“I don’t talk to other lookouts as much as you—not in the same way.”
In video games, love is most often portrayed as a reward for persistence, as defining for your personal experience with a game as a robust character creation system. From massive series like Dragon Age or Grand Theft Auto to indie titles like Stardew Valley or We Know the Devil, romance is usually built on a simplistic mechanic: pick your target from a stable of eligible choices, then figure out the correct sequence of actions that completes your goal. Solving riddles in The Witness can take weeks of careful work; EV training your Pokémon party requires specially-designed calculators. Romancing a companion in Jade Empire, on the other hand, can be as simple as conversing with them at each crucial plot point.
Part of the beauty and lasting impact of Firewatch is in the way it flips the script on video game love stories and the way we’ve been taught to play them. Instead of agency and persistence, the romance, such as it is, is defined by acquiescence and compliance. When you play as Henry in Firewatch, you are Delilah’s romanceable companion.
The illusion of choice evaporates quickly during the prologue when you’re still discovering the nature of the story and its gameplay. At first, it seems as though the character dynamics will operate as they might in any other game. You learn that it was Henry who first approached Julia, your future wife, and then you make most of the key decisions in their relationship. It is your choice whether she moves to another state for her work, what kind of dog you adopt, and if you plan to have children.
However, no matter what you decide, Julia will succumb to a disease that overrides all the preceding exposition. It simply plows through whatever you had thought you were building. The final sequence of title cards reflects the totality of this effect: they each have only one way to advance to the next, instead of the binary choices that the player was getting used to. When Henry sees an ad to serve as a lookout in Wyoming, the player has no choice but to select, “You take it.”
From then on, you are, functionally, an extension of Delilah’s summer adventure. On Henry’s first night at the Tower, you have no choice but to talk to her, even as Henry laments that he’s exhausted from his hike. Each day after that, your day begins with Delilah calling you on the radio and, as the game unfolds, your actions are an extension of her will. She asks you to confiscate fireworks, to investigate fallen phone lines, to travel to this point in the forest or another as she investigates the unfolding mystery.
At some point, it’s Delilah who decides to initiate a deeper relationship the way the player might choose which NPC to focus their efforts on after assembling their party in another sort of game. In “My Quest To Seduce The Grim Reaper In The Sims 4” by Patricia Hernandez, she mused about the weirdness of video game romance. Flip the pronouns around and it sounds like she is describing Delilah’s actions towards Henry:
“So every time I interacted with that Sim, I made sure that the action was romantic. I was hoping that, regardless of her feelings, my persistence would win out as the algorithm that calculated our relationship slowly acquiesced to my demands.”
Mari of Geek Remix goes so far as to theorize that Delilah is intentionally deceiving Henry throughout the game, possibly for her own amusement. It’s hard to say for certain where one mystery ends and another begins in Firewatch, but it’s clear that Henry, the player-character, is the one with the least amount of information and agency in the story.
At the very least, it reminds me of my recent playthrough of the Mass Effect series. There were multiple times where I let the action pause while I considered the dialogue options or referred to the Fan Wiki, carefully trying to map out my responses to, well, ensure that I got into Kaidan’s pants. In those moments, Kaidan would linger, awkwardly, on a loop while I read about his background, his potential reactions to this action or that, until I decided it was time to speak with him again. Kaidan knew very little about my Shepard and she, technically, knew everything there was to know about him and had decided—before they hardly exchanged a word—if he would love her or not.
In Firewatch, we, as Henry, can find ourselves in that awkward loop. We pick up Delilah’s radio when she calls; we share beautiful and emotional moments in the forest with her; we are wholly dependent on her to guide us through the mysterious summer. On my first playthrough—maybe influenced by the fact that I was playing the game with my husband as a copilot—I had decided that my Henry would be loyal as possible to his wife, and we still ended up sparking walkie-talkie phone sex with Delilah.
Because she is the only one with the power of choice and, specifically, the ability to determine the course of the love story, Delilah wields an influence that is usually reserved for player-characters, creating a unique and lasting gaming experience that could reinvent the mechanics of love for years to come.