In Firewatch Your Choices Don't Matter, And That's Okay

"Great writing, beautiful environments, I absolutely loved this game, but it had a disappointing ending -- Not Recommended"

Viewing only a small sample of the Steam reviews for February's breakout indie game Firewatch seem to turn up the same theme again and again -- where love turns to apathy turns to hate in the closing half hour of the game, all because of the ending. The Steam reviews tend to chronicle players building up endless expectations for a certain ending, and then being hopelessly disappointed -- all because, when it came down to it, their choices didn't matter.

Warning, this story contains spoilers for the ending of Firewatch.

In explaining Firewatch to other people, I've often likened its opening sequence to the infamous one from Up. Short and sweet, it builds a believable and beautiful relationship between the characters and then tears it down only moments later. But where Up sets its main character up for a journey to let go of his past and move on, Henry's story is not so straightforward.

You've left a wife you love, who sometimes doesn't even remember you, who's forgotten the dog she used to adore when you tell her of its passing. The worst thing is, she's still alive. You can't move on like Up's Carl does. She's still your living wife, but sometimes -- more and more -- it feels like she's dead to you.

"Oh no." The game immediately feels like it's setting you up for something, especially once you hear your supervisor's cheery and very female voice across the radio on your first morning. If you've read any of the promotional material for the game this feeling is even stronger: "you’ll explore a wild and unknown environment, facing questions and making choices that can build or destroy the only meaningful relationship you have."

The whole game through -- from an amorous conversation with your supervisor over the glow of a new forest fire to finding your wedding ring and having to decide whether to put it back on or not -- Firewatch seems to be setting you up for a difficult decision -- do you go back to your wife, or do you stay with the quirky, clever, flirty Delilah?

In the end, Delilah takes that decision from you.

Dragon Age Origins was one of the very first games that I had ever played with the promise of game-changing decisions and multiple endings. Of course, once you level up your coercion enough in that game, people will do almost anything that you tell them to. As I drew towards the end of the game I had gotten used to being unquestioningly obeyed, so I started planning how I wanted the ending to pan out. I had decided to sacrifice myself in a noble finale, but when the moment actually came all my coercion skills failed me and Alistair -- my love interest of choice at that time -- made the sacrifice himself without my permission.

Of course I played through it again, fixed my mistakes, saved everyone, but that 'perfect' playthrough felt oddly sterile. I always felt that that initial mess of an ending was the real one.

That was my first taste of games refusing to give me what I wanted. Bioware's lead writer David Gaider touched on this idea in his talk at GX Australia this year. He said that, while numerous players were disappointed that they couldn't romance Alistair when playing as a man, or Cassandra as a woman, he thought it would weaken the character if they just did everything the player wanted of them.

"Although I suppose that the same women who want to romance Cassandra have probably experienced the same kind of rejection in real life, and might not want it in their game as well," he added a moment later, seeming to question his previous assertion.

It's the same question that Firewatch left me pondering -- should games strive to depict reality, or are they made for telling fantastical stories? Do they owe it to their players to give them more agency, more control over the game world than they realistically should have?

If nothing else, Firewatch's ending is realistic. What seems like a huge conspiracy is actually just a guy with implied mental health issues and a couple of coincidences that aren't actually connected at all. Whether that makes for a good story, however, is another question. While I'll admit that the denouement of the whole mystery plotline was a little disappointing to me too, there was another complaint that seems to keep popping up.

"Why didn't I get to meet Delilah?"

At the end, Delilah turns out to be one of the biggest promises never fulfilled. The Firewatch subreddit is full of threads looking for closure on this character they bonded with in three short hours of gameplay: "Why couldn't we meet Delilah?" "Can we get a sequel where you get to meet her?" "I miss Delilah…"

Most players just expected to get to meet the voice on the other side of the radio -- at least if they were friends with her and asked her to wait -- but in the end, your princess is in another watchtower. While there are a number of technical theories as to why this might have happened -- the devs ran out of time, maybe, or they didn't want to model her, or they thought she would look weird in the game's art style. If you do take the time there, however, you'll realise that her watchtower isn't really empty.

