Firewatch, Relationships, and Blame

When twitter power user @tom_J_allen told me to try Firewatch, I was excited to give it a try. Not least of all because I’d been generously gifted it and had it on my list, but because I’d been wanting to play it for a while. People had been gushing about its aesthetics and its approach to adult story-telling, so I was pretty sure I’d enjoy giving it a spin and trying to come up with something new to say about it. And for the most part, I really did enjoy Firewatch! In fact, the only parts I didn’t really enjoy were intentionally un-enjoyable: the slow dissolution of a summer fling; the realization of a wife’s dementia; the anti-climax of an unraveled conspiracy. The natural world of Firewatch was beautiful, though, and there’s a posthumanist take to be written about the peace and calm of pure solitude in the game itself (maybe I’ll be the contrarian and write this about The Long Dark). In any case, developer Campo Santo did a hell of a job creating a lush environment, so much so that he had to add free-roaming capabilities after popular demand.

But what Campo Santo also produced was a sort of relationship simulator, one that follows the appropriate ebbs and flows of relationships inasmuch as it’s messy, ambiguous, and totally unable to be corralled into a clear, linear narrative the way one would want to. And while you play always as Henry, the male character who leaves his prematurely senile wife who he cannot take care of, you’re never quite at home there despite the first person view. The distant time-periodization plus the deeply personalized stories of both protagonists make it difficult to fully empathize with anyone in-game, despite the deep desire to, given the depopulated surroundings. Ultimately, Firewatch is an ethical vacuum though, presenting a tailored vision of narrative linearity that disavows lessons or satisfying conclusions.

Self-fashioning is at the core of Firewatch, at least in its heroic hypotheticals: you, a man distanced from your wife by sickness, is taking some time away after basically failing to take good care of her. The distance of the Wyoming wilderness and the responsibility of watching for forest fires are giving you a chance to clear your head and learn about yourself. Only, well, you don’t really get to do much of that. You spend most of your time hiking, having accidents, and talking to your boss, Deliliah.

Delilah, for her part, is a ribald, jocular, and also romantically damaged figure. And, over time, you grow closer to her until that connection becomes romantic…or well, romantic-esque. The starcrossed lovers in this game are kind of complicated by the fact that they (spoilers I guess) never see each other in person. Delilah is evacuated from the park — due to a fire you two have failed to stop, incidentally — before you reach the evac spot, regardless of what dialogue option you use to try to get her to stay. She joins the list of faceless other characters in the game: Julia (Henry’s wife “pictured” above), Delilah, various juvenile delinquents in the park, a roving ex-lookout, and even the final figure in the game, the masked fireman offering you a way out of the hell your weird journey has taken you.

And what weird journey would be complete without a strange, sinister conspiracy hiding behind the scenes? In Firewatch, the conspiracy takes the form of a bizarre listening station and the disappearance of two campers who Henry has chased off the park grounds for using fireworks early in the game. Firewatch emphasizes this conspiracy for the player by letting them play day-by-day for the first few levels of the game (eg Day 1 is followed by Day 2 and that’s followed by Day 3) before jumping ahead to the bedewed and loving Day 33 phonecall between Henry and Delilah, and then finally to Days 76–79, where everything falls apart. Firewatch, for all of its trappings as a walking simulator, is closer to a visual novel in this way, connecting narrative arcs with deft ease and directing a sort of scope that is impossible to avoid: romantic comedy turned spy thriller turned disappointed return home.

The disappointment comes from the second surprise in the game, after the fairly tame one of “Well you and this Delilah woman are going to hit it off.” The listening station and deep conspiracy that undergirds the game’s final moments and more suspenseful plot-currents is revealed to be a shoddy fraud put together by an ex-lookout who accidentally was responsible for the death of his nerdy, well-meaning son. Delilah, who has been talking about this kid through the entirety of the game, is devastated, and the slow reveal of everything you’ve been trying to figure out as a player is less an ecstatic revelation as much as an impossible picking at a mental wound. Henry, untouched because he did not know the dead child — though he did find his body — continues to uncover clues and details about the vast scam perpetrated on him and Delilah, while Delilah quietly and (clearly to the player’s view) breaks down.

Henry, though, continues to push for the happy ending, for the movie finish. The aforementioned Tom Allen asked me about the readings of this game that give their sympathy primarily to Henry instead of Delilah, and I get where they might come from. As someone who has suffered through a dementia-related loss, I feel for the character. And as a man who has had summer romances before, it’s a little depressing to see this one fall apart so predictably. But I agree with him that there’s a bit of sexism undergirding the anger at Delilah leaving. For Henry, everything in the park is a tool toward getting past his own loss, to the point that he even attempts to get past the full-end-stop of a dead boy’s skeleton at the bottom of a gorge to the promised end of a recuperative fling with Delilah. Henry isn’t evil, of course — he’s grieving — but then at the end, so is Delilah. Both are faced with guilt, shame, and second guessing, and Henry is stuck on what might happen to him. Delilah, wisely, leaves him to figure it out on his own, offering a few words of advice from afar.

In the end, Firewatch is a gutting game for a lot of reasons. The romance doesn’t pan out, no matter what choice you make, for one. The conversational options produce new dialogue trees, but, much like real life, changing one or two words here or there does not radically change the ending you get. Furthermore, all the sexy, exciting intrigue boils down to a cowardly man running away from his own tragedy and the body of a dead kid. That dead body literalizes for Henry his own dead marriage, and for Delilah her own dead memories of the boy when he was alive and vibrant, annoying and committed to his well-meaning but terrible father. The materiality of Firewatch is there in the cave, at the bottom of a cliff, and in many ways the game itself ends there. Henry can’t ever come to terms with it, while Delilah has to. The player is left to decipher their own feelings, part voyeur, part psychiatrist, and part sympathizer.

As Henry says of Brian Goodwin, the boy’s, body — “you poor fucking kid.” The phrase could just as easily be leveled at anyone in the game. I have read interesting analyses of Firewatch that suggest — convincingly — that the game is about adulthood. I think, though, that much of Firewatch is about childhood and the ways in which, especially in moments of trauma, we retreat to less grown-up pleasures in order to cope. Nature, hiking, scary stories, breathless phone calls with someone that makes a little nervous and a little ecstatic: we know these aren’t real coping mechanism for the complexities of our lives. But as Firewatch suggests, escape isn’t always bad. It is never, however, easy to leave and come back to reality. Firewatch lets you have a voyeuristic thrill in enjoying the escape, but insists on the comedown as well, presenting a vision of life that boils down to pure materiality.

Hegel says — as Henry might say as well — that the relics, unearthed, are only bones. So are memories.

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