Maybe I’m sentimental, but sometimes I really miss not having the internet in my pocket.
I love the internet — I write this on it, I currently exclusive socialize on it, and much of the media I hold dear wouldn’t exist without it. There is a feeling, though, that Firewatch evokes so well: isolation. You, as Henry, are one slightly stocky man in a large section of national park, and the only person you really get to talk to, over a handheld walkie talkie, is your supervisor Delilah. And some stereotypically irritating teenage girls, and a hiker you help for a minute — oh wait, you also talk to your wife, sort of.
But generally, it’s you and Delilah. You call her Dee; she calls you Hank, though you don’t really like it. For the first couple of hours of Firewatch, you two are chatting quite amiably as you solve the problems of the forest and learn about one another. It’s touching, well written, and beautifully acted. You mostly never see your own face, and you never see Delilah’s. All you have, for the entire summer sitting atop your station (or rather find as many ways as possible to leave your station), is a voice on the other end of the line. You describe yourself to Delilah, once; she’s drawing a picture of you.
The game is set in 1989, well before the onset of email, broadband internet, and smartphones. That disconnection is imbued in the games mood; not only do you almost never see another person, the game is suspiciously lacking in animal life (which might be more to do with budget restraints than aesthetic, but nevertheless fits). Yet it all feels so real. You are well and truly alone, apart from your memories, a couple photos, and Delilah on the other end of your radio. She talks to other people, but you don’t. Being able to truly disconnect like that is a rare thing in the digital age, and as I played, I had a fondness for the days before I woke up to emails from clients and a social media presence to maintain. Admittedly, I was a child at the time, but the yearning was the same: to be able to throw off the continuous interconnectedness of civilization and be alone, just for a little while. A summer, maybe.
It’s a naïve thought, but Firewatch’s ability to set that mood is key to its plot (spoilers, substantial ones, coming, uh, now). As the summer progresses, you and Delilah discover that you are being watched, or rather listened to. Someone has piggybacked onto your radio and has been recording everything you say. There’s a strange research station in a fenced-off part of the woods; those teens had their campsite destroyed and have gone missing. That lack of privacy, that sense that everything you say is being recorded and logged to be used for nefarious purposes, sets off alarm bells. You can choose to play Henry at a few different levels of freaked out, ranging from “okay, this is really getting to me” to “Delilah are you even real my whole life has been a hallucination what if they’re after me.” The game’s second half imbues each day with a sense of unease, and a part of me was genuinely nervous that I would turn around and get attacked by our mysterious stalker.
This surprised me because I’m so desensitized to surveillance. I have a smart speaker, and a smartphone, and a smart TV. I’m constantly connected, with something constantly listening for me, waiting for the moment that I call their name and ask them to set an alarm, or to call my mother. I have given up so much more of my privacy than Henry and Delilah have, and the game finds a way to play on the unease that I have about it. It’s a reminder that no matter how small, losing our privacy makes us nervous, even if most of the time you don’t register it. The surveillance we allow is so innocuous, yet so overwhelming and profound, and we’re just now taking baby steps to curbing how much we allow. Even that, however, comes across a bunch of posturing from the biggest tech companies in the world. It’s being able to bring the reality of how that surveillance affects people, manifested in an intensely personal way, where Firewatch starts to really shine.
Firewatch works hard to get Henry and Delilah to trust each other. You don’t have to play this way — I did because, as I said, I’m sentimental — but I found myself in a budding summer romance, with a level of intimacy and comfort built through vulnerability and a willingness to put some effort in. With your help, Henry and Delilah can build a really solid relationship (romantic or otherwise) out of their limited capacity to communicate. It’s right after a high point in this relationship, and a short time skip, that things start to unravel. The first evidence of their surveillance appears, putting the first true, shared strain on that relationship. One of your options at this moment is to go full-on paranoid, accusing Delilah of being in on it; I didn’t take that road, because I knew it was NOT going anywhere good (and I really like getting good endings). For the rest of the game, it’s no longer just the two of you, alone and trying to share a blissful summer. It becomes the two of you against the world, trying to hold onto that trust, your own myriad personal issues pushed down but bubbling up as you face the potential of a grand conspiracy that’s caught you in the middle of its web. The game handles this brilliantly, not being afraid to force the reality of how creepy that is onto our characters. Both of them, rightfully, want answers, and want whatever is going on to stop. I found myself thinking they were almost overreacting; that thought scared me a little more than the game.
It’s to Firewatch’s credit that even as you are dragged deeper into this potential conspiracy, and the window of your lookout tower becomes covered in notes ands documents, it still feels plausible. Maybe it’s the gameplay, as you traverse hills by attaching ropes to hooks and climbing down, as you pull out a map and a compass and actually have to read them to figure out where you’re going. The dialogue and the flaws apparent in both Henry and Delilah’s approaches to life keep you in their headspace, and I found myself waiting desperately for the next time I could call Delilah on the radio. It brings up a sense of contradiction: Henry aims to escape into the bush but the game makes you crave that connection with Delilah. By threatening that relationship with surveillance, suddenly your conversations become more fraught and more precious. You’re overjoyed when you are able to get a new walkie-talkie and speak freely with Delilah on a different frequency, and angrier still because now you are empowered to get answers.
