Upon Firewatch's release, the game was met with high praise for its solid plot and incredible environments. But this was not the consensus among everyone. A large portion of people who played the game complained about the ending. Among the disappointed was YouTuber Felix Kjellberg, more commonly known as "PewDiePie", who finished the game and complained, "That was it? That was f***ing it? Are you f***ing kidding with me right now? No f***ing way I will accept that as a decent ending." Many people shared Kjellberg's sentiments and were angered that the game seemed to just end with no interest in what had seemingly been built toward.
What has become very apparent from reading the negative feedback toward this game is that gamer responses have been misdirected. Firewatch was met with reactionary criticisms, usually shallow and almost always aggressive. Rarely was there rational discussion on the game's faults. Rather, the game didn't end the way they expected or wanted, and therefore it was bad. Video games tend to all feel very similar. This does not equate to them being bad or less interesting, however it does speak to the idea that the gaming industry needs more diversity in the stories being told and the mechanics being presented.
Gamers are familiar, and comfortable, with how games usually behave and what they look like. Firewatch defies our expectations in every way, most so with the ending. It is worth our time to to explore Firewatch's story and the developer's choice to end the game on an anticlimax versus what is traditionally expected, and why challenging our expectations is what makes the story succeed.
First, it is important that we define what an anticlimax looks like. If a climax is an exciting event built up in a narrative, than the anticlimax does the opposite of this. It can be born from bad writing or can be intentional. Typically the anticlimax is used in comedy. An example of this comes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail when the Knights and the French are seemingly about to do battle when a policeman comes and arrests King Arthur. But there are other non-comedic examples of anticlimax.
When our main characters Katniss and Peeta, in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, are the only two tributes remaining in a battle royale to fight to the death and are forced by the capitol to try and kill one another, the expectation is that they will indeed fight and one of them will win. The narrative has been building toward this. But instead of playing along with what the government wants, Katniss pulls out poisonous berries from earlier in the text and they prepare to eat them. Seeing this, the game runner quickly announces they stop, which results in both of them winning the Hunger Games. Another example comes from Charles Dickens. In his novel Great Expectations, the main character Pip believes that his benefactor is Miss Havisham until it is revealed at the end that it was actually the escaped prisoner he helped at the beginning of the book. This works as an anticlimax due to Miss Havisham having lots of wealth and making Pip a gentleman versus the prisoner who seemed to have nothing, was presumably quite nasty, and was a random stranger at the beginning of the book.
One of the most polarizing anticlimaxes in film in recent years is 2003's Signs directed by M. Night Shyamalan. The film follows an ex-minister named Graham Hess who left the church after the death of his wife. Strange things begin happening on his farm and it is soon revealed that an alien invasion is upon them. The film leads you to believe that there will be some big confrontation by the end. While it does somewhat amount to this (i.e. "Merrill, swing away"), the bigger revelation is that the aliens can be defeated by dousing them in water. Thus there was no big showdown. Several moviegoers were upset by this ending due to the alien's seeming fairly intelligent yet they decided to try and take over a planet that is largely covered in a substance that can kill them. However, the ending defies our expectations. Instead of the usual big battle in alien movies, we get a far more nuanced story of Graham's own personal growth of signs leading him to come to terms with his wife's death and return to his faith.
There seems to be some confusion between anticlimax and general disappointing endings. Many people do not seem to understand what a good anticlimax truly is, opting to give examples of disappointing endings rather than truly identifying a direct reversal of expectations. While it is very obvious that some stories end in disappointment due to poor writing choices (i.e. the Twilight Saga, Breaking Dawn), anticlimax as an intentional choice has purpose. Although the very idea of an anticlimax means some people are going to be let down, it doesn’t inherently mean that the story is automatically a let down. It is the difference between bad writing and plotting versus conscious, intentional storytelling. Calling something disappointing simply due to it being anticlimactic often misses the point.
Firewatch leads the player to believe the story is about a mystery affecting Henry and Delilah. We are led down several different paths throughout the narrative.
One is Henry’s interaction with the girls at the lake. He can steal their stereo, throw it in the water, or simply set it back down in a different spot. Either response is hostile and leads us to believe that they are the ones who later trash Henry’s tower and cut his wire to interact with the outside world. When the girls later go missing, it is heavily implied that this is bad news for Henry and Delilah. This becomes especially frightening when Delilah reveals that she lied to the cops about what really happened. Right away we are set up with this side plot.
