Firewatch: What Storytelling Lessons Can It Teach Us?
The first five minutes of Firewatch are sweet until they are harrowing. At their end, you are left gutted of your stuffing — and then, only then, does the game begin.
This is an important moment, narratively. You as the player have been hollowed out much as your on-screen avatar, Henry, is hollowed out. You are an empty person waiting to be filled up. It’s almost like being a house so empty it invites a haunting — and boy howdy, this game is haunting. It’s not only that, of course. The game is funny, exciting, tense. It’s also frequently beautiful in ways both visually and emotionally.
But it is haunting.
Those first five minutes are harrowing not in a genre sense — it’s not like, OH, DANG, MY GIRLFRIEND WAS TAKEN AND KILLED BY NINJAS, NOOOOO, I WILL AVENGE YOU, BETTY-SUE. It’s not even quite in the vein of UP, where you watch a man’s life and marriage zip by in fast-forward to an unfortunate, if inevitable, conclusion. I won’t spoil how this game opens, but I will say that the emotional collapse that awaits the character of Henry is one that is painfully adult in nature. Mature not in the sense of, OMG IT’S PEE PORN, but mature in the way that adult life sometimes throws challenges at you you would’ve never before imagined. Challenges that are purely emotional, that are difficult because adulthood is frequently about setting up expectations for yourself and yet sometimes, sometimes, those expectations are dashed against the rocks of reality until dead. This leads us to our first lesson, actually —
The Earliest Moments Matter
Here it’s the first five minutes, same as it might be with a film or a TV pilot. Maybe in your book it’s the first five pages. In a comic the first five panels — whatever.
Point is — you gotta get in early and make those first moments count.
Those opening moments are an opportunity to chum the waters with narrative blood — then the audience comes swimming closer, looking for bait, and that’s when you draw in the net or use a gaff hook or something-something some-other-fishing-metaphor.
What’s interesting with Firewatch is that we assume those initial story moments must be PLOT-focused, right? As in, SET UP THE PLOT PROBLEM WITH AN INCITING INCIDENT BECAUSE OH NO ROBOTS ARE GOING TO LASERBOMB THE SUPERBOWL. Firewatch on the other hand uses this opportunity not to set out a plot problem but rather, a character problem. It does not establish physical stakes, but rather, emotional stakes for one character. It lays waste to the character’s emotional interior and then that personal apocalypse launches into not the mechanics of the plot but instead, the character’s connection to and the necessity for the plot.
To translate that, when we see the character take the lonely role of “firewatch” (meaning, he lives at a firewatch station and monitors the park for forest fires), he does not do so because he has some love of parks or fire or because some Sinister Villain has driven him to this. No, the guy is just alone and fucked up and wants to be more alone and so he goes to be isolated. The decision to be where he is (and for the game to be what the game is) is not because of hammering home some plot point but because that’s where Henry wants to or needs to go.
He has a problem [emotional devastation] and his solution to that problem is to go hide from the world in the wilds of Wyoming, taking a job that requires very little of him except isolation.
(If you want further thoughts on characters and plot and how the story lies between a character’s problem and a character’s solution — my Zero Fuckery Guide to kick-ass characters.)
The trick here is that it’s not enough to simply present that emotional devastation like a cat offering a dead rat (I MADE DIS SORTA). It also does it artfully — those initial moments are a seduction. Storytelling is often an act of seduction, albeit a really twisted one where you are seduced into trusting the story just so it can throw you in a bag and drive you off a cliff. The opening moments of the game are that way. Firewatch brings you into feeling emotionally compelled as you (all done through text) form a relationship with a new person, and then it slowly sticks a knife between your ribs, gently twisting and twisting as the consequences of this relationship are revealed.
It’s not enough to just plop it on the ground.
You’ve gotta get tricky with it.
It is the act of stage magic: the art of showing you a thing, then misdirecting you, and then transubstantiating that story matter into something else entirely.
Storytelling as stage magic: revelation, misdirection, and betrayal.
Revelation — Look, my assistant is getting in this box.
Misdirection — Now I shall spin the box around and do all sorts of frippery and ritual.
Betrayal — Ha ha ha fuck you I’m cutting my assistant in half, sucker. It is both everything you expected and not what you expected and now you’re wondering how I did it or how I’ll top it.
(Or, if you like The Prestige — the pledge, the turn, the prestige.)
In storytelling, it goes like:
YOU THINK THING IS ABC123
I DO A LOT OF NARRATIVE CONTORTIONS TO MESS WITH YOUR HEAD
HA HA HA YOU FOOL IT’S REALLY 321XYZ.
Or, with my own work in particular:
LOOK AT THIS APPLE
*hides apple under a sheet*
HA HA HA IT’S REALLY A RABID FERRET BITING YOUR FACE.
To get back to Firewatch, the game makes a lot of hay with those initial moments — and it’s not your classic videogame opening where you’re under attack by an alien ship or breaking out of your cryo-cradle or whatever. This is all about building up a sand castle, then sending in a big-ass wave to wash it all way. And that leaves you with the vital question of: holy shit, what now?
