The ending to Firewatch has been a source of division among its player base. Some say the ending is anticlimactic, setting you up to take on this grand conspiracy, only to knock down those expectations with something a little more mundane. That’s if you can consider a father letting his son die in a cave and hiding away for three years to avoid questions mundane. Of course, when you consider the theories Henry and Delilah were gravitating to as they discovered Ned’s surveillance operation, maybe the truth was more mundane. But that’s kinda the point isn’t it? As a player, when you are presented with a man alone in the middle of the woods, with only a mysterious woman on a radio to talk to, you start to think to yourself: why is this story being told? And naturally, due to both the location, and the strange occurrences, your mind begins to gravitate to the grand conspiracies that Henry and Delilah did.
The idea that the events throughout the game were committed by one man who was just trying to keep himself hidden is so strange to us because we’re expecting more. Firewatch plays with our expectations. As Henry begins to wonder about his sanity, so do we. We wonder whether everything we’ve seen is actually real, or a figment of Henry’s imagination. We start to wonder whether Delilah is hiding something. We start to share their paranoia. But unlike them, we aren’t in their world. As players we are outside observers. Our source of paranoia doesn’t come from being in the woods, a place that is often the subject of horror films, but from the expectation that something big should be happening. Humans are wired to see patterns even when there isn’t any, and in the case of Henry and Delilah, this tendency leads them to far-fetched conclusions. Films like Shutter Island have us wired to look for conspiracy in any written work. We want there to be some grand plot to sink our teeth into. For us, the player, we’re trying to figure out where the story is headed. From the very first moment we start playing we’re taking in clues. We’re thinking of government scientists and strange psychological experiments. We’re not expecting the mundane. No one ever expects the mundane, and that’s where its brilliance comes from.