Then there is also the strange man Henry sees on the first day on the way back from Jonesy Lake. While hiking to his tower, Henry sees a man above him in silhouette who shines a flashlight down at him. Soon after, he finds his tower trashed. We now have another mystery. Who was that strange man? Did he trash the tower or did the girls do it?
But the big mystery is the clipboard Henry later finds that records conversations between him and Delilah. After this discovery, the game jumps into the realm of suspense. The player and Henry are led to believe that this mystery is what matters, that this mystery needs to be solved because that is what games do. You solve puzzles and mysteries. Henry is sent on a fetch quest by Delilah to grab a new walkie talkie so no one can spy on their conversations any longer. He finds a research site that Delilah has no knowledge about with crazy equipment and clipboards with more of their conversations along with details about them that haven’t been brought up between the two. The game leads the player to feel scared, that some conspiracy is afoot that must be figured out.
It is reasonable that Henry and the player may feel like this is what matters. After all, the player is used to games involving strange plots that must be uncovered. Perhaps aliens are involved or it is a strange government conspiracy. More importantly, this is what Henry is focused on and so therefore the story is too.
Calling something disappointing simply due to it being anticlimactic often misses the point.
But all of these “conspiracies” are soon debunked as the game comes to a close. The girls are found and Henry and Delilah face zero consequences for lying to the police. Then it is discovered that there is no conspiracy. Instead Henry finds the dead body of Brian Goodwin, a kid who came with his father to the Shoshone a few years ago despite the rule that no kids are allowed. Brian’s father Ned later leaves a tape for Henry, explaining himself. There was never a conspiracy, only a sad man living out in the woods.
One of the biggest anticlimaxes in the game is the fact that Henry never meets Delilah. This may have been the biggest shock to players. Throughout the game, Henry interacts with Delilah via walkie talkie and forms a relationship with her. The player comes to believe that despite everything, Henry’s relationship with Delilah will follow through because that is what happens in games. But no matter what direction the player takes their dialogue tree, she will never be at her tower at the end of the game. This may be the biggest anticlimax due to the fact that the entire game revolves around the conversations between Henry and Delilah, building up their relationship over the course of the summer. It isn’t unreasonable to think that Henry and Delilah would finally meet and leave the Shoshone together to continue with their relationship. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, Delilah leaves before Henry gets to meet her. Their relationship amounts to nothing and Henry must return to Julia (or remain in the woods and become a hermit like Ned).
Why these anticlimaxes work
Firewatch’s structure may feel familiar to people who enjoy reading novels. The game is very interested in challenging the player with new and nuanced ideas. There is a complex story being told and it explores many different themes that are normally not addressed in video games. This is not how video games usually frame themselves.
Henry is not an empty shell. While most games want the player to embody the character they play, this game wants to player to understand that Henry is his own person. He is not a ball of clay waiting to be molded. The player does not get to pour their identity into Henry because at the end of the day, the choices that are presented are glued to how Henry would respond to situations. There is not a plethora of options at the player’s disposal but legitimately difficult decisions, most notably in the prologue but also throughout Henry’s conversations with Delilah.
Video games often give us the good guys saves the day ending. Players complete several levels in the game that become harder and harder as they continue. This leads to a final battle that exists to test the skills acquired along the way followed by defeating the bad guy. Everything is now good. The end. But Firewatch does not end that way. Often times in literature, a novel’s ending will not simply give us a happy ending but an ending that is challenging and sometimes anticlimactic, all in service of a greater theme at play.
Firewatch’s ending is seen to many as a disappointment and the truth is that, well, it is disappointing. Henry wanted to remain distracted from his problems. He wanted to escape his responsibilities. He wanted to meet Delilah. But that didn’t happen. Life doesn’t work that way. Firewatch is much more rooted in Henry’s humanity than his happiness. The game is concerned with his personal growth. He doesn’t win a prize or overcome the conspiracy. Instead he must face his problems and this is inherently disappointing. That is the point.
The girls are found. There is no big police confrontation or running from the cops. Brian is dead and Ned is a sad, pathetic man hiding in the woods. There is no conspiracy or real threat. The fire lookouts don’t team up to form an epic showdown. Henry and Delilah don’t end up together. All of their interaction was a means to comfort one another in their inability to face what is hard. Yes, Firewatch’s ending is intentionally disappointing.