“Holy Shit, What Now?”
That question is a good one, I think, in terms of driving the audience to stay with the tale at hand. There’s no great overarching lesson here other than, when in doubt and when feeling stuck, there is some value in looking at what you’ve got on the pages before you and asking how you engineer the audience asking that question:
Holy shit, what now?
You get them to ask that question by surprising them, upsetting them, or delighting them. You’ve got to betray, or reveal, or surprise. (A good example of a story that does this: Orphan Black.)
On the other hand, you can do this too much. (And occasionally, Orphan Black does that, too.) You can present a ceaseless barrage of twists and turns — having your story act like a frenetic child (LOOK AT THIS. NOW THIS. LOOK AT THIS OTHER THING. WATCH ME DANCE. WATCH ME WIGGLE. I HAVE TO POOP) gives us no time to breathe. That question of holy shit, what now is an important one — but it’s also just as important that we have time to ask it and think about it.
The Glory Of Mundane Moments
Firewatch works like this:
Henry, the aforementioned firewatch, talks to his boss Delilah on the radio.
He performs seemingly mundane tasks in service to the job.
He uses his map and compass to find and perform these tasks, which takes him through amazing visual setpieces — while he wanders, Delilah occasionally chimes in or you are given a chance to talk about a thing you see (like, say, a meadow) with Delilah.
This normalcy of the job and these interactions is broken up by a set of increasingly strange events — not X-Files strange, but strange enough where you start to feel extra alone and threatened by people or systems you can’t quite see. The core of it is: imagine you’re supposed to be alone in somewhere and you slowly realize that you’re really not.
The thing is, the game parcels these tentpole plot moments out. We aren’t pummeled with a barrage of one-after-the-other events. Instead, an event occurs to deepen and complicate the mystery, and then it’s back to the job. This is vital to build tension. The game stabs with a knife, then twists — but doesn’t keep on stabbing. It lets us bleed. It lets us heal a little, or scar over.
To flip the subject a little bit, let’s talk about another game.
This game is the game where I hide somewhere in our house and I jump-scare our four-year-old. And then he does it to me in return because he thinks it’s hilarious fun (and I suspect he’ll one day be a fan of horror movies because of this).
I understand the game.
He does not understand the game.
That okay. He’s four. Four-year-olds understand a lot more than we think, but just the same, they’re kinda all over the fucking map in terms of grokking shit. I mean, trying to zip a zipper on his sweater gives him fits, so. But here’s how he plays the game:
B-Dub hides. Sometimes effectively, sometimes not. He jumps out, BOO. I am either actually startled or I fake being startled — “Oh, ha ha, I peed a little, good job.” And then he immediately does it again. And with literally zero finesse. He will step behind the nearest corner. I will watch him step behind the nearest corner. And then five seconds later he’s jumping out again: BOO. And it’s like, dude, kid, lad, that crap won’t work a second time. You have to up the ante. You have to change the game. He either needs to fool me — trick me into thinking he’s really just stepping behind the corner while really he’s climbing into the vents like John McClane where he’s going to drop down out of the ceiling (and if my son ever comes out of the ceiling I will most certainly brown my trousers). Or — or —
He needs to give it some time.
This is the part of the game I get that he does not. I’ll scare him, and then I’ll stop. I’ll ease off. I’ll go do some other nonsense and he’ll be there waiting with a suspicious smile thinking, is it about to happen again, is he going to scare me, are we still playing the game or what. Then I’ll misdirect him — “Hey, what’s that over there?” — or I’ll simply let enough time go where he’s gotten comfortable.
Then I scare him again.
I don’t just sit there and yell at him. BOO. BOO. BOO AGAIN. BOO SOME MORE.
He needs time to giddily worry. He needs time to think about what’s coming — to anticipate it, to ponder from where I may jump out. And then he needs that time to grow comfortable, mostly certain that the game is over and I in fact will not jump out at all and scare him. At which point, I drop down out of the ceiling covered in spiders.
Firewatch knows that we need time. We need time to be tense, but also that we need time for that tension to unspool a little. The rope can’t always be tight. Sometimes it needs slack. (Want more fishing metaphor? You might catch more fish with a slack line than a tight one.) The ratchet, recoil and slack of the narrative allows us time to ponder questions, amplify our fears, play with characters, and ultimately grow comfortable in the narrative (often just in time for it to deepen our discomfort). It is an artful balancing act.
Mystery Makes Tension
This is a very simple thing, but important to understand:
As I have said before, question marks are shaped like hooks for a reason: they drag us into the narrative. But Firewatch further proves that unanswered questions create tension. At the most fundamental level this is reflected by our very human fear of the dark. The dark is the unknown. The dark is the theoretically infinite. The dark is the ultimate unanswered question. The unknown is fearful. The unknown makes us anxious.
