Am I A Good Man? Thoughts On Firewatch

Contains spoilers and theories which may or may not be spoilers.

I spent most of my time with Firewatch wishing I was there, alone and without pressures in its peach-hued Wyoming wilderness. It was all I wanted from life: an escape from glaring screens and beeping devices and an inbox which endlessly refills itself with requests I can’t do anything about.

Then I turned on the radio this morning, to hear a feature about how extended isolation has contributed to a disproportionately high suicide rate amongst British farmers. I might dream of a life in the woods, but in truth I would soon become desperately lonely and bored. At least Firewatch gives me the chance to live a small part of it. But it also makes me feel panicky, and guilty.

For the majority of Firewatch, my foremost emotion was jealousy. Many-splintered jealousy: primarily at the aforementioned freedom available to protagonist Henry, in his escape from the pressures of life and into somewhere truly beautiful. Partly at the easy repartee he and unseen deuteragonist Delilah were capable of – oh, to be capable of such effortless wit, such natural connection with another human being. Partly, and relatedly, at how much attention Henry was immediately given by an interesting person (later tempered by the realisation that, unfortunately, Delilah has just a touch of the manic pixie dream girl to her).

The contradiction is glaring: I want to be on my own, unbothered by anyone else’s needs, but I want to mean something to someone nonetheless. I don’t really want to be a farmer on his own in a field, day after day: I want people to be there but I don’t want them to need anything from me.

Firewatch is very much about that duality. Delilah, forever unseen but regularly heard, is at first an unwelcome intrusion upon Henry’s communion with nature and pursuit of the distance required to make a decision about how he will spend his future. She mocks and jabbers and wants to play when all he wants to do is mope – and when all I want to do is stroll through the trees and dream of it being my life.

As the game slowly weaves drama into the melancholy and tranquility, she becomes something else: a confidant, perhaps a friend. She thinks Henry’s great. She thinks I’m great.

I say that, but of course I picked the conversation options that would ensure that: I was funny, I was reassuring, I didn’t chastise. Of course she was going to like me. I don’t know what would have happened if I snapped at her or clammed up or called her out.

I also did not, when the opportunity arose, pick the options that would see me declare something more than friendship. I don’t know what might have happened if I did. I have decided that I will never replay Firewatch, because I have written my history in it and I do not wish to revise it, so I may well never know what alternative outcomes there were or were not. I am happy with that; happy to imagine an alternative reality in which love is declared and an optimistic future awaits. Happier than I would be to search the internet and find out if that’s at all the case.

I didn’t choose those options because I thought they would make me a bad man. Both as Henry, already having temporarily fled from the unthinkable pressures of a wife fallen deep into Alzheimer’s, and as myself. Firewatch works hard to make its players love Delilah, and while I was always conscious that I was listening to canned lines, the performance and the writing (particularly its wit) could not fail to make me feel fond of her.

I worried that, if I chose the lines that would have me declare feelings for her, perhaps I would be as guilty of emotional adultery as Henry was. I know that sounds preposterous. I have a partner and a child, another on the way. Our lives often feel difficult, for reasons I won’t share here, and because of that it seems wrong or even dangerous to be yearning for the company of another woman. Even an entirely fictional one whose face I have never seen. That anxiety fades the moment I’m outside the game and its reality evaporates, but inside it Henry’s bond with Delilah is everything.

Honestly, I’m a little uncomfortable about it. Firewatch carefully avoids many tropes when it comes to its lead woman character, most especially in that because she is not seen, her appearance can never be part of her appeal, but it idealises her personality in a well-worn fashion. She may still be something of a male fantasy: funny, flirty, playful, mysterious, unpredictable, seemingly a sexual initiator, and someone who quickly makes an awkward, lonely man she’s only just met into almost her entire world.

She’s not, thank goodness, a doe-eyed Natalie Portman shouting into the rain in Garden State, and Firewatch as I experienced it is careful not to force any issues, but I did feel slightly manipulated into feeling something for her, that perhaps just one too many fragments of quirky-free-spirit-who-adores-sad-sacks were in her DNA.

That nonetheless speaks to a great skilfulness in the writing and acting, of course: it is sad and crude tradition that feelings towards a woman videogame character are because of their appearance, be it the overtly sexualised or the alt-cool. Here, through spoken words alone, we become affectionate towards a lonely 40-something forest worker whom we never actually meet. And thank God we don’t: imagine how many ways that might go wrong.

