‘Firewatch’ and the Case of the Much Too Obvious MacGuffin

In creating a plot device to motivate its characters, a MacGuffin, Firewatch competes against itself, with a story that it is a gimmick and a story that it really wants us to care about.

This post contains spoilers for Firewatch.

Knowing nothing about it, begin to play Gone Home and you may get the impression that it is a horror game, which it isn’t. Knowing nothing about it, begin to play Firewatch and you may get the impression that you are playing a mystery or a thriller, which it is.

Sort of.

Both games play on expectations that we have as audiences of these genres. Empty, dark house, missing family, red stains in the bathtub (turns out to be just red hair dye in the end), well, initially at least, Gone Home can read like a horror game. Isolated individuals, possible surveillance of said isolated individuals, rumors of missing people, mystery and thriller novels sprinkled all around the landscape to add atmosphere, well, initially Firewatch can read like it is intended to be a mystery story or a thriller.

Both games are ultimately less concerned with mysterious circumstances, though, and more concerned with people. Gone Home is about exploring a house and learning about a family. Firewatch is about exploring a national park and watching a relationship that begins to evolve between two isolated individuals. However, unlike Gone Home, all of Firewatch‘s mysterious events, rumors of missing people, surveillance equipment, etc. aren’t all just a series of red herrings to create a mood or to motivate the player. There is a plot that concerns all of these things that is present in the game, and the game attempts to tie all of these threads together, sometimes to its detriment.

Briefly reading some responses to Firewatch‘s conclusion on a few boards has given me the impression that a lot of folks feel unhappy with the way things are wrapped up in the game — that is, at least in terms of the conclusion of the game’s mystery plot. Scott Butterworth’s review of the game over on Gamespot is pretty emblematic of the kind of thoughts that I have read from some players:

When you attempt to write a mystery, you need a grand revelation with a big story payoff to justify all the tension, but the explanation we get here comes off as muddled at best and forced at worst. The conclusion still manages to pack an emotional punch, but it’s ultimately more confusing than it should have been. (Firewatch Review: A Walk in the Woods”, Gamespot, 9 February 2016)

Butterworth recognizes that the emotional punch of the game’s human drama works, and he is right. However, I had to think a little bit about Butterworth’s assertion that “when you attempt to write a mystery, you need a grand revelation with a big story payoff to justify all the tension,” which I’m not entirely convinced is exactly as true as it might seem.

In cinema, Alfred Hitchcock is considered to be the “master of suspense,” the master of the thriller and the complex mysteries that underlie such tales. And, indeed, Hitchcock made some films with memorable twists. Most notable, of course, is probably the reveal of the killer in Psycho. However, not all of Hitchcock’s revelations are quite so grand, nor are they ever really the interest of a Hitchcock picture at all.

Norman Bates is an interesting person and his relationship to his mother is interesting, before the reveal and after. The relationship between L.B. Jeffries and Lisa Fremont in Rear Window is interesting, not the murder across the street. It fascinates Jeffries, not us. Likewise, the conclusion to Vertigo? It’s not too bad. What we really get interested in, though, is Scottie Ferguson’s relationship to Madeleine Elster, and then his growing obsession with her doppleganger, Judy Barton, not what all of this might or might not have to do with ghostly possession.

These stories are thrillers and mysteries, but first and foremost, they are actually just stories exploring human behavior, human relationships, obsessions, passions, and fears. Hitchcock’s infamous use of the MacGuffin, a plot device used to drive his characters to act and to move the “main” plot forward, was something that Hitchcock himself described as being a “gimmick” to get at the real interest of a film, which isn’t in secret Nazi espionage or in the murderer across the street or in the ghost possessing a businessman’s wife. It is human drama that is the interest of such stories.

A really good example of this in Hitchcock’s work is more clearly described by Brian Eggert in his review of the Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman vehicle, Notorious:

The details of the Nazi secret [in Notorious], better known as a filmic contrivance or “MacGuffin”, is meaningless next to how the film’s setup tears at Alicia [Ingrid Bergman] and Devlin [Cary Grant]. Hitchcock’s “MacGuffin” disguises the picture’s love story, making it about something other than love, when in actuality love is all there is, as they say. The “MacGuffin” is any film’s fabricated cause, utterly pointless in its specificity, but nonetheless, the reason everything happens. […] In Notorious, the MacGuffin is a wine bottle, specifically a 1934 Pommard filled with uranium, and through the search for this MacGuffin, Hitchcock’s romance drama blossoms. Replace the wine bottle with the frozen body of Hitler, a roll of microfilm, or any other thingamajig relatable to Nazis, and the plot would be the same — centered on the love triangle between Alicia and Devlin and Sebastian [Bergman’s characters husband, a Nazi spy]. (Notorious, Deep Focus Review, 14 November 2007)

One could also replace searching for a wine bottle full of uranium in Notorious to the desire to investigate the off-limits research camp in Firewatch or the search for clues about a missing boy years ago in Firewatch or the search for a couple of missing teenage girls met at the beginning of Firewatch. These things drive Henry and Delilah’s investigations, but they aren’t really the interest of the game, how these two interact while doing so is.

