Firewatch And The Selfish Nature Of Romance

In games, romance is often an end-goal. A relationship is the reward at the end of a quest chain or a gift-giving minigame of sorts, or it’s the fulfillment of a character’s potential and meaning. There are exceptions, of course, but there are few great romances in gaming, doomed or otherwise. And there’s very little that would fall into the rom-com category.

When I first started playing Firewatch [official site], I was delighted when the melancholy opening gave way to a lightness of touch. There are bright, cheery moments, genuine laughs and a warmth that has nothing to do with any burning threat. This, I thought to myself, could be a tragedy-tinged comedic romance and I hadn’t realised how much I wanted to play such a thing until I was playing it.

There are non-specific but definite spoilers for Firewatch. And Romeo and Juliet.

I was reminded of George and Nico, Broken Sword’s danger magnets. They’re attracted to one another but there are bigger fish to fry so we’re never forced to play gooseberry while they smooch and have lovers’ tiffs on the screen. Not for long at any rate.

In Firewatch, there’s a whole forest to fry so there’s little danger of any romance taking centre stage. Added to that, the lead characters are miles apart. There’s no possibility of smooching, even if things were to move in that direction.

And that’s why Firewatch is such a wonderful setting for romance, comedic and otherwise. It avoids many of the potential pitfalls that games can spend their entire running time trying to climb back out of and, more importantly, it can focus on one of the essential traits of romantic entanglements. Selfishness.

The early stages of romance are selfish. We don’t always think of them in that way because the word ‘selfish’ tends to suggest a single person, absorbed within their own self. Cupid’s arrows have a sort of grapple function though, connecting their targets by a bond so powerful that new couples often behave like a single entity. And that single entity is almost certainly the most selfish creature in any room it enters.

Take Romeo and Juliet, the archetypal idiot lovers. He’s flighty and fickle, and would probably have fallen in love with the next person he met if SPOILER ALERT exile, subterfuge and suicide hadn’t been quite so attractive to his melodramatic mindset and vanity. Having committed a couple of murders along the way, he plays up to the audience as he prepares to take his life, eroticising the act of suicide and recognising that young, dead “star cross’d lovers” are far more romantic than long life and domestic bliss.

Of course, the Montague and the Capulet lying dead in a tomb, killed by each others’ kisses and the feuding of their families (plus a knife and some poison) brings everybody closer together and everything ends on a happy note. If you ignore the dead teenage lovers. And poor slaughtered Paris, who was trying to protect Juliet’s tomb from vandals. Everyone in Verona seems to ignore Paris’ corpse so he shouldn’t weight too heavy on our minds at any rate.

Romeo and Juliet’s love brings their families together but that wasn’t the intent of either participant in the romance. It’s a side effect of their tragic ending rather than a result of their togetherness. And that’s because love affairs are self-involved and uncaring. That doesn’t mean every romance has to be wild and dangerous, as in this particular example, but it does mean that those involved tend to not care about the impact of their love on anyone but the immediate target of their affections.

Couples in love are often knowingly or unwittingly oblivious to the things that are happening around them. The same is true of infatuated individuals. Take the massive tosser in Richard Curtis’ toss-a-thon, Love, Actually, who secretly unburdens his love for his best friend’s wife onto her so that she can feel weird around him FOREVER while he gets to pat himself on the back for keeping everything private and being chivalrous.

The obliviousness can be charming or amusing. Take the time I met my better half – we were strangers in the same bar, and after a few drinks I was so completely caught up in the moment that I joined her and her friends and went to a different bar on the other side of the city. I completely forget to tell the guy I’d been drinking with that I was leaving. Hilarious and charming. (sorry, Chris)

Firewatch, with its two characters cut off from the rest of the world and (physically) from one another, is the perfect setting for romance. Here are two people who have isolated themselves from outside interference and who expect to spend the long days and nights with no company save the sky, the trees and the occasional bear.

That they can’t see each other – the distant tower comes to represent the person within the tower as a visual reference – prevents the kind of uncanny valley kissyface horrorshows that reliably douse the flames of computer generated (or simply badly performed) romance, and the physical separation allows the flirtatious dialogue to take on qualities of the confessional booth as well as the psychiatrist’s couch. They

There is a tragic element to Henry and Delilah’s connection, cast as it is in the shadow of Henry’s marriage. Through no fault of anyone involved, that relationship has shifted, requiring new emotional scaffolding and no longer able to support the kind of love that held it together previously. Whenever Delilah directs Henry’s attention to the world beyond Shoshone National Forest, whether it be toward the past or the future, there is a reluctance in his voice. He’s not reluctant to accept that the past has occurred and that the future must happen – he’s not that selfish – but his very presence in the tower is indicative of a desire to stretch the present as far as possible.

