I wanted to restart Firewatch as soon as I finished it. I wanted to see what happened if I made different choices at crucial moments, or if my character Henry talked to Delilah differently throughout the game. Were there multiple endings? Were some happier or sadder than others? I wanted to know, and with the game’s considerately conservative length it wouldn’t take that much effort to find out.
I didn’t start a new game. I realized it would have felt wrong. You can’t really change a book once you’ve read it. The story is the story, and I’m not one for fan fiction. Firewatch might have multiple endings, but it ended the way it ended for me based on my choices, and it would almost feel disrespectful to the Henry and Delilah I got to know to redo it. Henry couldn’t redo his conversations, and I shouldn’t either.
Firewatch hinges almost completely on those conversations between Henry, a new fire lookout in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest, and his supervisor, Delilah. Their chats can become flirtier and more confessional as their relationship grows, two sardonic loners with drinking problems (one active, one recovering) becoming close friends despite never really seeing each other. Delilah helps Henry learn the ropes of the job but also lends a sympathetic ear to Henry’s depressing personal problems, and she always seems to know the right thing to say. At times she almost seems too clever and ingratiating. Like Henry, you might start to doubt her intentions: is she really just a fire lookout supervisor? If so, what was up with that weird conversation you overheard on the radio that one time? And why is that part of the forest fenced off? And what’s happening with those missing girls, and the strange man occasionally seen in the forest from afar?
All these mysteries can make Henry a little paranoid. Which is to say they can make you a little paranoid. And although they may not all resolve in a particularly satisfying way, they at least introduce some drama and suspense into a story that is otherwise focused almost entirely on walkie talkie conversations between veritable strangers.
Firewatch is driven by a sense of loss at its core. Delilah acknowledges that all fire lookouts are there to get over something in her very first call to Henry, and that emptiness and solitude loom over the entire game. Henry’s loss, specific and devastating, is introduced directly, perhaps artlessly, at the very beginning of the game, but Delilah’s is vague and mostly hinted at. We learn some facts about her family, some about her, but despite how close she and Henry seem to be by the end of the game, she remains something of a phantom. She’s this spectral voice on the radio, sometimes helping us with our problems, sometimes just listening while we vent, presenting the illusion of the perfect friend. Perhaps this is what it’s like to date via the internet?
Despite her ephemerality, Delilah’s presence dominates the game. She isn’t just a thoughtful update on the standard “girl in ear” videogame jive, but just as important of a lead character as Henry. Delilah is the puzzle at the heart of a game that doesn’t have any interest in puzzles. Fortunately the game’s designers realize that describing characters as “puzzles” undermines what makes them feel real, depriving them of agency and trivializing their lived experiences, and so the game swerves whenever it feels like Delilah comes too close to turning into a stock type from a romantic comedy. She’s maybe even more damaged than Henry, and we never fully find out why.
Firewatch is a game, and it feels like one when you’re moving Henry through the gorgeous Wyoming forest, or exploring a cave in hopes of solving one of those mysteries. It’s not useful to write about it as a game, though. Who cares what your fingers do while you’re playing this? Yes: it has graphics. The stuff that matters is what Henry and Delilah talk about on their radios. It’s what Henry reads throughout the few campsites and outposts he comes across. It’s what you feel as the story unfolds like a short story on your television screen, visiting the private grief of others who can struggle to communicate just as torturously as all of us in the real world can. And although this dual character study can feel a little slight, and has a few improbable notes that are struck seemingly just to enhance a sense of mystery, that central friendship between Henry and Delilah is powerful. It feels real, and important for both of them, and it would be wrong to change or weaken it by playing the game again.
Firewatch was developed by Campo Santo. Our review is based on the Playstation 4 version. It is also available for PC, Mac and Linux.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.