Monday, February 20, 2017

Dave Critiques - Firewatch: The player and Henry


Hey hey folks, Dave here. Welcome to my critique of Firewatch. Just a friendly reminder that I will be discussing the game for those who have played it. If you haven’t and are worried about spoilers, please pause the video and go play the game before returning. For everyone else, let’s continue.

I’d like to start this off with a single moment in the game. Similar to my Toren critique, I think this moment is a good springboard for what I’ve chosen to discuss. We’re deep into the story now. Henry is sure he and Delilah are being monitored, and so as a solution, Delilah suggests radio silence. The next day she contacts Henry with a coded message, to travel to a remote location and find a new walkie talkie that she has left for him. During the trek there, I swear there’s rustling in the bushes, like I’m being followed. I even look around once or twice, even though intellectually I know that nothing will be there. When you get to the location and pick up the new radio, Delilah starts to speak frankly, freaking out about what to do. There are 3 responses I can pick. I as the player am in a heightened state because I’m invested in the narrative, so in my haste to respond, I misread the options. The second choice is accusing Delilah of being in on whatever this is. I thought it was a question, Henry asking Delilah if she has anything to do with this. It didn’t take long to realise my mistake as Henry starts accusing the closest thing he has to a friend out in the Wyoming wilderness. Similar to a real conversation, I can’t take back what I said, and the rest of our discussion is coloured by the turn the conversation has taken. There’s then a significant amount of silence as the player, Henry, and Delilah get to mull over what just happened. This is also just before the revelation of Delilah filing a police report about the two missing teenagers in which she lied, and then what you find at the research station over in Wapiti meadow.

The developers behind Firewatch also worked on Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season 1. The reason I bring this up right after telling that story is that I think both games work in a similar fashion. Keep this in mind, I’ll be revisiting its significance and the reason for the story a little later. A lot has been written on Firewatch since its release. There’s always a trepidation on approaching a game that has been written on so extensively, mostly by people a lot smarter and with greater insight. One reason I enjoyed looking into everything that was written is it tells me the areas of investigation and interpretation that do and don’t interest me. For instance a lot has been written on Delilah, not only as an NPC with agency, but the possibilities of Henry’s interactions with her, and mostly about her deceit. A lot of people think Delilah was either part of Ned Goodwin’s plan and she was messing with Henry while feigning ignorance, or she’s just a compulsive liar and it’s a good thing that Henry never ends up with her at the end, because why would you want to be with someone you can’t trust. This reading has so much traction because it explains away what many see as story plotholes. Now personally if I have a problem with Delilah it’s that the conversation with her undercuts the purpose of Henry fleeing to the woods to live in solitude for a while, but that’s mostly the fault of Henry / the player who feels the need to talk to Delilah about everything they come across.

There’s discussion on the concept of loneliness and that the only human contact Henry has in the whole game is grabbing the fireman’s hand at the end (something that the player can decline incidentally by walking back towards the watchtower). This ties into the metaphor of the fire and how it plays with the emotions of Henry and Delilah as the mystery they find themselves in starts to unravel. This leads towards a conclusion that many seemed to be unsatisfied with. Not only Henry deciding to go be with his wife, but not having the ability to be with Delilah. Oh, and people didn’t seem to like the revelation of what happened to Brain and Ned Goodwin. To be honest, I was among those people who thought that the ending was a big letdown when up to that point I was really enjoying my time walking through nature and furthering this mystery along.

Of course after looking into it, it’s pretty obvious that the mystery, the “plot” as it were is not that important to what Firewatch is. This is a tale of regret and running away from your problems. There is no paragon playthrough in Firewatch. Henry is a broken man, and the choice the player has is to determine just how broken, and if he can indeed work to start himself on the path of recovery. Delilah is the same. In effect, she’s a mirror to Henry. In this way I personally don’t think it matters whether or not she was working with Ned, lying to Henry, or oblivious to it all. The player is controlling Henry. Delilah is her own person, and while you can create a connection with her, her choices are not the player’s choices, and this is exemplified in them never meeting, and them parting ways at the end, possibly never to speak again.

Returning to my earlier mention of The Walking Dead, the reason I think this game is quite similar is that both play with the illusion of choice. The player is able to make a lot of decisions in both games, although the decisions in The Walking Dead seem more impactful and the stakes seem higher. Ultimately though, despite the choices, the overall story of both games is pretty much the same save for a few minor details. What’s important is the characters that the players are controlling. Who are Lee and Henry? Both have a less than ideal past, and both are obviously trying to atone for what they have done. Here’s the main difference though (aside from Firewatch’s lack of zombies), Lee sees an opportunity for redemption in looking after Clementine. Henry starts the game running away from his problems, and embroils himself in the game’s mystery to avoid having to confront and deal with that aspect of himself. The approach that these games have towards narrative decisions (an overall structure with the player filling in some details) is exactly the same to how they present the player character.

Henry is defined by our actions as players. Do you pick up the beer cans left by the teens? Do you steal their whiskey? Do you take their radio? Do you put on your wedding ring at the end of the game when you’re leaving? Incidentally I didn’t even notice the ring on my playthrough. Perhaps I wasn’t observant enough, or something I did earlier in the game made it so I couldn’t pick it up. Maybe I threw it off the lookout balcony. I can’t remember. How did you treat Delilah? Did you talk to her about everything, or did you ignore her as much as the game would allow you to do so? Did you indulge Henry’s obsessions about the mystery, or did you act like it didn’t matter? These choices do seem kind of insignificant in a big picture way. They certainly seem a lot more trivial than choosing who lives and who dies in The Walking Dead.

Ultimately they speak to our overall experience in the game. Henry took a job in a national park to escape his problems for a few months. We enter the shoes of Henry for a few hours to escape from whatever we play videogames to escape from. Just like that conversation with Delilah I talked about at the start, the wrong thing can be said and that will always stick with us. If interacting with a videogame is a conversation, the ending seemed to have said the wrong thing to a lot of people. This metaphor kind of breaks down now because unlike a conversation you can replay a videogame, and like any piece of art, more might get revealed to you on a second or third exposure. At least with the whole of the experience as a known quantity, upon a second playthrough, we can sideline the plot and just enjoy traipsing around the Wyoming countryside. Looking back, that was my favourite part of the game, and I think overall it did Henry some good. How was it for you?

Thanks for watching.

No comments:

Post a Comment