Eventually it will snap.

He knows that and Delilah knows that. In that sense, their rapid development of in-jokes, a language of their own, seems like a defense mechanism, a way to encircle the moment they’re attempting to live in and protect it. Delilah has done this before and she initiates the relationship, knowing how to cater to her own social needs and those of others who have come to Shoshone to find something and then left. Ex-exiles, each leaving a trace.

It’s testament to Cissy Jones’ performance as Delilah that those traces can be heard in her voice. Again, the lack of facetime is a boon. The voice emotes perfectly well and an animated face chewing through the words would most likely be a distraction. Just as I found myself looking toward her tower as I wandered through the woods, I nudged the mouse ever so slightly to acknowledge the radio whenever she spoke. It was enough of a presence to represent a person; more of a presence than the animatronic dolls that often represent romantic targets.

Firewatch’s detour into mystery left me unsatisfied. I’m not going to criticise the plot that emerges as Henry and Delilah discover unusual places and evidence of hostility and danger because I’d be criticising the game for being what it is rather than what I wanted it to be. It is, perhaps, evidence of my own selfishness that I didn’t care about anything beyond the two main characters. As a character piece, about both Henry and Delilah, I thoroughly enjoyed the game and whenever the broader strokes of the story informed those characters I went along with it happily. Whenever I felt my attention was being directed toward somebody else’s story, my attention drifted.

The towers and the slow pace at which the world around them can burn perfectly fitted with the gentle comedy and sharper sadness of the characters, who have chosen to abandon s many of life’s possibilities but in clinging to one another show that they fear being forgotten. Perhaps the impossibility of intimacy and the way that affection is lost somewhere in between the days is the whole point.

Firewatch isn’t about Henry and Delilah. It’s about Henry. And Delilah.

It’s the perfect setting for an interactive romance though, discarding so much that is clumsy and manipulated where hooking up and getting off are goals in and of themselves. Like the best love stories, it made me believe that these people, for one brief moment, didn’t care about anybody else. That’s not to say they forgot or disrespected the things and people that mattered to them, those back in the real world, but that they had decided to care for themselves and each other in a way that was self-preserving and, yes, self-involved.

I wish that feeling had lasted longer than it did.

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  1. Heliocentric says:

    A few rogue words and letters there, but nicely put.

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    caff says:

    Firewatch pleasantly surprised me with it’s cloudy past and and cloudier future.

    I wasn’t entirely convinced, however, with the way actions and the conversation played out given my choices at the start of the game. I feel like there was a fair amount of funnelling taking me down a particular path, but I was happy to play along with it.

  3. wwarnick says:

    I would argue that Romeo and Juliet’s relationship was based purely on infatuation. I would bet money that had they been able to marry and start a life together, they would have an unpleasant surprise when they find out that their first impressions of each other (which is about all they had) weren’t correct.

  4. amateurviking says:

    I hadn’t really considered it before but now that you mention it, I feel like Firewatch would have been better for eschewing the dramatic climax (not necessarily excising the plot altogether, but making it less front and centre) and doubling down on being in that space, and the relationship with Delilah. And then it is the end of the season and everyone goes home but has learned something about themselves.

  5. Unsheep says:

    As a story I *do* feel the ending was rather abrupt.

    However I never considered Firewatch to be a love story, which is how most people seem to have interpreted the game. To me this game is all about Henry and his internal journey, coming to terms with his guilt.

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      gritz says:

      Agreed, but part of escaping from that guilt is toying with this fantasy of a new love that Delilah isn’t doing much to dispel. He’s superimposing what he lost onto Delilah (as in the sleepwalking conversation).

      • Unsheep says:

        That is indeed one way to interpret it, can’t argue with that.
        To me Henry is dealing with his guilt through escapism, not only by choosing this particular job ‘at the very end of the world’, and as far away from his wife as possible, but also by searching for conspiracies. He is the one who pursues the things that happen.

        Writing this I realized that the dialogue between Henry and Delilah is actually up to the decision of the player. The game gives you the option of being flirtatious, but also stand-offish and “neutral”. So how you interpret the storyline really depends on the choices you have made.

  6. Twist says:

    **This post will have light, general spoilers, so ignore it if you are interested in Firewatch and haven’t played it yet. I tried to avoid specific spoilers, though.***

    The relationship between Henry and Delilah is shaped by how the player role-plays Henry. I played through Firewatch twice, and I had two starkly difference experiences with two starkly different endings.

    Reviews, forum posts and Let’s Plays give me the impression people treat this too much like a linear narrative experience, letting themselves be strung along from story beat to story beat, where the goal is to finish, to find out what happens next.

