"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.