As always, spoilers ahoy!
Last night I saw a terrific GDC presentation from Richard Rouse III and Tom Abernathy entitled Death to the Three Act Structure!, in which our two presenters contrast the narrative frameworks between interactive and non-interactive media. Whilst witnessing these diagrams of Aristotelian arcs and Freytagian triangles flash before my eyes, I could’t help but think how disconnected this all seemed from the narrative structures and frameworks I am used to, naturally, as a consumer of videogames. I’ve talked before about how consumer participation in videogames changes the nature of pacing and consumption, and of all the created material that is affected by this dynamic, it can be argued that such interactivity affects the narrative most.
For some perspective: imagine you are an author of books facing up to the challenge of videogame writing for the first time. Why would you even bother facing up to the challenge of perfecting any sense of pace, world-building, or character-enriching when you must concede half your sense of ownership and authorship to the player themselves? Your story is not so much told as it is experienced, and so all of what the player experiences is dictated by how the player chooses to progress, and so it is dictated by the consumer, all the while potentially half the written material goes undiscovered.
It is easy for a consumer of narrative-based games like Telltale’s ilk to forget how much of a mammoth task it is to write a multiple-eventuality narrative. The author of your game has not just written your experience, but the experience of everyone who has played the game who is not you.
The I.P. that cemented the popularity and identity of the interactive narrative, as I’m sure many would agree, is Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season 1. A critical and consumer success, this title had an apparent interest in the sheer capabilities of multiple-eventuality and interactive narrative, with the all of its five episodes concluding with interfaces that show popularity of minor and major player choices as well as a disclaimer before every episode reminding us that choice will affect playstyle. While this title remains to date one of my favourites, and is a title that galvanised my faith in pursuing games as a study and career, I cannot help feel that Vanaman’s talent was somewhat stunted here.
Sean Vanaman was the lead writer for the series as well as co-director alongside Jake Rodkin and Sean Ainsworth. Vanaman’s writing was so good that not only did it have the power to achieve millions of fans (somewhere above 28 million, as of writing (Wikipedia)), but it had the power to make them weep. This is a hard feat with any medium and, for some inexplicable reason, I feel it is more so when it comes to videogames. It is the only game I have ever wept at, and although to suggest that a narrative which inspires tears is innately better than one which doesn’t is a false suggestion, weeping is a response undoubtedly desired by those writers who want to communicate pathos, and Vanaman’s masterpiece really did achieve that in this series.
It can be argued that Vanaman’s execution of pathos in this I.P is somewhat unconventional in itself. This was the pioneer series of Telltale’s new property acquired by Warner Bros alongside the Fables series, and this of all things reminds us that The Walking Dead: Season One was just as much a consumer product as much as it was its own tale. With the consumer being presented with alternative zombie game experiences, is it a wise move to pump the consumer with tears rather than the expected adrenaline? Of course, true narrative pathos from a zombie game was unprecedented in Telltale’s contemporary market, so this was by all means a risky piece of writing by Vanaman.
I praise the game, but I still feel that Vanaman’s efforts were stunted. I say this because I feel that Vanaman suffered in that series the way Kojima suffered in Ground Zeroes. His efforts to produce an interactive story that shows human horrors, errors and human sacrifices are (to me, at least) undermined by the fact that this story is also about flesh-eating zombies. There is a convergence of irreconcilable difference, at least in my opinion. Now, don’t get me wrong, the success of AMC’s television series of The Walking Dead may be a testament to the fact that A: exploration of the human condition and B: hordes of gut-chundering noggin-noshing zombies are, in fact, compatible. All I’m suggesting is that Vanaman’s room to explore the more human side of things, the side of things that makes us weep, was restricted if not prescribed by way of the story being set in Robert Kirkman’s universe. If Vanaman wanted to write about the loss of a loved one it would, probably, have to be in accordance with the genre trapping of a zombie-bite. I’m not trying to belittle the game’s success or narrative lustre, I am only saying that the potential for Vanaman to explore the bigger human ideas presented in his series was diminished.
Perhaps I wouldn’t be saying any of this were it not for Vanaman’s later title Firewatch. After discussing with Rodkin, Vanaman and Rodkin left their positions in Telltale’s The Walking Dead in order to found an independent company, Campo Santo, alongside Mark Of The Ninja‘s designer Nels Anderson and British graphic artist Olly Moss. Firewatch is so unconventional, so subversive in its nature that I believe it is worth examining as a cultural icon in the growing roster of triple-A interactive narratives.
