As of word of warning, I will be interpreting the meaning and messages behind the story of Firewatch and will therefore be referencing events and dialogue from the whole of Firewatch. DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER, IF YOU’VE NOT FINISHED THE GAME. For my spoiler-free thoughts on the game, read my review.
Introduction: Am I missing something?
After my first play-through of Firewatch I was left feeling utterly confused. What happened to the government conspiracy? What happened to the axe murders abducting teenage girls? “That’s not what I expected,” I thought. Of course I understood the story on a surface level, but I was left feeling I had missed something. I felt there must have been more to Firewatch than what meets the eye. After just one playthrough, I felt like I had only begun to scratch the surface.
So I immediately began my second play-through. A third followed. And then it all began to click.
Studying and carefully considering the story, its major and minor characters, its setting, and even the video game form itself, I found something amazing. In my eyes, it was the kind of amazing that warranted a score of 10 in my review. Worried it may not click for everyone, I’ve endeavoured here to explain my interpretation of Firewatch, beginning with the narrative before moving into its meaning.
Let me stress, this is my interpretation; it may be wrong, yours may well be different. In fact, I would encourage you to form your own! I would love to hear your thoughts; I sense a discussion needs to be had regarding this game. (UPDATE: Thank you for all the comments! Be sure to continue scrolling after reading my thoughts to read dozens more interpretations.)
Part One: Firstly, what on earth happened?
Firewatch’s story wraps up quickly, with lots of little narrative pieces hidden in the brief instances of dialogue or in notes scattered throughout the game map. As a result, you might finish the game a little confused, as I initially did. Therefore, let me try to quickly summarise the basic plot as I understand it. Of course, this is my reading of the plot; yours may well differ, so don’t be afraid to share your thoughts in the ongoing discussion in the comments below. (UPDATE: Countless others already have.)
The game begins with an introduction to Henry, drunk in a bar, as he meets a college professor, Julia. (As you play as Henry throughout the game, I will use ‘you’ and ‘Henry’ interchangeably.) The two start dating, fall in love, get a dog, talk about kids, struggle with their relationship and drink a lot. There’s a lot of drinking in this game — remember that, that’s important.
Anyhow, Julia develops early onset dementia and her memory starts failing. As Henry, you make the choice to put her in a care facility or to try and look after her yourself. Ultimately, the decision you make doesn’t matter (that’s kind of the point, again we’ll get back to it) but either way she ends up with her family back in Melbourne, Australia.
Unable to deal with the situation, Henry takes a job working as a fire lookout at the Two Forks lookout in the Shoshone National Park with supervisor Delilah, whom you talk to via radio.
Delilah has had it rough too. She kind of abandoned her boyfriend when his relative died and he rightly dumped her, but she blamed the whole thing on him. (Notice the theme of abandonment yet?) Julia’s troubled as well – the poor soul – and is somewhat of a regular at the Shoshone.
Progressing forward, you run into some mischevious teenage girls who later go missing. Naturally, you suspect this scary looking figure you ran into soon after seeing the girls, who eventually turns out to be Ned, but we’ll get back to him. He’s very important.
Henry returns to his lookout to find it trashed. You blame either the sinister looking figure (Ned) or the teenage girls. Either way, Delilah puts in a call and attempts to pursue the matter, but her inquiries are sabotaged as someone cuts the communications wire. It’s made to look like the teenage girls did it, so you track down their camp to give them what for, but discover they’ve gone and the camp left ransacked.
Assuming it was a bear or a “mushroom trip” or something, you let it slide but later discover a strange transcript of Henry’s dialogue with Delilah. Before Henry can really compose his thoughts, someone clocks him around the back of the head and takes off. You remember enough before being knocked unconscious however to discover a freaky fenced off area in the forest called Wapiti Station.
Uncovering clues suggesting someone is observing and studying both he and Delilah, Henry suspects some grand conspiracy. You break in and uncover all sorts of strange surveillance material, a radio wave detector that picks up electronic signal and more “scientific” records of you and Delilah. Angry and scared, she suggests burning the whole place down, but you dissuade her. Regardless, the place catches fire as you’re leaving. Not cool!
