves a father not wanting anyone to know what happened to his son. Sat in their observation towers – man-made eyesores, visible for miles around against the clear Wyoming sky – the characters in Firewatch are hiding in plain sight. And so for the game to end on such a frank emotional exchange feels wrong. Better would have been for Delilah to just get on the helicopter, leaving Henry to find his own way back, silent and alone.

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Although, I did enjoy the very ending, when Henry reaches out and grab’s the fireman’s arm. Firewatch is a profoundly lonely game. Apart from Delilah’s voice, and the distant visage of the two teenagers, both of which only increase your sense of isolation, this is a game where you don’t see a single human being, let alone touch one, the entire time. Henry is out here to get away from it all. Yet at the end, he literally reaches out and grabs a person – Firewatch climaxes with a physical reconnection to people. An optimist might look at it like this: the fire burns, taking the national park and all of Henry’s reasons for being there along with it, and he leaves it behind to rejoin people and restart his life. Personally, I don’t like to think of the ending as that complete. Henry and Delilah’s relationship is more sewn up than I would have liked, but by the end, he, at least, felt like he was still struggling. Having seen what had happened to Ned Goodwin when he tried to cover up the past and his own mistakes, Henry had edged maybe closer to some emotional resolve, but it would have felt false to me if he’d left Shoshone a changed man. He wasn’t totally ready to head back into the real world. When I approached the evac chopper, I walked rather than ran.

Finding the base at Wapiti Meadow almost (in fact, probably does) ruin the story. It’s too big a moment, too loud, too elaborate. Firewatch is a classic bait and switch, but when it comes to that sequence, a tent, a radio hooked to a generator and a few notes about Henry and Delilah’s personal lives would have done. Later on, when you find Ned’s hideout and all the gear within, you can feel the writers struggling to explain how that base was conceived and built. It’s a useless extravagance. If Campo Santo was wanting for a big, visual moment, it didn’t need the base. The game ends with a forest fire, thousands of acres big – wow enough.

The stuff with the tracking device, also, is too much. Those sequences, where you’re following the beep to a new piece of evidence, is as close as Firewatch gets to putting mechanics ahead of story, and it feels at odds with the rest of your tasks. Stopping people letting off fireworks, checking a downed phone line, picking up empty beer cans – Firewatch, for the most part, weaves drama and characterisation into the most mundane activities. The tracking device on the other hands is an awful videogame convention. Take it away, and also the music (I went into options and switched it off) and the game would be much more eerie. 

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Not that Firewatch isn’t scary – verily, it’s one of the most frightening games I’ve played in my life. Emerging from the cave to see that darkened figure, glaring at you with his flashlight, is heart-stopping. The trip between Wapiti Meadow and Ruby River, where Delilah keeps asking whether you’re being followed, and all you can hear is the rustling of trees and the wind, is nerve-racking beyond compare – I’ve never played a game where the act of simply turning around and looking behind me has been loaded with so much dread. And Firewatch boasts one great, terrifying dialogue scene. Disturbed by the beep of the tracking device, Henry follows it, in the dead of night, out to the middle of the forest. “I’ve found something,” he tells Delilah. “Man, it’s cold out here.” “What do you mean out here?” she asks. “I can see you. You’re in your tower.”

I had a moment in Firewatch that I’d never had in a game before. During the second sequence in the cave, when I found the dead body of Brian Goodwin, I actually stopped and looked at it – I rounded the corner, saw it in the distance, and froze still. When does that happen? When in a videogame do you care about a dead body, let alone care about it enough, or be startled by it enough, to actually stop and look? I wasn’t moved particularly by Brian’s story, but the discovery of that corpse felt like a significant moment. And having you turn a corner and spot it in the distance was a fantastic way to frame that reveal.

It’s fitting that Unravel, one of the most brazen, saccharine videogames I’ve ever seen, should launch the same week as Firewatch. In a bid to prove games worth a damn, writers, for the past three or four years, have been going right for the emotional jugular – Sunset, Journey, The Unfinished Swan, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Beyond Eyes, Papo and Yo, etc, etc are all cynical attempts to hit people, to use a term that illustrates just how commodified emotion in games has become, “right in the feels,” and maybe pick up some industry awards along the way. No pun intended, but I think Firewatch is more a slow burn. Or maybe it’s not a burn at all. If people are disappointed in its shrug-of-the-shoulders ending, it’s perhaps because they’ve come to expect tears (or at least something they can claim made them cry, so as to imbue their editorial with emotional credibility and “punch”) from independent studios every time. Something happens in Henry’s life and he disconnects. He then sees what happened to another person who also tried to disconnect, and at least partly resolves to try and find a way back into his life. That, for me, is the emotional core of Firewatch, and no, it’s not tearjerker. Instead, it’s a story about a person, or rather persons. Too many writers try to make games about something – loss, existentialism, the apocalypse, abuse, childhood – instead of about someone. Firewatch is a videogame about its character and for that it stands out.

 

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