In my recent post about Firewatch, I noted that I liked the last ten minute walk to the evacuation helicopter, as it allowed me to think about what the game had asked me to do, and how the story that unfolded played out. I knew I needed to get my character to the chopper, because I assumed that I needed one more scene to play out, but despite the raging fire and the yellows and oranges of the landscape, the walk felt almost tranquil. It was even as straightforward as any of the other hikes I had been on, with not nearly as much frantic consulting of the map as the mini-canyons pretty much led straight to my destination.
I played a bit of KRZ this morning though, as I work on the chapter I am writing about it, and I started to wonder about that hike, and that straightforward path. Firewatch – a game about spending three months in a fire tower after all, one in which you are surrounded by the books you brought in and the beauty of the natural scene and in which you have very few actual duties – allowed very little downtime. An occasional odd chat with Dee, a chance to look at the wilderness, and that is about it as far as contemplation and this game goes. While you can’t drive the narrative forward in either game without engaging, you also have no real reason to explore the landscape around you. There are no easter eggs hidden in it…just the occasional turtle (which you violate the ethics of good wilderness management by turning into a pet).
From a gameplay perspective, then, contemplation time would be off-putting and ill-considered. Firewatch, however, directly asks players to perform this contemplation, as despite the fact that you as character are evacuating a firestorm and have just discovered who was harassing you and what drove that person to do that, the game tells you to relax. As noted, the route is obvious; additionally, the calm, contemplative music comes on at a certain point in the walk, and the player-character can walk at their leisure – I am sure that the game will not kill you at this point, since it doesn’t kill you at any other point.
From the narrative perspective, the game is now going to ask you to contemplate Harry’s future: does he return to his rapidly-fading wife? Does he find Dee and cement the bonds that the two of them have developed via radio? Does he keep avoiding all entanglements in order to never again have to experience the pain he has suffered watching his wife degenerate? At some point I realized that the entire game is built upon this obsession with observation – your character is being observed in multiple ways, despite the fact that he is out in the middle of a mostly empty-of-people-wilderness area, and his job, after all is to observe the wilderness. The game asks him to participate, to dive in and engage much as games do of players, and the player’s status as observer is directly challenged in this way.
My guess is that this time for contemplation is why I enjoy these kinds of point-and-click, narrative driven games. I always sucked at the types of button-mashing that made players great at first-person shooters, and I could camouflage my weaknesses at these kinds of skilled reactions in MMORPGs because in raids I was part of a much-bigger group. Firewatch, in contrast, deliberately slows the player down in order to immerse them in a different type of dilemma, based not on algorithms but on life.
I know that sounds trite to say, but holy shit Harry’s situation is set up so that we (nerdy, white, middle-class, perennially insecure, male) who stumble into some kind of lucky situation, meeting a partner who understands us (and if you thought I was being trite before then watch out) is brought down by that same person’s – and they are a once-in-a-lifetime find, we are sure of it – tragedy, with a response that seems completely realistic – run!
The power of this type of narrative, I’m guessing, in any medium lies not in its ability to help us figure out what we would do – that’s the Hallmark card ending, and in my value-system that approach is not helpful. Instead, it offers us a moment of examination that perhaps provides a moment of emotional growth as we look at the choices we make and why the matter.
Despite the bugs and weirdnesses and constant lock-ups, Firewatch kept me engaged. I am guessing that the reason why is the way this situation resonated with me emotionally. What the game did not make me do was powerful, and that lack points to an area of contemplation that can help us, I suspect, become more emotionally intelligent as we move into a digital world.