Later that evening, your fancy new radio wave detector picks up a signal which leads you to the very well hidden – and alarmed – set of keys to the cave you stumbled across earlier. Delilah spots someone at Henry’s lookout, but they’re gone by the time you arrive. All that’s left is a cassette tape with a recording of Henry and Delilah’s conversation prior making it sound like you wanted to burn down Wapiti Station. Eek!
The next day, you use your newly acquired key to get into the cave but someone shuts the gate behind you and traps you in. Desperate to get out of this creepy cave, you manage to find a way out that leads you to the hideout of Brian Goodwin. Brian Goodwin was a 12 year old kid that lived with his father and PTSD-sufferer, Ned Goodwin (a.k.a the mysterious figure you were to remember), at Two Forks three years ago. However, the pair mysteriously vanished.
At Brian’s hideout, you find some anchors that allow you to climb deeper into the cave where you sadly discover Brian Goodwin’s severely decomposed corpse.
Well and truly over it, Delilah and Henry decide to leave the next day. However, your radio wave detector picks up another signal which leads to a rope and another cassette. The rope leads to Ned’s lookout and the cassette is a voice recording of Ned Goodwin – who is alive after all – explaining the truth…
Part Two: So… there’s no conspiracy right?
Nope. This is a very real story of human tragedy. Or at least, that’s how I see it.
Piecing together what I can from the notes in Ned’s hideout and his explanation on the voice recording, I feel like I now have an understanding of all the character motivations, and an explanation from all the mysterious events.
Brian is killed in a climbing accident, we kind of have to take Ned’s word on that. Maybe he murdered him, had a PTSD episode and inadvertently killed him, or maybe Ned was just negligent, but either way, it sends Ned of the rails and he abandons his post and hides away in the forest, literally and figuratively abandoning his son.
And so he lives in solitude for three years until he accidentally runs into Henry, triggering all the following events. It’s very cause and effect.
Ned’s ransacked Henry’s lookout, perhaps in an effort to scare him off having run into Henry. He’s paranoid and so acts irrationally. Or perhaps he was ransacking the joint prior to bumping into Henry for supplies, hoping the teenage girls you pissed off would take the blame. That perhaps makes sense considering winter is coming.
Either way, Delilah puts in the call. Ned, attempting to stop Delilah from pursuing the matter further, cuts the communications line and frames the teenage girls leaving the trail of beer cans. As Henry goes to confront them, Ned panics again knowing the girls would deny any involvement and perhaps cause Henry to suspect someone else. Subsequently, Ned destroys the girls’ camp so as to scare them off, leaving Henry’s sheets to direct suspicion towards them for wrecking his lookout. Alternatively, he could have destroyed the camp earlier in a bid to get rid of them too. Worried that this will cause issues for them and may merely be the result of a rogue bear or the influence of drugs, Henry and Delilah put the matter aside, blaming the teenage girls at that point for most of the trouble. Both have had trouble with the police in the past, so it makes sense that they would avoid calling them.
Ned’s in the clear for the time being, but makes a mistake, leaving his transcript of Henry and Delilah’s conversations for Henry to find near the lake. He freaks again, knocking out Henry.
Trying to make the most of Henry and Delilah’s paranoia to scare them away (and explain the recorded dialogue), he leads them to believe that they are the subjects of scientific research by planting false “scientific reports” as Wapiti Station. The station is actually a university research site, currently on break for the summer (this can be discovered by finding a particularly well hidden note). It’s somewhat realistic that Delilah did not know about it; we’ve already established that the Forest Service’s communication and organisation is not great and the station is in at the base of the valley, surrounded by trees, making it difficult to see.
Ned takes advantage of Delilah’s remarks about burning the site down by recording them to use as leverage as need be, and proceeds to burn the site down himself.
