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Why I Stopped Playing Firewatch

Posted in Video Games

Last time on WISP, I talked about a game I stopped playing twice. The first time, I just got distracted by other games. The second time, I stopped because I had finished the main campaign.

Today, let’s talk about a game I quit in protest.

Background

Firewatchan indie game by Campo Santo — was released in 2016, then ported to the Switch in 2018. Since I only got back into gaming via the Switch, that was where I played it.

I deliberately tried not to learn too much about the game before its Switch release because the reviews always seemed to start with “Weird stuff happens in this game, so . . . spoiler warning!”

I remain unspoiled, furthermore. Here’s why I stopped playing Firewatch.

Who Am I?

The game opens with the following screens:

Shouldn’t it be, “Campo Santo, in association with Panic, Inc., presents . . .”? I know, this is how movies do it. But it’s unclear grammar. B+

I love the font choice, btw. A+. And the general graphic design of the text adventure screens is great.

Anyway, so we’re in Boulder in 1975. I’d love to visit Colorado someday. I hear they have mountains, and I love mountains.

Ah, so this will be in the 2nd person, eh? I see Julia. Okay. I’ll try to role play.

So, now I know my name and how old I am. And I also know I drink. Okay. Makes things difficult for me because I’m a teetotaler, but I can try to keep role playing as Henry. Henry drinks, so I drink. I can do this.

I not only drink — I get drunk in public. You want me to role play a drunk, Firewatch?

Well, the least I can do is choose the non-sexist dialogue option. I can be a polite drunk. I’ll ask Julia about her interests and goals, rather than commenting on her body.

Except even the polite option was sexist. I assumed, because she was female, that she couldn’t be an authority figure. She had to be “junior,” a student. But she’s a professor.

The burn of this is that I made the mistake. I myself, not just Henry, assumed Julia was a student. I took his read on the situation for granted (this is all being described in text, with no visuals), and didn’t even ask myself whether it might be wrong. Now I’m afraid I might do that kind of thing in real life.

A learning moment for me. I shall be a better person because of Campo Santo’s burn. However, they are asking me to role play a drunk, and they only give me sexist dialogue options. This makes me wonder whether I trust them to tell me a good story.

Oh, also, I drink Coors? Even I, a teetotaler, know the difference between good beer and bad beer. Campo Santo is telling me I’m a sexist drunk with bad taste. The game is off to a great start.

And speaking of burns, Julia is a professor — not “assistant professor,” not “associate professor” — a professor and still in her late 20s? She has tenure already? I feel burned by that too. I didn’t even get my Ph.D. till I was 31, and the highest rank I ever made it to was Visiting Assistant Professor.

This has been, “Video games make Micah feel bad about himself,” with Micah. Thanks, Campo Santo.

But I Get the Girl Anyway!

Also speaking of burns:

This is not what would happen. Julia is a professor; I am a sexist drunk with bad taste. She would not feel bad for putting me in my place. She would rightly feel justified and in-the-right.

And she would not share her food with me. No one shares their food with drunk strangers who have just demeaned them in front of their colleagues.

Finally, and most offensively, Julia would most assuredly not go out with me. I have no redeeming qualities. That the game presents the story it is telling as plausible implies that it thinks it’s normal for a sexist drunk with bad taste to get the girl. The protagonist always gets the girl, right, even if he’s generally horrible?

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bsx8xZ-P2y4

Anyway, maybe the game only smacks of male entitlement to me at this point because we live in a world where “incels” have murdered people because they think they deserve women, and where if a gamer hasn’t heard Feminist Frequency’s critiques of “women as reward” in video games, they aren’t paying attention.

(Warning, the following video is NSFW)

“Micah, you’re reading a lot into two screens of dialogue. Campo Santo aren’t sexist buttfaces,” you reasonably object.

Granted. I have no reason to assume that Campo Santo are anything but fine, upstanding people who make wonderful friends and spouses. But speaking is an act; we do things with words.

So, a game can do something its makers never intended to do — just like you can trip someone unintentionally, or punch them in the nose on accident while reaching down to help them back up.

Firewatch presents a sexist drunk with bad taste as getting the girl, it presents this as unremarkable and thus as normal — in spite of ongoing news stories about and critiques of male entitlement in contemporary American culture — and it asks its players to role play all of this. What Campo Santo intended to do is beside the point; I trust their intentions were good. But the old person you accidentally tripped still has a bloody nose and a broken hip, you monster.

“Wow, you’re really overreacting to this, Tillman,” you continue in soothing tones.

I know. Probably. I shall try to learn and grow.

Gameplay Begins

Now back to the story. The text screens disappear and I find myself in an elevator:

Looking around, I find and pick up my backpack.

