Firewatch is a summer burning at both ends

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Depressed, fortysomething Colorado native Henry kicks off the summer struggling. His wife, Julia, is among the five percent of Alzheimer’s sufferers to exhibit symptoms before the age of 65. Even with the strides made with the public awareness campaigns of the ‘80s, prescription drugs made to combat the symptoms of the degenerative disease are still almost a decade from FDA approval.

Henry’s hopelessness stems from not only an inability to care for Julia, but about her. Just as she drifts in and out of lucidity, Henry begins to see less and less of the woman he married – despite living every day with her. Henry’s directionless malaise in such a sensitive situation eventually results in her forcible removal from his care. It’s a hard situation to empathize with, and it leads him on a downward spiral colored by waves of alcohol abuse and self-doubt.

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Henry takes a job with the National Forest Service as arbiter of a portion of Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming. Though it’s never explicitly stated, it’s apparent that Henry takes the gig, temporary in nature, under the pretense of reversing his cycle of indecision and cowardice through meditation; internally, though, he knows he’s only paused it. Whatever Henry encounters over the course of those admittedly strange few months in 1989, the problems that he tried to leave behind will, invariably, be right where he left them at the end of spring. More importantly, so will Henry himself.

A Telltale adventure, this isn’t: if Firewatch is the video game equivalent of a page-turner, those pages aren’t in a choose-your-own-adventure book. Replaying Firewatch would be more like scratching out some characters’ lines in a novel you’ve already read and adding in others in the margins, a palimpsest of intentional narrative beats.

Firewatch is the story of a summer burning at both ends, both raging toward a man’s anxious center; both lit by his selfish, somewhat destructive decisions.

That’s what makes Firewatch so hard to justify replaying.

Unlike player characters in many choice-driven adventure games, Henry doesn’t shape his story’s ending. Julia, Boulder, and the bottle are waiting for him regardless of the decisions he makes as watchman. What he does influence is his relationship with fellow lookout Delilah, whose face he never sees and whose voice becomes his emotional lifeline.

And it’s that connection that makes Firewatch such a one-off experience; with a fairly static ending, the narrative focuses so specifically on creating these moment-to-moment interactions to build Henry and Delilah’s relationship that a second playthrough would be little more than a completionist run. Hear all the dialogue options, see every vista.

It’s not just that another romp in the woods isn’t ‘worth it’ to me because there’s only one way it can end; it’s that going through those paces a second time would devalue the characterization of my Henry and, to a lesser extent, my Delilah.

THAT WILL ALWAYS BE MY HENRY

The player’s choices, limited to a series of dialogue stems, feed into that relationship and only that relationship. When Henry and Delilah part ways at the end of the game, the meaning behind those choices dies with their friendship. A do-over would make them less genuine for me than they were the first time around; different choices would only change the ending in my head.

As the player controlling Henry, I helped him build a relationship as I thought a man in Henry’s position might: by making the most selfish, gratifying decisions possible. I wanted Delilah to like Henry, even when it came at the cost of his tenuous sense of morality. With my thumb on the push-to-talk switch of his walkie-talkie, Henry played right into Delilah’s damaged sense of fraternity with almost every possible dialogue option.

I only chose to elaborate on the Julia situation when I thought talking about it would make Delilah feel bad for Henry and maybe like him more; he reflected and amplified Delilah’s confused paranoia with a saccharine “what the fuck is going on here” whenever something strange happened, just to show he was also scared; when her slurred flirts sifted through the monitor, Henry played ball.

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For all as much as he expressed concern about the odd things happening around the Two Forks lookout, my Henry didn’t really want there to be a rational explanation. He wanted his time in Wyoming – and Delilah herself – to be a surreal distraction from the very real problems waiting for him back home. Becoming a fire lookout was supposed to be Henry’s escapist fantasy and an ‘easy out’ for ditching Julia.

By the end of the game, Henry was most shaken not by the surreal happenstance he’d chatted his way through, but by the screeching, fanfareless halt that capped it. I like to think that he went back to Boulder resolute on abandoning his ailing wife – that’s just the kind of guy my Henry was – but, of course, the game doesn’t show me that happening. It shouldn’t. It can’t.

Despite all of the attempts he’d made to protract his fantasy – even going so far as to make a Hail Mary invitation for Delilah to come home with him – Henry’s situation remained unchanged on the 79th day, the flames of his uncertain future licking his brow while the final burning pines of a Wyoming forest nipped at his heels.

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Even if I went back and rewrote some of his interactions with Delilah, that will always be my Henry. Time trudges on, equally irreverent of Henry’s escapist fantasies and his commitment hangups. The summer of 1989 burned from both ends, and instead of putting out the flames, Henry had ignored them altogether – not that he could’ve changed the end if he tried.

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