The Present Alone is Our Sadness

16Apr16

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For a plot summary you may go here.

For another take see here.

Firewatch has been generally praised as a playable narrative and less as a game. As a narrative, however, its ending has been critiqued as has the various details of its story. The supposedly anti-climatic ending is central to the theme of the whole game’s narrative, a theme that appears in numerous lines of dialogue – there is no great plan, no great conspiracy, all things do not happen ‘for a reason.’ And yet, at the same time, the ambiguity of the game revealed through small clues suggests that one of the game’s three main characters (Delilah) is lying through her teeth. Many videos and pieces have picked up on this suggesting that Delilah and the game’s antagonist (Ned) conspired to hide the death of Ned’s son as well as Ned’s presence in the park.

If this is the case it would mean there was in fact a conspiracy, but perhaps one not satisfactory to the average player of the game. But still this conspiracy is less than the one suggested by some of the game’s plot twists, there is no government level plan, no scientific drive beyond any surveillance scheme. The only engine of conspiracies in Firewatch is personal trauma and the fearfulness of people.

So in the end Firewatch is about the conspiracy under the normal functioning of events which we try to raise to a higher level of conspiracy, we we say there must be a plan, or a reason, or a plot. But, the game suggests, this is just an effect of trauma riddled brains and bad circumstances. Is this satisfactory, is there something more to be said? I think there is but we have to look at what the game does with structure and narrative, genre and content.

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While it has been said that Firewatch has a genre problem it seems to quite consciously play with this. The game plays with thriller, conspiracy, and even slightly sci-fi categories while running romance and drama through out. But just as the game does not want to give a satisfactory ending, it too does not wish to remain in any one genre for long. While this can have quite a disorienting effect, particular in films (such as Joseph Kahn’s Detention) it does not presume to know what a genre is or even how it works (compare Detention to Cabin in the Woods).

In games the function is different since the pace of movement is set by the player, the player is more than a reader but less than the author. In terms of the emotional content of the narrative we can be said to walk around in it in a way where we are not necessarily fighting the flow of the narrative. At some point, yes, we are expected to complete certain tasks, but we are free to wonder, to unfold the events that we have experienced as emotionally devastating for the characters but moving across the map in various fashions.

A certain spatializing-exploration, or visualization-play effects the way the emotional content unfolds for us. We can look at this internal to the game’s content, and how the game, as a game, relates to the larger game world. In regards to the first point we can say that walking through a simulation offers a certain kind of over-saturated beauty, we can pick up turtles, watch animals, and the like. In relation to the second point, one could argue that Firewatch makes a claim for the emotional content of games, that its attempting to defend the function of video games as powerful narratives (something that fewer and fewer mediums have to do but is still generally true of comics and video games if no longer true for television).

The emotional content or simple walking/exploring of a virtual world and its meta-function as a narratively grounded game actually makes a point that was probably not intended, but one that is buttressed by the ‘no great plan’ theme of the game. Or, simply put, the false narratives of the game charge the everydayness of your player’s (Henry) actions in such a way to beg the question – does the greater scheme or framing device matter?

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This can rapidly lead us into a valley of cliches from which there would seem to be no escape. Such a tactic might immediately seem as a round a bout way of showing us that ‘the now matters’ or that its about the journey not the destination, and so on. But, given that this takes place in game, such emotional cheap shots might take on slightly different character.

At the level of genre such a move is actually becoming weirder. In film and tv, the ongoing explosion of expanded universes (Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Star Trek, etc) means that viewers start to see the next events, the ongoingness of the series, as itself charged with emotional content. There is something almost a bit absurd when these films and shows attempt to make an emotional moment, not because the material is supernatural or fantastic, but because it seems to go against the grain of the thing. In a shared universe the question of ‘what’s next?’ is more than a question of plot, it becomes the emotional engine as well.

In the last twenty years or so, the idea of a sequel went from egregious money making to required. From within the game mechanic, however, the idea of the played present is an interesting one. Similarly, games are meant to be finished, tasks completed, satisfaction delivered. There are few answers or satisfactory conclusions in Firewatch, there is mostly sadness and disappointment. But can this really surprise us given the fact that Henry is a man running away from his mentally collapsing wife? That he is a man ignoring the last decades of his life and flirting with an unseen woman herself hiding from heart break and, if the theories about Delilah’s untrustworthiness are to be believed, from much worse.

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The other side of the emotional cheap shot would be that of the twist. The logic of the twist, at least in television and film, seems to have exhausted itself in the last few years. The notorious ending of Lost seems a rather grand intensification compared to M. Night Shyamalan’s plot tricks. Games have arguably pushed this logic even further, one can look only at Bioshock Infinite and its epic levels of meta-containing, of worlds, within worlds, all wrapped in a complex temporal logic. The issue at hand becomes one of what these ever more complicated formalist tricks do, if anything, to the kind of content (emotional or otherwise) being deployed in games versus movies.

The question, which is an interesting one I think, that arises is what is the relation between the felt present of a game, and that of more passive media, and how do these relate the the immediate present, to what William James famously discussed in terms of the specious present:

“The relation of experience to time has not been profoundly studied. Its objects are given as being of the present, but the part of time referred to by the datum is a very different thing from the conterminous of the past and future which philosophy denotes by the name Present. The present to which the datum refers is really a part of the past — a recent past — delusively given as being a time that intervenes between the past and the future. Let it be named the specious present, and let the past, that is given as being the past, be known as the obvious past. All the notes of a bar of a song seem to the listener to be contained in the present. All the changes of place of a meteor seem to the beholder to be contained in the present. At the instant of the termination of such series, no part of the time measured by them seems to be a past. Time, then, considered relatively to human apprehension, consists of four parts, viz., the obvious past, the specious present, the real present, and the future. Omitting the specious present, it consists of three . . . nonentities — the past, which does not exist, the future, which does not exist, and their conterminous, the present; the faculty from which it proceeds lies to us in the fiction of the specious present.”

Is this merely a question of our immediate attention, or of intentionality? The cross-over between how we perceive the present, and how emotion colors time perception, or, put otherwise, the relation between idealism and empiricism as they relate sense and experience, what one would think would come before and what would follow. But we do not have to go into the dusty (or exciting) halls of philosophy. Firewatch poses the problem in its form and its content, one would like to extract oneself from the world while, simultaneously, being in a world that one could experience but not think about.

Thus, if a game like Bioshock exhibited the tension between free will and control in the canned choices of games as such, Firewatch could be viewed as attempting an affective or emotional version of this, between hiding in the present as if there was no time and space outside it, and completing the tasks of the game in order to complete it (though its story is intentionally incomplete). The game’s characters are hiding from the world and, as you explore the world, you are hiding from the world in a more formal sense. But, just as the characters in the game cannot escape their pasts, you, as the player, cannot escape the feeling of being oddly away from things while not, while sitting at a screen. This play-present is not exactly haunted by the past in the same way the characters are, but is a present that haunts itself by attempting, virtually, to be away from time, to be only a series of played presents.

This is (maybe) one of the better capacities of a game, the simulation that tells you what it is but slowly, taking its time, because you are taking the time, or not, within it. If we do not even know what a genre is, we know even less what a fictional world is, what is brought there when we enter it, what is left there when we leave it.

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One Response to “The Present Alone is Our Sadness”


  1. 1 Ben Woodard on Firewatch | this cage is worms

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