Back at Two Forks, the radio wave detector Henry takes from the station picks up Ned’s alarm guarding the cave keys he’d attempted to hide. Admittedly, this confuses me. My guess is that Ned was likely unaware the alarm, potentially a backup in case something or someone stumbles on the keys, would be picked up by the radio wave detector. I don’t know how plausible that is, but it could be possible.
As Henry explores the cave, Ned makes a final ditch attempt to stop him finding Brian’s body. Ned may well want to avoid Henry calling in a search and rescue squad to locate Ned, or the police on suspicion of his murder, so Ned shuts the door behind Henry in an effort to trap him in there. Unfortunately for him, Henry breaks out, finding Brian’s hideout and anchors, which a note reveals Brian has kept hidden from Ned because he’s not keen on climbing. Hmmm, Brian didn’t like climbing hey? Interesting… Did Ned insist he join him on his climbs?
Anyhow, using the anchors Ned didn’t account on you finding, Henry climbs deeper into the cave eventually leading him to Brian’s body.
Conceding defeat and being forced to flee because of the approaching fire anyway, Ned leads Henry to his hideout and admits the truth, pleading Henry not to send anyone after him, but let him live alone in the forest where he does not have to take responsibility for his mistakes.
Part One: Okay… But what does that all mean? That’s kind of anti-climatic right?
Hell no. This is where it gets crazy, and I perhaps get a little crazy analytical, so stick with me if you’ve made it this far.
“I came out here for a breath of fresh air and some adventure.”
Henry delivers this line right at the beginning of the game, and I’ve put it in bold for a reason. In this one line, almost all of Henry’s character motivations are explained.
Firewatch is all about escapism. It’s about running away from real life, from it’s hardships, from your mistakes. Almost every character in the game has a troubled past they are trying to flee from, mistakes they are trying to avoid facing, all of which are inescapable facts of life. Firewatch reminds us that no one is safe from the harsh reality of life. We must face hardship, and deal with its consequences.
Don’t believe me? In the initial stages of the game, the text choices you make are interrupted by Henry literally making his escape into the Shoshone. You even run into a wild deer, which becomes startled as you approach, and flees for safety. The theme slaps you right across the face.
Regardless of the decisions you make in the introduction, mistakes with regards to your relationship with Julia are unavoidable, and Henry runs away from the situation rather than confronting it. For example, when she comes home late you can either be angry or ignore it, but both have negative consequences on your relationship. Let’s remember that we are human, and humans make mistakes. They are an unavoidable fact of life. Unable to deal with the degradation of their relationship, and Julia’s worsening illness, Henry goes seeking “a breath of fresh air and some adventure,” a reprieve to distract him from his thoughts.
It explains why he builds up the conspiracy in his head as he does. Some part of him – something I would argue is part of us all – seeks some desperate, terrible circumstance to distracts us from other challenging aspects of our lives. A grand “conspiracy” seems plausible because it conveniently distracts him from his real problems. If you play through the game again, knowing that it is indeed all Ned’s creation, Wapiti Station looks far faker and clearly not a centre for human surveillance. The folder with their names on it only has only one page of “reports” for each of them; that’s not a very detailed study going on. Yet he seeks this distraction, this psychological escape and so willingly accepts it. We too go to play video games expecting a grand narrative, a ‘story’, maybe to distract us from the mundane reality of our lives, so we’re likely to believe it too — but more on that later.
Escapism is symbolised in the cast of supporting characters too. Delilah represents a possible source of escape for Henry, potentially even a romantic one that you can attempt to pursue. That ultimately fails too; Delilah is an influencing factor on Henry, despite making an escape herself. She too escapes to the lookout post each season, taking a break from life, but the struggles that plague her thoughts remain and she continuously returns to alcohol as an escape. Alcohol is somewhat of a motif throughout the game, continuously signposting escape attempts, from the teenage girls to Delilah, to Henry himself who admits to being a heavy drinker. That obviously doesn’t work for them either; remember they both get DUIs. They cannot escape the law.
It’s interesting that players so eagerly pursue a romance with Delilah or at least want to meet her. Maybe the player wants to abandon Julia, his/your wife, too? I wonder how many of you spotted the ring on Henry’s desk and decided to put it back on…? Again, more on this later.