    Playing the game this way often means the player either chooses the most comical response, or the response the player thinks will provide the most optimum outcome.

    It also means triggering the next day change to progress the game rather than taking an opportunity to explore and reflect, to meditate on what matters to you (either the real you or the version of Henry you role-play).

    Try experimenting and exploring more, and try role-playing Henry with different attitudes and priorities. In these role-plays, discipline yourself to respond (or NOT respond) how you feel that version of Henry would respond to Delilah and to the different situations that arise in the game. Hint: you don’t always have to do what Delilah tells you to do.

    As Henry makes his drive and hike to Two Forks, how deeply depressed is he? How selfish is he? How reticent will he be to talk to someone all summer when he’s seeking peace and quiet?

    Does he welcome the curious, playful woman radioing him or does he see her as an irritating, obnoxious person interrupting his attempt to seek solace in solitude?

    Does that attempt to seek solace in solitude work for him? Or does it backfire in the end?

    My “Honorable Henry” resulted in an experience similar to what most people seemed to have had.

    But my “Haunted Henry” resulted in a dark, bleak experience where Delilah relentlessly insulted Henry with f-bombs and the game ended with no warmth or camaraderie between the two. In fact, it had a very dark, bleak ending that I haven’t seen many people experience.

    Firewatch represents a fascinating bit of game design, one in which how you approach the game dictates the type of story you experience.

    Firewatch also has the potential to be a role-playing game; not in a conventional sense where you have stats and character customization, but in the real-world sense where you role-play a different perspective to exercise your empathy.

    • Jackablade says:

      The game is certainly a lot more malleable than people give it credit for. I was a little confused when these articles started coming out discussing romance when my game never never came close to that scenario.
      I think I probably ran a line between your two extremes with what I thought made sense and wound up with a Delilah who was the sort of friend who I might have a beer with at some point then move on with my life and wonder ten years later where she wound up.

    • Santos L. Halper says:

      Thanks for that, Twist, that was a really interesting perspective.

      I’ve played Firewatch just once, and I think now that I might have rushed it a bit (okay, it took me 6 hours, but that’s because I kept getting lost and my sense of direction is rubbish, even in games), as I was more interested in seeing how the story panned out. I pursued the most flirtatious course of action, although that might say more about my real-world love life than anything!

      My impression playing it the one time was that the game funnels you in one direction, and from what I’ve read, that the dialogue wouldn’t differ too much from one play-through to the next.

      Although I loved the game, perhaps even so I underestimated it.


  7. Geebs says:

    It kind of struck me that the characters in Firewatch are more than 40 years old, but never had kids. The story makes it clear that Henry and his wife spent about, what, six years of their marriage discussing having children but just never seem to get round to it for no particular reason. The only guy who does have a kid is spectacularly crap at it.

    In the context of the story, this comes across as none of the characters ever growing up or accepting responsibility. I found it curiously depressing that they were all just pissing about playing at being teenagers – which I think the game mocks rather effectively through the interaction with the real teenagers.

    I dunno. Obviously I’m not making a judgement on anybody who makes that decision IRL, but in terms of the stated aims of the characters it all comes across as a bit sad, and I can’t work out why any of them made the choices that led them to be in the game apart from fecklessness and apathy.

    • Charles de Goal says:

      I don’t think making any other choices would have changed anything at Julia’s illness.

  8. Baring says:

    Even though it ultimately wasn’t a “pleasant” game, it still kept me glued to the screen. Wishing for some kind of happiness for Henry and Delilah. They’d gone through so much, and I felt like they deserved better.

  9. Shiloh says:

    I did enjoy Firewatch on the first play through and thought the interplay between Henry and Delilah was fantastic, right up to the denouement – yeah I get what happened, and I understand how loneliness and a willing suspension of disbelief can make seemingly mundane events take on much more significance than they have in reality… but yeah, that ending.

  10. Maxheadroom says:

    I think im in the minority but I kinda liked the bitter-sweet tone of the ending, do wish it had gone on just a tad longer though.

    On a side note, why do I get such morbid facilitation from reading the 0-score user reviews on metacritic for this from people who use phrases like “Boring”, “rubbish story” etc (while simultaneously giving CoD or Battlefield 10 out of 10)?
    I’m old enough to know there’s zero point in arguing on the internet but damn I wish I could reply directly to some of these children

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    bonuswavepilot says:

    Hmmm – hearing about the range of dialogue in the comments here I am conflicted between wanting to replay Firewatch and see the other paths and my original plan not to replay it because I wanted it to remain a nice rounded story without knowing too much where the strings and duct-tape are holding things together.