Everyday Conspiracy

This article contains spoilers for Firewatch.

One of the more underreported weirdnesses of the American wilderness is just how many damn people go missing on a yearly basis in our national parks. Well, underreported may be unfair — it’s not as if there are a lot of misconceptions about the dangers of parks, how easy they are to get lost in, and what can happen if one veers off the trail. But the cavalcade of paranormal stories — some along the lines of r/nosleep style fiction, others in the realm of true conspiracy theories — are a bit more subterranean.

Popularized largely by David Paulides Missing 411 series, the nefarious reasons for disappearances in our national parks have gained steam in a national moment where frankly most of us would rather learn about aliens, conspiracies, and the occult than actively engage in the world surrounding and vexing us. So whether it’s just the deeply fatal quality of the wilderness, tragic missteps, or something darker, we’re drawn to stories about the events we can’t readily explain that happen in areas we more often than not don’t really think about. Is it any wonder then that some of these theories end up looking more like questions about shadow governments, surveillance, or unseen forces? No, of course not — but what’s underlying those theories, anyway?

The most gripping storyline in Firewatch, as I discussed in my previous piece, is the story of Brian Goodman and his father, Ned. Ned, years ago, had the job of the player’s avatar Henry, and Delilah, his friend, confidant, and psychological lover in the tower across the way, grew to have a fondness for Ned’s son, Brian. Brian was in the Shoshone National Park in defiance of state rules banning minors from the park during forest fire season. Delilah knew about Brian, but said nothing as he seemed to be enjoying the outdoors and was getting some time with his (fairly bad) dad.

You end up learning about Brian in fits and starts, first finding his backpack full of ropes that allow you to rappel down steep cliffs, and then hearing stories about his (importantly generic) Dungeons and Dragons campaigns that he played with Celia. By the time you reach the fort Brian had set up outside the cave systems that undergird the Shoshone, he’s almost like a third character in the game, a phantom that refers metonymically to the world outside of the park, the past and future of all the world spinning outside of your own personal soap opera.

And as it happens, you need a phantom to keep the massive complexities of the park and its residents in perspective as your own massive problem and conspiracy unravels in front of you. After finding two girls firing off fireworks and lecturing them to mixed results, you find your guardtower trashed, the phone lines cut, and a taunting set of panties left to identify the vandals. Unfortunately, the girls are missing when you find their trashed campsite, and they go missing completely.

Immediately, you are a suspect, as your character is the last to see either of them alive, and even Delilah delicately asks what happened to them and if you know…anything at all. You don’t, and suddenly the specter of disappearance is brought up — a sheer drop, a drowning, a murderer. It’s unclear, but it’s also potentially incriminating to Henry.

And this is exacerbated by the discovery of “Wapiti Station”, a seemingly abandoned research station that is surrounded by a massive fence and is inaccessible to everyone, including rangers. The discovery comes after the girls go missing, and directly afterward, Henry is assaulted from behind after finding notes that dictate his and Delilah’s conversations, copying routes and exact diction. Suddenly, the two realize they’re being watched, and the teens disappearing seem like an harbinger of future danger than an isolated tragedy.

The danger continues to mount as both Henry and Delilah start to doubt each other, begin to see the entire forest as a sinister set of unspoken threats or misrepresentations. Quickly, after the introduction of Day 75, where Henry is sitting, legs dangling on a rock face eating a sandwich, the whole relationship unravels under the force of the threat of Wapiti Station, one part Paulides, two parts the spy novels littering the rangers’ stations in the Shoshone. The facelessness of your confidants suddenly become deeply suspect, and no one can be trusted — the conspiracy is too wide to comprehend.

At the point at which Henry and Delilah decide to explore the caves — convinced something must be down there that will lead to the Truth — they think they are being framed for setting a fire at Wapiti Station, they assume they are being surveiled by sinister forces, and they fear for their lives. The conspiracy has deepened to an incredible degree, and the stakes have risen to levels that, had you asked in Day 1, would seem absurd. The cave, our firewatchers and the player all think as one, is where the solution will be found, the thread that unravels this entire terrible puzzle.

And of course it is. They find the dead body of Brian at the bottom of the cave and all intrigue stops. In quick order, the fire ravaging the Shoshone requires extraction of our protagonists, and we find out that Brian’s death has been the moving factor of the whole campaign of conspiracy. Ned, Brian’s father, has been trying to scare you and Delilah off the trail of his dead child, a child he has left to mummify in a cave while he hung out away from the law in a national park. The girls turn up in a local jail, and the intrigue of the game turns into nothing more than dueling codices — trying to connect all of the dots while Delilah begs you just to leave it all be and get out before the forest burns around you.

But in the end, anything but the true conspiracy underlying the game is a disappointment to Henry and to the player, one that requires concerted effort to re-litigate. In the end, there’s nothing there but a body, but the conspiracy masks this much more tragic banality with the promise of horror and barely speakable governmental darkness. Killers, creatures, aliens, spies — it all comes down to a kid who didn’t keep his balance while his dad forced him to climb.

This let down is natural, and a part of what’s at the core of all comic book, videogame, or otherwise “nerd” culture. There is no cabal of rich, callous murderers in Ciudad Juarez, there are just banal and horrifying killings of women. The loss of a child in a park is not an abduction by an alien or a cryptid; it is a deeply unfortunate and unavoidable moment of tragedy. Pop culture helps us to believe that the banal moments of our life that impact us the most are not base trauma — the things that keep us from owning or engaging with our lives to the fullest — but mobilizing forces to our continued revelation of a more profound world. There is no tragedy here, in other words, that isn’t a door to perception.

But this is also what conspiracies do for us. We use them to convince ourselves that there is some sort of deeper logic to the world around us as opposed to a series of unknowable tragedies. And who would a conspiracy appeal to more than a man who lost his wife to Alzheimer’s and a woman who lost everyone she ever got close to. The protagonists of the game need a conspiracy in the same way many lonely people through time have needed one. As The Last Podcast on the Left has surmised: people need the Hollow Moon to fill some sort of deep hole in their lives.

But what Firewatch shows us is that there is nothing at the end of the narrative other than a dead body and a lack of explanations. Videogames for ages have been teasing massive conspiracies only to provide let-down compromises, the actions of a few crazy men or women read into larger significance in order to justify the machinations of a larger videogame narrative. Firewatch seems to be going that way, and while any seasoned gamer is probably ready to be disappointed, the gut punch full-stop of the actual truth is worse. There’s nothing that can steel us for the actual truth, the fact that there is no darker secret to most of our lives than the fact that none of them ride on a clear narrative.

Firewatch gives us a ton of narratives, too — Henry’s relationship with Delilah; the missing teens; Brian and Ned; the notes found throughout the park; the research center; hell, even the fires themselves — all of which resolve into dust by the end of the game. There’s no ultimate point to anything Henry does in Firewatch, and that’s certainly not for lack of trying on Henry’s part. It’s due to the fact that, despite our best efforts, the banality and everyday randomness of life is more likely to hit us than a true novelistic arc. Far more common in real life, and far rarer in fiction, Firewatch gives us a look at what happens when we turn over all of the rocks and follow every lead to its very end: we feel cheated by the materiality of the real world, that ubiquitous presence that reminds us of the solidity and the unremarkable quality of life.

Conspiracies, in the end, are nothing more than a set of snapshots taken by a stranger.

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