WARNING: Mega Spoilers!
I read this beautiful written response to Firewatch by Alec Meer and I felt compelled to speak about my own experience with the game. Meer writes openly about what it was like for him to play Firewatch as a married man who is juggling a lot of responsibilities in his life. I loved Firewatch, but I felt alienated in my play-through even though my play-through was remarkably similar to Meer’s.
I had been looking forward to playing Firewatch for weeks. I saw people posting gorgeous screenshots online and read comments about the strength of the writing. I felt a surge of excitement every time I saw something new, and I couldn’t wait to immerse myself in Two Forks and explore the world around me.
My partner bought the game so we could play it together on the weekend – one of our favourite ways to play games. When the game booted up, we decided to take on the questions together, mumbling what our preferred responses would have been, selecting based on both of our interests.
I was able to play for some of the time, but I ended up mostly spectating while my partner played, which was meaningful to me in a few ways: 1) I enjoyed the environment, concentrated on the story, and relaxed into the role of voyeur, and 2) it allowed me to see my partner interact with the world and with Delilah. I’ve always enjoyed watching different people play games. There are lots of play styles, and I love being able to share in that and see how people make choices and discover mechanics. In Firewatch, I felt like I was part of the experience, even when I wasn’t playing it myself, as my partner and I got deeper into the game.
But when the player’s interactions with Delilah’s take precedence over Henry’s solitary exploration of Two Forks, my responses were no longer asked for. This wasn’t intentional on his part. The writing in Firewatch is powerful. The conversations between Henry and Delilah are quick, and with a timer determining whether or not Henry will reply at all, it’s easier to maintain conversational flow on an individual level. After some time, I began to feel left out of the game and I wasn’t sure why.
I watched, but kept looking down, recognizing the enjoyment my partner was having in the scripted flirtations with Delilah. We paused to talk briefly about whether or not it was flirtatious. I struggle with insecurity and it’s often difficult for me to trust my own analyses. There are complicated feelings between Henry and Delilah. And, remarkably, the game is able to extend that complexity to the player as well, particularly if they relate to Henry.
After some time, I had the controller and got to play. Briefly, I played. Finally, I thought, as myself. Finally, I thought, I would be able to respond to Delilah as me, as a woman. I chose not to repeat the same patterns of conversation. I chose silence sometimes, or something less banter-y. My partner said, “Why are you being mean to her?” I was confused. I was just talking to her the way I would have wanted to talk to her. “No,” I said, “I’m just tired of participating in the same kinds of flirtatious dialogue. I want to explore what it’s like to play as me.”
Of course, that seems rather idiotic in retrospect: I was supposed to be playing a character. I was supposed to be playing as Henry. The Henry that I would have been would have tried to have different conversations about the world. My favourite parts were when they talked about the environment and explored the history of Two Forks. Maybe, I thought, I should try to get into the dialogue more and respond to Delilah as I saw my partner respond.
Except that, as Meer points out, there are opportunities to alter the trajectory of the conversation. The player can choose to say nothing, to let conversations hang, or choose text that is more straight-forward. I explored more, but stumbled a little, less streamlined. My mastery of the game’s mechanics was more sluggish; the pacing for my communication was slower, too. I wasn’t great at reading the map, but I didn’t mind that. It became stressful, though, every time I saw the timer in the corner of my radio icon, every time I accidentally went to the wrong cliff and couldn’t climb down. I ended up surrendering the controller completely. My partner asked if I was sure I didn’t want to play. But I honestly felt that there was no space for me in that play through. Maybe there is no space for me at all in this game, and that’s okay, but I’d like to figure out why.
It’s not that Delilah isn’t cool – she is! But the player’s agency is aligned with Henry’s, so my own projection into the game was based on Henry rather than Delilah. As the game progresses, so does their relationship, regardless of the player’s choices. I noticed that when the player had an opportunity to bring up Julia, the tempo of the conversations changed. Delilah and Henry spoke with more serious, kinder, and empathetic tones. Inevitably, however, the conversation slips away from the player and back into the more romantic narrative.