(Okay, now for the spoilers to the end. If you still want to play the game, leave, drop the $20 on Steam or Switch — though I’ll say it often chugged on my Switch — and play through it for the next uh four to seven hours. I’ll be here.)
Answers, however, come late, come fast, and come with a heavy dose of reality. The truth of the conspiracy is as emotional and intimate as Henry and Delilah’s little life. Another person who once had your job brought his son with him for the summer, something totally illegal; Delilah liked the kid, and let it slide, figuring here was better than back home. The dad was a deadbeat, and one day they both disappeared. Delilah figured they bailed. They didn’t. The kid died falling down a cliff in a cave — whether it was an accident, a push from his father, or something in between the game leaves up to you — and the father became a recluse, hiding away in the forest. He’s been the one stalking you, and as the fire that began in July slowly begins to overtake that section of forest, he vanishes deeper into the woods. He was trying to keep you away from his son’s body, to scare you. It was a sad little man, all along, running from the world and his problems. So are you. You’re not really a good person. You fled your life and responsibilities at the start of the game, it’s the only reason your even here. You get to play the hero against the grand conspiracy, only to discover you’ve just stumbled into some guy’s pathetic, hurtful life. The question being is it Henry or the father’s life?
The game refuses to give you a good ending in the traditional sense; you don’t get the girl, nor do you get anything but ambiguity about Henry’s future. Delilah leaves, again, something that is clearly a habit, and tells you to go back home. You don’t see if that happens, of course. For me, as a player, I knew Henry would return to his wife, who is suffering from early onset dementia at home with her family in Melbourne. On the final day, the game gives you the choice to pick up a wedding ring as you pack up for your evacuation from the soon-to-be-burning forest. I took it, and as the helicopter grabs me, Henry stumbled into the seat, giving me a very clear look at his left hand. The ring was on his finger.
If that feels slightly less than a perfectly cohesive ending, it is. It reminded me a lot of the end of How I Met Your Mother (spoiler warning, but not one you probably need). Ted’s wife Tracy — the titular Mother — dies of cancer, and he and Robin (his old friend and flame) reignite their romance. Ted’s kids, now teenagers, are supportive of this idea, and when you look back at the arc of the narrative, yeah, it’s definitely filled with way too much Robin to not be suspicious that maybe this whole thing was Ted’s way of processing it. As an audience it all kind of sucks. We wanted the happy ending we were promised in the title. Instead, Robin and Barney get divorced, Tracy dies, and Ted seems to regress back into his old habit of being in love with Robin every six months. To me, though, the theme of How I Met Your Mother was always change; things can’t be how they were, and time keeps moving. The ending seems to undermine that, going back to Ted and Robin with a callback to the first episode. It’s utterly realistic that a 50-something year old widower and his divorced ex-girlfriend, who are both still very close, are able to reach a point in their lives and fall in love much more successfully than the first time around. Sometimes change is a clock, and you end up back at 12. It’s not the fantasy though.
In Firewatch, they stick the landing because they ground it in that uncomfortable realism. Of course Henry and Delilah don’t fall in love and live happily ever after. Of course the conspiracy about their surveillance isn’t anything of the kind. Of course running to escape your problems isn’t going to give you a magical new life. It’s all just a fantasy. That sickening realization, that the whole thing amounts to nothing tangible for either Henry or Delilah, is where the game hits you hardest. Because, mostly, that is what life feels like. Momentum, tragedy, escape, and return, continuously.
And yet I love this ending, quite a bit. I loved HIMYM’s ending too, for the same reason. Life just keeps going. I knew Ted had gotten his happy life, and was finding his way back into the next part of it. In Firewatch, I knew Henry had grown enough to maybe try and be happy. For me, Henry made one last-ditch attempt to flee, asking Delilah to come to Boulder with him. It fit my Henry, a secret romantic, and one reluctant to face what he really needed. He’d done the wrong thing, and it hadn’t helped; there was nothing to do but pick up and get on with it. It was hard for him. It was hard for me as a player, too, knowing that I had just kind of been crappy for the last few hours. I wasn’t gleefully evil like you can be in Fable, or thrillingly heroic like in The Legend of Zelda. I was just a shitty husband, for a few months in the summer of 1989.
Firewatch, better than many other games I’ve played, let me just be human for a few hours. Away from the sense of continuous connection, away from the pressures of life, I could just be a mediocre guy wandering through a pretty forest. It’s escapism about the perils of escaping; it’s complex and it’s human. It reminded me of things I didn’t want to think about, both about life and about me, and yet it left me with weird hope. Real people will do that to you, sometimes; remind you that life’s hard and beautiful, all at once.