A lot of people were disappointed that the conspiracy hinted at in Firewatch never had a payoff, and I can’t say I blame them. Most of the game was spent building up this idea that something big and sinister was on the horizon, only for that thread to suddenly stop and give way to a wildly different narrative conclusion. It’s understandable that players would be underwhelmed – and whether or not that was the point, it’s tricky to defend a game that elicits disappointment.

Having said that, the conspiracy being a sham does make more sense than the conspiracy being real. I don’t think you have to like the ending to agree on that. I don’t even think reaching that conclusion is a question of whether Firewatch’s disappointing conclusion was thematically appropriate, or whether it was fitting for the narrative that reality didn’t live up to the player’s expectations – the fact is, the game’s reality couldn’t have lived up to the player’s expectations…not without being incredibly contrived.

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Imagining a version of Firewatch where the conspiracy had been real, I can’t think about it for more than a couple of seconds before it falls apart. The game’s two principal characters, Henry and Delilah, believe they’re being monitored by people who want to study how they respond to each other while being more or less isolated from the outside world…but there’s nothing inherently sinister about that. You don’t have to have a particularly advanced knowledge of behavioural psychology to know that that’s a pretty vanilla experiment. Not informing the participants that they’re being observed is arguably the least serious of all ethical breaches, and for many experiments it’s necessary in order to preserve the validity of the results. Whoever was conducting the experiment would eventually inform the protagonists that they were being observed, ask for their permission to release their findings and that would be that. Not uncommon at all.

So suppose instead that there was a secret, evil reason for observing Henry and Delilah: what would that reason be? To ensure that they didn’t get too close to their secret base? Are they observing the effects of some unknown chemical that appears in the park? Maybe there’s some sort of supernatural phenomenon in that place that’s affecting people? There are many maniacal angles that seem perfectly serviceable…until you make one observation:

The place is open to the public.

If there is something sinister and shady going on in that park, there is absolutely no reason why you would ever let ordinary citizens wander in as they please. If you’ve got the power to set up a secret operation spying on lookouts in a national park, you can get that section of the park closed off to the public. There is no advantage to be gained in letting people walk freely around your testing grounds that is worth the risk of your evil experiments being discovered. If they couldn’t stop people coming in, they were stupid for setting up an evil base in a popular tourist destination.

So maybe they had closed the place off and the people the protagonists saw in the park were all confederates and actors sent in to throw them off the scent. But if the park was closed off, people would know. There’d be some cover story in place, but people on the outside would know it was closed off. Henry, who was on the outside and took the job voluntarily, would have to know. Even if we swallow the idea that he somehow managed to miss the story that a national park had been closed off, we would then have to accept that he didn’t think to research the place where he was going to be working, or that he did and the fact that it had been put under quarantine somehow never came up. Then maybe he knew it was closed off and for some reason that didn’t ring any alarm bells: why would the confederates still be there? If he was expecting there to be nobody but himself and Delilah out there, wouldn’t the presence of two drunk naked girls in the forest be something of an anomaly?

The only way it would work is if they waited for Henry to arrive and then closed off the park, but that’d mean there was still a period where the place was open to the public and their secret experiments were at risk of being discovered. For their diabolical plans to not be at risk, whatever shadowy entity is behind this conspiracy would have to not have anything set up until Henry arrived, then suddenly close the park, eject all members of the public from the vast national park and scramble to set up a base – ALL without Henry or Delilah noticing.

Anyone else think that’s a bit much?

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I’ll admit that changes could be made to the narrative to make the conspiracy angle work, but so many changes would be needed that once the writers were done it would no longer be Firewatch as we know it – and it’s Firewatch as we know it that players were expecting to end in a big conspiracy reveal. That’s the nature of disappointment: we’re easily led to assume that something else would have been better, and we don’t necessarily think about the reality of the situation until much later. Generating such a response from the audience deliberately was a bold move, and while it seems to have backfired in many cases I think it’s ultimately a good thing that developers Campo Santo tried it.

I’m not going to suggest the ending was perfect; the player’s never given any real hints that the supposed experiment might be an illusion except for a few pieces of slightly out-of-place but easily dismissible electrical equipment in the ‘research tent’, making it feel less like playing on our expectations and more like tricking us by withholding information (which doesn’t require nearly as much skill). But that’s an issue with the delivery rather than the concept, and I don’t doubt that it’s that decietful delivery that players found abrupt and jarring about the ending rather than the fact of it being anticlimactic.

Long-term, when players and critics have had time to divorce the quality of the narrative from the sense of disappointment it set out to create, I believe we’ll all be able to look back on Firewatch and agree that it made sense for it to end the way it did. Whether you’re someone who disliked the ending or someone who defended it, I can guarantee you one thing: you would have been WAY more disappointed by the conspiracy than you were by its absence.

About The Author

Purveyor of "deep thoughts", talker of Things, non-associate of crows: Indie Haven's resident Good Video Boy lies in wait deep within the Clown Tower for your audio-visual enjoyment. Creator of Worth Mentioning and co-star of ThingsTalk and The Indie Haven Podcast.

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