Video games can be great and important works, but not all of them are. Games For Adults is Playboy.com’s regular column highlighting the ones that can make you think about more than hit points and head shots.
Fumes of wood smoke coax me into sweet delusion. For a moment I forget myself. But the smog is no idle daydream: the forest is burning around me. I hear screams on the radio, urging me to evacuate—gather my things and run north. Rifling through the books and notes around me, I pause on a ring. My wedding ring.
I left it on the floor months ago. Pining for a new relationship in the hinterlands of my broken marriage, I took it off and never put it back on. Now, with flames encroaching, the ring stops me. It reminds me of the tension between who I should be and who I really am.
Firewatch, an adventure game released today, is about these choices. It’s about the symbolic gestures that form the bedrock of the way we perform relationships. Being a good husband or a good partner, Firewatch says, isn’t simple.
THE GOOD HUSBAND
In Firewatch, I am Henry. I’m a middle-aged, somewhat out of shape alcoholic. I met my wife, quite appropriately, at a bar. She was a professor at university. I’m still not sure what she saw in me, but we were together for almost ten years. We bought a house together, got ourselves a puppy—and we fought.
She had dementia. Alzheimer’s actually—in her 30s.
I tried to be there, and I tried to be the “good husband.” Caring for her, standing with her, helping her find new ways to keep going. But there’s only so much a person can take. At this age, I wasn’t prepared to spend the rest of my life taking care of her. I loved her, but I needed support. I needed a life of my own.
A few nights a week I’d slip out of the house. I’d make my way to a dive and taste freedom in peanuts and the head of a watered-down brew. Until one night, I got caught. A cop pulled me over and I blew a point one.
Her parents were furious. They came to the states to take her back home. Back to Melbourne. Nothing left, no one to live for, no one to take care of—I took a job as a fire watch. A lookout in the middle of Nowhere, Wyoming.
And that’s where I met Delilah.
Witty and charming with a handsome voice, Delilah was my guide. She was the voice on the radio, the only person for miles, the only one I had any connection with any longer.
She kept me company when I surveyed the land, spouting corny one-liners and strings of terrible puns. But there was a liberation in her tone, an inviting serenity that pleaded me to forget the knotty past I left behind.
I’d climb and search, discovering remarkable beauty in the trees and the mountains as well as relics from past park visitors. All the while she was there, talking, chatting and flirting.
We never met face-to-face. She was insistent that I stay in, or at least close to, my watch tower. That was, after all, our only job. “Not to stop fires,” she said, but, “to be here when they happen.” She’d been at this for 13 years, and while she was as enamored with me as I her, she wasn’t ready to let a crush muck with her record.
“Easy enough,” I thought. “I can wait.”
The summer wore on and our relationship continued to grow. She’d wake me up with cute jokes and we’d talk each other to sleep every night. She told me about how she came to the job, which piece of her past she was trying to forget in the aspens and the pines. How she’d leave a bottle of tequila in the river on a hot summer day so she could make cold margaritas at sundown. She’d never talked to anyone like this, in this way, she said. She asked me to describe myself—my physique, my beard, and my eyes—so she could draw me.
In August, a fire started. She let me name it—I called it the Flapjack fire, so-named for an inside joke from a month ago. Instead of the sun, we just watched the fire burn and twist its way through the mountains. It was under control for a while. The rangers and firefighters kept setting up burn lines to steer it away from towns or watchtowers. But it kept growing.
A few days later, Delilah told me we’d need to evacuate soon. The air already thick with soot and dust, I stood outside to watch the monster.
I, which is to say the real, non-Henry me, started to reflect on my own past in these foreboding scenes.
My family’s always been a bit of sore spot for me. I love them deeply, but most, if not all of them are sick. My mother with lupus, my grandmother and my auntie with cancer. Everyone has something. By my senior year of high school, I’d buried more than most see in their lives. Oklahoma, my home, became a source of constant stress. Worried about getting the next grim call, or hearing that someone else had tested positive for something else—it was too much.
So I moved one thousand miles away.
Here, I’ve carved out my own life, my own chosen family, free from the anxiety and weight of taking care of people all the time. I found my freedom in late night walks along the Mississippi, in new friendships and new lovers as far away from my home as I could be.
I don’t visit often. It’s been almost two years since I last touched down in Oklahoma City. And they know. They know I ran away. They know that I’m doggedly clinging to anywhere else. But they don’t know why. And I doubt I could bring myself to tell them.
Life is messy and sordid. More often than not, we know what we should do. We know who we should be. But that’s not the whole story. The reality is that Henry, like I myself, couldn’t do what he was supposed to. There comes a point when to uphold a nebulous façade of perfection, we have to give up a big piece of us. And eventually there’s no room left for you to grow.
I stared at the ring, still on the oaken floor of my watchtower. With a sigh, I left it to burn with the rest of the forest.
Delilah said that her evac chopper had touched down and that she was leaving. I begged her to stay, to wait a few more minutes so we could leave together. Reluctantly, she agreed.
Tearing through the woods, across streams and over the many cliffs between my watch and the rendezvous point, I thought about the chats we’d had over the summer. This canyon was where we’d made a half-dozen jokes about lightning. This pond was where we were alone together in silence as we thought about the moon and the stars. I couldn’t help but think of what exciting future we could make together.
But, when I reached the clearing next to her tower, she’d already gone. I found the picture she drew from the description I gave her. I found notes about me that she’d scribbled all over—and the half-empty bottle of tequila from a few nights ago. But she was gone.
Left there with the sum of my choices—to leave the enduring symbol of my marriage to burn in a wild fire, and the choice to invest in someone that wasn’t willing to wait like I was—I could finally see the whole of it all.
I could see my selfishness and my fragility. My desperation and my myopathy. I could see who I was, who I wished I could be, and who I am at once.
And Firewatch presented this without criticism. There’s no scathing critique of me. There’s nothing pointing any fingers telling me that I’m awful, nor any that absolve me. It’s just there to hold up a mirror and reflect on what I’ve done. It offers sympathy and empathy, telling me that what I did, both as Henry and as myself, makes sense.
I don’t have any clear answers. I don’t know what going back to my wife without the ring would mean to her parents. I don’t know what will happen if I told my family that I left them because I couldn’t stop crying, while they lived. But at least now I can see it all.
Dan Starkey is an American Indian game critic based in the Twin Cities.
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