And it doesn’t have to be anything huge, either. You go home and find your door unlocked. Or a knick-knack obviously out of place. It’s not actively sinister, and could probably be explained away by something fairly mundane — but without really knowing, your mind conjures an unholy host of options. Firewatch does this so well. Bits of trash left around. Someone watching you. Someone in your firewatch tower. The questions mount, and in classic storytelling fashion, answering one question with a half-ass-answer only offers up three more questions — the mysteries multiply like wet Gremlins.
The Power Of Skipping Ahead
Another thing I love about Firewatch — it isn’t afraid to pole-vault over its own narrative. You start off in standard day-by-day fashion, DAY ONE, DAY TWO, DAY THREE. Then next thing you know? DAY 9. DAY 15. DAY 33. DAY 64. And it’s like, whoa, what the fuck.
Skipping ahead has three big advantages, I think.
First, it cuts ahead of boring stuff. In games particularly, we expect to play out every moment. And novels sometimes dwell overlong on boring parts. Solution? Skip ahead!
Second, it creates a mystery in and of itself. A jump in time leaves us wondering now not just about what is going to happen but what has already happened.
Third, it lends us a sense of movement through time. It’s odd how that movement deepens my investment — it’s an illusion, but a functional one. While The Force Awakens is one of my most favorite cinematic experiences of recent memory, I was struck by how rushed it felt. Like the events of the story took two hours of my time in the theater and two hours of the characters’ time. Letting Rey and Finn have the Falcon in space for a full day or a week would feel more complete than having them immediately launch into space where HEY NOW THERE’S HAN and then HEY NOW THERE’S GANGS and HEY MAZ KANATA.
Firewatch doesn’t play out the missing time — but it lets us know it happened.
The One Firewatch Failure
You could say a lot of things about the narrative and about the game (and even about how the narrative is the game), but the one place where the game falls down for me is in the conclusion of its story. And here, by the way, we are venturing deep upriver to SPOILER TOWN.
WELCOME TO SPOILERS
The game does a very good job at presenting us with deepening, simple mysteries that when viewed together seem to point to a larger… something. A conspiracy. A murder. A dangerous delusion. You’ve got missing teen girls. You’ve got a missing firewatch man and his son. There’s a mysterious research station behind a fence — and god, how elegant is that fence? It’s so simple! HERE IS A FENCE IN THE WAY WHERE YOU DO NOT EXPECT A FENCE TO BE. You get so mad at that fence! Fuck that fence! What’s beyond it? NNNGH I WANNA KNOW. Someone is listening to you. There’s an unexplored cave. And then there’s the characters’ backstories — Henry and Delilah are so perfectly realized and wonderfully acted, and you realize both are incomplete people whose lives are not mysterious but are filled with mistakes. Henry in particular has a wife who is at an early age falling prey to dementia and that’s really important because it is key to his character and key to how the character deals with these mysteries.
Because he asks himself: am I the one falling prey to dementia? None of this stuff adds up. And as the characters become more paranoid about their situation, you as the player are forced to reckon with an unholy host of possibilities. Maybe there IS a conspiracy. Maybe there ISN’T and your shared paranoia with Delilah is driving you to commit terrible acts in service to an imagined attack. What about the missing kid? The teens?
But ultimately what happens is that the details all add up to a fairly soft revelation — the missing boy and his father are still in play. The boy is dead and the father never left the park and he’s kinda gone south mentally, and he’s just been fucking with you.
Which is fine. That works. But it works too easily. And you mostly figure that out by the time you get to the final act, and then you still have to get through the final act where you expect some further mystery or revelation — but mostly, everything is fine. The one twist is that we learn that Delilah lied on the radio and said that there never was any boy up there at all, which means his death is at least a little bit on her shoulders. The problem here is the order of that revelation. Learning that before you find the dead boy dampens the impact. If we instead learned it after, it would be a revelation rather than a soft unveiling.
What this leads to is a bit of a glitch in the magic trick.
Firewatch shows us the woman getting into the box.
Then it spins the box around and around and it gets out the saw.
The sawblades gleam. The woman cries out.
Then Firewatch puts the saw away and the woman gets out of the box.
Safe and unharmed, she toddles off the stage.
TA-DA, it cries. Except there isn’t much ta-da.
It’s maybe part of the point that the isolation and loneliness is not ideal for your mental state, and maybe running away from your problems just makes you invent new problems in their stead. Thematically it works, but narratively, it feels less than satisfying. It does not fulfill the promise of its premise. Okay, I guess? Neh? Meh?
That said, the game is still one of the most amazing I’ve played. It is a — well, whatever the equivalent of a “page-turner” would be in the video game sense. It’s a great mystery and has some of the sharpest writing I have ever encountered in a video game format. I adored these characters. It was worth the time and worth the money, and just wandering around the beautiful Olly Moss-inspired wilderness is its own reward. I just wish that in terms of the story, the ending had more to give us — that it allowed us some final twist, some wink, some last ta-da. There is a betrayal, but it is gentle and sad and disappointing in its dullness.
Do not let that be a counter, though, to you buying it.
Study it some more.
Figure out what it does right and what it doesn’t do as well.
Then make that work for your own stories, regardless of their form.