Jude Baril-Bédard is an Communications undergraduate student at Concordia University. Her research focuses on symbolic and ideological analysis of media; the technological sublime; Canada’s cultural industry policies; and critical futurism. She is a coordinator of an undergraduate interdisciplinary research-creation collective called the Milieux Undergraduate Group (MUG).
Firewatch is a narrative first-person game released in 2016 by indie studio Campo Santo. In this game, the player embodies Henry, a middle-aged man spending the summer of 1989 working as a fire lookout in the Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming. Studying Firewatch provides insight into the relationship between environment design and narrative experiences, since the latter is supported or emphasized by the former. Gameplay restricts players’ movement to a mountaintop, where they walk between trees and on top of rocky formations. I will unpack my shifting emotional response to the environment as I explored it. I felt the initial novelty and the awe induced by its technical prowess quickly subsided, creating in me a spectrum of affects. As the overarching narratives imposed themselves and interfaced with my reception of the game, they colored my reading, shining a new light on my surroundings.
Playing a video game constitutes a lived experience, in that the medium’s reception is not a passive process, but rather requires a conscious act of agency on the part of the player. In Firewatch, players determine the minutiae of the experience through the choices they make, the paths they walk on, the items they gather or trash, etc. This experience parallels De Certeau’s description of walking in the city as a form of rhetoric: “Like ordinary language, this art [of composing a path] implies and combines styles and uses” (100). Walking, much like speaking, emerges at the intersection of a set of shared rules, norms, and personal style — that is “an individual’s way of being in the world” (Ibid). The interactive experience of video games is similar, insofar as players’ singularities will color their ways of being in the game, and so will their understanding of the codes and symbols contained or referred to in the game world. This tension between determination and passivity is uniquely important in Firewatch, where tragic backstories contrast with the juvenile freedom afforded by the vast, unoccupied spaces of the mountain – a scout sandbox syncopated by dramatic character exposition.
Throughout the game, my perception of the environment is transformed, explicitly through my experience of the game narrative, and implicitly through layers of metaphorical maps “floating” on top of the mountain. The simple act of repeatedly walking on the mountain paths changes my perception of them over time. Their emptiness and their uncanniness, partly due to the absence of woodland critters, confronts me as I walk the distance between points of interest, and appears more present as the game advances. My initial awe before Campo Santo’s digital nature gradually subsides, making room for the feelings brought forth by the unfolding story. In part, the mystery driving many of the game’s tasks seeps the calm setting in a menacing aura, as Henry feels followed and threatened by the presence of other humans on the mountain. Also, Henry’s latent emotional confusion, which he tries to escape by taking on this lonesome lookout job, is referred to consistently in the walkie-talkie dialog with neighbouring lookout Delilah. Feelings of powerlessness and of vague worry imposed themselves, and I felt as if the environment reflected my state of mind: the forest became dull at times, and scary at others.
Another way my interpretation of environment was influenced is via my interaction with the visual and semantic maps of “Two Forks.” Following de Certeau’s theories of spatial locations in relation to experience in The Practices of Everyday Life, I can denote different maps looming over the digital spaces, or encysted in them. Far from being merely utilitarian objects, maps consist of a rich collection of concepts, memories, or myths, linked in delicate interplay, and profoundly affecting storytelling. The first of these maps is granted to the player by the developers: a folded paper map of the mountain, which can be accessed through the inventory menu, displaying the official locations’ names. These names invoke diegetic historical remnants of a fargone past, a time when explorers semantically anchored — named — the otherwise unremarkable natural spaces: your garden variety forests, lakes, and rocks. In effect, this embeds the locations into a taxonomical network that can then be referenced, allowing the physical locations — through displacement from material to conceptual — to be claimed, known, and shared. De Certeau compares this detached toponymy to constellations: proper location names, like stars, guide the walkers to and fro between their destinations (104).
