How would you like your life to be? Exciting? Fulfilling? Full to the brim with endless possibilities of exploring and discovering something new everyday? Would you like your life to be happy?
Of course you would. In a world where everyone is in a conscious or subconscious flux about how they interpret happiness, we would all like to be happy in some way. But how we would like our lives to be and how our lives actually are, are never the same. We try to understand what we want, and we behave differently in trying to get to the place we want to go to. In those differences lie who we are, and although we take separate paths and experience disparate consequences for our actions, life invariably finds a way to screw us over anyway.
Storybook happy endings in life happen rarely. Instead, life is mostly made up of a few joys, some more heartbreaks, and a whole lot of sniffles. Life is a journey of nightmares and anticlimaxes, but thankfully interspersed with some moments of genuine happiness. We play video games as an act of escape from a widespread drudgery that surrounds us to no end. By definition, we wouldn’t like our games to hit too close to reality. We wouldn’t like them to remind us of how deeply flawed our worlds are, nor would we like to know even more about the issues that trouble us.
But maybe sometimes, a game comes along that does precisely those things. It intrigues you at the beginning, then takes you on a journey full of stunning sights and flights of fancy. But it all comes crashing down at the end, only for you to seethe in rage, and when calmer, to be disappointed at how it all came to be. That none of those fantastic things came to being. That the result seems nothing more than an ordinary man’s attempt to escape the drudgery.
In doing so, perhaps the game does more than it was ever expected to accomplish. Perhaps, by making us aware of the futility of what we do, it helps us become more aware of what we want from life. Of being in a better position to answer that tantalising question:
“How would you like your life to be?”
That game is ‘Firewatch.’
(Needless to say, spoilers follow from here onwards)
Anticlimax the Antihero
There are no prizes for guessing that the game is rare, and in more ways than one. Most of the events that have a significant bearing on the events of the game happen off-screen and outside the entirety of the game’s plot. You are put in the shoes of Henry, a fire lookout in the Shoshone National Forest who’s on the verge of stumbling upon an evil conspiracy in the woods. By the time the game ends, this conspiracy amounts to something quite insignificant. It is precisely because the ending is so underwhelming that we are led to see the story in a new, more mature light altogether. Would Henry have so thoroughly investigated this ‘conspiracy’ had his personal life been a breeze? Would he have even taken up this job if Julia, his wife, wasn’t suffering from dementia? The plot of ‘Firewatch’ is a ruse, a cover for Henry to use as his means of escape. In that same stream of thought, the events of the game also establish how terribly Henry deals with the challenges in his own life.
There is a deliberate attempt on the part of Campo Santo, the developers of ‘Firewatch’, to conspire events in such a way that leaves Henry underwhelmed and dejected, leaving us players dejected because we are Henry. We are clearly told that in the prologue to the game. There’s more to that than what meets the eye, but for now, that will suffice. Anticlimaxes are widely thought to be repugnant, something that should never be intentionally attempted at the very least. However, ‘Firewatch’ achieves resonance precisely through its anticlimax.
Murmurs of the Woods
‘Firewatch’ begins with a tragedy: Julia rapidly succumbs to dementia and her gradual need for full-time care takes her to her parents in Australia. Henry chooses not to go with her. His feelings of acute guilt and incompetence lead him to the fire lookout post with the Forest Service. His need for isolation is quite apt here, since he has got no-one to talk to, besides Delilah, his supervisor, and that too, over the radio. Over the course of time, the two grow quite close and there are inklings of a relationship growing between them amidst all the adversity. However, a break-in at Henry’s tower disrupts any such possibility, as does a strange forest fire, and most tellingly, a research station having no discernible purpose but having reports on both Henry and Delilah as well as transcripts of their radio conversations.
Many possibilities are raised in these proceedings, such as Henry being followed and both him and his boss being under surveillance for reasons as ludicrous as being a part of an experiment or the government itself spying on them for some outlandish reason. Henry’s paranoia slowly but surely builds upto a crescendo as he suspects Delilah of lying and thinks of the wildest possible reasons for these events to transpire. However, all his delusions come to an abrupt end when he comes across the body of Brian Goodwin, a twelve-year old boy, who lived in the forest with his father, Ned, a fire lookout from some years back. Brian was killed in a climbing accident, and was actually not supposed to stay there, but Delilah didn’t rat Ned out because she didn’t mind it in the least.
A Father’s Guilt
After Brian experienced such a gruesome death, his father was wracked by a sense of utter hopelessness and blamed himself for what had happened. Ned was unable to leave the park, unable to leave his son behind, and unable to dissociate himself from what had come to pass there. In his disillusioned mind which still couldn’t make sense of the tremendous trauma, he simply didn’t know how to tell anyone else in the world that his son was no more. In order to avoid this unpleasant deed, he refused to come out of his self-imposed shell.
