Fiction hates having to describe and deal with shitty people.
I don’t mean evil people, villains, antagonists, stuff like that. What I literally mean is a shitty person, a shitty character who just isn’t that nice or particularly “good.” The friend who drinks too much, the aunt who took off from her family to marry some guy she worked with . That goes double for characters who are the “heroes.” We tend to shuffle truly flawed and shitty characteristics to the back of the protagonist Rolodex in favor of more attractive “flawed” characteristics like “tries to hard” or “minimal trust issues that are resolved relatively quickly thanks to romance”.
I played Firewatch on PS4 with my girlfriend a few weeks ago, an interesting game we’d been looking forward to together with an interesting premise. We saw the trailer during the E3 broadcast and it immediately stood out. It’s puzzle/mystery-oriented, it involves a unique setting and a unique concept that couldn’t really be summarized in a neat little package. I just knew it’d be weird, which is what I like.
You arrive to a new summer job in the Shoshone National Forest as a fire lookout in 1989 in Wyoming. You explore, you solve a mystery, you interact with things and do your job of patrolling and watching and talking to people. The mystery is an interesting one, I had to roll it around in my head while it was happening and after we finished.
I’m not interested in the mystery though. I mean, it’s a cool one, one that I still think about. What I’m interested in is the fact that the protagonist, Henry, is kind of a shitty guy.
You’re drinking, you’ve more or less abandoned (albeit supposedly temporarily) your mentally-ill wife, and every clue in this game leads to the possibility of emotional cheating with another lookout while the strange mystery and your summer unravels around you. You’re an older character, you’re kinda fat, not exactly Nathan Drake, you huff and puff and wheeze when you climb. You look like the dudes at the bar I never pay too much attention to honestly, the stock “working-class guy” form that would normally be in the background of a story, not at the forefront.
The real interesting thing about this game (which I was warned of as being depressing as fuck) here is in having a truly-flawed and truly-broken character here who we, the player, are meant to literally have to be that shitty person. You make the decisions, in the beginning, to get into a relationship. There, you’re either bordering on being a negligent partner or a controlling alcoholic jerk (alcoholism as the unseen constant crutch of broken people is a big interwoven thing in this game, with most of the characters referencing it or admitting it outright) who ends up, one way or another, fucking up.
The prompts are all for lose-lose situations in that beginning of the game, the “intro” that determine a lot of the dialogue and choices you might make later. The ultimate outcome is always the same despite the options though, because you’re supposed to be a shitty guy. If you let her get the dog she wants, when you guys get mugged you beat the mugger half to death. When you first meet, it’s because you’re drunk and leering.
You either put your mentally-ill wife in a home because you don’t want to deal with the burden of being the one who has to take care of her…or you keep her at home to care for her yourself, and end up getting a DUY when you sneak out to drink (and barricade her in her bedroom) because of the pressure.
Despite all that though…you’re not a villain. You’re trying to do your best, and the game’s primary drive to complete your missions to solve the mystery mean that there isn’t too much dwelling on the past. Still, the fact that as an imperfect character reflecting legitimate real-life issues that have no positive solutions, it puts you in an interesting solution. It also makes you, the main character, a bit of a reflection of another lost soul in the game who plays a part in the mystery, Ned.
Ned is ultimately the “antagonist,” if there is one, in this game. He’s the loner living in the park after disappearing from his lookout, mourning the accidental death of the son he snuck into the park to join him on his summer fire-watching. He too was fleeing a shitty situation to hide in the woods, the death of his mother and being saddled, wholly unprepared and already (it’s insinuated) crippled by PTSD, with taking care of his son Brian on his own. Who knows if Brian’s death was the only thing that led Ned to living in the caves and woods (and staging an elaborate ruse to make you and Delilah think you’re being monitored, to keep anyone from actively searching the park to look for him. He himself says it was in the note he leaves behind, but at the same time, he was already there, willingly in an isolated and isolating job.
Delilah herself implies in the beginning of the game that the only people who really take these sorts of jobs as lookouts are people trying to get away from something, to hide. Maybe she’s right. She’s obviously hiding from the world, and Henry…well, dementia in someone you love is probably almost as crushing as PTSD…or your child dying and it’s your fault.
The more I think about it, the more both Henry and Delilah are just on the cusp of being like Ned, which is what ultimately makes this game so fascinating. How you grapple with life and the awful decisions you’re essentially forced to make, from the big ones like your wife or beating a mugger half to death, to the small ones like annoying Delilah or keeping a photo of your wife face down during your stay in the tower, they all matter. They’re all reflective of dealing with hands we’re dealt. Sometimes it’s just a shitty hand, which makes us look like shitty guys.
It’s OK though, because being a shitty person is what can make us a better one down the road. Henry emerges possibly being on the path to being better at the end, depending on the game. He’s not Ned and he shouldn’t be isolated, he shouldn’t be a drunk, and he shouldn’t be isolated (though weirdly you can somehow bypass the end of the game and stay behind on the mountain).
I think that, ultimately, is the point of Firewatch. Be Henry, go to Australia to see your wife. Don’t become Ned.