Why Make a Firewatch Film?

A few days ago RPS reported that Firewatch is getting a movie adaption. It looks like the rights to this movie adaption and other “future projects” have been bought by a production company, for what that’s worth.

I’ve already written about how I liked Firewarch (and hated the introduction), and I’m pleased that the game has been as popular as it has that media production companies have caught the whiff of a potentially money-making property. It’s always good to see something different receive acclaim and find an audience, so good-going developers Campo Santo!

However, let’s pretend for a moment that this isn’t just film-studio speculative purchasing of a potentially popular brand-name (are there plans for a Firewatch franchise?) and have some fun doing some speculation of our own!

How could a Firewatch movie be handled if it were actually going to be made?

There will be considerable spoilers in this piece.

First, let’s ask – what would be the point of making a Firewatch movie? Sure, I think any artistic endeavour has the potential to be interesting; but Firewatch already was movie-like in it’s length and structure. It had the story beats and a narrative framework that would work as a thriller film, but had the added interactivity of video-game-play. As I said in my earlier review, the exploration-mechanics and player agency offered through the conversation-system were central contributors to what gave this game it’s unique atmosphere, and overall, what made it an excellent experience. The story was fine, but this working with these game mechanics is what made the game memorable.

Let’s look at three few ways that the Firewatch movie adaption might be handled by a Hollywood studio in 2016.

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1. The movie as a straight retelling of the game

Tagline: Take a Walk Through the Forest (or something equally unimaginative as this).

Beat-for-beat; this is the same narrative as the game. It already works well in a theatrical framework, which is partially why it worked in the first-place for the narrative experience the game provided! The introduction sequence plays as a montage of Henry and Julia’s relationship and her eventual succumbing to early onset dementia (maybe this is the opening credit sequence), interspersed with Henry going to his watchtower in the present time… yes, this is sounding exactly like the game already.

Act 1:  Opens with Henry in the forest. The main thrust is meeting Delilah over the walkie-talkie, Henry getting to grips with a map and compass (moments of levity as he clumsily fumbles with them in his hands and drops his compass), a particular moment of beautiful cinematography as he walks into a sun-lit glade, establishing the surrounding nature as serene and pleasant; his meeting with the two teen-girls is played for awkward laughs, but then the hint of danger to come with his sighting of the stranger and initial walk through the cave that he stumbles upon at the end of his first day.

Act 2: Gets into thriller/suspense mode as Henry becomes aware of the mysterious madman in the park, and the threat of danger as the fire starts at the end of the act.

Act 3: The fire rages around, and Henry resolves the main story-arc/mystery of the game. The story’s final resolution and ultimate outcome is the same as in the game; that Henry doesn’t meet Delilah in-person, but makes a choice about his relationship with Julia (this will be ambiguous to the audience though).

Review: Big fans of Firewatch will be happy to see the character(s) “come to life” on the big screen; people that played and enjoyed the game and other casual fans will probably wait for it to show up on Netflix, but will likely forget about its existence once it finally does show up for streaming. General audiences will be dissatisfied with the ambiguous ending and the fact that Delilah is never seen, and the mainstream press won’t hype it, because it’s a video game adaption. Critics call its story obvious and derivative, but some are enamoured by the choice for Delilah to never be shown on-screen. 72% on Rotten-Tomatoes, but it doesn’t make it’s budget back.

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2. The movie panders to a younger/general audience

Tagline: They came to the forest to look for fires… but they couldn’t see the fire inside their love, or whatever.

This version follows the general plot points of the game, but takes liberties with the story. Oh God…

Act 1: The movie opens to licensed music (likely a pop-punk cover of All Along the Watchtower*shiver*), and Henry is played by currently-popular-Hollywood movieman, fooling around with bikini-clad girls in the forest’s lake; who are there on Spring Break! There are jet-skis, acoustic guitars, and good times. After a day in the sun ends with him kissing a pretty girl, he walks back to his watchtower, which is done up like ‘party central’ in the forest, and there he gets his first call from Delilah. They don’t use walkie-talkie’s though – they have [insert product placement mobile phones]. The camera cuts to Delilah who is shown and played by currently-popular-Hollywood moviewoman. She is clad in sexy khakis – very short shorts and a tight shirt barely containing her ample chest. She is annoyed with and berates Henry for his lovable irresponsible-nature (“I’ve been trying to call you all day! Have you been partying – again!?”), and you totally get the feeling that they’re gonna get together later on!

Act 2: While being a Firewatchman in the forest is fun, and he gets all the girls on Springbreak!, some jerk jock guy comes along to find his girlfriend who had been making eyes at Henry. This jock guy makes fun of Henry for being a weirdo-recluse in the forest, and suddenly the party leaves him. Forced to confront his man-child lifestyle, his past with Julia is shown in flashbacks. Their relationship is portrayed as perfect until Julia is diagnosed with… cancer. Yes, it’s cancer here; anything else would be confusing. The conflict of Act 2 is whether Henry can move on with his new flame Delilah, as while Julia told him on his deathbed “find love again when I’m gone!”, he still feels guilty about betraying her because he has a heart of gold. The madman is introduced, but he’s zany comic-relief and not at all intimidating.

Act 3: Henry walks amidst the flames to Delilah’s watchtower, carrying a huge water-hose and blasting fire out of his way. Both of them blackened with soot, embrace and kiss passionately as the flames roar behind them and a rescue helicopter takes them away in the nick-of-time, backed with mid-paced sincere licensed music like Imagine Dragons or Linkin Park.

