Firewatch: Yessssss

So after my last piece, I started almost immediately on this one – and realised that I already had three weeks of video game content backed up. I shifted Pan’s Labyrinth back – you’ll have to wait until May for that now. It’ll be worth the wait, probably. It actually kinda ties in with what I’m going to talk about here – which, speaking of, I should get back to. Basically this post is entirely about Firewatch, why it’s fucking awesome, and why people who complain about the ending are missing the point. Expect spoilers.

As a disclaimer, I’m totally sure that there’s other reasons for disliking the ending, and I’m aware that I’m only going to pick up on one specific problem. That said, this particular problem does crop up a lot in video game reviews. There seems to be a widespread misunderstanding of the very basics of textual interpretation – hopefully we’re going to address that issue today. Let’s get to it!

So there’s a bunch of people who complained about how the ending of Firewatch was a let-down. There’s a big bunch of tension and mystery around this creepy deserted scientific outpost that probably shouldn’t exist, with mysterious vandalism against your tower – it might just be those girls you pissed off, or it could be a more malevolent force in the woods. At the end of the game, you learn that it was actually nothing – there was a dude living out in the woods, and he set about fucking with you for a bit to keep you off his trail. After all the suspenseful build-up (which, by the way, was masterful), people were pissed off that there wasn’t actually any satisfying climax. In the first article I linked, the Forbes one, we get lines like this:

“…none of those revelations really live up to all the build-up that came before…

Or, in the second article, this:

“…it turned out that the plot was one giant misdirect whose resolution felt disappointing…

In both of these cases, the game is criticised for its ending – it’s understood as a narrative mis-step, rather than an intentional aesthetic decision. The Forbes writer is intelligent enough to whip past the idea that “maybe that’s the point“, but only really gives lip service to the idea that it might be a genuine aesthetic decision. He’s satisfied to leave it at what is essentially ‘I came away with mixed feelings, and therefore this game’s ending is (probably) confused’. There’s a little bit of hedging, but realistically it’s pretty minimal effort.

I’d like to take a step back at this point and return to a basic tenet of literary criticism. Obviously games aren’t actually books, but there’s enough points of comparison when it comes to the process of interpretation that it’s worth the trip. There’s a particular fallacy used by the New Critics – it’s called the Affective Fallacy. Basically this rule states that it’s fallacious to interpret a text based on your emotional response to it. It’s a controversial rule, when you get down to it, and it’s never really been strictly applied to literary interpretation, but it has been influential, in the sense that it affects how we think about interpreting texts today. Basically what we should take away from the Affective Fallacy is that when we respond to a text, it’s entirely unfair to stop at the level of emotional response. If the only way of judging a text was by considering how it made us feel, the first half-hour of Saving Private Ryan should convince you that it doesn’t deserve any Academy Awards because it makes us feel bad. It’s only when we take a step back and actually look at why something has happened that we can come to appreciate what the text is trying to do.

Now, this does bring us towards a discussion of the Intentional Fallacy, but we’ve only got so much time, so I’ll be brief. The Intentional Fallacy states that you can’t reconstruct the intention of the author and judge a work based on what the author’s intention was. There’s a pretty simple reason: an author might think that their work is the best fucking piece of literature ever written, but that doesn’t mean shit. What matters is how the audience relate to the text. So yes, we don’t want to try and avoid the Affective Fallacy by jumping into the Intentional Fallacy, but at the same time that’s not to say that we can’t appreciate how the text actually works. That’s the line we’re walking.

So: Firewatch. People are complaining that the ending felt like a disappointment because there was a big build-up of tension and then nothing came of it – the metaphorical rug was pulled out from under us, as we realise that there was never any conspiracy in the first place. Those people fall into the Affective Fallacy insofar as they fail to consider what the aesthetic purpose of this move might be. It’s not that Campo Santo are just shit at writing stories – you should know that from the rest of the game. Their sense of pace and development has been spot-on the whole way through. So what’s going on with the ending?

Basically there’s two main plotlines in Firewatch: the conspiracy, and Henry’s relationship with Delilah. We know the conspiracy doesn’t go anywhere, and you know what? Neither does Henry’s relationship with Delilah. Henry’s in the forest because he’s trying to get away for a bit – his wife has developed Alzheimer’s, and he’s struggling to cope. There’s a bit of flirting that goes on between Henry and Delilah, and it looks like the relationship might build towards something more serious. Delilah calls up drunk a few times, and the player has the option to flirt – which, depending on your morality, may or may not be immoral, given that he has a wife. Either way, nothing serious comes of it. Delilah was never going to commit to Henry – she’s got a history of creating these little fantasy romances that never go anywhere. There’s a really good RPS article about the mutual selfishness of the relationship between Henry and Delilah:

Delilah has done this before and she initiates the relationship, knowing how to cater to her own social needs and those of others who have come to Shoshone to find something and then left.

Of course they’re never going to get together. It’s a story about Henry taking some time to find what he needs to get back to his normal life. He finds that emotional support in what might best be described as a light love affair with Delilah, who’s in the exact same space, and wants the exact same thing:

That’s not to say they forgot or disrespected the things and people that mattered to them, those back in the real world, but that they had decided to care for themselves and each other in a way that was self-preserving and, yes, self-involved.

So there’s the big emotional up – the opportunities to flirt, to be romantic, to find emotional support in the (metaphorical) arms of another person – and then the come-down, the return to reality and a wife with Alzheimer’s. There’s the emotional boost, the encouragement, and then the release. Firewatch isn’t a story about true love, it’s a story about a damaged man who needs support. That’s the arc of the Henry/Delilah relationship, and it’s mirrored in the arc of the conspiracy. You get all up in arms about a conspiracy, and then it turns out that it’s something softer, and simpler, and somehow more heart-breaking than the bombast of a government conspiracy. It’s not a fucking James Bond game, it’s about real people dealing with real-life emotions.

I know this post is a bit longer, but I really wanted to make this point. Firewatch is an absolutely gorgeous game that delves deeper into the human condition than nearly any other video game I have ever played, ever. If you feel kind of let down coming away from the ending, that’s how you’re supposed to feel. Like Henry and Delilah, it was never real, it was never going to be real, and it’s only your desperate desire for it to be real that made it feel so important in the first place.

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