Every strange event that had occurred with Henry and Delilah was a direct result of Ned not wanting them to discover his son’s corpse. From the break-in to the reports, and even the forest fire that had seemingly happened so inexplicably, all of these occurrences had a direct link to the poor father’s efforts to keep them from seeing his son’s body lying all alone in the abyss. Everything else that seemed very conspiratorial before turns out to be quite innocuous. What Henry overhears Delilah saying over the radio turns out to be pretty regular, the teenagers are nothing more than party-loving young adults with raging hormones, and the sinister looking research station exists to track elk.
The Gaps in the Narrative
Perhaps many of these revelations could have been told to us in a more adept manner. While the mystery of all these secrets is there for all of us to see right from the beginning of ‘Firewatch’, the placement of those secrets is suspect and not conducive to us ferreting out every one of them. They are placed rather out of our reach, and even if we try, it would be difficult knowing all these little hints placed about here and there. ‘Firewatch’ didn’t intend to leave players in the dark about the story. In fact, if these details are pieced together, then there’s really no room for ambiguity. However, most players are left in the dark since they are unaware of these connective strands of narrative that lie throughout the game. It is this unfortunate narrative structure that has attracted most of the criticism, and it does come across as a tad unfair. ‘Firewatch’ is a tautly written plot, with well drawn characters that is burdened by such unnecessary flak.
‘Firewatch’ also presents itself as a role-playing game (RPG) and as such, wandering around the Shoshone woods as Henry, trying to find out secrets feels a little unlike what he would do, given the constant barrage of tasks that he’s given by his boss. The game has all the rewards in place if you do decide to explore it, but its narrative doesn’t possess the incentive or the motive for us to do so. As a side note, one could argue there could have been a more discerning way to reveal most of the significant information than having Ned say it to Henry over a tape. Even there however, ‘Firewatch’ shows how it shines despite these minor narrative choices when Ned tells our hero how he’s sorry about his wife. A fittingly impersonal, almost deadened response that brings both Henry and the audience back to disconcerting reality.
A reality that the events of ‘Firewatch’ are an escape from.
To Be Responsible or Not to Be?
Whatever flights of fancy Henry had committed himself to before evaporates as ‘Firewatch’ unfolds. However, there are other things, important ones, that he does accomplish in the course of the game. He solves two missing person cases in the woods, both of which are significant in how he does manage to bring some much needed closure as part of his own attempt to run away from it. There is no recognition for Henry (and by extension, the player) for solving such an important mystery. Delilah is too preoccupied with her own part in Brian’s untimely death and doesn’t praise him for his undoubtedly crucial detective work. In fact, towards the end, when both of them are told to leave the burning woods, she goes out on an earlier chopper so that she doesn’t have to see him. Over the radio, which has been their go-to means of communicating with each other, she advises him to go be with Julia. Perhaps Henry takes her up on that advice, but what is certain is that they will never meet again.
Henry is in a unique position where no one is really suitable to tell him the one thing he needs to hear: to put an end to fleeing from his problems and face the music. Of course, that isn’t to say that Henry would have followed this to a T. In fact, it may have been more likely that he may have strayed more off the path he’s supposed to take. However, what is also certain is that while Delilah could’ve advised him as such, she’s hardly in a sincere enough position to do so, given her recklessness with Brian, and her dishonesty with the police about the teenagers.
So Henry is in a unique position where all he does is sit in a chair in a forest where he needs to inform in the event of a fire or, when instructed, scare kids, draw up wild conspiracy theories, and invade official property. He finds this as a suitable occupation to keep him away from having to take care of his wife. He considers this as the easy way out, when this itself is nothing but an elaborate exercise in mundanity. Like everyone else, Henry avoids doing what is hard.
Being True to Our Own Self
It shouldn’t really be a surprise that people were taken unawares by how anticlimactic the game’s ending turned out to be. There is no big twist. No dream world that brings out Henry’s madness, or a similarly shocking conclusion that gives that exhilarating twist audiences usually look out for. But there is none. And that’s the whole point.
When we run away from what troubles us, there is no wild dream. There is no fantastical chain of events that justifies what we do. Instead, there are some very real consequences. ‘Firewatch’ is a narrative that depicts such people who invariably make a mess of it all. There is a refreshing authenticity in how it depicts conspiracy, and how the two main characters can solve most of it because of how minor it ultimately is. So there are no suspect secret identities or experiments, nor is there any chance of Delilah being anyone other than a normal human being. There’s just a dejected father who was responsible for the death of his young son.
While the ending was anticlimactic, what is important is that Henry was able to deal with it, which means that he can deal with his own problems. Maybe Delilah would also take to this path, but that isn’t as certain, since she won’t look back on all of her problematic actions. Ned is also at the same point where he was when Brian died, and also doesn’t seem likely to change.
What about Henry? Perhaps he too stays the same, or maybe he does go and visit his wife. The ending is wilfully left ambiguous, and ‘Firewatch’ itself ends before we get to know anything in that direction. The end itself is significant, since at the exact moment when we relinquish control of Henry’s life, he removes himself from his distractions and is on the verge of going back to his actual life. At the end of it all, we aren’t Henry. He has his own problems to deal with. Maybe we can take a lesson from him and take on our own problems too.
Read More in Explainers: Final Fantasy XV Ending, Explained