To begin with, Firewatch’s initial step in development took inspiration from something that is far removed from traditional narrative.
A painting by Olly Moss, who had previously only experience with IGN as far as developmental qualification goes, was the first piece of material used as inspiration for Firewatch‘s development. Olly Moss’s signature style of painting is one of duality, as is evident in the above slideshow. I trust that this style influenced the heavily dualistic qualities of the game’s narrative which will be outlined later.
It is fitting that a game so interested in implicit storytelling began with inspiration from something so comparatively silent. A picture can tell a thousand words, and depending on the angle you look at Firewatch with, the game can easily be taken as a painting just as much as it can be taken as a story.
The game is gorgeous by anyone’s standards. Olly Moss and Jane Ng have created an environment so true to the verdure of Wyoming, but one that is also arranged to verge on the numinous… I know, that sounds like bombast, but I don’t know how else to describe the fantastical and untouchable air that Firewatch‘s Wyoming evokes. My only regret playing, replaying, and replaying Firewatch is that I did not play it on a PC. Ben Burbank, programmer for Firewatch, explains that the environment is segmented into 120+ chunks that stream in to the system, and the limitation of my original Xbox One was sometimes vivid during play.
In the previous paragraph, I have deliberately hesitated to use the word ‘world’ in explaining Firewatch’s environment. I hesitate because to say that the environment exhibited in the game is ‘Firewatch‘s world’ in the sense of ownership, I feel, would be a major misnomer.
Firewatch‘s environment largely belongs to the real-life Wyoming. Minus the game’s hyper-autumnal hues splashed across its digital cycloramas, you’d have an incredibly realistic depiction of the outback of Wyoming. This isn’t to diminish the achievements of Moss or Ng at all, in fact I think the pair struck a perfect balance between realism and artistic personality. However, it might reasonably be seen as unusual for Campo Santo to place their first I.P in such thoroughly unexplored territory.
I may have used language that gives the impression of Firewatch‘s environment being fantastical, but that is exactly what the environment is limited to by virtue of its realism, intimations of the fantastical. Noah Caldwell-Gervais says of Firewatch:
“Firewatch ignores quite a bit of what open world adventure fantasies have adopted as more or less standard features”
In saying this, Caldwell-Gervais is responding to criticism in the form of disapproval at a lack of environmental system in Firewatch. Going into Firewatch, the average player might expect a plethora of collectables, upgradeable equipment, myriad unlockable achievements and so forth simply by virtue of experience as a consumer. However, Caldwell-Gervais rightly points out that it is not correct to criticise a lack of system when there is not in fact a privation of it. As he says, we should not view Firewatch through the extremely myopic, criteria-laden lens of a consumer, the way a consumer looks at a product, since:
“[Firewatch is] a genuine work of fiction”
Just as Vanaman challenged the escapist consumer expectations with The Walking Dead, he does so here as well. At least The Walking Dead, for all its subversive qualities, was about zombies and had a title that could begin trending on social media in milliseconds. The same cannot be said of Firewatch, which fulfilled consumer expectations that did not exist. Trying to find success in incredibly grounded material can be hard for developers, but not impossible. Firewatch and Cart Life are examples of this. For some reason this is exclusive to videogames as a medium. In film and literature, it is not taboo to produce a solely introspective piece of work that fulfills nothing but the creator’s expectations. Perhaps this is because these media allow for more introspective tales through more prescriptive non-interactive storytelling, but even then the question still remains as to why not try with games? With the commercial wobbliness of Gone Home and Dear Esther behind Campo Santo, you have to give props to Vanaman, Remo (who created the score for the former) and Rodkin for even attempting a game arguably more grounded than these two divisive pioneers. There is nothing more unexpected, or oddly sobering in a videogame than a clear reflection of the realistic and feasible. Firewatch is undoubtedly one such reflection.