Putting a face to a character like Delilah is a bit like putting a voice to a character like Samus -- it can never make everyone happy. But in her tower you get to meet her in a different way. From the bottle of tequila to the 'Pork Pond' sign on the wall to the camp chair on the balcony with an abandoned pair of binoculars, everything there tells an intricate story about this woman you'll never actually be able to see face-to-face.

It's an interesting twist on that age-old trope: the hero always gets the girl. When playing games, we're always the hero of the story, accustomed to getting everything we want, to winning against all the odds. Delilah seems to be promised as just another collectible, but as the game draws to its close, she eventually proves that her drunken flirtations were just that -- as implied in one of Ned's notes:

"D: Feelings for H -- maybe just drunk"

Maybe it wasn't the false promise of a more meaningful relationship that disappointed some players, but simply the fact that Henry's story only ever comes to one resolution no matter what you do. In the world of video games we're used to games rewarding us for playing the game extra-well -- sometimes with a 'good ending' where you get everything you were striving for. Firewatch doesn't follow this formula -- there's only one ending, no matter how you play it. In between the singular beginning and the singlular ending, however, Firewatch has the ability to tell so many different stories.

I'm in the minority of gamers with my propensity for replaying games. Almost all the story and decision-heavy games I've ever played, I've played twice, searching for a new story in a familiar game. Firewatch is no exception -- and playing through a second time reveals a breadth of story options that starts to make the price tag seem more reasonable.

I decided to play this game with no mention of Julia -- or at least no mention of the fact that she was Henry's wife and their particular situation. To my surprise, this leads to Delilah telling you at length about her ex-boyfriend, Javier -- the same one that most would have at least seen mentioned in Ned's notes. She seems to assume you had a bad breakup (referring to Julia as your ex from that point on) and bonds with you over those similarities.

She also tells you, right at the end, that she's been thinking about calling up her ex again.

Maybe it wasn't just a last minute decision. Maybe she never wanted to see you. Maybe it wasn't even about Brian at all -- it was just what she had decided. Getting this snippet of dialogue makes you realise -- there was nothing you could have done to convince her otherwise. There's no 'good ending' or 'bad ending', just an ending.

One of the most successful things about this game is how real the characters feel, and how the connection you form really feels genuine. By making the decision herself instead of leaving it to the player, Delilah retains this 'realness' -- becoming more than just a passive prop in Henry's story.

Most games will approach decision-based games with the idea that their choices should -- and will matter. In Firewatch, they don’t. And that's okay.


    My girlfriend always asks me what dessert she should make to take to an upcoming event.

    I say lemon meringue pie (I like lemon meringue pie).

    She always makes something else...

      REALISM (lemon meringue pie is great though I can give you a recipe)

    I was fine with the ending. Not meeting Delilah somehow made it more believable.

    I loved the ending. In fact I enjoyed the whole story, one of the most believable stories in a video game I've experienced. There's a few annoying bits here and there, but I could criticise some of my favourite movies for the same thing.

    The Steam reviews tend to chronicle players building up endless expectations for a certain ending, and then being hopelessly disappointed all because, when it came down to it, their choices didnt matter.

    I read a lot of the negative reviews after I finished the game trying to figure out why people were downvoting a game I really enjoyed. From my reading of their reviews, aside from 'it's really short', most people did expect a certain ending but it wasn't the impotency of choices that caused their displeasure, it was just the ending wasn't what they wanted.

    Ending spoilers:
    What people wanted was for the weird conspiracy/secret agents running social experiments in the forest to be the real storyline. They got upset when it turned out it was a red herring and the real story was about a father who lost his mind because he couldn't handle the death of his son. Pretty much every review I read that hinted at an 'unsatisfying ending' were making subtle and not-so-subtle comments in that direction.

    I don't understand the people complaining about the ending.
    Although your choices had no impact on the ENDING, they had a huge impact on the way you individually experienced the rest of the game from beginning to end.

    I found the ending, and the game in general incredibly touching and well executed. It was painfully obvious henry was struggling with whether his life was actually worth living and the choice at the end was massive in my opinion.

    Delilah, in my view was never important. The whole game is about whether henry chooses to live or die.

