On Firewatch, Conspiracy, and Horror

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My first introduction to Firewatch was ironic actually.  I was out with some friends at a picnic, talking about the idea of a summer away from real life. What drives a person to flee like that? What does that ultimately do to a person? A friend told me he was in the middle of a game about exactly that, and – here was the clincher for me, the horror fanatic – It was getting spooky.

Spoilers ahead.

I went home that night and immediately looked into it. Honestly, I’m much more of a story driven gamer. I’ll overlook terrible mechanics, laggy fps, and even terrible dialog for the sake of a decent characters story (see; Life is Strange). 

Campo Santo’s 2016 game Firewatch was, surprisingly, very pleasant. The aesthetic was beautiful, it ran smoothly and felt immersive. It starts off by getting the player invested in schlubby everyman Henry’s story – and it most definitely is Henry’s story, not your own – by letting the player answer questions as to how they wanted Henry’s relationship with his wife to go prior to the start of the game proper.

The writing had depth, felt real enough that I could see it all clearly in my head. Henry meeting his wife, choosing a dog, and later, despairing over her early-onset alzheimers diagnosis – I was there, I was involved.

I was ready, completely invested. I was hoping for some good, sound writing, character plot, and top quality spook. Fortunately; this isn’t what I got.

Firewatch from the start was fighting a losing battle. It entered into the gaming world which is currently dominated by survival horror. Within that, it ticks all the survival horror checkboxes – you’re alone expect for a voice on a radio, in a secluded area, with no weapons or protection except for your own wits.

So when the game begins to throw weirdness at you – some obnoxious teens go missing, their camp is found ruined, Henry swears to the disembodied voice of fellow Firewatcher Delilah that he saw someone on the hiking trail who mysteriously vanished – it doesn’t feel like the beginning of Henrys paranoia, it feels like we should be bracing ourselves for horror.

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I found myself moving slower, looking for monsters where I should have been appreciating the slow development between Henry and Delilah as they discuss life, relationships, themselves, and their currently strange situation. Henry discovers radio logs written in mysterious handwriting that show your walkie-talkies are bugged. He finds a fenced off area that he’s convinced is for surveillance of Delilah and he. When Henry got knocked out for finding a clipboard, I was tense enough to be jump-scared instead of concerned with what this meant. It meant Henry really wasn’t alone, and his theories about being watched just might be true.

This isn’t necessarily the game’s fault. Firewatch’s experience seemed to be focused around telling a story; as most unfortunately named ‘Walking Simulators’ do. The story just kind-of happens with the player getting to choose from 2 or 3 similar responses to stimuli. Do you get attached to Delilah? Were you rude to the teens at the lake? These are ultimately pointless decisions, but serve the purpose of getting the player to actively engage with the story it wanted to tell.

And the story it wanted to tell was how people react to isolation. Firewatch was a character study. Henry is unsure of his life, still wrapped in the throes of grief, so when unpredictable events start occurring, he takes it to absurd lengths. He’s lonely, searching for quiet isolation with his thoughts to try and find some meaning within himself, and when that’s interrupted, the story turns to his reactions.

When the truth behind the mystery is revealed, it seemed that many agreed it to be a letdown. I personally remember stepping away feeling incredibly unsatisfied with the ending. Henry never meets Delilah face to face, or the man living in the hills watching the two of them, and the only mystery turned out to be the tragedy of a lost child. There was no big reveal of an overarching meaning, no terrible conspiracy that they were part of a social experiment. I felt like it wasn’t finished.

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I was angry, I felt like I was owed some climatic ending, some giant evil force behind all these theories we’d made to account for the strangeness.

Incredibly, this is the altogether too common gamer entitlement – I felt the game owed me what I was expecting of it. This wasn’t a let down of a great build up, this was a story of how people come to the conclusions of conspiracy theories, and the feeling when they fizzle out to be nothing. It was a story of grief and an unexpected tragedy.

Maybe I was sold the game wrong, but the more I read about it and the more I saw it played, the more I realised I wasn’t the only one expecting horror. It’s difficult to really start to tell stories about darker subjects of humanity currently without it being taken in a scary direction. It’s not unexpected- darker subjects are scary, and a jump-scare is easier to handle than an existential crisis.

It’s a shame this happened to Firewatch, which, self contained, is a really beautiful game. It pushed boundaries, and it did something different.

Think back, see if you can remember any other game about a 40 something man escaping the realities of his life. Having emotionally honest, frank conversations with a companion within a game – not saving the day, not rescuing the princess, but an honest to god male character with emotional depth and real fears and trauma manifesting in game.

Give Firewatch another shot. Come at it with the idea of a simple character study of Henry. I promise you’ll enjoy it a lot more.

Words by Savannah Ferguson.

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