Nels Anderson, designer and gameplay programmer, explains the level of detail that went into establishing Firewatch’s realism. Anderson and Ng both acquired archived design schematics from lookout towers in Portland in order to design protagonist Henry’s Two Forks lookout tower. Additionally, many real-life influences are cited by developers, Moss and Sindre Opsahl Skaare state that Henry’s features were modelled on Louis C.K. and Moss also explains that Smoky Bear was used to create the in-game mascot of Forrest Byrnes. I could itemise to no end but you really need only to look at the characters to see how uncharacteristically (in terms of the pale of open-world genre) realistic and conventional the game’s foundations are.
This is what Bioshock Infinite would look like with Louis C.K on the box art. Henry is a 40-something house husband (if my memory doesn’t fail me) who takes a job as a fire lookout in Wyoming in order to get away from the trauma of his life at home, wherein his wife has been diagnosed with early onset dementia. He communicates with his alcoholic boss Delilah through a walkie talkie. How do you sell that? I mean… actually, how do you sell that? Trailers and vertical slices take the conspiracy theory that the narrative props up and uses that element in order to reel in audiences. It might seem reductive of me to refer to the conspiracy as a narrative ‘element’ or to say that the narrative is ‘about’ the feasible and realistic. In fact, it might seem reductive of me to say that Firewatch is decidedly ‘about’ any one thing. You could argue that its interactive nature largely makes the experience of Firewatch subjective to a degree where criticism might be inapplicable.
Let me explain: in his video ‘Firewatch Is Mine‘, Satchell Drakes refutes criticism of Firewatch‘s ending being underwhelming by saying that an ending cannot actually be poor if you have had a hand in creating it, and, due to the interactive nature of the storyline, this is inevitably the case.
Drakes is not wrong when speaking of the level of fidelity in Firewatch‘s interactive narrative. Listening to Vanaman explain all the different variables really had me amazed. Vanaman and Ewing explain that if the drunken teens end up calling you a ‘creep’ in one gameplay eventuality, Henry will then use the term ‘creep’ to describe the flashlight-brandishing stranger later on in the story. Vanaman implemented this, he says, to mimic the ‘infectiousness of language’. It is a detail no one asked for, that might not even be noticed, but one that speaks volumes for the meticulous nature of Firewatch‘s branching pathways. Many branching paths are not explicitly gamified, either. During the scene of the intimate exchange between Delilah and Henry, when Delilah asks if you are looking at the forest fire, if you are in fact looking at her lookout tower instead, an alternate response is automatically triggered. There are subtle changes occurring without any indication, and this of course is not even speaking of the decisions you can make entirely separate to the game’s script or audio responses. For example, at least in my playthroughs, every morning Henry woke up in Two Forks the picture of him and his wife Julia was face down on the desk. I was presented with the option of propping it upright instead. Although this decision may not be qualified by an audio response or by any indication of recognition by the interface, it is still a decision nonetheless. A better example would be on the final day, where depending on your actions in Two Forks, you might not see Henry’s hand adorned with his wedding ring when grasping for the rescue team member’s hand aboard the helicopter. Do you take that ring with you or leave it to burn at Two Forks? This, upon some reflection, can change Henry’s character entirely.
Drakes is right to say that protestations of an unsatisfactory conclusions are not sound protests if the conclusions are brought about by the protesters themselves. But, I’m afraid I don’t agree with Drakes because I don’t think this is the case. ‘Interactivity’ does not entail a license for the player to create their own story, and for most players the ending of Firewatch will be remarkably similar to the extent that the developers will refer to the story as linear during audio commentary. Conclusions will differ, but what is being perceived does not change all that much. It is, as Caldwell-Gervais says, a work of fiction, and you can make footnotes but you cannot tear out the pages in the case of Firewatch.
The experience is more definite than I think Drakes makes it out to be, and I think that the game really is about one specific subject. This is not the superficial narrative of the conspiracy, which is engrossing and fascinating all at once upon first playthrough. However, this is what the game is perceived to be about by many, and the disillusionment arising from the ending’s relative indolence stems from this false perception. Chris Franklin describes the narrative structure as follows:
“The game sets itself up a series of Chekov’s guns, and then refuses to fire them”
He then explains that this is apropos for the larger story underneath. This is why I say Olly Moss was a perfect artist to have on board for this project, as the narrative clearly has his trademark dualism at play. By way of participating in Firewatch‘s narrative as a player, Vanaman, Rodkin and Remo expertly draw you into the game’s conspiracy. The writing team hoist you into this bizarre and yet exhilarating echo chamber of conspiracies in order to suspend your realisation that Firewatch is really rather… quiet. Henry and Delilah manage to encourage each others’ suspicious instincts in the societal vacuum of Wyoming to the point where their senses of their reality are pure fabrications, with only each other to validate them. You are encouraged to believe along with them by way of having no point of rational reference. After all, what is the considerable alternative? That both Delilah and Henry are wrong and there is no black ops government conspiracy against the two?
