Firewatch was too hard

cn: moderate spoilers for Firewatch.

Firewatch is a 2016 walking simulator about a man named Henry, whose wife is suffering from early onset dementia. He joins the firewatch as a way of running away from his problems. Gameplay consists of hiking through a naturalistic forest, while Henry chats frequently with his boss, Delilah, over the radio. At some point they learn that someone has been listening in on their conversations, which ignites in both of them a paranoid fantasy.

Firewatch has a linear narrative, with no major branching points and no fail states. Nonetheless, I found it too difficult. I had already been spoiled as to its general plot and themes before I even started. And yet, I still felt like I didn’t “get it” in my own playthrough. I felt like I had watched a walkthrough but was still unable to perform the actions that I had seen others do.

I’ve seen a few critical commentary videos on Firewatch from Errant Signal, Leadhead, and Noah Caldwell-Gervais. Notably, their interpretations are all slightly different from each other. Firewatch is about paranoia, a critique of escapism, and/or being middle-aged and living with the accumulated consequences of your decisions. But something that all three critics mention is that some players are disappointed by the anticlimax. The conspiracy doesn’t go deeper, it fizzles out, along with several other plot threads. And that’s largely the point.

But for me, it was more about being lost. In a literal sense, I got lost in the woods, which was an interesting and enjoyable experience. But I also felt a bit lost in the narrative, which was less good.

I had difficulty reading the deeper themes partly because I was distracted by more mundane details. Firewatch uses a sort of naturalistic dialogue system, where you have a few seconds to choose a reply. Sometimes his boss will continue talking while you choose. While I appreciate moving away from conventional dialogue tree systems, it slightly divides my attention and makes it a bit harder to follow. There are also many plot threads involving named off-screen characters. I frequently found myself thinking, “Wait, who was Brian? When did he come up before?” There are no dialogue logs for me to review to answer such questions.

Personal circumstances also interfered. I took a break in the middle, and when I came back I was confused about what was going on. I wandered in the forest for half an hour with no dialogue, before figuring out that my objective was right where I started. I couldn’t quite remember every plot thread, and again there are no dialogue logs. The game is economical with its dialogue, and does not deign to repeat itself. I also don’t play in a quiet environment. I found myself pausing while my husband talked to me, then I’d return to Henry and Delilah mid-conversation. May I repeat that there are no dialogue logs to remind me what was said.

I doesn’t help that the central themes do not personally resonate with me. Henry as a character is full of regret and paranoia, and I am neither of those things. He’s also presumed straight, and I think his relationship with Delilah is supposed to be flirty. While I understand that Henry is an established character who is not me, I’m put in the position of choosing his dialogue.  I am not very good at roleplaying, especially under time pressure. So I usually found myself choosing sensible options, and sometimes Henry would take that in a direction that was consistent with his character but departed from my intention. In the moment, as I’m reading the dialogue, it’s just another layer of distraction to parse out.

All these issues are layered on a subtle and inherently difficult narrative. It follows the literary convention of having multiple plot threads that all echo similar themes. Most players won’t be able to connect every plot thread. But several threads I only connected when I heard critics talk about them, and others were too minor for critics to mention, so I’m still confused about them. When a few too many things go over my head, it feels like so many dangling plot threads. I was not good enough to tie them together.

Another issue that other players had (not me), was a sort of genre confusion. In a thriller, the conspiracy always goes deeper. In a narrative game with dialogue choices, some players expect branching narratives. Firewatch is not a thriller and does not have branching narratives. So many players thought the ending was a disappointment, or even a bait and switch. Rather than blaming the players for reading it incorrectly, I try to imagine how the game could have done more to establish its own genre ahead of its conclusion.

When I say Firewatch was too hard, I’m deliberately juxtaposing game difficulty discourse with narrative game discourse. There’s obviously room for subtle and difficult narratives, even if I personally wish it were a bit more repetitious and heavy-handed. On the other hand, the game could have taken some basic steps (dialogue logs!) to make itself more accessible. Arguably I could have done more to “git good”–by playing it a second time, by being more attentive, or by establishing a quieter environment. But I’m just not going to put the effort into a story that, poignant as it was, didn’t personally resonate with me.


  1. geoffarnold says

    I loved it. Played it through myself, then watched as a family member played. I don’t think I’ve relied on dialogue logs in any of the other RPGs I’ve played, so I didn’t miss that feature.

    How did you feel about the “Life is Strange” games?

  2. says

    I didn’t like Life is Strange, couldn’t make it through the first episode–but I think that had more to do with the kind of story it is. I liked Tell Me Why.

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