I was occasionally aware that my buttons were being very deliberately pushed, but I am so glad and grateful that the option to keep it to a friendship was always there. I have made the mistake in the past, several times, of presuming a friendship with a woman must be a sign of something more; fortunately I was always too fearful to cross any lines and so languished in a misery of longing which eventually, inevitably wore away instead, but I know now how disrespectful it was regardless. I don’t want to be the guy who presumes that Delilah must be a love interest just because she and Henry get along well – although there are occasions when the game openly invites me to presume just that, and to act upon it.

I don’t know what would have happened had I done so. She may well have shot me down, for very good reasons. I hope so. The ending I got (are there more? I don’t know) certainly implied she was as aware of the unhealthiness and falsity of our closeness as I was.

Am I a good man because I resisted even exploring those options? Because I maintained fealty to a wife who was barely there anymore, and who I had already run away from? I hope so. I have resisted fleeing difficulties in my own life; I hope that is the kind of man I am. But it was nice to have the attention. Even if it wasn’t really for me: it was for witty, anxious, brave Henry and his stubby little legs.

At the same time, I wished she’d leave me alone. This was my only chance to be on my own in these woods, chewing over my own problems (by which I mean both Henry’s and my real-world ones; there is profound crossover, in that both of us desperately crave a break from mounting responsibility) rather than the problem of how I felt about Delilah and who was listening in on that problem.

There are times when I questioned Firewatch’s pacing; not its length, which seems to me to fit the game, but rather how it chooses to compress and elongate its experience. For every moment in which it seems to offer the freedom of a walk in the woods, it cuts it short with a conversation or, worse, one of the very many and very obvious invisible walls that ensure certain courses must ultimately be taken. If I did go back, what I would do is refuse to respond to Delilah’s calls whenever possible, and just walk and take photographs instead.

The saddest limitation of them all was a mid-game sequence when Firewatch switches from living out Henry’s days in the forest and instead to showing a series of jump-cuts scattered across several days. While somewhat effective as a means of showing the passage of time and Henry’s adapting to this lifestyle, it’s too fast, too cut-up: we don’t get to meaningfully experience his change from anxiously needing a task to contentedly eating sandwiches as the sun sets gorgeously. Instead we are shown that it has already happened. “Enjoy the sunset, Henry,” says Delilah fondly once the latest plot-momentum has slowed – and then the game cuts again to the next day and the next development. I wish I could have watched that sunset for an hour or more.

Partly that’s my own problem: trying to have my cake and eat it. I want the walking game and I want the mystery game; even the romance game. Partly I think it really is the game’s problem: having its cake and eating it. It wants to be unhurried walking game or the ruralised Gone Home, but it also wants a little of that Thirty Flights Of Loving jump-cut cool. It wants forward momentum even though it has built this great and graceful forest to enjoy. (There are points at which the narrative suffers from this hand-on-the-back pressure too: an abruptness to the denouement about the Goodwins, not enough meat put on the bones of Delilah’s relationship with the missing boy. I think, perhaps, the editor’s scalpel cut a few too many times as it sought wisely to avoid an excess of exposition).

It does, however, exert that pressure in wonderful ways: the sonic pressure of the radio detector drawing close to its target, then a quietly pounding new arrival on the score which sounds like death coolly knocking on the door, and finally the frightening, choking spread of the inevitable fire. The last act was powerfully, queasily dramatic, and the discovery of tragedy was awful – especially as a parent.

I cried when I saw the father’s day card. I thought of my little girl, away at nursery as I write this, and how it would feel if she didn’t come back. Ned Goodwin, though such a fool to have left his son’s accidental (or so I chose to believe) death unreported, is right in one respect: there’s so much you don’t know until you’re a parent. I was crushed by his loss – even though I felt his story had been too compressed until this point, had little weight until that last act.

Henry lived 79 days in the forest, but I was given just a few hours. I felt I had been made to leave too soon. Not because I wanted to be told more story – that was as complete and as powerfully bittersweet as it needed to be – but because I wasn’t ready to depart the woods. I wanted to stay and watch the sunset. I wasn’t ready to Go Home.

But I say that as someone who only played it once, and wanted to know what would happen, because mystery was conjured. Perhaps if I went back I would not feel that pressure, and would just wander. Again, I don’t want to go back: I don’t want to change Henry and Delilah’s history. My and Delilah’s history, which is simply as friends and confidants.

I had Henry choose to go home, back to a wife who would probably no longer recognise him and in-laws who would loathe him for his former absence, back to pressure and grief and no freedom, and I felt devastated by it. Both at how dark his and his family’s future would be, and that he had to leave the woods and canyons and gulleys behind – one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. One that joins the hallowed company of STALKER, Dear Esther and Proteus as game-places I can close my eyes and conjure up.