      That's a really interesting way to look at it!

        Play it through again and be an ass to Delilah at every opportunity. Henry comes off as a gruff loner who doesn't want relationships with people.

        And to really hammer the point home *spoiler* don't actually have to get on the chopper at the end.

          I really want to do that playthrough actually! I have other games to play this year though, so I don't want to get too caught up in replaying.

      I too didnt understand the disappointment with the ending.

      I was expecting something really boring to happen but then it just ended on a note where it felt like it should... I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Shoshone National Park!

    I loved Firewatch and the ending too. Any feelings you have about the ending with Delilah is a testament to how well the game makes you want her.

    A lot of (great) movies don't fully deliver a "satisfying" ending, so why is it so bad when a game doesn't? Maybe we get spoilt with games always giving us good endings, which is okay because of how long they are compared to movies. However, with Firewatch only being 2-3 hours long and $20, it shouldn't be a huge deal.

    Let's be honest - a ton of games' endings are a "disappointment" in some way or another. The outcry for something like Mass Effect 3, the disappointment with MGS 5. I figure a lot of people build up a preconceived notion of what it's going to be in their heads, then when it comes around, it falls flat.

    For me, the ending is basically only 1% of the game. When I think back on a game I always remember the parts laid out throughout the story that effected me the most - DA Origins always has me thinking about the deep roads and the magic tower; Undertale, the meetings with the characters and how those relationships evolve; Firewatch, the story revolving around the girls, the bear, the father and son, the dialogue between D & H along the way. That's why Firewatch is a stellar game to me, irrespective of how the ending shaped up.

    I'm so glad we have someone who understands the breadth of narrative in gaming, great article on a perspective sorely missing from discussion. All too often we have people trying to funnel games down a narrow tunnel of critique, refusing all perspectives or even factual information that harms their assessment (which only works if you ignore most story conventions). Would love the myth and ignorance behind choice in gaming to be dispelled so we can actually have diverse experiences like we do with film, where people can actually take creative chances and accept artistic challenges without every single uneducated critic claiming they're doing it wrong because it doesn't hold up to an imaginary criteria. Thanks for opening up the perspectives Hayley.

      I came from a film studies background so I feel that might help when looking at game narratives from a different perspective for sure.

    I loved Firewatch too, but felt the story started to get very flossy towards the end. The dad sort of maybe killed his son and decided Start a new life as a hermit about 250m away. The maelstrom of flames seemed to to go almost unremarked, and the big spy surveillance thing just fizzled out.

    I'd have liked to see more personal stuff come up. What if Henry received an urgent radio relay just after the paths became closed, saying he was needed urgently back home? What if the comma finally went down before he could find out why? That sort of stuff. I jus seemed like all the stories. The girls, the wire tapping, the boy, the fire... They all just lost impetus.

    At no point do I think Ned was mentally ill. He just feared the consequences of going home without his son and decided to stay there. That was what I got from him.

    Hmm... I remember people complaining about how you had no real choice at the end of Mass Effect 3.

    While the main direction of the game is not really changed by choices, there are subtle nuances that are. Certain dialogue changes depending on what you say to Delilah. There are other small things, little details that Henry picks up on and some he may not, he waits for you to. Such as< Possible Spoiler>( But they are small not story spoiling I don't think) When he discovers the snowmobiles, he asks where he is, which leads to a discussion about the ponds name, "Pork Pond" and why there is no sign there( People kept stealing it) At the end, when you are in Delilahs tower, you see the Pork Pond sign at the top of the wall over her radio. I did not notice it the first time I played through. I also did not notice that, in the beginning, when they were becoming acquainted, he made it clear he was Henry and did not like "Hank". Then one of the last things she says to him( At least in my second play through), when she says her good byes, she clearly and intentionally calls him "Hank".
    There are most likely many little easter eggs scattered throughout, it's whether we pay attention to see them. They are not big in your face ones, but like the game, they make you smile and reflect when you notice them.
    Firewatch is a very moving game and, even though I know the ending and have played it twice, I feel compelled to go back again and immerse myself in this haunting, lonely and sad little corner of the world.
    Great Great Story!

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