Firewatch's opening resembles a Twine game or a Choose Your Own Adventure book. "You are Henry," it says.
You're presented with narrative vignettes interspersed between snippets of you-as-Henry trekking along a gorgeous mountain trail. You're asked to make some choices here, and my first reaction was disappointment. You're given stark either/or options and they're restrictive; my agency was minimal. My stamp on the character's backstory was inconsequential. Every choice ends up with Henry in the woods, running from his problems.
The inability to be perfect
You are Henry, but Henry is not you. I'm so accustomed to games either offering myriad choice or no choice at all that it was momentarily jarring to be asked to dictate events within the limited degrees of Henry. Some were innocuous, such as choosing to own a big dog or a small dog. Others were life-changing. About half-way through the prologue, you're asked how you respond to Henry's wife Jules being offered a job in a place to which you would not like to move.
Both options are inherently selfish. I could either dissuade my wife from taking her dream job or I could insist that she commutes. There was no option to behave selflessly, to move with her, and this bothered me.
I'm the kind of player who plays as a good person. My characters are saccharine moral arbiters; saintly and self-sacrificing. Hell, I've literally sacrificed my digital life for the greater good in other games. It can be a struggle to behave well in real life, so being able to pick obviously good choices in games is cathartic. The only outcome is that I experience the relevant plot variant. There is no risk.
Campo Santo, the game's developer, doesn't want to offer me this path with Henry. He is selfish. Campo Santo has taken away the option to be flawless. They've removed an aspect of my agency and, in doing so, created a character who's arguably far more like us than any paragon of justice we'd like to create.
But they do still offer a degree of control, and this matters. Simply presenting a flawed, selfish character makes it harder for us to empathize, even if we can see ourselves reflected in them. Forcing players to be complicit in their selfishness, albeit using narrative restrictions, causes them to feel responsible for the protagonist. I chose to encourage Jules to commute, so the onus is on me. I chose to put her into a care home; that's on me, too, even though it isn't, not really. It's on Henry. But I am Henry for the next six hours, so does it matter?
The only choice in the prologue which leads to any visual feedback is a throwaway, comical option. Ultimately, the outcome of the choice boils down to being the manner in which you see Henry's penis. It's a microcosmic representation of how the entire game works narratively. Regardless of whether you pose like a macho man or a Victoria's Secret model, Henry is still the same man beneath the surface, with the same anatomy, look and personality. He doesn't change, but how people see him or imagine him might.
Your options to sculpt Henry into the man you want him to be are limited, even once you've left the prologue and begin directly interacting with Henry and his fire-watching female counterpart and boss Delilah in the present.
Interactions with Delilah on the first night are informed by Henry's exhaustion and crankiness. There is no option to be perky, friendly or engaging, because Henry has just hiked a bunch of miles and he's exhausted. The opportunity to maybe open up and help Henry to grow as a person is provided at exactly the moment it should be: after rest, recuperation and a good night's sleep. His new life has begun. It's time for you to help figure out what that means.
Everyone is flawed
It's soon obvious that Delilah is more than just a voice on the earpiece. She's Henry 2.0, his female counterpart, a stark contrast to what we've learned about Jules. She remarks on how anyone who takes the fire ranger job has a story and is damaged in some way. She's including herself in that diagnosis.
The player may be given the opportunity to help Henry learn, grow and heal, but Delilah's damaged stubbornness and selfishness remains steadfast. Delilah makes mistakes; her decisions would be unfortunate in real life, let alone a game one is trying to "win," but they're hers. They feel like they come from a real place inside a real person, one who is also running from themselves.
It's notable, too, that Delilah is never the antagonist. Delilah becomes your confidante and potential lover but also occasionally your accidental foil. This makes for a far more honest portrayal of confronting oneself than if her role had been that of a cackling villain. Your reactions to her may include frustration and disappointment, but ultimately they lead to a desire to understand and support her. It's a relationship based on growth, whether through Henry's obvious shift in personality or Delilah's steadfast stubbornness. It's a perfect metaphor for the average relationship with one's own self.