Was I a good man to go back home, to resolutely spurn a possibly brighter future with Delilah (not that I presume she would have wanted that herself; I talk only of where my imagination went to)? Or to decide not to wait for the fire to come and burn away my grief and guilt and responsibility? Was being a good man worth it?

I sat and stared at the photographs I had taken for almost an hour, and thought of running away. Then I remembered the farmers.

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51 Comments

  1. amateurviking says:

    I too shall not be going back but will remember the experience for some time.

    Thanks, Alec

  2. Premium User Badge

    gritz says:

    Henry’s relationship with Delilah and his pursuit of the central mystery are just as much part of the escape he seeks as his isolation. While I can understand wanting more time to yourself in the wilderness, those elements are not completely separate from the main theme of the game.

    The possibility of romance with Delilah is just as illusory as the idea of a government conspiracy at Wapiti Station. She’s in a committed relationship and clearly sees Henry as her own escapist fantasy. When the reality of the central plot comes crashing down on her, she recognizes that things have gone too far and cuts things off, urging them both to return to their real lives.

    Some people have pointed to this as a lack of choice and consequence. Maybe it is, but it’s also a really poignant statement about the limits of dependence and projection.

    • Random Integer says:

      She isn’t in a committed relationship, her relationship fell apart a number of years ago (the only information to contradict that has been fabricated by Ned), though I agree that her relationship with Henry is illusory. A mirage for him to chase.

      • Premium User Badge

        gritz says:

        Fair enough, her continuing relationship with Javier is based on an admittedly unreliable source. Though it is clear that she still has deep feelings for him, or regrets, that Henry & Shoshone are helping her avoid.

        • Random Integer says:

          Agreed, she is running away just as much as Henry is.

  3. ZedZed says:

    This is what RPS is all about (for me). A thoroughly well written article, full of honesty and emotion. Thanks Alec. You give of yourself and enrich our lives with your (deepest) thoughts.

  4. Metalfish says:

    I don’t know if I’d place Delilah in that maniac-pixie-dreamgirl pigeonhole, necessarily. Not very neatly, anyway. I winced a tiny bit when one of the first things she said was very sexually-charged, and a bit creepy. Deliberately and well-written to set up a certain kind of expectation to subvert later, I guess. Their relationship never takes that course, unless I missed the options, but I suspect they’re rebuffed even if they are.

    The entire game is about running away seeming to be the easy option. Run away to the wood. Run to the new person etc. Every character is running from something, quite probably the pain that comes from real relationships and real consequences.

    Bit of a shame that something that likes the idea of subverting the “big” and “dramatic” expectations with more realistic and down to earth results resorts to the deeply suspect “knock-em-out-without-lasting-head-injury” cliché.

    Still, if I ignore the timescales, I can pretend that the missing girls are the ones from Gone Home and Henry ends up moving to England and having a car accident near the Sandford junction, causing him to become a hermit on a Hebredian island where he listens to mp3 players and solves light puzzles and wakes up as a robot in a damn… (probably enough of that).

    • Mokinokaro says:

      Also, Alec seems to have possibly missed the detail that Delilah is an alcoholic and likely drunk for half (or more) of her conversations with Henry.

  5. Alec Meer says:

    I meant to say: I started writing this about 90 seconds after finishing Firewatch, because I wanted to see where the emotion took me before my usual anxiety about getting everything Right had a chance to kick in.

    Some very different interpretations have occurred to me since, as the rush of grief and longing for a life in the woods fades, and I may write about those another time.

  6. Goodtwist says:

    How would you call the visual style employed in Firewatch? Is that cell shading? With (de-)saturated colours? And how do you achieve that style?

  7. ribby says:

    Personally was incredibly disappointed by this game.

  8. Random Integer says:

    Think the game does a pretty great job of building up Henry and Delilah as believable characters purely through their interactions. It is one of the few games where I made conversation choices based not on trying to get the ‘best’ outcome but just on what I felt the character would be thinking and feeling at that moment. The only criticism I have is with the Goodwin plot, which drives so much of what happens but seemed so disappointingly weak to me.

    • Faxmachinen says:

      I think gave the authors far too much credit while playing; by the time the game finished I was sure there would be a double or even triple plot twist reveal. I mean, some “lone nutter” just happens to find abandoned military hardware in the forest? Yeah, that sounds legit.