Review: Not pre-screened for critics. Poorly received. 18% on Rotten-Tomatoes; however teens go to see it and it makes a modest return against its small budget, so a sequel is green-lit. The sequel has a confusing title that doesn’t have Firewatch in the title, and so no-one sees it and the franchise is forgotten about.

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3. The movie actually warrants it’s existence as an interesting adaption of the Firewatch game.

The challenge in doing something like this is retelling the story of Firewatch, or capturing it’s unique in-game atmosphere and even game-play-feel, in the film medium using primarily visuals and sounds. It can’t be a straight retelling of the game, as there would be no point to making the film, and it can’t deviate too far from the story or it will anger fans and be unrelated to Firewatch other than the name/brand connection.

I think an adaption of a narrative video game into a movie needs the following features to warrant it’s use of the name:

  1. The same basic character frameworks.
  2. The main story-beats of the narrative.
  3. Game-play aspects translated to a film medium – in this case, exploration game-play mechanics. Additionally, and most interestingly, the film should aim to incorporate the conversation-system and branching narrative forks, which ultimately define the characterisation of Henry and Delilah. Now we’re onto something that could be interesting as a film!

We need to consider that while the story-beats leading Henry on through the game were consistent, the flavour of the narrative greatly changed with the conversations between Henry and Delilah. It was possible that Henry kept his secret past guarded, or that he shared everything about himself with her. He could have even ignored her for the entire game, and never spoken to her. How to handle this then in a film, where unlike video games, there is no audience agency? For one player of the video game, Henry and Delilah may have professed their intention to try and begin a romantic relationship together after they leave the forest, but for another player, Delilah may have been an awfully lonely person talking incessantly to a man who wasn’t even willing to reply to her. Another player may have kept their friendship completely platonic.

Which narrative path does the film choose to follow? Why not all of them? This could be an interesting way to handle an adaption worthy of being called a Firewatch movie. It would also be artistically relevant if pulled off well.

So, considering all of this, here’s a suggestion:

Act 1: Follows the opening of the video game, and at the interaction with the teen girls and as Henry decides whether to leave them alone or destroy their boombox (one of the earlier instances of player-agency in the game); he freezes, and through the look on his face, it’s assumed he’s had some sort of mental-flash. This could be built up to and visualised by portraying his brash-nature in the film leading up to this point – he’s angry at these girls for letting off fireworks, so he snaps their fireworks, destroys their campfire, and pours out their liquor in earlier scenes. He picks up their boombox with a look of resolve to throw it into the lake, but then has a look of sudden confusion, and uncharacteristically (at this point of the film) puts down the boombox, leaving the girls without saying a word. Delilah asks Henry what happened, and he can clarify, saying that he saw two paths vividly in his minds-eye and that he needs to take a rest. Something’s not right.

Act 2: The threat of the madman in the forest is present, but takes a backseat to Henry’s mental state as the thrust of the story going forward. The gimmick of the film could be that the game’s conversation system is visualised as the duplication of scenes, but featuring different dialogue between Henry and Delilah. Basically, alternate scenarios of the same situations presented together throughout the film. This can be ambiguous as to whether something supernatural is occurring, whether Henry is suffering a mental disorder, or if he is intensely analysing and weighing possible interactions and outcomes with others before he does anything. As an interesting theme, this can manifest in his impotence to act in given situations; just as he chose to figuratively run-away to the forest rather than make a choice and participate in his wife Julia’s future care-taking. It also links to the theme of mental disease in the game. His relationship with Delilah is shown as both flourishing and suffering through the alternate scenes and dialogues occurring. Film language dictates Act 2 should end with Henry at his lowest point so that he can overcome it in Act 3; the incidents with the madman are genuinely frightening at this point, and Henry’s multiple-narratives seem to be getting even more wildly divergent – this could be visualised with one instance of Delilah declaring her love for Henry in one instance, and another where she is crying and saying that she is becoming afraid of him in the alternate scene.

Act 3: Alternate narrative paths lead Henry to the singular end of the story, as the forest is ablaze. The narrative divergences seem to end as Henry makes the “right” choice regarding the fate of the madman, which can be something that all his inner-voices agree on. From this point his resolve is restored, and he hikes to Delilah’s watchtower to meet her and get on the rescue helicopter. Unsure of whether he will meet a Delilah who loves him or hates him, Henry arrives at her watchtower and finds nothing. It is completely empty, but for a few empty bottles of alcohol and some old maps flapping in the wild winds. Shock shows on Henry’s face and it’s implied that maybe Delilah was a figment of his imagination, but then Henry’s walkie-talkie rings:

The voice of Delilah comes in. “I had to leave, don’t worry, a helicopter is coming for you now” she says.

“OK, good, I’m glad you’re safe”, replies Henry.

“Listen,” says Delilah, “we should talk about…”

Henry cuts her off, “Later. I’d like to meet you Delilah, in person. Would that be OK? I should explain some things”.

“OK, I think we should finally meet after all this” she says; it’s vague enough to warrant validation of any of the narrative paths that have occurred through the alternate scenes through the film.

Henry gets into the helicopter that arrives to rescue him, and the film is concluding with a sense that he is decisively moving on with his life. However, as the helicopter rises, Henry looks down and sees himself below, looking back up at the helicopter, waiting for the flames to engulf him (this is actually a hidden ending in Firewatch).

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There are probably many ways to make a very interesting Firewatch movie, but unfortunately, they will probably go with option 2. Just like the Half-Life and Portal movies will, the Tetris Trilogy will, and the inevitable Call of Duty, Mass Effect, and every other money-making video game IP film adaption that will probably get closer to actually being made than a Firewatch film will.

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