Three’s Company: Firewatch, The Swapper, and Half-Life

Hey there! This is the third of a three-part series on The Swapper – if you haven’t read the first two, you can read them here and here. Basically we’ve been talking about blank slate characters, and how they allow some players to insert themselves into the narrative. I noted that there’s actually a serious drawback, in that whatever the player inserts into the narrative actually exists in a separate narrative bubble to the rest of the characters. If you’re angry, nobody cares, because you’re on the other side of the computer screen and you can’t impact the actions or feelings of NPCs.

The obvious response is that many games allow some form of emoting – be it the response wheel of Mass Effect, or Telltale’s scrolling list of answers. Both of these are interesting responses, but they both rely on extra-narrative gameplay – so you actually have to read these responses and click on one with the mouse. To some extent, you’re pulled out of the fiction when you do that – because the words don’t exist in the narrative. Various characters don’t look at the words popping up on your screen and wonder ‘What the fuck is that about?’ The words exist in the game, obviously, but outside the diegetic world of the story. You come out to select an option, and you step back in to see how they respond to what you’re saying.

Now, in one of the previous articles I argued that interaction could possibly be a massive enabler for immersion, and if that’s true, then it’s possible that choosing dialogue options could maybe be an enabler for immersion in the fiction, rather than a jarring step out. Let’s leave that possibility open, and acknowledge that it might even depend on the player. If you’ve spent a very long time playing video games, then you’re probably not going to be jarred out of the game trying to figure out how the controls work – so the interface wouldn’t get in the way of the immersion. However, if you’re new to games, the interface is going to be something you have to focus on a lot – because you’re still learning which buttons achieve which effects. It’s possible that the same is true of dialogue wheels – maybe, if you’re familiar enough with them, they wouldn’t jerk you out of the fiction.

That said, dialogue wheels are potentially a different category to controls, in the sense that you can largely automate the controls – so, like, you can control a character without focusing on the controls, but you can’t read without focusing on the words you’re reading – and the words don’t exist on a diegetic level, so to some extent you’re arguably inevitably stepping outside the fiction regardless of how accustomed you are to that behaviour. It’s something to leave open for further investigation.

Anyway: let’s talk about Firewatch. It’s got the whole Telltale list of dialogue responses plus timer, which I think stems from the fact that the founders of Campo Santo were the creative leads for Telltale’s The Walking Dead. I really enjoy Firewatch – I think it’s a great example of top-quality writing and plot development. Most of the complaints that I’ve heard center around the ending – basically, people complain that there’s a big build-up and then the rug is pulled out from under you. These people, like all true amateurs, fail to consider the possibility that this was a deliberate aesthetic decision. This is actually a really crucial point in understanding video games: they absolutely must be understood on their own terms, rather than by the expectations that we bring to them. Or, to be more direct, there’s no point complaining that 1984 didn’t make you happy, you pleb.

Back to narrative, then. The true delight of the game is in the dialogue – and, to be precise, the way in which dialogue and gameplay are interwoven. You’ve got tasks to carry out (trekking to places, cleaning up, etc), and you wander around doing those things while Delilah talks to you over a radio. You can choose how to answer, and then Henry (the protagonist) and Delilah will banter back and forth as you head towards your destination. This game makes a really good contrast to Half-Life, because it rests on the relationship between Henry and Delilah. There’s two people in relationship, and immediately there’s a dynamic, this evolving relationship negotiated in the fictional space. The dialogue is entirely within the text, and – this is important – it’s really well written. It’s genuine, it’s funny, it’s deep, and it actually evolves – so what each character says, it matters, it affects how each person perceives the other. There’s other games besides Firewatch that have these sorts of relationships – Walking Dead, blah blah blah, but I’ve always found their dialogue a little too… forced. Maybe I’m just disagreeable because I don’t enjoy the gameplay in Telltale games (or the visuals, come to think of it). Maybe I should give them another try.

Either way, Telltale is besides the point at the moment. The point is that it takes two to tango – Firewatch understands this. It has two characters engaging with each other, and you get to direct one of those characters. You’ve got a part to play in evolving the story, and, in contrast to Half-Life, it’s a diegetic part that affects other characters. To me, that’s the most centrally important part of emotional investment – what you do has to matter, in a way that Half-Life just does not cater for.

I think I’ll go and write another post about Firewatch, actually, because I really enjoy it, and I’m feeling kind of riled up about people who don’t understand why it’s really good at what it does. See you next week!


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