      I’m still unsure whether I missed some brilliantly subtle hint at a twist in the ending. Was the story really that dumb?

  9. BrotherSurplice says:

    Articles like these are the reason that I visit Rock Paper Shotgun. Thank you.

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    TehK says:

    Wow. This was a really great article, very insightful and personal. Thanks you, Alec.

    As people already mentioned before… yes, this is also for me the reason to read RPS. And this in particular is now the reason to finally become supporter. I think RPS in general delivered some very fine articles this year already. Well done :)

  11. Imbecile says:

    Cheers for this Alec. Without ever having played Firewatch, though I may, I can empathise a lot with what you’ve written.

  12. Shiloh says:

    Like others on here, I role-played it too Alec, making “my” Henry the sort of bloke I’d hope to be if I was faced with his situation (which I sort of have been, though that’s thankfully resolved itself now). Sure, it’s nice to have a flirty chick flutter her eyelashes at you (virtual or not – many of us men will have been there), but at the end of the day, you make a promise when you get married and what are you if you don’t see the promise through?

    The ending still felt weak, disjointed and hurried to me though. I do get it, I just don’t think it was particularly well done.

  13. kament says:

    Damn. This right here is something I could never get out of a videogame. Or any sort of fiction, if I’m being honest. Perhaps I’m just broken.

    And perhaps that’s why I like reading about it. Gives me a chance to look at how it feels, even though from the outside.

    That was a good read, thanks.

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    caff says:

    Being a good man (or woman) is always the best path to take. You did the right thing Adam(oiselle).

  15. Saul says:

    I just finished it the night before last. I don’t think my emotional response was quite as strong as yours, Alec, but most of what you’ve said rings true. I was personally conflicted about the wandering – it was extraordinarily peaceful one moment, then its game-iness leapt back out as I got stuck on a rock, or noticed that the trees weren’t moving appropriately in the wind. The narrative and relationship with Delilah were more interesting, and – while I agree with you that it felt a bit truncated in parts – the experience was ultimately satisfying. I too shied away from the overtly romantic dialogue choices: although I may have pushed the flirting a bit more than you did, it ultimately seemed hopeless to even try and go down that road. Perhaps Henry will return to his difficult responsibilities refreshed after this interlude. I like to think so.

    • qrter says:

      I had it every time I couldn’t simply push through a bit of brush, or push a bush aside. It’s what games do, ofcourse, but it felt even more disappointing in this game, for some reason.

  16. Chopper says:

    You are the absolute best, Alec Meer

  17. Synesthesia says:

    This one hit me hard, too- my personal worst fear is dementia. Slowly fading away is like having your soul die and leaving a husk behind. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

    Loved the themes of dissapointment, of escapism, the smoke that slowly covers everything. It’s properly directed, this one. The several ellipsis (what’s the plural for this word?) you mention are not unwelcome, in my opinion.

    When I finished, I couldn’t stop thinking about this video, so I watched again:

  18. Premium User Badge

    Yyve says:

    Beautiful article and telling I think how a game like this can really affect you through the screen. I too had quite the epiphany while playing it and even though it only lasted a few hours, it will linger in my mind for some time I feel.

  19. yogibbear says:

    I probably have a reading problem, but this article took me longer to read than it did to finish Firewatch. It also had more thought put into it. Sadly if Alec did go and replay it, he’d find his choices meant nothing.

    • ComradeSnarky says:

      Citizen Kane runs two hours and the plot never changes no matter how many times I watch it. I guess it’s not worth watching.

      • anHorse says:

        Citizen Kane is a movie that masterfully uses cinematic techniques.
        Firewatch is a game that uses cinematic techniques (the cuts) in an incredibly grating manner

        • ComradeSnarky says:

          Okay, but does that have anything to do with the original comment or my reply?

  20. Premium User Badge

    Thulsa Hex says:

    Lovely piece, Alec. Cheers.

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    cockpisspartridge says:

    You never used to get any of this sort of thing with the old games. Bring back the WW2 genre I say. When men were men. ;)

  22. LennyLeonardo says:

    Great read. I wish there were firewatch jobs that just lasted, say, two weeks. That would be perfect. I don’t want to end up like Delilah. Or Ned. Or Brian, for that matter.

  23. Geebs says:

    The jump cuts in the second act, and the godawful rappelling bits, were genuine mis-steps, the Ned plot doesn’t really work, and the dialogue is a bit too knowing, but Firewatch really does succeed at pulling you in to the drama.