Well, that is largely the truth. There is someone out there listening to your conversations but by the end it is revealed that it was only Ned Goodwin who was presented as harmless as he was pathetic. I can understand that the simplicity of this revelation is irksome against the intrigue that the conspiracy inspires, but it is the fitting one.
The subject of the game’s narrative is one of hiding. Henry comes to Wyoming to hide from the responsibility of caring for his wife, as Delilah comes to Wyoming to hide from her regrets, as Ned comes to hide from his. All three delude themselves into conspiracy to distract themselves from responsibility, hiding behind walkie talkies and audio tapes as a barrier to the pain of real interaction and the reminding of the people they’ve lost. Ned acts as a potential Henry, failing to cope with himself after his son dies in an accident where Ned was powerless to prevent it in the moment just as Henry is powerless against the decline in his wife’s health. What the player feels in the cold and almost abrasive reality of the ending, where Henry can no longer participate in the convolutions that draw him away from his wife, is an echo of what Henry feels.
On a second playthrough the parallels begin to become obvious. Delilah’s protests of Ned upon discovering his son’s body, where she says “Not knowing what to do isn’t okay! You figure it out!”is an obvious double entendre given the wider context that you are coaxed into suspending by the conspiracy. As well as this, I believe it was Caldwell-Gervais who points out the teen girls as another parallel between Ned and Henry. The teen girls ended up not being found dead, but if they had been it would have been under Henry’s responsibility. The teens introduce the prospect of an irreconcilable guilt, which happens to be Ned’s reality.
This is not a conventional ending. For a game that inspires so many emotions, people expect an emotional payoff, but again Vanaman subverts the expectations. I only think that we should hesitate to say that Firewatch has an unsatisfactory ending, not because the experience is subjective, but because there is obviously a deeper intention than to deliver a conspiracy story that would end in a quenching and easily written coda. Would it have been better to have Henry, an overweight married man, to find romantic solace in his boss Delilah, a faceless alcoholic? Would it have been better for there to actually have been a sprawling government conspiracy, striking fear into the heart of a man already torn inside because of his wife’s illness?
People always seem to have to capacity to think a narrative over better than the authors have, and to know what should have been better than the creators do. You cannot mourn a story that does not exist. Vanaman says of the ending: “I wanted that feeling to go into the player, that level of disappointment”. It was a deliberate subversion rather than the unintentional narrative breakdown people perceive it to be. In fact, Remo even explains that he’s more pleased about the outcome of the game given its divisiveness. He says he wants players to ask the questions of “Why did any of it happen? Why does anything happen?” in the game’s universe. This is the blessing of ambiguous endings, despite protests, because I don’t think we should be prescribed our own explicit conclusions. With Firewatch, The Sopranos, and to a lesser extent Bioshock: Infinite we are free to take away from the game what we choose to.
Firewatch is not a groundbreaking human study, in fact I can sympathise with Weidman when he says that Firewatch fails as both an introspective and, well, extrospective narrative. However, it has my respect as a thoroughly original concept that hints at the potential that Campo Santo will hopefully fulfill in their future.
I would like to apologise for this post taking as long as it did, with University application and a main role in my school play recently it’s been hard to find the time to game and write. It saddens me that I haven’t had the chance to respond to some award nominations and I haven’t been able to engage with the community as much as I have been, but hopefully that will get back to normal now.
The other main reason this has taken so long is that in order to research this post I wanted to complete the Firewatch Audio Tour mode (which all quotations are taken from) that the developers added, which is essentially a playthrough aided by developer commentary. I noted all that I could down but it ended up taking me hours upon hours to complete, with no available transcriptions online.
I’m also very pleased to say that I’ve got an interview at York University applying for the Interactive Media course. I won’t jinx myself yet but I’m proud to have gotten a step closer towards studying games full-time!
Thank you for your patience and Happy Holidays,