I know it doesn’t make any sense to walk into an elevator, drop my backpack in the corner, then pick it up again. But this is how they teach you how to interact with objects. What matters in a tutorial is what it does (it should teach you how to play the game) not what sense it makes in the game’s world.

After picking up my backpack, the elevator door opens and I see what must be my truck. There aren’t any other vehicles around, so I walk up to it.

When I get close enough, the “Press the ZR button” prompt thingy appears again, reinforcing what the backpack elevator was trying to teach. If you want to interact with something in this world, walk up to it and press ZR.

Better Together

After that bit of first-person action, the text screens reappear.

She drives me absolutely nuts, eh? I dunno know what that means, but I’ve heard songs about it.

Such a catchy tune. And you know what else is catching?

I have now spread my alcoholism to Julia. Awesome. However, all is not lost.

As any reasonable person would.

Do I choose the option that will make Julia happy, or the one that will make me feel better about myself as a male protector? Thankfully, I can choose not to be a male chauvinist here, and it isn’t a trick this time.

Well good. Maybe I’m getting more mature. But am I mature enough for what comes next?

Nope. I don’t even have a job — at least not one I’ve been told about. And how can I show up to a job no one told me I had?

I have no idea how I’ve survived this long. Maybe Julia makes enough money for the both of us?

Anyway, kids. Am I mature enough now to be a good father?

Do I give Julia what she wants again — given that I have no particular feelings one way or the other (as Henry, I have no feelings about anything except for a desire for beer as far as I can tell) — or do I create tension in the relationship for no reason?

I chose to give her what she wants.

Why have kids if you know you’re going to screw them up? Isn’t that child endangerment?

Sorry. I ruined the romantic moment. It is kind of sweet. I started to believe they might be happy together.

Is It a Breakthrough that I Hike?

Before we get to hear about happily ever after, however, the text screen disappears and we’re back in first-person exploration mode.

Oh snap! I’ve driven my truck somewhere.

One of those announcement board things you see at parks. Let’s go check it out!

I hate hiking. I hate it so much. But I knew I was getting into a game about a guy manning a fire lookout station in the woods, so I have no right to complain.

After seeing the sign, it’s clear I’m meant to head off along a trail.

Kind of pretty, even if it does remind me of hiking.

Mood Swings

A few steps down the path, a wild text screen appears!

I’m not mature enough to have kids after all.

I’m already mad, Firewatch. You told me this. Also, you told me we had a fight. You didn’t give me a choice. You’re only letting me role play some things.

The only thing I can choose to do here is to try to stop it from getting worse by “ignor[ing] her.”

Oh, I have a job after all. That’s good. Doing what? Maybe it’s something interesting enough that Julia finds me intriguing in spite of my drunken, immature sexism?

I am really blessing y’all with some fantastic tunes this post.

Speaking of art, out of nowhere:

The tonal whiplash, man.

Given the choice between posing and flexing like He-Man, or frolicking like a Victoria’s Secret model (do they do that?), I chose to pose and flex like He-Man. Of course.

Thanks, Firewatch. I don’t believe you, but it’s sweet of you to say.

If Things Weren’t Ominous Before

But enough talk. I got hikin’ to do:

And I’ve got to learn how to jump over things:

I enjoyed that part, actually. I like platformers, after all. What I don’t like is those ominous birds, as I try to shade my eyes from the light of the dying sun.

But a text screen comes to rescue me from impending doom.

Because puppy dogs are the best.

The “foreigners and exotic folk are dangerous” trope is both tired and unhelpful, Firewatch.

Thankfully, however, I’m a strong male:

Though I chose just to scare him away.

I scared everyone? Even Julia? Well, not surprising. I am a sexist drunk, after all, with anger management issues.

To quote Coach Z: “great jorb, Hamstray.”

When Your Wife’s Work Gets in Your Way

But I digress:

Work I totally have. I promise. I’ve got a job. I don’t just leave and go hang around down by the river every day, then come home at 5.

In contrast with Henry, Julia has got a promising career going on.

So much is wrong with this.

  • Associate department chair is not a great job. No academic wants to be in administration, and the associate chair is the person who has to do all the chair’s work without getting the prestige or pay.
  • I have a hard time imagining a department hiring someone to be a department chair or associate chair from outside. In my experience, faculty who are already in the department get stuck with the job when it comes their turn to serve.
  • As Henry, I don’t have any personality, life, or friends. I don’t care about my job that I’ve only thought about once (as an escape from an awkward situation I created through my emotional immaturity). I have no reason to be attached to Boulder. Connecticut, which also has mountains, is just as good a place to be an immature drunk as Colorado. The game is creating tension for the sake of tension, like in a soap opera.
  • Firewatch doesn’t even give me the option to be mature. In spite of the “associate chair” thing not being attractive, Yale is one of the two most prestigious schools in the country. It’s the Cambridge of America! This is a huge honor for Julia.

