Does Firewatch’s ending suck, or is it a more accurate portrayal of negative consequences in real life?
I recently played through Firewatch, while I was waiting for some PSVR-induced nausea to go away. The game’s simple beginning and conclusion delivered an interesting and mature story that left me thinking long after the credits. Since I can’t let things go, I am going to put it into writing.
The ending of Firewatch is either rushed and confusing, veering off course and crashing into, “Why did I just play this town?”, or a more poignant conclusion than I realized at first. I am going to go with the second interpretation and tell you why. If you haven’t played Firewatch, I will be spoiling the game for you, so go play it and come back.
One of the most prominent themes in the game is running away from your problems, and we see three examples of this. Delilah and Henry are hiding in remote jobs, and Ned Goodwin is hiding in the wilderness.
Each of them is running from a particular problem. Delilah has problems with getting close to people. She may be avoiding people and emotions in general. She has no problem with the professional and shallow relationships she has with other lookouts, but she specifically says her relationship with Henry is different.
In some ways, she is safer with Henry than the others. Once she finds out about Julia, Henry is technically unavailable, so what can it hurt to talk more and be more personal with him? She continues to push until the end, until it can be real, until she runs away again.
Henry is running from his relationship with Julia and the painful memories. He is conflicted in his choices. Should he go visit her? What will her family think? Is she better off without him? If the Julia he knows is gone, should he move on and leave her alone? Does that make him a bad person?
Henry also has guilt at just letting her go and not visiting her. This guilt is shown through the dialogue choices about how he shouldn’t be working the Firewatch tower. This weighs on him, and he even manifests this guilt into a half-awake phone conversation with Julia, in which Julia mentions that Delilah is nice, giving him permission to escape his situation.
Ned Goodwin is the most elusive character. He is running from his memories and PTSD. He takes his son Brian out into the wilderness to disappear. Brian is really his only anchor to the world, and Brian embraces everything that Ned rejects. After losing him, he has no more reason to ever go back.
His last contact is with Henry, after Henry learns of Brian’s death. He wants someone to know that he wasn’t a bad father for leaving Brian’s body in the cave, but he doesn’t quite know how to communicate that without someone forcing him back to the world he wants to avoid. In the end, his only choice is to show Henry his abandoned home and hope for understanding. I think he kept listening to the radio and got his wish.
With the characters out of the way, the first conclusion from the ending is that you cannot run from your problems. You always take them with you. Ned will never escape his PTSD or the death of his son. He will be a ghost in the wilderness until he dies, and everyday will bring him closer to a death that I think he wants.
Delilah eventually takes another helicopter to avoid seeing Henry. I think she does this to distance herself further from the death of Brian by distancing herself from the person who found him. She also shuts the door on any future with Henry. This is another potential relationship she started only to eventually avoid.
Henry is alone again with nothing to keep his mind off Julia. The problem never went away, and we are still not sure he will go see her, even as Delilah pushes him to do it by pushing him away from her. He will go back home to wrestle with these questions, gaining nothing by going into the woods.
The second thing we learn is that people, even when forced, don’t want to change. Henry, Delilah, and Ned are not teenagers or even in their twenties. We know that they are in their forties. As someone only a few years away from the big 4-0, you would think I would learn from life experience, and sometimes I do.
It’s also just as easy to repeatedly fall back in the same traps or sink deeper, and that’s why I think the lack of change in these characters really says a lot. Ned is gone, and he will become more of a feral animal than a man. Delilah will forever be seeking love and acceptance, but she will always retreat into a bottle. Henry will always be waiting for some magical sign about what to do, but be paralyzed by indecision. They are flawed human beings who won’t change and won’t be forced to change.
They show us uncomfortable truths in growing up. Fairytales are a myth for kids. There is no conspiracy in the woods. There is no prince riding in a white horse to save us. There is no fairy godmother to give us an ideal situation to solve a problem. There is no magic bullet to slay the monster, and sometimes we realize we are the monster. I think each character saw this within themselves, and maybe that’s what makes them run.
The ending slams you into a brick wall. Nothing is solved, and the impending stress just makes everyone’s worst traits more visible. Henry is codependent on Delilah. This is made known on the third day when he asks her what to do. She tells him to just do his job, and his answer is that she has been telling him what to do for two days. He just wants to avoid decision-making of any kind, because he doesn’t want to take responsibility.
Delilah lies on the police report. Delilah may be lying about her relationship with Javier. When things start to catch up to her, she cannot lie, and her option is to get drunk. She numbs everything and retreats.
The characters make bad choices in a semi-real way, and that’s what makes the ending more interesting than if Henry, Ned, and Delilah were to hold hands and get in the helicopter at the end. They can’t have happy endings. It’s not who they are, and it would actually be strange to reward them. This is the result of their choices or lack of choices.
They are literally back where they started, maybe even a little worse. It will forever be harder for each of them to have a happy ending, because they are in a behavior loop. It’s comfortable. It’s easy. It makes sense to them, even though I think they all realize that it will only lead them to more misery, guilt, and pain.
This is why Brian’s death is actually so meaningful. Even though he was with his dad, he still has future dreams, and is not running away. He’s not saddled with guilt from past decisions. He is this imaginative and bright guy that we see through Henry’s eyes at the campsite.
This is also why Delilah is willing to be so friendly with him. Brian is a youthful beacon of light to Delilah, and he reminds her of what she used to be. He gives her hope that she can be this again, and that it’s right there anytime she wants to reach out for it.
When he dies, it confirms three terrible things for Delilah. First, it’s the reminder of the negative consequences of her lies, giving her more guilt. Next, it confirms her secret fear that she can never have that happiness. Finally, it reminds her of the pain of getting close to people and why she can’t.
The ending manages to cleverly sidestep both extremes of the happy ending and the everybody dies sad ending by showing you that life just goes on. The person you are is the person you were. The problems you were running from never left you. The future is just more of the same. It’s a completely depressing thought that each of the characters in Firewatch must be thinking.
Although there may be a slight glimmer of hope, Henry, Delilah, and Ned will probably never change and that may be the only thing we know for certain as we board the helicopter and run away from another problem we cannot solve.
Those are my thoughts on the characters and ending of Firewatch. After some reflection, I think the ending is better than I initially thought, and I am hoping this is what the developers had in mind, even though I am probably overthinking the whole thing.
I would love to hear your thoughts about Firewatch, the ending, and its characters. Please drop them in the comments, and let me know where you think I am right or wrong.