    I agree with some of the other posters, though: Delilah is pretending to be a Manic Pixie but she’s really a manipulative, self-destructive, lush.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      I tend to think she’s a bored fantasist, playing the pixie part sporadically for her own entertainment, enabled by anonymity and distance. Basically she’s behaving like any human would if they lived alone in a tower in the woods with only voices on a radio for company. She’s sort of the midpoint between Hank and Ned, which is why she feels so guilty about Brian, I think.

    • qrter says:

      It does pull you into the drama, to only then suddenly drop you out of it like a sack of potatoes. The actual drama, regarding Henry and his wife, is handled quite poorly, I feel. The few times he discusses it with Delilah are short and don’t reveal much, except that Delilah is quick to give him her opinion on the matter. The thriller plot gets in the way, and then suddenly at the end the question of what Henry should do regarding his wife is reintroduced, and it feels inconsequential. Delilah again gives her opinion, and I found myself wondering what she was basing it on, as Henry never really discusses the experience of having a wife with dementia, and the choices he already has had to make.

      Generally, I feel the characterisations in the game are quite flat. I got a better sense of who Henry is from the introductory text part of the game, then from anything that happened after. To me, Delilah remained a cipher, only able to communicate in tiresome quips. I get the impression that the game’s excellent voice acting makes the script seem a lot more layered than it actually is.

  24. Rumpelstiltskin says:

    I learnt a new word from the article, so I’m quite happy I read it.

  25. mechanixis says:

    I finished Firewatch a couple days ago and this is exactly the sort of article I was hoping for from RPS.

  26. jonahcutter says:

    I wish the game had been mostly them communicating with each other throughout the course of the summer. I thought the mystery plotline, while well set up, ended being pretty dumb.

    ::Big big spoilers in paragraph below::

    Not the death of the boy himself, but the whole scenario the father then played out to trick Henry and Delilah seemed so laughably false and forced. Spending the summer finding a missing boy while they shared and jousted and bonded would of been great as is, without the whole mystery of “Who’s listening to us!”.

    :: end spoilers::

    It didn’t need the big, weird mystery. The strength of the writing and world building was plenty. And yeah, just spending more time hiking, exploring, snapping photos and maybe even a little actual firewatching would of been a unique experience.

    Little mundane dramas would of been plenty as well. A ranger’s truck stuck in the mud. A hiker with a broken ankle. A lost boyscout. An unrepentant smoking fisherman. A wandering bear. A mischievous coyote.

    I think they missed an opportunity in not having you do much of the actual job and just focusing on the everyday, instead forcing in a rather outlandish mystery.

    And then the arc between the two mains could of played out more leisurely and with more weight. It was well done, it just felt a bit abrupt and supplanted too often by the forced mystery.

    • KenTWOu says:

      They did it that way, because it was cheaper. A hiker with a broken ankle demands another voice actor, NPC model, additional animations, AI and its path finding algorithms, etc…

      Campo Santo doesn’t have time or resources to do all of that in its first project. That’s why Firewatch is so… I don’t know how to put it without being a little bit offensive or arrogant… shallow? Hollow? Lifeless?

      Even expensive indie games like SOMA (which was ten times bigger and better in terms of narrative) don’t have complex situations with another characters you described.

      Unfortunately, putting another character in front of virtual camera in a game environment is the hardest part of game development as opposed to cinema where it’s the easiest part.

      • kament says:

        That’s why Firewatch is so… I don’t know how to put it

        I think the word you’re looking for is lonely. Solitary. Secluded. Take your pick.

  27. Kerbal_Rocketry says:

    I completely agree about the pacing. The jumping about annoyed me, it took a lot away and limited your freedom.

    It would of been nice to of had every day start with getting up and end with going to sleep. So if you want to stay out longer you can, maybe go for a casual hike, instead of always rushing between objectives or feeling pressured by the story.

    A new game+ mode with that in mind would be lovely. If you want to skip the day just go to bed, the wake up call in the morning should tell you if anything will happen.

  28. Jackablade says:

    It’s been interesting reading other people’s thoughts on the relationship with Delilah. I took an immediate dislike to her and told her to back off and not to pry into my personal business on a couple of occasions. This lead to one sequence where she got huffy and refused to speak to me.

    I’m not sure whether this altered how the rest of the game played out or whether it just changed the context but while things got friendlier with time, there was never any question of Delilah being a love interest. I’m not sure whether it was even a friendship – the panicking over the big mystery kind of distracts from that side of things. Perhaps a co-worker I could share a beer with. Or maybe something non-alcoholic, given the history of alcoholism on both sides there.