Saturday, 13 February 2016

The Ending of Firewatch, The Anti-Climax, and the Limits of Escapism

One cricism I am seeing of Firewatch, more often than anything else, is the ending. People are kind of vague about there dissatisfaction with it, feeling that there was a lot of build up to something that largely fizzled out. But my play through of the game leads me to conclude that this was the entire point.


Firewatch opens with a Pixar style emotional gut punching, where you spend five minutes watching Henry have his loving wife unfairly taken from him by circumstances beyond his control. Though Henry and Julia fight it, neither can stop the onset of a cruel, incurable disease. It is a sad reality that cannot be prevented, and for Henry, the situation is ultimately one of dis-empowerment. Once Julia is taken away, all he can do is try to get away from the situation, which leads to him running away to a distant job in a sparsely populated nature reserve. This is a story about regret and hope, but it is mostly a story about escapism. As humans we have a compulsion towards seeking out of getting away from the harsher realities of life. By doing so, we can empower ourselves with a layer of fiction and find security in a world of our own imagination.

By moving to Two Forks, Henry's life should be a lot less complicated. He has very limited human contact, managerial oversight, and he is essentially free from all but a few basic duties. Delilah is a similar free spirit. In the park, she regularly bends the rules, flirt with her married employees, drink to excess and generally gets to ignore the conventions of society. So what happens to Henry and Delilah when things change? What happens when things start getting weird, when strangers start interloping on their conversations and threaten their easygoing lifestyle? Simple, they start creating a fiction around it. Everywhere you look in Firewatch, there are fiction books lying around. There are a few classics, like Jane Eyre, but the majority are trashy conspiracy novels. And there is some overlap between the plots of in those, and Henry and Delilah's situation. They are just two individuals standing against what appears to be an every growing, all powerful, clandestine organisation. They are on the brink of discovering some hidden truth about the world, and bust it wide open. When Henry finds a fenced off research station, he and Delilah permit themselves to break in. When they find it is full of high-tech surveillance gear and notes on themselves, they go berserk with speculation.

But it is all an elaborate fiction for a much simpler situation. The station is for monitoring Elk. The individual who is watching them is just a loner survivalist called Ned. Ned is the biggest clue to this being a story of the power of escapism. His situation mirrors Henry's. He too lost someone he loved - possibly Ned murdered him, but I find it was far more likely an unfortunate accident - he too has felt dis-empowered and run away from society. He now lives in a kind of man-cave, where he can watch everyone, keep himself hidden, and generally ensure he has the upper hand. You can see this kind of behaviour in Franklin too, building his own fortified den in the mountain.

Whether it is Henry or Delilah, Ned or Franklin, they are all creating a place for themselves in a world that they are free define and re-define. There is this vain, human impulse to see one-self at the centre of the world, and the characters in Firewatch all seek out places where they can perch themselves in little forts and assert this self-image. Even when they feel themselves surrounded by a big, crazy conspiracy, they empower themselves by asserting themselves as the hero, who's role is to discover and defeat this obstacle. The threat actually feeds into that vain fantasy, and unlike death or dementia, it is something tangible that they can physically fight against.

But that is all a fantasy. The limits of escapism is that you eventually have to put the book down and find yourself in the real world. The player, inhabiting Henry's view, may find it unsatisfying to discover that actually the conspiracy was just one loner, because it butts against the fantasy they have manufactured. Both Henry and the player are disappointed that they will never get to run off with Delilah, because that is inconsistent with this romantic notion that they will "win" the girl. They are sad that all that is left to do is either abandon this perfectly isolated world, or die with it. And on seeing the ending credits role, players are confronted with the awkward fact that their power was just a power fantasy. Yes, people are disappointed with the ending, but that is the entire point. We desperately need fantasy, they give power to the powerless. But we also have to admit that the power is artificial, and has no ultimate means to control reality. In a way it is sad for Henry to discover he now has no choice but to return to his complicated, dis-empowered life within civilization, but it is necessary for him (like us) to put the fantasy to bed and muddle through our similarly difficult lives, perhaps a little more refreshed and emboldened to face the real challenges once again.

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