However, no escape attempts works. Fate forces reality back onto Henry, back onto Delilah and back even onto Ned. The fire, symbolic of life, fate or whatever, closes in on them and forces them out of the forest, back to reality.
Ned maybe represents the extreme path Henry could’ve gone down. There are strong parallels between them. Faced with an incredibly tough situation – the death of his son – Ned abandons Brian and escapes into the depths of the forest, into complete solitude where he does not have to face up to his mistakes or deal with the hardships of real life. Remember, Henry too has abandoned Julia and runs away from dealing with it. Having discovered the truth about Ned, Delilah curses him, calling him a “coward”. Is Henry not cowardly too?
As fate would have it though, cause and effect – and continued mistakes on behalf of Ned – force Ned back to reality as he admits the truth to Henry in a bid to prevent him from alerting the authorities. A manhunt would well and truly foil Ned’s escape.
The truth of the matter is there is no gigantic, larger than life conspiracy. There is no grand plan, no puppet master pulling the strings. There is no one to blame, nowhere to escape, even in the depths of the forest in 1989 before the time of cell phones and the internet. Firewatch is a realistic look at an inescapable human tragedy. We learn that no matter how hard we try, any attempt to flee reality is doomed to fail. We must face it. We must confront it. We must deal with our mistakes. Life will always catch up with us.
Part Two: Isn’t the act of playing video games a form of escape?
And then we consider the form of video games themselves and it gets even more interesting and frankly what makes this game so special I felt it deserved the highest score I could award it. Firewatch affirms video games as a true art-form.
And video games are inherently related to escapism. We play video games to escape aspects of our lives, the hard bits and the boring bits. We enter a world, a world of fantasy, of the surreal, so as to escape and momentarily distract us from the real world. Henry, both literally and metaphorically, enters a video game.
Do we not – in a metaphorical sense – play games for a “breath of fresh air and some adventure?”
Campo Santo uses and manipulates the form of video games to impart the same message; escape is impossible, whether it be in the Shoshone Forest or in a video game, we must eventually leave or log-off and return to reality.
They do so by removing our decision making power, as life so often does. There is a single, fated outcome and despite our best efforts, we are destined to arrive at the same destination, even if the journey is different.
Firewatch exploits traditional video game conventions to build suspense. We’re familiar with outlandish, unrealistic stories in games and as we uncover clues, we naturally begin to formulate our own ideas of conspiracy, of scientific studies, aliens, monsters and axe murders. Let me remind you of the poorly supplied ‘surveillance facility’ we uncover, or the romantic relationship we pursue with Julia. We pursue the same escape Henry seeks.
However, the game ends the way it does and reality hits us hard. There is no conspiracy, just a tragic tale of people unable to deal with the hardships of life. In the end, it’s kind of mundane, sort of anticlimactic. But then, life often is. There’s no grand narrative, climax or big reveal, just real life with all its faults. Depressing I know.
Campo Santo uses the medium of video games in a way I’ve never experienced before, in the process making criticisms of the form like no one has done before. Video games, like taking a job as a fire lookout, cannot allow us to escape. Nothing can. We must eventually log-off and return to reality. That’s probably something all gamers ought to remember.
There we have it; that’s my attempt at explaining and interpreting Firewatch. That’s the depth to which I believe this story goes to, and the reason I felt it deserved a 10.
I feel that – in basic terms – Firewatch tries to impart the impossibility of escape. We cannot escape the harsh reality of life, regardless of what decisions we make. Hardship is something we all experience at some point or another, but we must face it and confront our mistakes.
But that’s my reading of Firewatch, what’s yours?
(UPDATE: Subsequent to publishing my explanation, the game’s lead artist – a well-known artist in his own right – Olly Moss gave my thoughts some credit in the tweet embedded below, so perhaps I’m not wildly off the mark.)
For those that have finished Firewatch, I thought this discussion of its ending is really good. Spoilers abound. https://t.co/b4YSJ4SkFf