Games frequently provide tools for “winning” through gameplay, but what happens when all the tools you gathered don’t fix your problem?
This is the first article of “RE:,” a series meant to take deeper looks into the stories and worlds presented in games. Is this the kind of content you’d like to see more of at Intelligame? Feel free to drop a line with feedback.
BEWARE SPOILERS FOR: Firewatch, a narrative adventure game released by Campo Santo in February 2016.
It’s easy to take the system of a role-playing game like Final Fantasy and turn it in to a metaphor for life: when presented with an overarching task, start with small challenges to increase your skill, steadily preparing yourself for larger and larger bosses. Don’t be surprised when life throws you a couple twists. Don’t worry, though: the new skills and strengths you gain along the way will just prepare you for the final confrontation with your objective. “Grinding,” a gaming term for performing repetitive tasks like killing weak monsters to gain experience, is a fact of life and comes with guaranteed reward: every enemy slain is one step closer to your dreams.
Reality tends to not be so kind. We may spend weeks, months, years cultivating skills that push us nowhere closer to our dreams. Some problems can’t be conquered simply by bootstrap-powered diligence. And sometimes when we come back to an old problem, we find we’re no closer to the solution regardless of the skills we gained elsewhere.
In Firewatch, the year is 1989: it’s a world without smartphones, tablets, or Wi-Fi hotspots. Henry takes a job as a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest, a secluded wilderness in Wyoming. His one point of contact over the course of the summer is Delilah, his supervisor, via handheld radio. Perhaps this is the way he wants it, the wilderness gives him a way to escape his life back in Boulder. Armed with a typewriter and mementos of home, maybe he fancies he’ll write his way to truth and clarity (as many of us writers do). A quick, low-intensity “vacation” of sorts would be just the thing to provide perspective. Right?
Firewatch is interactive fiction: you take on the role of Henry as you explore the Shoshone forest, perform lookout tasks, and converse with Delilah. Eventually, mysteries unfold: two girls go missing after you see them at the lake, and an ominous, fenced-off portion of the park hides ominous, fenced-off secrets. These mysteries become the core of the story in Firewatch, and I found myself roped in: nervous, scared, and yet too curious to turn back, I kept pulling the thread as the plot unraveled.
And then, suddenly, it was just…normal.
Most stories resolve when the mystery is solved: the “whodunit” holds the key, and catching the crook restores balance to the world. Games of all kinds often play to this same compulsion: beat the boss, find the treasure, whatever, and everything becomes right with the world. That might be why Firewatch’s ending, regardless of your satisfaction with it, feels inherently uncomfortable: though it concludes the story, it doesn’t actually resolve anything.
Campo Santo plays on our conditioning as gamers by provides us with all the signals that we’re “winning the game,” . Over the course of Firewatch you get to play detective, uncover information about the girls and their disappearance and the fenced-in area of the park, and deepen your relationship with Delilah. The world scratches game-player itches as you find new tools to explore previously-inaccessible portions of the map and gain additional backstory by discovering items spread around the forest. Then there’s the environment itself: a gorgeously-rendered art form, the sights and sounds of Shoshone mold to your experiences: the sun goes down as the action slows, while the soundtrack remains silent when you need to pensively appreciate nature and runs cold when you’re meant to feel threatened or scared. A fire burns brightly in the distance against a night sky as you and Delilah share intimate words. Shoshone isn’t THE world, but it’s a nearly-magical substitute, carefully honed and crafted to validate at every turn.
But none of this has to do with the world back home, and in an instant, life simply feels…normal again. Or, rather, the plot stops feeling virtual, and starts feeling real.
Compared to the slow burn that is Firewatch’s rising action, the climax and resolution are a bucket of cold water (ha). The fire Henry and Delilah watch together moves over the summer into their sector of the forest, which means a forced evacuation and a return to reality. Henry doesn’t emerge with new abilities to restore his wife and marriage, nor does he learn some sort of mystical method of making peace with the situation. Any potential romance with Delilah only serves to complicate the matter now at hand: what about Julia? What about her family? The world outside of the forest surely hasn’t stopped spinning during the course of the summer, and now Henry has no choice but to confront it… or not. Like the old saying goes, Henry doesn’t have to go home, but he can’t stay here.
Unlike most open-ended endings, Firewatch’s doesn’t feel rife with opportunity. This isn’t a question of whether or not the world is at his fingertips, but whether he’ll go back to his wife and the world he left behind, or somewhere else. Since the story is influenced by the player, each player’s Henry could technically make a different choice: some go back to their wives, ready to confront the future with her. Some others return, but to start the process of letting go and moving on, having discussions with family and settling affairs. Others still simply keep running. None of these possibilities are confirmed anywhere other than in our own minds; unlike the prologue, which uses writing to paint years of living with Julia, the future is blank and undefined, making it just as full of potential and uncomfortable as our real lives. This doesn’t diminish the value of the time spent in the forest, though.
Frequently in games we want to feel our importance and see discrete effects of our hard work. Without some manifestation of our choices (completion percentages, special armor, new abilities, achievements unlocked, etc), there’s an impulse to feel like we wasted our effort. However, Drew Carey used to describe his improv comedy TV show, “Whose Line is it Anyway,” as a show where “everything’s made up, and the points don’t matter.” The fact that nobody formally awarded points, that Drew arbitrarily determined the night’s “winner” didn’t make the show irrelevant, though; it forced viewers to stay in the moment with the performers. Instead of fixating on recognizing one player as supreme (though it was definitely Wayne Brady), the show appreciated each scene and joke simply as its own gift. Firewatch very much contains the same spirit: the exploration of Shoshone National Forest, the discovery of artifacts and letters left by people formerly there, the conversations with Delilah…they’re not meant to come together and form some sort of back-end score or unlock a secret ending. Instead, those moments give us a chance to explore ourselves, to live in the moment, and experience the beauty and ugliness of life, even when they don’t provide the solutions to our most burning questions.
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