Since Firewatch is a Story Explorer, then the story is probably the most important part of it. I deliberately glossed over the story in the last entry because I wanted to talk about the general atmosphere and mechanics. Also, I still wasn’t sure how I felt about it all.
So now I’m going to talk about only the story, and to do that, there will be spoilers. So, yeah, don’t read ahead if you don’t want spoilers.
I’m not going to tell the story exhaustively, but I do want to discuss what I see as the important parts of it.
We begin with Henry meeting Julia, while drunk. You can make the choice from two ‘chat up’ lines: ‘What’s your Major?’ or ‘You’re pretty’.
From there we follow their relationship over time as the discussions about dogs, children and work come up. Regardless of the path you choose, Julia ends up with dementia, and Henry joins the Firewatch, to escape or get his head together.
We’re presented with quite a few choices here, but none of them seem to make that much difference to the direction of the story. Instead they just give a slightly different flavour to some of the later conversations. They do, however, help pull you into the story and give a small amount of investment in it.
Once you make it to your Tower, we’re out of the ‘choose your own adventure’ part, and properly in the world. Through the radio, a hand-held one, you meet your Supervisor, Delilah, who works in the tower the next zone over and who can see his tower with her binoculars.
Delilah and Henry
The two establish a rapport quickly, which flows between witty, smart-arse, serious and ‘thank goodness there’s someone else to talk to’.
Through the game the relationship seems to deepen. There are hints there might be a romance, or perhaps just a deep friendship. There are also occasions where circumstances might lead you to wonder if Delilah can be fully trusted. Even by the end of the game it’s not totally clear whether she is, or isn’t, trustworthy.
The threads for the main plot start slowly, as you’d expect, with two very drunk teenage girls setting off fireworks. Henry finds them skinnydipping when he gets there to confront them. They’re not happy about him seeing them, nor with him confiscating their fireworks.
The next day the one landline out of the park is down – likely in Henry’s zone. He’s sent out to find the break, if he can. It turns out that it’s been cut. The most likely suspects are the two teens as empty cans of their brand of beer are strewn around, plus there’s a rather rude sign left there for Henry to find.
While Henry goes looking for the teens, he and Delilah discuss what to do about them. They both decide that he should make a mess of the camp – enough to scare them off. When Henry does find their camp, it’s been destroyed and they’ve left him a note accusing him of doing this, and that they’re going to the police.
Some days later word comes down that the teens are now reported missing, with Henry being the last person to see them. Henry can either ask Delilah to pass on what he saw, or ask her to keep quiet. It doesn’t seem to matter, as she keeps it quiet anyway.
A little further down the track the teens have been found, and it turns out that there was nothing suspicious about their disappearance – they were basically doing what they wanted without ‘reporting in’.
The first we hear about Brian are a few words from Delilah. A little later Henry comes across an old backpack stuck in a tree. He manages to free it, and finds the name ‘Brian Goodwin’ on it.
Brian was the son of Ned, who was a Firewatcher for a while. Brian, being a child, shouldn’t have been there, but Ned brought him anyway. Ned brought him to mountain climb with him – something that Brian didn’t seem to want.
Delilah lost track of Brian, and worries that she should have said something back when she first ‘noticed’, as he might have been lost or hurt. Though it was also possible that Ned just took him home. She still worries though.
Henry comes across a clipboard with transcripts of some of his conversations with Delilah. They’re well annotated. This, of course, freaks him out. Nearby he finds a radio similar to the one he uses to communicate with Delilah.
As he bends to retrieve it, he’s knocked out. When he comes to, the radio and notes are gone. His only lead is a phrase from the notes ‘Wapiti Station’. This is close enough to a nearby place ‘Wapiti Meadow’, that Delilah knows of.
It turns out the area is fenced off and requires Henry to break into it to try find out what’s going on. He finds a scientific station with a large mast, scientific equipment, marked out plots, and a tent with beds and desks.
He also finds a folder with personal background information on both he and Delilah. It’s clear someone is watching them, listening into them, and investigating them for some reason.
