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(Spoilers ahead.)

The introduction to Firewatch sets puts Henry in a situation that’s impossible to successfully navigate. I can’t really imagine what it would be like to have somebody you love not only fall into dementia but to do that when they’re in what should be the mental prime of their life; I would like to hope that I’d navigate it more gracefully than Henry apparently did, but until I’m confronted with something like that, who knows.

And his difficulties didn’t begin there. One of the big stories of 2016 is the power of the filter bubble: people clustering with those who come from the same point of view as you have. And one half of the couple here was representing a filter bubble that is very familiar to me: I’m not currently an academic, but I grew up in academia, started my career in academia, and in fact every person that I’ve dated (a small number, admittedly!) also had academic parents. So when I see Henry approaching Julia, that’s the lens that I apply: it’s a gulf that I would personally find hard to cross, and more power to him (and to her) for working on crossing it.

Those two difficulties color how I interpret Julia’s family taking her away to live with them: it’s not necessarily that Henry was behaving badly, especially given how difficult the situation would be to deal with well. Instead, it’s that they never felt right around Henry, potentially never felt that he was good enough for their daughter, and that colored what they saw. While Henry, in turn, very much loved Julia, but he had been through the wringer, and ended up retreating to a context where he felt more comfortable by accepting the job as a fire lookout.


So that’s how I was role-playing when I got out of the prologue: Henry needed a place to recharge, and he’s the sort of person for whom hiking around in the forest would help him do that. And he was happy enough to talk to Delilah, but Julia was never far from his mind during those conversations.

I (me the player, not me the avatar) assumed that the game was setting up some sort of romantic interaction with Delilah: that’s the sort of thing games do. And I was actively uninterested in dealing with that directly: that’s not the sort of thing that my Henry would do. But, as the game went on, I realized that I wasn’t giving the game enough credit: it was actually doing a quite nice balancing line in that regard. Delilah’s an interesting person, she’s the sort of person I had no trouble imagining that Henry would enjoy talking to. But “enjoys talking to” doesn’t lead to romance; also, it’s entirely possible to be in love with one person while seeing yourself getting potentially attracted to other people, and to worry that there are landmines there.

And both Henry and Delilah recognize this, and also recognize that they both have bigger issues to deal with. So I ended up enjoying watching the two of them navigate that space: they really did enjoy talking to each other, they really did care about each other, there probably was a subtext of attraction there on both sides. But, ultimately, they both wanted the subtext to remain subtext, and Delilah ends up pushing Henry to go to see Julia, even though that means facing Julia’s family. And, learning more about the game after I finished it, that’s not just the path that I took: there apparently isn’t an all-out romantic option available. The game simply isn’t a dating sim; and while I have nothing against dating sims (heck, I usually enjoy romance plots in games), I’m very glad to see a game that explores relationships in a different context.


The game doesn’t consist solely of walking around and talking to Delilah: there’s the whole mystery plot there, trying to figure out if there’s somebody else around and, as it becomes clear that that indeed is the case, to figure out what on earth is going on. Something beyond walking and talking feels more or less necessary to me in a game like this; a mystery subplot seems as reasonable a way to do that as anything.

The fact that the mystery person is listening in on you conversation fits in well with the subtext of the conversations: not only are the two of you trying to navigate how you feel about your conversations with each other (or at least Henry, as I played him, is trying to figure that out), the third party raises the question of: no matter how you intend your words to Delilah to be taken, what would other people think if they heard them?

The explicit threat there is: what would other people think about your actions and words in the context of the girls who disappeared? So the mysterious person isn’t actually threatening to tell your wife’s family about your conversations with Delilah. But just the worry that that sets up adds in layers: what’s the least charitable interpretation of these conversations? And how much of that least charitable interpretation would actually, ultimately, be true at some emotional level?


Of course, that’s all subtext; and, setting threats aside, the truth is rather different. And, honestly, I was a little disappointed by the details of the truth: I’m still not sure if we’re supposed to believe that a single crazy guy set up a listening post or if there was some other organization that set up a listening post / experiment station that, for some reason, Delilah was completely unaware of. Neither of those explanations made sense to me; and they both felt strangely pulpy.

But, setting aside the details of the listening post: on a narrative level, not only did that plot give an extra perspective on Henry’s conversations with Delilah, it also gave a perspective on at least one of the things that was troubling Delilah. Henry’s working through a very serious issue, but I assumed that Delilah had troubles of her own; and there’s a nice balance in having Henry’s troubles be frontloaded at the start of the game and then, while not getting solved over the course of the same, at least having Henry come to terms with them; while Delilah’s troubles are buried at the start of the game, and then get uncovered in the last sections of the game.


I’m very glad the game exists, and to have played it. Aside from what I’ve talked about above, it’s beautiful, and I really did enjoy just wandering around the environments. But, mostly: I’m not at all used to seeing this kind of adult story in games, and it’s great to see more examples of game designers turning away from games based on killing and towards other sorts of stories.

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