Consider how Hitchcock describes the way in which the “gimmick” shouldn’t be mistaken for a what a story’s real purpose is, as is the case with Notorious:

…when [Joseph Hazen, one of the film’s producers] told me how idiotic he had thought our gimmick was, I answered, “Well, all it goes to show is that you were wrong to attach any importance to the MacGuffin. Notorious was simply the story of a man in love with a girl who, in the course of her official duties, had to go to bed with another man and even had to marry him. That’s the story.” (Joshua Wilson, ”A Perfect Film: Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, F for Films, 16 November 2015)

As is the case with Notorious, I think that it is pretty clear that the mystery “at the heart of” Firewatch is simply a series of MacGuffins. Firewatch is not really interested in exploring a mystery, so much as it is interested in exploring a relationship that grows over the course of the game between the game’s protagonist, Henry, and his supervisor, Delilah (even that name smacks of the expectation of the story being a thriller, the name of femme fatale, just another potential MacGuffin, though). That relationship is its actual heart.

It is the MacGuffin that Butterworth and others are complaining about, not so much the “emotional punch” of Firewatch‘s human drama. What Firewatch, I think, struggles to do is to know how to de-emphasize these MacGuffins enough by the game’s conclusion to make players realize that all that business isn’t really where our interests lie. Hitchcock’s MacGuffins don’t compete with the human drama. In Firewatch, they do by becoming so complicated that they seem in need of a complex resolution.

You see, Hitchcock’s MacGuffins create purposes and goals for characters in his films, but usually, they then become background noise over the course of the film.

The whole murder across the way thing in Rear Window? Really, it is pretty much solved from the beginning (Jeffries gets it all along) and a fairly commonplace murder it is, simple really, which lets us focus on the complex business, Jeffries and Fremont’s hot-and-cold relationship.

The whole ghost of a beautiful woman with a tragic history and modern day doppelgangers in Vertigo? Once again, after the initial story is told, the film largely becomes the story of how a man grows obsessed with a woman. Scottie Ferguson’s obsession with molding Judy into Madeleine is way more interesting than the revelation of all this supernatural hogwash being a means of covering up a, once again, pretty run-of-the-mill murder. That a man wants to kill his wife is too simple a thing for the audience to concern themselves with in the face of the psychological disintegration of Ferguson over the course of the film.

The problem with Firewatch is that its MacGuffin is not that simple. Its MacGuffins, really, which may in and ot itself be the problem. There’s a number of disappearances coincidentally related to the central disappearance (the ambiguity of the outcome of which is never clearly resolved in any case), there’s the burning down of a research facility that has been mocked up to look like something that it is not, and there’s a potential murder charge hanging over Henry’s head, which again is kind of, sort of related to all of this business about a guy whose son died in a fall in a cave.

If that all sounds too convoluted to follow, right. The MacGuffin here is so needlessly complex and its solution is equally complex and so it ends up competing with the psychological complexity of the real story. Unlike Hitchcock, who does away with his gimmicks when he has no further use for them in as simple a way as possible, I can see why Butterworth expects a “grand revelation” and a “big story payoff” from Firewatch under these circumstances.

However, to make matters worse, the chief error of the handling of a MacGuffin or Macguffins here is that they call attention to themselves as MacGuffins. All these weird occurrences all turn out to have meant nothing in and of themselves, a bunch of coincidences not so artfully woven together by a man who just wants to avoid being made responsible for his son’s death.

Sure, that the characters need to discover the location of the Nazi Uranium in Notorious means nothing much of anything really, but Notorious doesn’t trumpet that fact. It just pretends like it matters (after all someone cares about those evil Nazi plans in the world outside Grant and Bergman’s love story), and then it disposes of the distraction at its first reasonable opportunity and gets back to the matter at hand, what matters to us, that love story. Firewatch makes the mystery seem like something interesting enough to solve, competing with Henry and Delilah’s story, but then leaves the player with a hollow feeling, since the mysteries themselves are lies to be discovered, not truths, gimmicks that call attention to themselves as gimmicks. These revelations don’t matter to anyone in the story, and least of all, to us in the end. Let the MacGuffins be MacGuffins. But don’t tell your audience that they just got jerked around.

I don’t actually dislike Firewatch. I still like the real story that it tells, a story about two disconnected people beginning to connect. I just understand where Butterworth and the critics of the “mystery” ending are coming from. The key to a MacGuffin is to not to sell it too hard, not to make it compete with the more human side of the story, and Firewatch, unfortunately, lingers over the MacGuffin by continually building and building it into something so messy that it can’t be ignored.

In other words, in creating a plot device to motivate its characters, Firewatch competes with the story that it really wants us to care about. That story is worth playing the game for, just don’t expect a MacGuffin to be much more than a MacGuffin, especially when it tells you that it is one.


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