In real life, I gave up a crappy job and moved to northern Indiana when my wife got a prestigious academic position — and northern Indiana is a blasted hellscape. I later spent an academic year commuting back and forth between California and Pennsylvania after we both got awesome jobs on opposite coasts.

But in the game, am I willing to move, or be the one doing the commuting? No. At least, Firewatch doesn’t give me the option.

Nevertheless, I thought it better to persuade Julia to stay than to force her to commute. So, we move on:

That, unfortunately, was not persuasion. That wasn’t making a reasonable argument which shows Julia that there is an equal or greater good in staying in Boulder. The game has tricked me once again.

At this point, one imagines an Onion headline: “Local woman sacrifices career for manbaby’s feelings.” Not only is this the second time Firewatch has deceived me, it’s the second time the game’s characterization of Julia has been insulting.

And Here It Comes

Every male hero in a video game has to be motivated by a tragic past, and it’s best if that tragic past involves the loss of a woman.

The primary difference between video game genres is that half the games are for kids: you can get the woman back (e.g., Princess Peach, Princess Zelda, Banjo-Kazooie). In the serious games for adults, however, the woman is gone for good (e.g., God of War [2005], God of War [2018]).

I kid, but only slightly. I love Nintendo games, and wish I had a PS4 so I could play the new God of War. But I appreciate when games get creative with their character motivations.

Was she found crying in the stairwell after being asked to go on leave, or before? If after, who found her? If before, why put this text here?

In any event, the Henry I know would make macaroni (if he had any talents) and drink Coors. But I hate that Henry. So I chose the “let’s talk to someone about it” option.

Because of course. Fortunately, we get a brief respite from the impending doom with a short scene back in the present.

On my way to the fire lookout place, I’ve evidently stopped to camp for the night. Remembering what the game taught me about using the ZR button to interact with objects, I try to pick up the journal.

I wonder what this would have looked like if I had chosen to frolic like a Victoria’s Secret model.

I don’t know how much more of this I can take.

When You Thought It Couldn’t Get Any Worse

I’m clearly out in the wilderness trying to escape from my personal tragedies. But maybe the story ends with a kind of noble hope and love.

Well, I already ruined her career, so I guess this just completes the job.

That’s how dementia works, I hear.

Wait, Julia is Australian? And I have friends? I know I was out getting drunk with “friends” when we first met, but that was the last I’d heard of them.

I’m already so alone, I want Julia to be surrounded by people. By people who are competent, trained professionals, not just a drunk who has a “job” and “friends.” So, I took the “full-time care facility” option.

But first, I have to do some more hiking:

I encountered an elk or deer or something further up the path, but didn’t get a screenshot of it. Sorry!

Then we’re back to text:

Of course. Because I’m a horrible person. How much longer are you going to drag this out, Firewatch?

I hadn’t been seeing them at all, so that won’t be much of a change.

*screaming expletives*

Am I running away from her while she’s still alive? Is she not even gone yet when I head out into the wilderness?

I didn’t think I could despise Henry any more than I already did.

The Lookout Tower

The prologue would seem to be over now, as my new place of employment appears before me.

I make my way up the stairs and go inside.

Once inside, a woman contacts me over the radio. Her name is Delilah.

Delilah. So, Henry must be American for “Sampson.”

Delilah is friendly and spunky. Maybe not a manic pixie dream girl, but still . . . Just what a sad and broken-but-deserving man needs to find healing and remember his true worth. She’ll fix me for sure.

Don’t talk to me about how bad Coldplay are. They used to do really good music.

The next morning, Delilah calls you again over the radio with her usual spunk. But then she sees fireworks and tells you you have to go stop whoever it is. There’s some timed stuff here and I was panicking, so I missed a prompt and couldn’t figure out which direction was north.

And I hate confrontation. I did not want to go down from my tower and confront a conflagration of roustabouts (“conflagration” is now officially the collective noun for roustabouts, and I actually don’t know what a roustabout is) on my first day on the job. By this point, the game had me so emotionally messed up that the thought of doing so was terrifying.

So, I stopped playing Firewatch.

“So you might have found out much more about yourself, about why you were interesting to Julia, about what your work had been! And maybe Julia gets better at the end!” you protest.

Perhaps so, but a game has to earn the player’s time, and Firewatch spends most of its prologue being actively repulsive. And reading the plot summary on Wikipedia, it looks like I saved myself a lot more suffering.

My normal thing is to turn to philosophy after describing some apparently-mindless piece of pop culture. I like to pull philosophical rabits out of pop songs and whatnot. But I don’t have the emotional energy to even try with Firewatch. I found this game traumatizing, and it was difficult to go through the opening again to write this.

So, I’m going to go play a good game now. Perhaps Baba Is You

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