UnderARock Reviews are reviews I have written on games that I must have been living under a rock to have missed. (And that rock is unceasing student loans and lack of time spent trying pay of those student loans.) These reviews are very spoilery and dance the line between traditional should you buy it or even try it and analysis. I will put a spoiler tag before any huge spoilers so, if you don’t mind a little foresight read on, otherwise for your own safety, stay away and come back after you have played the game.
If we lived in an alternate universe, Campo Santo’s Firewatch would be a movie instead of a game it would be one of those Sundance Film Festival or SXSW celebrated Indie Films. But, thankfully, we do not live in that universe, we live in this one, where Firewatch is very much a game and all the better for it. However, it is still undoubtedly different than any other game I’ve played touching on the delicate vulnerable parts of humanity that we try to hide away.
The opening to the game was nothing I could have anticipated: a 10 minute choose your own adventure-like story about the meeting and “losing” of the protagonist’s (your) wife to the disease of Alzheimer’s . With only a few background noise cues, this section of the game was mostly text and while it offered only a few options in terms of how Henry’s life was before he moves to a remote state park, these key choices give us keen insight in to Henry’s emotions and mental state and these text cues profoundly touch on the story’s main themes that come to pass much much later in the game. This interactive prologue gave the player stake in the story and no matter how much the player eventually says or chooses not to say to Delilah, the boss at his new job, there is a (literally) unspoken bond between Henry and the player about what happened and why he took one of the most remote jobs he could find and this short opening brings the player into his perspective, right into the muddy hiking boots he is wearing.
There are two aspects of the game that many players did not like and made sure other people heard about how much they dislikes them. Those two parts are the fetch quests and, the most divisive of all, the ending.
First off, narrative pacing was integral to this game’s emotional effectiveness of the story. For Henry the story takes place over 79 days, but for the player it can be as short as 3 hours. And while the time leaps can be entire weeks and the length disparity between the players experience and Henry’s might seem disproportionate and jarring, it is employed in a way that it makes sense to the narrative. Fetch quests make up a bulk of the game. Go here do this and now take that and go here. While these types of quests are usually cause disinterest in many players, these tasks *almost* never seem like a chore thanks to the beautiful enviroment design, vulnerable and generous voice acting, and the driving need for the player to know what the hell is going on.
The state park you are now employed to keep safe spans far into the distance and, with all the cliffs and caves and downed trees in your way, getting from point A to point B can be pretty harsh and take a while. There are long stretches where I found myself interacting with the paper map with my handwritten notes from my travels and just running for long stretches of time. For a 3 hour experience to use so much of its time on just running, it can’t be just an accident. It could be just to add length to the game, but I trust the people over at Campo Santo and I believe that these long pauses in narrative or physical action are vital to the games story and pace. If the player is to believe that Henry has really been out here for 79 days the player has to feel some of the menotiny that the character feels. Also by not letting the player go from plot point to plot point, it allows them to meditate on what is going on and the nuances of the experiences of both Henry and Delilah. So, when the time comes for the climax and for all to be revealed, the player feel like they worked, climbed, scaled, and leapt for it. But the player might also understand the deeper human experience of both those characters and what they are feeling.
While some people feel that the last moments of the game landed on the wrong note, there were two moments during the games climax and ending that connected everything together and made this journey worth every grapple climb and downed log hopped over.
The conspiracy theory that builds tension throughout the game ends up not being real at all, but instead ends up being just a man in grief, unable to let go but unable to face what he has done. This directly involves Delilah, as she has made a few mistakes in her life. One of them, you learn, was not reporting a little boy and his father at the camp grounds since kids were not allowed at the park for safety reasons. She convinces herself that they must have left and everything was fine. A while later during the climax of the story you find Brian’s body in the bottom of a cave. It seems like he fell while climbing and his father never went back in there to retrieve him. You tell Delilah, and out of anger and sadness, she exclaims to nobody in particular, “How could someone just leave him down there?” This struck a chord as this directly reflects back to the choice you as Henry had to make for your wife. Put her in a home so she will get the care and attention she needs that you cannot give her or try to make it work at home but as your home life deteriorates then “let” her family take her to one anyway. Henry isn’ the only one running from something though. What Delilah says mirrors what all three of the characters of this game have been going through, choosing to run and hide from the choices you made, when it is impossible to outrun the past. Henry running away from the fact that he can’t take care of his wife and she doesn’t even know who he is half the time. Delilah running away from the relationship that didn’t last between her and a lover and has now become toxic and one sided. And Ned, the person stalking Henry and giving the story it’s false tension, has been hiding from the responsibility of his brash parenting leading to his son’s death. Her exclamation about Brian’s death is about all of the characters and their inability to move beyond the past and sends shivers down any players spine whom is awake and paying emotional attention.
This brings us to the much discussed ending which has been pretty polarizing in the gaming community. Many question if it even ended at all, due to the subtly and lack of a nice tied bow gamers may be used to. There is a wild fire that is growing and you need to be evacuated at Delilah’s Watch tower. She says that there is a helicopter already here and she is going to take it. As Henry, I asked her to wait for me and after a pause and a sigh she said she can’t. Henry is asking her to stay a little while longer so they can meet, but Delilah has made up her mind she is not staying here any longer than she has to, she is not hiding anymore because she saw what hiding can do to a person and she had made a choice for herself not to let her go down that same trail. She is not waiting for another distraction from her issues, she is going back to the real world. But this exchange runs far deeper than just their relationship. I had Henry not put his wife in a home even when things go really bad. I wanted her to wait for him and stay a little longer in the place that used to be the happiest times of their life. But just as it dawned on Henry in the beginning of the game, by making her stay, he can’t get back what he had with his wife, with her memory, that time has faded. But she was taken away and could not wait for him any longer, she, just like Delilah had to move on, despite Henry not wanting to. You investigate her tower and see things that she spoke about and then walkie her one last time. The interaction they shared was a veiled goodbye about false promises to meet if they are ever in their neck of the woods.
Then the helicopter comes, and the player is faced with one last choice. A choice that I didn’t know about until after I beat the game. As Henry, I ran to the helicopter and got on and decided to go back to his life and to face reality. But the player could also not get on the helicopter. They could wait a few minutes until the helicopter leaves. Either ending the player chooses reflects the themes in the game as a whole. What happens to a person when they cannot face their actions and in what ways these actions comeback to haunt them in the end? And the choice between either facing reality and letting the people and moments go or hiding away, continuing to dig deeper and deeper away from the truth and becoming lost in the wilderness of your mind. The choice that needs to be made in the end is does Henry either follow Ned’s footsteps or Delilah’s. And where will either of those trails lead him.
This game was a focused narrative that didn’t let on it was to the player until the very end. I believe this game is an achievement in storytelling and tells a valuable tale about humanity in a way that only this game could. And, yes. I believe very much that this game has an ending and I believe it’s ending is terrific.