Spoiler Warning: The following contains spoilers about the plot, events, and the ending of Firewatch. Big ones.

Firewatch can never be the experience I wanted it to be, and to be blunt, it left a Firewatch shaped hole in my Firewatch shaped heart. Ever since it came to my attention, it was the game I anticipated above all others. I was aching to explore its amber drenched vistas and unravel its mysterious story through the stocky digits and staunch forearms of Firewatch’s protagonist, Henry.

I played Firewatch on PS4, and it was a shaky experience. Aside from frequently encountering the distracting framerate issues, my experience was marred by two game-breaking bugs, the second of which came no more than half an hour before the game’s conclusion. I was less than enthused by the prospect of starting over yet again.

It happened during a sequence where Henry treks off into the wilderness at twilight, following the blips of his orientation device. Weirded-out by a tequila infused Delilah, he turns his radio off so he can focus. After completing the task, the radio is turned back on and the two face an unnerving situation – Delilah can see someone in Henry’s lookout in his absence. It’s a compelling moment, but the tension was soon broken. While hurrying back to Henry’s post to investigate, a dialogue exchange from an earlier conversation triggered, after which, Henry turned his radio back off. From then on Henry was unable to make contact with Delilah. Delilah could talk to Henry, but I couldn’t make him respond. All I could do was wait for the reply window to run out. For the second time (and this time at a pivotal moment) my immersion was shattered, and I felt like it was time to give up. This wasn’t the experience I was supposed to have.

But then I noticed Delilah’s responses to Henry’s silence and how disheartened she was by being ignored. The game’s themes of disrupted relationships and isolation were amplified. It got me thinking: what would happen if you went through Firewatch without talking to Delilah at all? How would that colour an experience that’s already about cutting yourself off? So that’s what I decided to do when starting over, and it was one of the bleakest experiences I’ve had in a game.

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Upon starting this playthrough, I noticed how much of the conversation is optional. There are only a few key scripted moments where it’s necessary to talk to Delilah to move the plot forward. All other conversations just exist to shape the character’s personalities and interactions.

Instead of quips and lighthearted jabs, her dialogue is filled with deflated “well, let me knows” and lingering “anyways…” She sounds defeated, and I started to feel like an asshole. Here was the only person Henry had contact with, someone who’s trying to form a bond with him, someone with their own baggage who desperately wants to connect, and I was relentlessly blanking her. It didn’t feel good. But I pressed on by pressing nothing.

When Delilah asks about Henry’s appearance while sketching him, his silence seems to genuinely hurt her. She wants to be able to picture him physically as the two cannot meet. It’s an intimate proposal to describe yourself to a stranger, particularly as these days if you’re viewing someone as a potential romantic interest, you’ve probably already creeped their social networks. The dismissal leaves her feeling vulnerable and awkward, but she manages to have a little fun with the situation, filling in the blanks of Henry’s appearance herself. She snarkily suggests that his wardrobe is probably filled with “gross bowling shirts”. I imagine she’s right.

The moment where Henry and Delilah are talking as they overlook the developing fire is pivotal in the progression of their relationship, even if the player isn’t entirely receptive to Delilah’s flirtation. While the scene can end with an implied sexual exchange over the airwaves (as hot as I just made that sound), if you ignore all of Delilah’s come-ons, she abruptly ends the conversation by remarking rather darkly: “Why don’t we both just watch this fire and try to imagine all the old dead things inside.” Bleak, right?

Unsurprisingly, the two know nothing about each other. Delilah can only assume that Julia is Henry’s partner since they never have the conversation. She thinks that he’s just been burned by a bad relationship, as have many folks that come out to the forest. She says that whatever happened between Henry and Julia, she’s happy it did, because it brought Henry to her. Considering Julia is on the other side of the globe suffering from a degenerative (and eventually fatal) illness, it was a really uncomfortable statement. Henry didn’t know about Delilah’s last boyfriend until he found the documents about the two at Wapiti Station. These characters that can have such an intimate rapport were like strangers.

After Brian’s body is found, and it’s revealed that Ned had left him to rot at the bottom of the cave, Delilah is furious. When Henry refuses to join in her anger, she turns her rage towards him. She fumes that Henry doesn’t give a shit about Brian’s death and Ned’s role in it. When this plea for compassion is also declined, she achingly questions whether there’s someone on the other end at all: “Jesus Henry, are you even there?” The game mercifully intervenes at this point. It won’t allow me to be that cruel. Henry musters a halfhearted “Delilah..” but Delilah is done. She says there’s nothing left to say.

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Henry and Delilah’s relationship isn’t meant to be forever, or blossom into a story where love overcomes all obstacles – that’s never what Firewatch was about. They probably never meet again, but for that one summer, they had each other. As they both go about their lives, from time to time they’d fondly look back on their relationship and the mysteries they uncovered together. It felt pretty sad to deprive them of that, but perhaps it’s a realistic take on the game’s tone. Henry is damaged by what’s happened in his life. He’s in a lonely, one-sided marriage, but he still cares deeply about Julia. It’s totally feasible that he wouldn’t be capable of entering into even a casually flirtatious relationship, via walkie-talkie or otherwise.

I think playing in this way represents all the things they never say to each other. Even when engaging with all the jovial banter that the characters can have, there’s never an option to say what Henry really feels. There’s no option to declare the beginnings of love. Instead they hide their feelings – and Delilah literally hides in the safety of the headquarters. Everything they want to say remains unsaid. In that sense, it seemed true to the narrative.

The conversation paths in Firewatch are much like the game’s environment. A seemingly broad expanse ready to be explored, but it’s really a place scarred with set paths. While they twist and divert from one another, they all reunite at the same point eventually. We really have no agency in anything other than the how the conversations sound. We have no influence on the events, or the relationship. We always end up alone in Delilah’s tower, having the same awkward, distant conversation. She tells Henry to go to his wife. She mentions how she’d like to reconnect with her ex-boyfriend, hopefully without sounding desperate. She wishes Henry luck in life. My Henry says nothing.

If that isn’t enough of a downer, it’s actually optional to get on the helicopter at Delilah’s lookout. After walking over to the rescue craft and seeing the outstretched hand of the officer, you can turn around and walk back up to the tower and the game ends. Like all other actions in Firewatch, it doesn’t have any result, it doesn’t pop an achievement. The act is simply an end to the narrative that you have shaped – and that has impact in itself.

Firewatch isn’t just about fleeing from life’s problems. To me, it’s more about finding solace in the sometimes fleeting connections we make with others. They may be temporary, but sometimes they come along when we need them the most. So when they do, speak up.

 

 

About The Author

As an Australian, Simon enjoys paying slightly more for games, and occasionally isn't allowed to have the really naughty ones. When he isn't writing about video games, he studies journalism so he can actually one day be good at it. He also experienced an existential crisis after writing in the third person.

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  • Hayden Meredith

    It was really interesting to see the game from this point of view, thanks!

    • Christopher Ronningen

      I actually went back and played it this way after reading it. It was depressing.

      • James Leandris

        Honestly, just hearing about the whole story can make your heart break. I can imagine isolation and I can imagine being ignored the whole time once there was an actual human being to talk to. That can be entirely depressing, I just can imagine how much it would hurt. Especially about the tragedy.