Through the passing of time, these imposed names end up being uprooted from their original signifiers: the reason for these names’ association with these places gradually fades. The names are emptied of their original signifiers, and are then ready to be filled anew: they become re-defined by the locations associated with them (de Certeau 105). Firewatch players cannot know who was Jonesy, whom lent his name to the biggest mountaintop lake. This semantic gymnastics demonstrates the fluidity of meaning and its inevitable multiplicity. There is a disconnect between taxonomy and places, and, simultaneously, a dependence. Without memories and past experiences of a place, its proper name is often completely without resonance. However, meaning is bilateral, since a location without a name is undifferentiated or anonymous. Furthermore, words can but fall short of representing the realities with which they are associated: looking at the locations’ names printed on a map merely points to the locations’ immediate absence, approximating their existence. Spatial theorist Bruno argues that walking is not only a physical itinerary, but also a mental one: “the journey through the space of imagination, the site of memory, and the topography of affects” (24). Experiences and places come to define and be defined by the constellation of names floating over them. There is then an inevitable enmeshing of the self with its environment, for locations exist both inside and outside ourselves. For example, walking at the bottom of “Thunder Canyon” feels different than standing in “Wapiti Meadow,” because of the weight of these words.
As I progress in Firewatch, the otherwise generic paper map gets personalized and modified threefold, blending perceived environment with (inter)subjective layers of abstractions. First, the map is annotated by Henry, autonomously from me, as I control him and as we experience new locations; here he re-names them, and there he adds sketches of the objects we encountered. The annotated map reflects and codifies our experiences and observations, transfiguring our perception of the environment to conceptual information in a way parallel the historical initial creation of this map. As Henry adds information, the map embodies, or materializes, mementos. It reads like a biography of sorts, mirroring our memories — bilaterally again, we fill the map, but the map, and its corresponding locations, also fills us. Furthermore, Henry and I ‘scatter ourselves,’ so to speak, leaving trails of past ‘beings.’ By walking back and forth on the mountain, we encounter our ‘past selves’ (de Certeau 107-108). This experience, facilitated by the limits of the game world, transfigures the way we look at the environment. Its emptiness becomes filled with memories.
Secondly, the map is also little-by-little enhanced by routes, traced in red between key locations. Throughout the game, we encounter caches scattered across the mountain in which we finds miscellaneous objects, scribbled notes, and annotated maps left behind by previous fire lookouts. These outlined paths allow me to move around the mountain with greater efficiency, giving me a greater grasp on the previously unknown landscape. With this newly acquired knowledge, I feel more in control, as I get more intimate, in a way, with the mountain, and know its secret routes. The paths become superimposed not only on the map but also on the experience of the environment, as the exploration of the mountain becomes less random and more directed. Conversely, it robs me from my initial scout-like feeling of taming ‘the wild,’ since Henry and myself are but walking on the footsteps of past lookouts; we are but two of the many people who have walked these routes. I feel bittersweet — part sense of connectedness, part feeling of relative insignificance — both of which reinforce the locations’ diegetic and intersubjective depth as I walk through them. Lacan would call this mixed feeling the shadow of death, cast by the screen: “everything I see is orchestrated with a cultural production of seeing that exists independently of my life and outside of it: my individual discoveries […] come to unfold in terms not of my making, and indifferent to my mortality” (qtd. in Bryson 92). There is an underlying anxiety residing in the realization of our own finitude, and that the spectacle we thought was designed for us to witness — here Firewatch’s mountaintop — exists independently from us. This anxiety cuts deep in Firewatch, in which I interpreted Henry’s self-afforded exile to Shoshone National Forest as a longing for respite from inevitable tragedies, in particular his wife’s loss against dementia.
Finally, on a lighter note, the third transformation of the map is through Brian’s fantasy handmade map, which we find in the boy’s hideaway. Brian is a key character, the deceased young son of the lookout who preceded Henry. During his time at the mountain, the boy created an imaginary taxonomy, borrowing from an in-game Dungeons and Dragons-like universe called Wizards and Wyverns, to describe and encrypt his own perception of the mountain: a rocky road becomes the “Doom Canyon,” the lookout tower becomes the “Two Orc’s Lair,” and so on. Henry writes down some of these names on our map, bringing forth a mystique to the mountain. These fantastic annotations suggest radically different interpretations of the environment, while also underlining that some key areas remain, until the end of the game, without diegetic explanation. For example, a circle of heavy-looking rocks found in a valley remains unexplained; its rumour, or official narrative, is untold. Brian, however, names it the “magic circle,” and in a sense transforms this place into his playground, giving it a new meaning, or a story, according to De Certeau (107). The place is personalized, created even since it is afforded a name to contain itself. Because it is officially anonymous, this place’s rumour is conceptually inaccessible, leaving room for subjective stories to get anchored (108). This imaginative renaming of locations on the mountain serve to underline that not only can there be many definitions and meanings surrounding and attached to places, but that none are in fact more important than the others. While some stories and rumours are shared through inter-subjectivities, no one can know all of the meanings created from and attached to a place. This happens both on a diegetic level — in-game narrative-wise — and on a extratextual level — where playthroughs differ from player to player. There is no certainty, only ambivalence, in environment narrative. Furthermore, my experience and interpretation of Firewatch is contextual to my emotional state and my background: I am as much a part of creating a narrative as are the environment that elicits them.
