On Firewatch (2016)

When I finally, after weeks of not being able to get to it, launched Firewatch, I was struck by how beautiful it was. One hundred and fifty Ubisoft hands can’t make a European capital city, with its iconographic shortcuts to awe, as beautiful as a goofy pickup truck in the opening ten minutes of this game.

I’ve been incredibly lucky to see the “grammar” of the first-person experiencer genre grow. From Dear Esther to The Stanley Parable (and its brood lineage of Langeskov and Guide), from Thirty Flights of Loving to Room of 1000 Snakes, you can see this great, strange tree of family resemblance among all of these things. I’ve been paying attention to all of them, commerical and non-, since the time that I realized that I definitely should be paying attention. It’s paid off in some ways, because I can see the little pieces: the opening scene feels half Blendo Games and half Twine game; objects are framed against clear sky in Half-Life to Dear Esther style; the animations have a springiness to them that has a glimmer of Langeskov‘s telephones; objects fit on shelves correctly in that uncannily perfect Gone Home way.

It’s almost embarassing to admit that there’s something emotional to seeing those connections. In a few short years we’ve gone from both the public and prominent critical voices openly disparaging these kinds of games, and yet here we are. There’s a whole wide world of people making them in the broadly commercial sphere as well as the indie one (thinking of sometimes-collabo Connor Sherlock and always-excellent Kitty Horrorshow amongst a dozen others). To see a genre bloom and really come into its own is a special thing.

There’s been dissatisfaction in the wind about Firewatch‘s story. Delilah and Henry fall apart. The conspiracy that comes to a head in the middle of the game peters out into nothing. I’m not unhappy with it. I’m on the other hand at complete enjoyment. Firewatch is a window into an asymmetrical relationship that depends on its distance. It’s the 1980s version of an internet romance, telling the story of someone who can always be with you but can never be with you.

Hank and Delilah can share plot points, but they can’t share experiences, and that comes to a head when Hank discovers the years-dead body of young Brian. The game could have easily thrown the parallels between Hank’s and Brian’s relationships with Delilah in our faces. She knows their plot points, but she doesn’t know they experiences, and the lack of the second part gives over directly to the circumstances of Brian’s death. Instead of performing the “ah ha!”, the game just lets Delilah internalize that realization.

It shouldn’t be narrative innovation to allow a woman to turn away and reflect on her life at the expense of the plot development of a leading white (very white!) man, but it is. And it’s excellent work.

I never saw the turtle that was in the trailer.

Henry getting knocked out halfway through the game made me and the person I was playing with jump. I’m not surprised that it happened, especially since part of the first-person experiencer lineage is predicated on the creepy emptiness that comes with the genre.

Myst has an eternal “I will be killed here” feeling that was capitalized on several times by the denizens of its sequel, Riven. Dear Esther gave us the “ghosts” that watched the player move about the island, driving home the dread that rested at the core of that game. Gone Home had the shock of red in the bathtub that went alongside feeling like you were going to be murdered at any moment. Firewatch takes that feeling and delivers on it, horror-movie style, and I thought it was going to be much worse than it was. In a few years’ time, when the history of these games is written, it will be incomplete without a theory of anxiety and fear.

I don’t know what Henry should have done. I don’t know that he should have taken the summer job, and I don’t necessarily think he should go to Australia after the whole thing is finished. Firewatch hits the rock-and-hard-place relationship of the contemporary novel so impossibly well that I’m left with the same feeling I have at the end of, say, a Don Delillo novel. Things occurred, and plots were resolved, but to what end?

I am invested in games that have this kind of open-ended relationship with the player, and it feels good to see someone succeeding at that model of game with Firewatch.

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