But, you might notice the picture of you and Julia is tipped over, and keeps getting tipped over. You might notice your ring is missing. You might choose not to put it back on.
My experience with Firewatch was alienating. I loved the game so much, but felt strongly that there was no place for me in it. There is nothing wrong with that, and it’s not that creating a sub-narrative for Julia or for Delilah would have changed the story to better include someone like me. I think that it would have made the game less intimate and the story less compelling if there had been a shift in the character you play.
In Firewatch, I feel as though I am playing a fantasy – and not just Henry’s, more like a male fantasy. There is an unseen woman who I can interact with; I control my responses to her and they come out as infinitely witty; the attraction is reciprocal or not at all, and I am in control of that; I am isolated and free to explore the space of Two Forks without being held back by mortal danger (there is no accidental death possible for the character in the game); I can choose whether or not to remember the pressures and pains of the life I left; my position, my subjectivity is secure.
And then suddenly, it’s revealed that the characters in the game have been monitored – you have been monitored. The conversations between Delilah and Henry have been written down, enjoyed, scrutinized, and studied by someone else. The fantasy, originally an individual’s idyllic escape, becomes threatened. As the threat spreads and gives form to the death of a boy and his father’s escape, the fantasy begins to erode. First, there is a contained fire, and then a second at the Wapiti site. Henry’s fantasy is interrupted by continuous external forces of reality (like the two girls setting off fireworks), representative of things outside of his control. Finally, the second fire gets out of control and destroys any potential for the fantasy to continue. In wish fulfillment, the story goes that once you get what you want, you no longer want it. If we imagine that the fire is representative of Henry’s repression of reality, then the fire is there as a violent return of the repressed and the end of fantasy.
I am reminded that the majority of games allow me to experience a fundamentally man’s fantasy and the male gaze. And even though this game complicates that, it is still a male fantasy. What would it look like to make space for alternative fantasies alongside Henry’s?
The relationship between Henry and Delilah is complicated and I think this complication is a remarkable one for video games. Relationships are messy, at times difficult or contradictory – even friendships. Both the game’s and Meer’s exploration of that complication is, for me, really beautiful and important. It should have nothing to do with one’s morality. It doesn’t matter what is “good” or “bad” about the choices a player makes in Firewatch. What matters is that the game motivates players to engage emotionally with a character, and that engagement in turn, can affect the player outside of the game. It’s more interesting to wonder why players make the choices that they do and really cool to think about what those choices mean afterwards.
The emotional engagement in Firewatch challenges us to wonder about relationships, friendships, boundaries, and fantasies. Firewatch’s writers and Meer’s article suggests that indeed a fictional world, a digital game, may provides a reality check of one’s own life. It’s possible to feel confusion, attraction, jealousy, fear. It’s possible to experience projection, or to watch someone else project themselves.
I think my partner knew I felt uncomfortable, and maybe chose different paths because I was present. I feel sad when I think about that and I worry about addressing the feeling of alienation at all. We talked about my experience of the game afterward, and it helped a lot. I’m not worried about goodness because that adds nothing to the conversation of respect, love, complications, and problems. I’m more interested in questions like: what do we do when we become conscious of these complications? What do our fantasies reveal for us? What do the fantasies in games provide for us? Where do I belong in this game? How do other folks who can’t identify with Henry feel when they play this game? Would I want someone to choose a heavier life if they could escape it? Can we have more conversations about complex relationships? What would my fantasy in Firewatch look like? (Spoiler: a lot more animals.)
P.S. I’m so sorry that the images are all from secondary sources – I don’t have access to the screenshots on my laptop.
P.P.S. I do absolutely think it’s wonderful to have conversations and I am lucky enough that my partner and I do get to talk about difficult stuff! It kicks ass (mostly).