Where Do These Anticlimaxes Lead?
One of the central themes of Firewatch is the harm of avoiding your problems. You can’t run away from them. All of these anticlimaxes revolve around this theme. Another theme present is the theme of duality. All of the characters are presented as one thing when it turns out they are something else. The girls are missing when in actuality they stole a tractor and were in jail. Ned and Brian were a happy father and son. Instead, there was miscommunication in their relationship that ultimately led to Brian’s death and Ned going crazy. Henry and Delilah are compatible but in actuality they are two people avoiding responsibility for their poor decisions.
Yes, all of this is disappointing, just like an anticlimax tends to be.
Building Toward an Anticlimax
Upon further inspection and additional playthroughs, it becomes increasingly clear that the game was never leading us to believe it would end happily but leading us to this disappointment. We just missed the initial signs.
A good story can be encountered multiple times and with each experience you discover new things that exist. On first playthrough, Firewatch may indeed come off as unintentionally anticlimactic. But on a second or third go, there is strong evidence that reveals a greater intention. The game simply used red herrings to lure players into paying attention to the wrong things and distracting them. Firewatch knows exactly what it is building toward, even though the main character and therefore the player does not.
Story beats that build toward the ending of Henry returning to Julia
A great example of a red herring comes from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling. The book wants us to believe that Sirius Black is a murder and that he wants to kill Harry. Throughout the text Harry sees the grim, a black dog which is a symbol of death. Harry’s friend tells him that when his Uncle saw the grim, he died shortly after. Sirius Black’s name is also very scary and points at him being a bad man. But all of this is a red herring as Sirius is actually good and not a murderer. All of the red herrings have an explanation that leads to a twist ending.
The first instance of this can be found in the prologue. Though somewhat forgettable in the grand scheme of things, the prologue sets up Henry running away from his problems. Henry constantly avoids responsibility in the prologue, leaving players with his final act of running away when Julia is diagnosed with early onset alzheimer’s. Henry become a fire lookout. The prologue is telling us a few things. First, it is establishing Henry as a character who is not a blank slate for the player to slip into. More importantly, it is establishing what matters. The game literally starts off with the text, “You see Julia.” She is what is important. Much like Henry, we may forget what is important due to the conspiracy red herrings that come into play later in the game.
All of the red herrings are people avoiding responsibility
All of the red herrings in this game come down to another character failing to be responsible. Brian’s death is due to Ned being an irresponsible father, leading him to go crazy and run away from confronting what happened. His inability to address the situation is what leads to the “conspiracies” that haunt Henry and Delilah for much of the game.
Henry’s interaction with the girls shows his inability to address conflict, followed by he and Delilah (mostly Delilah) unable to take responsibility for the events that went down at Jonesy Lake and later at their campsite. In fact, Delilah avoids responsibility constantly, even when Henry doesn’t want to. Throughout the game she is a direct example of someone avoiding responsibility in not reporting Brian with Ned a few years earlier, not wanting to call the police when the girls go missing, and in her own relationships.
Firewatch intentionally reverses our expectations, creating a much more meaningful gameplay and narrative experience.
At one point, depending on how the player performs their dialogue tree, Delilah says to Henry that “when you care about someone, you are supposed to figure out how to take care of them, even if it’s tough to do so.” This is a direct reference to Henry not dealing with Julia, whether Delilah recognizes it or not.
Brian’s death as an example of Ned’s failed responsibility is a blatant echo to Henry’s dying marriage. Henry can either run away from it like Ned, or confront it. Henry began his journey running away from the tragedy of Julia’s diagnoses. It makes sense that it would build up to his return and learning that he can’t run from his problems.
Through several red herrings and the plot yanking the players into the realm of the anticlimactic, Firewatch’s ending is intentionally disappointing and filled with nuance that is rarely seen in video game narratives.
There are no bad guys, there are no weapons to fight back with, and Henry doesn’t rescue the princess from her lookout tower. Instead, Firewatch intentionally reverses our expectations, creating a much more meaningful gameplay and narrative experience.
Perhaps there will always be people who get mad at this game. While their one star reviews arguably miss the point of their own anger, it just goes to show how pervasive a game can be to stir such a conversation. Getting mad at this game for it being disappointing misses the point.