Delilah, in a moment of anger suggests burning the place down. Whether Henry agrees and does that, or leaves without doing so, later the place will be in flames.
Sometime after that, a walkman, with tape, is taped to his Tower door, and contains the conversation he had with Delilah about burning the station down. This, coupled with what happened with the teen’s camp, suggests someone is looking to set them up for all of these incidents. Given the notes found at Wapiti, this person or group seems well resourced and we get hints of some huge conspiracy.
Near to Henry’s tower, and something he comes across on the first day, is a cave. Within it is a locked gate, barring entry to the rest of the cave. The key has been lost for quite a few years.
He finds that key later, and perhaps with no other leads, decides the answers must be in the cave. After unlocking the gate, and making his way deeper into it, the gate is slammed shut and locked.
Henry passes a steep descent as he looks to find another way out – which he finally does. He stumbles on a ‘fort’ made by a child. The various bits lying around this abandoned fort show that it was Brian Goodwin’s creation.
A second attempt at the cave, this time better prepared, allows Henry to rappel down the steep descent. He finds the near mummified body of a child – Brian Goodwin, who appears to have fallen during a rock-climbing accident. Or was killed, making it look like an accident. The only real suspect of this is Ned, his father.
So, we have a possible conspiracy of someone trying to set Delilah and Henry up to take a fall for some of the nasty things that have happened around the area. We have a child that’s been missing for years and either died in an accident, or was killed.
A fire started nearby a little while back. Then there was the fire that was started at Wapiti Station. The two have now joined and are a risk. The Firewatchers are to be evacuated.
As Henry is getting ready to leave, his attention is caught and he’s ‘led’ to a cliff face. There’s a rope up, and another walkman and cassette tape. At the top he finds a quite well done ‘hideout’ and that, and the tape, tell him what’s been happening.
The Stalker was ‘Ned’, who went into hiding after his son fell to his death. He was the one who made the notes, who cut the line, who destroyed the teen’s camp and set the fire at Wapiti. Why? Because on his first day, Henry had found the locked cave where Brian had died and Ned panicked. It suggested that after years alone, with the guilt of what happened to his son, he wasn’t that stable anyway. Ned has now gone deeper into the wilderness and begs Henry not to try to find him.
So Henry makes his way out, towards Delilah’s tower where the helicopter is picking them up. Regardless of what discussions you have with Delilah, she won’t be there when you arrive; instead she’s on the other end of her tower’s radio.
I’ve been trying to write this entry for over a month now. I’ve been describing the story in different ways, working on differing analyses, and coming to mostly the same conclusions.
As a ‘thriller’ type of story, Firewatch works well. Before we find out about Ned, there are so many possible ways for the story to play out. Do we have a Government conspiracy of some sort? Or a Conspiracy by a shadowy group? Is this heading towards some sort of Science Fiction twist maybe?
The game sets up the various elements – the teens, the Stalker, the cave, the Scientific Station. Perhaps they’re linked, perhaps they’re not. You’re kept guessing along with the characters, and that works to pull you into the story really well.
You feel some lessening of the tension when the teens are found alive and well. There’s some relief that they are safe, and that there aren’t going to be any inquiries of the two Firewatchers.
The tension keeps being ramped up with the discovery of the transcriptions, of the folders, the cassette tapes. There’s uncertainty from that, uncertainty in the relationship with Delilah, and many possible explanations (and impossible ones, if you want to go the Sci-Fi route).
That made for a great story.
For me, though, the ending was a letdown. While it works within the ‘universe’ the story is set within to have a totally human, ‘mundane’ explanation, it just felt flat to me. There was a huge buildup, and very little payoff.
As a game, as a story explorer, Firewatch worked for about 95% of the story. The start, middle and some of the ending worked really, really well. It was intriguing, emotional and a great deal of fun.
The ending just didn’t work for me. That didn’t destroy the rest of the enjoyment, however, it simply muted it a little. Overall, I still love the story of Firewatch. I love the characters, and I love the ‘world’.