B-Sides is a weekly series where we look at a timely element of contemporary culture that isn't strictly related to music. This week we're examining the new indie video game, Firewatch. There are some light spoilers in this piece so if you want to experience the game totally fresh, stop reading now (but please come back later).
Trying to explain the isolation of rural West Virginia to folks who've never lived there isn't easy. As a kid, my house was the first stop in the morning and the last stop in the afternoons on the bus route to school. I guess that's the "perk" of living on the county line. Besides my cousins (who lived next door with my grandmother and with whom my relationship can best be described as...turbulent), I didn't have neighbors my age for a mile in any direction. Between that and the fact that I didn't have my driver's license until I was 21 and all of my friends lived in other parts of the county, most of my interactions with friends outside of school hours were on AIM.
Oh, AIM...the pre-texting, pre-Facebook Message way for young people to stay in touch with one another in real time. Up until I went off to college and got my first cell phone and signed up for Facebook, there's little question that AIM was the way I talked most often to my friends. I'd wait a couple minutes for our dial-up internet to connect (do you ever miss those modem sounds; no? It's just me...oh) and I'd hop on AIM and chat with my friends about school and our lives (and our love lives) and whatever the hell else middle school/high school Don Saas was fixated on at the moment.
Looking back on those years (with a depressingly large swath of time distancing me from my teenage self), I've realized that many of my most intense and vulnerable friendships were with folks that I was primarily communicating with on AIM. I had friends that I'd talk to regularly on there that I'd barely see in school itself (whether that was because we didn't have any classes together or we ran in different social circles) but we'd have conversations on the internet that were as meaningful and intense to me as the ones I'd have in real life with the kids I'd normally dub as my closest compatriots. It's easy to open up to folks when you can't see them (and don't have to immediately see rejection if it arrives) and while that might not seem like piping hot material for a video game, Campo Santo's Firewatch is a powerful meditation on emotional intimacy without physical presence and a contemplation on those folks with whom we choose to share our emotional vulnerability.
In the 1980s, Henry's wife is suffering from early onset Alzheimer's. After placing her in an assisted living facility, Henry (Mad Men
's Rich Sommer) takes a job as a fire lookout at Yellowstone National Park to escape his emotional misery. While there, he is placed in radio contact with Delilah, a fellow lookout who outranks him and becomes his only real human contact for the summer minus a pair of teenage girls he has to chase off on his first day cause they're lighting fireworks during the dry season. And over the course of the summer, Delilah and Henry forge a close emotional bond and stumble upon a life-threatening mystery that threatens to tear them and the entire forest apart.
A couple years back, a game called Gone Home came out. Odds are that unless you're well-versed in the gaming scene, you probably haven't heard of it which is a shame because it's arguably the most well-written game of the last six years. In a medium obsessed with power fantasies and complex mechanics, Gone Home was content to be a love story between two queer teenagers that you experience secondhand through light environmental exploration. It radically challenged not only the patriarchal, heteronormative status quo of what a successful game could be, but it set a new bar for character driven storytelling in the medium. And while Firewatch
may not (at least on the surface) have the political fire of Gone Home
, it stands toe to with it for emotional and character-driven power.
Although a thrilling mystery (that had me convinced at alternate times that Delilah was potentially a KGB spy or that I was in the midst of some Lost
-esque social experiment) propels Firewatch's story, the game's heart is driven by your radio communications with Delilah. And perhaps the game's emotional resonance works because of the choices I made and that a different style of play would result in a less rewarding and meditative experience, but my time with Henry became a piercing look at what it means to open up to someone else and what that says about the basic emotional validation we all need to survive, heal, and be happy, and it was accomplished in a way that could only be achieved through an interactive medium.
Most of Firewatch's play consists of walking around the section of Yellowstone that is Henry's lookout zone, making dialogue choices in your conversations with Delilah, and occasionally light mechanical segments that simulate your job/solving the mystery at the core of the game. And it's your dialogue choices that allow you to decide how Henry reacts to the tragedy in his life. Henry is given the rare privilege of being an honest to god human being with frailties and a broken heart without being turned into the cartoonish brooding nihilist that so many contemporary AAA game protagonists have been for the last ten years. Delilah has her own frailties though we only hear the ones she's willing to share with Henry. And in my time with the pair, a friendship formed built on trust, respect, and open, honest emotion.
How does Firewatch do this? How did it make me feel so responsible for guiding one lost soul into something resembling fulfillment with another equally lost soul? Choice is part of it. In real life, I'm a pretty open and honest guy. Ask me a question and unless it's too personal, I'll answer it as well as I can. And it's how I played Henry. I wasn't immediately volunteering information to Delilah about my personal life, but if she asked, I answered. And when Delilah didn't walk away because I shared, I felt comfortable sharing more and I decided to be there for her when she shared her truths.
And on the one hand, that's all well and good but also something that could be open to cheap emotional manipulation but the dialogue and voice acting in Firewatch are so good and the consequences for your decisions so realistic that I willingly role-played from beginning to end. Early in the game, you overhear a conversation with another lookout that Delilah is having and I got defensive because I thought she was talking about Henry. She got pissed at me and disappeared from the radio for a bit. I felt genuinely guilty for my actions and the absence of her voice weighed heavily as I wandered the forest trying to do whatever it was I was supposed to be working on at the moment. And when she finally returned, I actively chose to profusely apologize for being an asshole.
Much later in the game, after we'd mended hurt feelings, it was a mid-summer evening and we were watching a fire burn in a remote part of the forest from our respective lookouts and our conversation became vaguely flirtatious. And, if you don't know me in real life, I'm awkward as hell, and as the flirting became more forward from Delilah, I/Henry clammed up because I/Henry was worried that I'd just say something wrong and screw everything up for Henry. And because I stopped talking, the moment wasn't actively ruined but the flirtation came to an end. In another games (like a Bioware RPG such as Mass Effect or Dragon Age), I'd save scum to get the romantic result I wanted. I respected Firewatch's dedication to meaningful consequences too much to see how it would have played out any other way.
And, at the end, when truths are revealed that effect the lives of people I never physically saw on screen once, I felt emotionally gutted because the game created those emotional bonds with the messy turbulence and consequences of real life.
Every time Delilah and Henry would talk, I'd think about the friends I have today. Friends who I met at music festivals and never/almost never see in real life anymore but that I talk to daily. Friends that I met through Twitch streaming groups (shoutout to Stream Friends!
) that I've never met in person but who I consider to be among my closest friends and that I talk to on Twitter about all of the things in life that I care about the most. At a core level, people need to know that someone else out there hears their pain and empathizes with and cares about their well-being. And while those relationships that can occur in "real life" are often the most satisfactory, the truth is that for a lot of us, we're at points in our lives where opportunities to form those sort of in person relationships are rare. I moved to NYC almost a year ago and although I've made some friends since the move, I haven't made many that I'd consider to be especially close and I don't get to see any of them all that regularly.
And that's what makes Firewatch special. At its thematic heart, it understands that existential need for emotional validation and it understands the role that empathy and relationships can and should play in the future of interactive narratives. And although walkie talkies aren't quite the same thing as Facebook/Twitter/AIM/IRC, it's not hard to understand why Firewatch might resonate the most for folks who formed their deepest friendships in the internet age in a manner that's not all that different from what draws Henry and Delilah together. And, lucky us, we've got the benefit of not having a quite literal fire on the horizon.