Delilah is a woman who has worked the job for nearly a decade and been seemingly unchanged by her experience. She's not growing, and the fact that Henry and the player are still not enough to change her mind in many situations is refreshing in a medium where you can often achieve impossible persuasion simply by having high enough stats.
You can encourage her to inform the police about the missing campers, but she won't. You can ask her to wait for you in the tower before evacuation, but she doesn't. By the final interaction, if you choose to ask her to come with you into the future, not even you or Henry believes that she will. In all these cases, she can be persuaded to agree with you, and to commit to doing these things. She just simply doesn't follow through on any of them. She's a rare thing in gaming: an NPC with agency.
This isn't just nuanced narrative design. There's a moment about two thirds through the game where you can choose whether or not to set fire to a camp. I chose not to, and I don't know whether it's possible to start the fire yourself — I imagine it — but Campo Santo needs that camp to be on fire for the plot to progress, so burn it does.
Likewise, much of Delilah's stubbornness seems to exist either to propel the narrative or avoid technical additions. Perhaps she doesn't inform the cops because the narrative would have to diverge and include another, optional plot strand to build tension. Perhaps she doesn't wait in the tower because it would require an additional character model and animation set, playing out in real time as you escape and seen by a limited percentage of players.
At almost every turn, the lack of divergence can be explained away by cost-cutting and resource management. The only other human faces you see in the game at all are pictures; you never lay eyes on another human directly in the entire game. You see hints here and there, and a masked figure in the final scene, and that's it.
None of the characters are infallible, and the player never has enough agency to make them so
But so what? Budgets are finite. Time is finite. Somewhere, concessions have to be made. I've always believed it's preferable, if you don't have the time and money to tell the story you want to tell, to change the story into one you can tell to the end. The alternative is to just keep telling the story until you have to stop with an unceremonious "to be continued," and that's far less satisfying than a complete, restricted narrative. What I find so marvelous with Firewatch is how Campo Santo justifies those restrictions, and uses them in the pursuit of narrative depth and metaphor.
As a developer myself, it was striking how many times it felt like what I perceived to be limitations in budget or time actually made the game stronger, although I am speculating on whether this was the driving force behind how the game plays out.
Perhaps Firewatch would be less satisfying if all the moments in which the narrative doesn't diverge could be attributed to resource management. But, deftly, at the end of the game, Campo Santo makes sure this is not so. This takes the form of Henry and Delilah discovering their antagonist and what he's done. The player discovers is left to piece together what it means.
After you report this discovery to Delilah, you have the opportunity of empathizing with your antagonist and trying to change Delilah's opinion of the individual, which was already negatively skewed before she began to suspect what the person had done. As Henry, you're privy to a discovery that suggests things aren't as black-and-white as they appear, and in fact suggests that a degree of altruism in the antagonist's actions. Delilah, despite having less to go on than Henry, isn't receptive to this possibility.
The game ends with Delilah remaining steadfast in her feelings, no matter what Henry says, and this is purely a narrative decision. It serves as a great footnote on how Henry has changed into a more empathetic person and starkly highlights how, despite Henry's influence, that empathy is still absent in Delilah. Or maybe it's an indicator of the difference in approach between men and women, or simply between Henry and Delilah. It's open to interpretation, and even the reading that Delilah is failing to empathize isn't condemning of her.
There are plenty of justifiable reasons why she might not choose to do so. While Henry has additional insight as a retrospective observer, Delilah bore witness to the majority of events as they unfolded, and as the game ends there's still the possibility that due to his empathy and growth, Henry's got this one wrong. None of the characters are infallible, and the player never has enough agency to make them so. And that's just perfect.
Olivia White is one half of Owl Cave, a small indie development studio creating adventure games. Her previous games include Richard & Alice and The Charnel House Trilogy, both of which are available to purchase. She also dabbles in interactive fiction and digital storytelling as LND Games, and does a bit of games journalism on the side.