Significant spoilers for the video game Firewatch, FYI. I guess to a lesser extent, spoilers for the film Lost in Translation, too.
The phrase “adult video game” has had a multitude of definitions in my life time. The idea has gone from pornographic sex and dating simulator (Leisure Suit Larry) to ultra-violent gore-fest (Doom, Grand Theft Auto). In 2016, I realized that the concept the the “adult video game” didn’t necessarily need to focus on sex or violence or controversy, but the simple experience of adulthood and the trouble that comes with it. The game that ultimately helped evolve the idea of an “adult video game” was Firewatch.
The game puts you in the shoes of a fire lookout named Henry, a man in his mid-40s. It’s a practice in solitude, loneliness, and reflecting on one’s demons. Throughout the game, you barely see any other human beings. The only communication that you really have with anyone else is through a walkie-talkie with another fire lookout, Delilah. Naturally, you develop a bond with her since she’s the only other person that you ever talk to throughout the few months that you’re assigned to watch the Shoshone National Forest.
Dedicating yourself to a months-long campaign of solitude in the name of forest fire safety isn’t necessarily for everyone, and it doesn’t exactly the sort of thing that screams “video game content”, in fact, it seems like an ambitious task to make a game out of this. That being said, looking out for fires isn’t the most ambitious part of the game.
The first moments of Firewatch unfurl Henry’s backstory.
You’re in college.
You meet a girl.
You marry her.
She gets a job opportunity, but it means moving away.
You deal with the strain that it puts on your marriage.
Your wife develops early on-set Alzheimer’s disease and requires constant care.
Your in-laws end up taking care of your wife.
You run away from this by deciding to take on a fire lookout assignment.
All of this unfurls in text, but you’re given some form of agency in how it all pans out up until you drive up to the forest.
Throughout the game, the solitude starts feeling desolate. The feelings of paranoia creep in after you get knocked out from behind by some unseen entity and find your firewatch tower ransacked. A couple teenage girls who you’d reprimanded for lighting fireworks are reported missing. You find a foreboding research facility along the outskirts of the forest.
Alongside the mystery that develops, your relationship with Delilah hedges the line between being platonic and an emotional affair.
What happens with all of the events during your tenure as a fire lookout feels like one of the most adult approaches to video games that I’ve experienced.
For the most part, the mystery was nothing at all.
Those missing teenage girls? They were eventually found and arrested for taking a joy-ride outside the forest limits.
That research facility? It’s a National Forest, and it’s just your standard scientific research facility meant to study the local wildlife and plantlife.
Your relationship with Delilah? Let’s get back to that.
Getting knocked out and finding your firewatch tower ransacked is still notable. It turns out that a former lookout, Ned, was deeply troubled and was desperate to cover-up the accidental death of his son, Brian—who wasn’t supposed to be at the watchtower with him. Ned had pushed and pressured Brian into rock climbing. Ultimately, Brian plummeted to his death because of his inexperience with the outdoors. Ned, hellbent on keeping his son’s death a secret, secluded himself in the forest by hiding out in a cave and monitored all of the radio communications to ensure no one found him out. Ned goes as far as setting a forest fire to cover his tracks.
During the evacuation of the forest, Henry tells Delilah that he somewhat sympathizes with Ned. They both ran away from their familial traumas, the decisions they’ve made, opting for solitude from the rest of the world. Delilah is less-sympathetic, noting that Ned was an irresponsible monster.
All evacuation culminates with the possibility of finally meeting Delilah face-to-face. Your only friend, your possible lover—but she has already left by the time you arrive at her watchtower.
The absence of Delilah has been incredibly divisive among those who have played Firewatch. For a lot of people, that ending felt anticlimactic. For me, it felt like a mature ending. It reminded me a lot of the ending to Lost in Translation, it was an affair that never happened.
Among the people who I’d discussed Firewatch with, those who were disappointed in its conclusion tended to be single men in their mid-20s, a sort of target audience for most video games.
This conclusion felt realistic to me, and it also felt like the ending that Henry most deserved. The endgame went to show that you don’t always get what you want and that as much as you can try to run away from your problems, they’ll usually find their way back to you. Delilah ultimately deciding to not meet Henry seems like one of the more-powerful decisions by a female video game character, especially for a game that generally leaves women disembodied and takes away their agency.*
Maybe it was because I’m married and have gone through a lot of troubled relationships before I was married and have also had rough patches in my own marriage—but I feel like the ending didn’t only feel realistic, but it felt adult. In a world where adult humor in video games is primarily encapsulated by sexist and racist humor in the Grand Theft Auto series, Firewatch did not shy away from adult emotion, adult tragedy, and the realities of adult relationships.
At the end of the game, Henry finally sees another human being, a forest evacuator who pulls him into a helicopter whose face is obscured. That’s it. That’s the end. My personal hope is that Henry goes back home or goes to his wife. At the end of it all, while this is the rare video game about a shlubby 40 year old man, Henry still needs to grow up and make some adult decisions in his life.
*I would like to note that the publishers of Firewatch, Campo Santo, have since announced their next game titled In the Valley of the Gods, which appears to focus on two female archaeologists as its antagonists.