Firewatch and Tragic Narrative

Warning: I’m trying not to be too Spoilery, but I still recommend you play Firewatch before you read this.

My honours project explored the function and purpose of Tragedy in works of fiction, and how it could be applied to game narrative design. On playing Campo Santo’s Firewatch, I immediately recognised it for a beautiful example of a Tragic game narrative, and possibly the first one I’ve ever seen.

Tragedy has historically been an important genre in storytelling, and is one of the two forms of Greek theatre described by Aristotle, and has been utilised by many authors and playwrights since. Unfortunately, it seems that today, we’ve lost the understanding of what Tragedy (as a Genre) means, how it feels, and how to see it. Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet and Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey have reigned supreme as the dominant narrative structures that we’re exposed to in film. And, considering that historically, game developers have drawn inspiration from film (a trend that I am very happy to see changing), it’s little wonder that we look to these two structures.

So, we don’t like unhappy endings. Sometimes that’s the point. Tragedy has been replaced with Drama (where there is often a twist towards hope by the end), and when most people I talk to think of “tragedy,” they think, “yes, it was sad.”


So, a quick definition of “Tragedy as genre” is in order (my words, so feel free to look it up if you want more detail).

Tragedy tells the story of an individual who is relatable (not someone who we look down upon), who has a fatal flaw, or a key personality or behavioural trait that informs a decision which they make with best intentions, that leads to irrevocable consequences, causing them agony and regret.

In its simplest structural form, this person will exhibit their fatal flaw during the course of the story, but it is only one decision that will cause irrevocable consequences. The best-written Tragic Heroes will have a mixture of admirable or likable personality traits, but have one tendency that viewers/readers/players (I will use the term “audience,” which I hope you will understand as both active and passive depending on medium) will want to keep forgiving, or at least yearn to understand. When that one little thing gets the better of them, it is important that the audience has at least some small sense of dramatic irony, or more knowledge or foresight than the Tragic Hero. We, the audience, should feel that we want to stop them, protect them; and yet have a sense that the tragic events which will come to pass are already in motion.

The conclusion of my exegesis was a set of guidelines which were really written from the perspective, like Aristotle’s, of “this is how to spot a tragedy in a game.” However, I did recognise that any such guideline could also be used to act as a set of requirements to create a Tragedy in a Game.

So, in playing Firewatch, I saw Delilah and her fear of reporting things that may get her in trouble. She exhibits this trait a few times, including a situation that could go very wrong for you, the player. But its only towards the end where you actually discover, before Delilah does, the irrevocable consequences of a decision driven by that fear, that was made before you even arrived. Delilah expresses agony and regret. Henry ends his time as Firewatch.

To many reports, the ending was unsatisfying. It was not, to me. It was a tragedy, not a romance. It wasn’t a tragic romance. Romeo and Juliet were ill-fated because of their parents pride and their choice to toy with death. Othello’s jealousy and insecurity gets in the way of his happy marriage to Desdemona.

So, after identifying Firewatch as a Tragedy, I thought it would be interesting to see how it fared against the “Constraints” I proposed in my exegesis:

  1. The player must not be the Tragic Hero.
    Henry, the player-character, is not the Tragic Hero: Delilah is.
  2. The player must have a secondary, parallel “quest” or set of in-game objectives independent of the Tragic Hero.
    Henry is there as a voluntary Fire Watch, giving himself time and space away from his life.
  3. Tragic Hero must be someone with whom a player can identify.
    Considering the number of players who emotionally bonded with Delilah…
  4. True hamartia can only occur when the choice appears harmless.
    Was Delilah’s decision understandable, something that the player accepts as a reasonable decision that they could have made?
  5. The player must not become too close to the Tragic Hero, lest they experience horror instead of pity.
    This is possibly where Firewatch may have lulled players into feeling betrayal at the end.
  6. The player must be able to interact with the Tragic Hero, without being able to break the tragic irony.
    This was handled beautifully – by setting the tragic choice in the past, the player can interact with Delilah and express disapproval of her flaw (it threatens to get them in trouble on at least one occasion), without ever being able to prevent the choice from being made. The player facilitates anagnorisis, acting as the tragic messenger that leads to peripety for Delilah.
  7. The player’s success must have no relation to the Tragedy’s plotline.
    Although the long-term outcomes influence the Henry’s story with Delilah, the player is always separated from the Tragic plotline by placing the first part of it as being placed before the player’s arrival in the narrative.

Looking at the reaction of players and my comparison between my Constraints and Firewatch, I am led to two possible reasons for dissatisfaction: either the player was allowed to get too close to Delilah, causing feelings of horror and betrayal; or the audience at large is uncomfortable with tragic narratives and their irrevocably bad endings. I’m not sure which is right. Either way, I found it a beautiful narrative, and wonderfully executed.

And you can see my Firewatch photos here 🙂

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