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.