As you enter Yellowstone National Park in Firewatch, you do so with wide eyes and expectations open. You do so knowing that you seek isolation. It is not a game purchased for drama, but rather an escape from traditional narrative progression. All those lessons we learnt about story in high school are abandoned. There is no conflict or resolution here, barely even a beginning. No, Firewatch is a vignette, a tale between tales, a story of pause, breath, and perhaps, a little bereavement. It is in this way that it embraces the old platitude, that it is the journey not the destination…
We take the mantle of Henry, a 40 something, apparently pragmatic and healthy man, who isn’t as much running from his past, but escaping his present, and in quite a dramatic way. I should iterate, that the past in Firewatch is a character itself. It is an organism, living and breathing, and tailored by the player. Unlike Gone Home, Henry’s past is the context for his present, and the largest determining factor for his choices going forward. And what a past he has. It does not unfold through multi-layered hints and anecdotal evidence, but rather an emotional drunken haze at the beginning of the game. It echoes the nature of memory in a fairly honest albeit cruel depiction. Hazy.
Henry’s recollection of the past in the first 5 minutes of game play demonstrates something Hollywood never does. That memories aren’t a series of flashbacks, narratological pauses in sepia, but instead deeply fragmented landmarks in his (our) consciousness. A sort of collection of agreed upon events, which don’t flash, but resonate. And that’s how memory actually works. A thought, or pulse through our mind, rather than a re-enactment or visual display. Words float, feelings tied like knots to the most significant events in our lives. It’s poetic really, and suffice to say that I enjoyed the first 5 minutes of Firewatch more than the next 4 hours.
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy Firewatch, I mean it’s fucking beautiful. And poignantly subtle in it’s detail. It’s almost like a love letter to nature, and the imagined landscape. No, I thoroughly enjoyed the game, I did… But well, I can’t help but feel there was a missed opportunity here?
What Firewatch isn’t, is exactly what it purports itself as being. The journey, not the destination. In Stanley Kubrik’s Eyes Wide Shut, we see how imagination can add flame to drama, and spiral even the most rational into believing the absurd. In Michael Hanake’s Hidden (2005) we realise that not all questions have answers, and simply put, we would never find resolution. Blow-Up (1966) one of the greatest movies ever made (in my father’s opinion) plays with the role of paranoia in constructing truths, and questions the legitimacy of our own truths as we create them. So no, it’s not a new idea, but popularised games are a relatively new medium, and by far more interactive. Our expectations as an audience have not been called into question by this medium as of yet, so when I started Firewatch, I figured that like most games, drama would rear it’s head in some way. And surely enough, two young girls went missing. Here it was, the great mystery, and coming heroism I craved. What a fool am I… Not for having expectations, but for not knowing how stupid my needs as a player were.
But the game got me, got me more than I got myself. It understood my expectations for drama, heroism, detective work and the enjoyment of a puzzle, and yanked the cloth out from under me. Days flittered past, and the girls disappearance, what happened to those seemingly important plot devices, became a thing of the past. Just another floating thought for Henry’s unconscious memory. The calendar rolled on and nary a mention of those girls again. Just a sunset, and a budding romance. And it dawned on me, here is a game, not obsessed with some larger purpose, but obsessed with the present. The now, smelling the flowers if you will. There was no drama, but the drama of a moment. The slipping on a rock, or the blockage of a vine on a path. Henry’s diary entries are rather telling in this way, by escorting the player into the deeper layers of his thoughts. Innocuous, irrelevant information is massive to him. It’s very human.
A hand drawn child’s map, a 20 sided dice, a fossilised claw in a cache, a bag hanging from a tree… These things became sweet swansongs of the past. Constant reminders that Henry wasn’t the centre of the universe. People had come and gone, left there mark, but more importantly, been marked by this gorgeous environment. This story of Henry’s was a shared one. His escape, his vignette, his novella, it’s minimalism, but also grandeur of scope, was one shared by others before, and would be shared by others after.
Firewatch seemed to understand this about itself. An introspective and self-reflexive tale about the nature of reality. And to ground us in it’s reality it constantly reminded us of larger than life detective cases. Silly novel blurbs tell stories of grand exploits, serial killers, and a rogue detective. An ironic reminder that life is not that large, that Henry’s life is not the largest part of the universe which he traverses, but a small mote in a much larger scheme- and his romance with Delilah, sure it’s doomed, but it’s present, and now, and the entire world to us (and Henry) as it unfurls. It’s kind of poetic again. We are tiny and massive all at once. It’s the kind of thought you have post break up down by the ocean as you stare at the stars.
