“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.”