Tactics and Tragedy
De Certeau, referencing Foucault, dubs the stylistical decisions of the walker in the city as tactics. Through tactics, they operate a form of agency in the city environment that they have no control over, designed by all-powerful architects (95). We can parallel the rigid city’s infrastructure with Firewatch’s unilinear narrative arc, which inevitably ends on the day that a raging wildfire condemns the mountain. Tactics can be paralleled by the small choices I can make through the game, which, while they do not affect the overarching plot, make me feel in control and feel embodied in the game. I can, for example, decide to clean the empty beer cans littering a campsite left by some camping teens, or to wear a hat found in a cache, both of which have no in-game output. The game even explicitly sets up these kind of personal interactions, when it allows me to name a turtle I find lazing on a rock, inviting me to take it back to my lookout tower. This underlines how meaning is created by relating things to oneself: this turtle, while it resembles every turtle, was mine. Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince famously stated: “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important” (Chapter 21). These decisions are both banal and paramount: unique to the interactive medium, they facilitate immersion through personalization. The moments they happen make me realize how active I really am in producing Firewatch’s narrative, how my experience is created by and through me as I interface with the game.
However, and much like Foucault argues, these small decisions also serve to remind me of my limitations in this carefully-crafted environment, underlining the areas in which I lack power (de Certeau 96). I am subjected to the whims of the game creators, and can only make choices that have been designed into the game. I cannot, for example, walk about the mountain as I may, as invisible walls fence me to predetermined paths. I was abruptly reminded of the limit of my agency when I was exercising it. During the first night, I walked to the bottom of the mountain to put out a campfire lit by two teens. They were swimming in a lake nearby to the beat of a boombox, blaring eighties synthpop. Being a fan of the genre, I unceremoniously stole their boombox and set out to bring it back to my lookout tower, delighted to have a soundtrack to explore the mountain to. The morning after, however, since the game designers did not foresee my specific ambition of appropriating the boombox, it had disappeared, to my dismay. De Certeau mentions this tension between freedom and constraints: “[walking in spaces] is neither foreign to them (it can take place only within them) nor in conformity with them (it does not receive its identity from them). It creates shadows and ambiguities within them.”(101).
All in all, the multiple layers of this game really made me think of my personal relation and interpretation of my own environment. Surely, another person analyzing the same game won’t read it in the same way: different details would appear more important, calling forth other emotions. Perception is never innocent nor free: I experience reality through screens of my own cultural background, my gender, my ethnicity, or my socioeconomic status. My analysis, shared through the imperfect medium of words, can also be interpreted. The main takeaway of my reflection could be the ultimate absence of truth in interpretation, as a consequence of individualities, and of metonymic associations summoned by every symbol. This unique interaction with narrative environments and the latitude in personalization they allow make of video games a prime medium to create emotionally potent narratives, which spectrum of affects are felt deeper to me through the interpellation and identification that comes with agency.
Bruno, Giuliana. “Visual Studies: Four Takes on Spatial Turns.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 65.1 (2006): 23-24. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web.
Bryson, Norman. “The Gaze in the Expanded Field.” Vision and Visuality. Ed. Hal Foster. Seattle: Bay, 1988. 86-108. Print.
De Certeau, Michel, and Steven Rendall. “Walking in the City.” The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: U of California, 1984. 91-110. Print.
De Saint-Exupéry, Antoine. “Chapter 21.” The Little Prince. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. The Little Prince by Antione [sic] De Saint-Exupery. Web. 16 Apr. 2016.
Firewatch. Version 1. Campo Santo. 9 Feb. 2016. Video game.