(I won’t speak much on Delilah, most reading I have done has deconstructed her pretty well. So well in fact, I felt dirty thinking about how much I liked her.)
So where is my issue with Firewatch?
It’s in the drama! A game that made such use of digression grounds itself in a greater narrative. Which to me, felt unnecessary, tacked on, and sporadic. Like the Jackson Pollack equivalent of story writing. Slap, intrigue. Slap, danger. Slap, conflict. And big fucking slap, drama. I wanted drama, I desired drama, but as it turned out, I did not need it, and nor did Firewatch.
At some seemingly random point in the tale of Henry, some bizarre shit starts to happen. He gets knocked out. He finds a transcript of his chats with Delilah. Some weird Egon Spencer ectoplasm detector replaces his compass. And what should have been Eyes Wide Shut or Hidden, becomes Adaptation instead.
The story takes this dramatic turn and spirals into a chaotic mountain hunt. AND hey maybe that was the idea. Maybe the novel blurbs weren’t ironic after all, but foreshadowed a new detective novel. Perhaps they paralleled the purpose of the game, and to be fair, it reads great. “Henry’s wife recently was diagnosed with dementia and she has been taken away from him. In an attempt for introspection he finds himself in Yellowstone National Park in a Fire Watching tower. But in his isolation, Henry starts to notice strange happenings. Is he mad, or will Henry find he’s not alone after all.” Fuck I’d read that blurb and think ‘that’s a cool premise’. Then throw it at my parents for their birthday. Sounds like a Jeffery Deaver great… A quick Google search of Firewatch images provides hundreds of plausible book covers.
At first, I thought the strange occurrences were a symptom of paranoia. A greater metaphor for isolation. Like Into the Wild, things are only real if shared with another, and like Christopher McCandless, Henry realises through his loneliness that connection to others is vital to his growth. I even questioned whether or not these events were somehow attempting to conceptualise dementia.
Like a sort of Notebook twist, we’d discover that Henry was in fact suffering from the disease, either sympathetically or literally. But no, none of this, it was all real, and the metaphor? A big farce to distract from some PTSD fucker who may or may not have killed his son. Shit I don’t even care about whether or not he did it. I wasn’t interested. All it did was undermine Henry’s journey. It turned his wife’s dementia, and that first 5 minutes into pretext to getting him into the hills so some stuff could happen to him. Which to me is bullshit, I chose a god-damn dog for fucks sake, that means something to me. Do not make me choose a dog if that dog is just bloody pretext.
I wasn’t upset by the fire at the end. Sure it was dramatic, but it felt like a purge, a cathartic end to what was a hiatus from real life for Henry. If the game was a metaphor about disease, or respite, or whatever, the forest fire made a lot of sense. But it also, and to my disappointment was a ‘smokescreen’. The real danger, or narrative was hidden in the mountains. A trove of paranoid ramblings which confirmed Henry’s greatest fears. He was never alone, and he was always in constant peril. How neat. Glad we got to the bottom of that mystery. I was jerked around about the two missing teenage girls, but thank god I found out that the mountain truly was haunted by a creepy old Vietnam veteran. Big thumbs up.
I wanted a conclusion, until I didn’t any more. And then they gave it to me regardless. I kind of have to scratch my head and wonder why. Why not just gate off the mountain, lead me to the copter, and leave me with more questions than answers? Why answer that one question above all others? And seriously, just to add insult to injury, Delilah didn’t wait for me at the copter? That’s totally out of character. I get that the game never wanted the player to see another persons face, or ruin the illusion of Delilah… but seriously, find another way. “Nah mate, fuck ya, the mountains going up, I’m outta here,” was not the solution.
What I wanted was to think, not have thoughts linger, and then snatched at the 11th hour. I really thought I’d made it through the entire game without any resolution, and felt mocked once it was dolled out. Firewatch could have been fantastic, but to me, it will be a mediocre memory. A beautiful, stunning, emotive and deep reaching beige swirl. I just thank God that it came with a dynamic theme, otherwise that’d be 30 bucks that would have been better spent on a 6 pack while going though Google images, and enjoying the illusion of what Firewatch could have been, instead of what it became.
Maybe I missed the point. Maybe missed an opportunity. I’m willing to bet, it was the latter.