In Which It Has Been Burning Since The World

In the Brush

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Firewatch
Campo Santo Games
PC, Playstation 4

Henry (Mad Men‘s Rich Sommer) has fled the world to become a fire lookout in a large national park. He looks like this:

Firewatch_20160209230737 copy.jpg

It is disgusting. Henry’s boss is a woman, Delilah (Cissy Jones). Henry is lonely because he sent his wife Julia to her native Australia because of early-onset dementia. He was tired of Julia blaming him for everything. At times, Henry seems confused about what exactly his wife’s problem was — is it Alzheimer’s? Dementia? Perhaps she was only seeing another another man. Julia was forty and they had been together for over a decade. It could be that Henry simply became tired of her.

Henry wants something new, and his boss’ throaty voice suffices. He flirts with her quite a bit, and she pretends to be receptive so they can get through the summer. If you try to take a cable car to see Delilah, she in no uncertain terms tells Henry that this is unsafe and she would not welcome this intrusion. The stunted relationship between Henry and Delilah is the core element of Firewatch, which was released this week on the PC and Playstation 4 console.

One of the creative minds behind Firewatch is Chris Remo, who was involved in a similar game that consisted of walking around different places and reading detailed notes that the characters in the story had written. This game was about teenage lesbians, and it was called Gone Home.

Walking through an empty house in the middle of the night offered a unique type of gameplay experience. There is something similarly creepy about playing through Firewatch; I guess part of it is that you are a ne’er-do-well sexist pig who was so turned off by your sick wife that you took this lonely job, and the other part is that you only see human beings twice in Firewatch.

The first time Henry is searching for two teenage girls setting off fireworks. They are skinny-dipping in the lake so Henry cannot get close to them. They tell him in no uncertain terms to stay away and explain what a creep he is for bothering them. Even though he is peeping them, he acts offended.

Later, Henry is told by Delilah that the girls have disappeared. He makes no effort to find them, and the two plot to conceal their knowledge of seeing the women.

The second person Henry sees in the startling wilderness of Firewatch is a man at the edge of a cliff, watching him. You see this man only once in the five hours it takes to complete the game, and it is scary that one time. Firewatch is not a game about that, though. It is not a game about being frightened, since its protagonist is a white male. It is a game about what is so frightening about everyone else.

The rest of the time in Firewatch you are utterly alone.

No one wants to see a sad movie, least of all me. The last sad television show that achieved any kind of actual success was probably Roots, I can’t think of anything else particularly depressing that people enjoyed. The Killing? Six Feet Under? Sadness is being eradicated from the film and television medium because it does not sell very well. It is up to video games to pick up the slack and treat these important themes with the respect and comprehensiveness that they deserve.

Chris Remo and the other developers that make up Campo Santo are not the only one fetishizing this kind of darkness. Other independent games have explored such new subjects as depression, the Holocaust and prison. Bringing new perspectives into game development has resoluted into so many different types of games than were available in the past. In the USC video game design program, women now outnumber men, and their games will probably be pretty depressing too, because being a woman and a video game designer involves interacting with a young, misogynistic group of individuals.

The resulting creative anarchy and internet blowback can make the VG industry very difficult to endure. But it is also an exciting time for producing this type of entertainment, since the financial and artistic rewards have never been greater. It used to be that only a few people and companies could produce high quality games, but now the democratization of programming tools ensures that those with the right technical know-how can realize their ideas with a small staff.

Firewatch feels like a narrative constructed by a small group of people rather than something focus-tested to death. The script is single-minded and compelling, if overly jokey at times. Writer Sean Vanaman left Telltale Games after working on their episodic choose-your-adventure style adaptation of The Walking Dead, and he brings a similar philosophy to Firewatch. Much like in Sean’s previous games, the interactive decisions you make are of no real consequence — it is more about the illusion of choice, the sensation of affecting how the characters behave.

An entire summer passes watching for fires, and avoiding getting into trouble. Henry is not the most sympathetic protagonist, and he projects misery at everything that happens to him. Paranoia grips him when he discerns someone is listening to the sexy conversations he and Delilah have been having over the walkie-talkie. The magnificent art direction in Firewatch, realized by artists Olly Moss and Jane Ng, exceeds the depth of the characters. You forget about Henry and Delilah. It is just you yourself in a deadly, gorgeous landscape.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

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