The Sound of Silence
The Sound of Silence
In the summer of 1845, Henry David Thoreau moved into a cabin in the woods that he built at Walden Pond. His intent was to see if he could survive living a plain, simple life in radically reduced conditions. Thoreau was interested in truth and always questioned tradition. While conducting his experiment, he wrote Walden, one of the most celebrated pieces of naturalist literature to this day.
Walden is a text which presents the notion that to live a simple life, one must live by simple means; that society creates its own problems due to wanting more than is necessary and creating foolish stress in the process. Since publication, not only has the book been highly regarded but has spawned completely new genres of fiction such as travel fiction and adventure fiction. These genres usually present a form of the getting away from society narrative which presents nature as a form of healthy isolation and solitude in order to find meaning. Authors such as Jack Kerouac and Jack London, and even non-fiction authors such as Neil Postman, all share ties to Thoreau’s work.
Thoreau’s influence also carried over to Chris McCandless, a man who tried to live a life of simplicity without adhering to material goods or societal norms. Chris left his entire life behind him and carried Walden with him on his travels. Unfortunately, while living in an abandoned bus in Alaska, Chris died after eating poisonous berries. His travels were later documented by Jon Krakauer in the book, Into the Wild.
It would be remiss to ignore Walden’s influence on a game like Firewatch which includes a character fleeing to the wilderness to escape the trials of his life and replacing said trials with a tower overlooking the mountains of Wyoming in complete isolation. Besides sharing a name with Thoreau (I seriously wonder if this is on purpose or not), our protagonist flees to a life of seeming simplicity. But that is where the similarities between Walden and Firewatch converge.
Henry does not retreat to the wilderness is hopes of enlightenment or to live a life of simplicity. He is not in search of truth or interested in anything philosophical as far as the player can tell. Instead, he is escaping from his problems. While this intention is somewhat shared with Thoreau, Thoreau’s motivations stem from a blatant defiance of society and government. Henry is not making a stand against anything. Yes he is fleeing just the same but he is avoiding doing the right thing and instead taking the easy route. Both take root in naturalist storytelling techniques though come to different conclusions.
What is so unique to naturalist narratives is the vibrant prescience of silence. Away from the loudness of the city and technology, silence can be a form of healing. It allows one to contemplate their own thoughts and have a less demanding role in society. This philosophy is very present in the indie film subgenre, Mumblecore. Youtuber Satchell Drakes mentions in his video “Firewatch Belongs to Me”, the Mumblecore genre. He doesn’t particularly attach it to Firewatch but uses it to talk about defining and labeling a genre. But the game does share some traits with the subgenre. Characterized by naturalistic acting and dialogue, it often includes low-budget film production, an emphasis on dialogue over plot, and a focus on the personal relationships of people in their 20s and 30s. Firewatch sits very comfortably in this bubble.
The game is rooted in naturalism, not just in terms of the environment but in the dialogue. The way Henry and Delilah interact with one another is extremely natural to the point that during game development, actors Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones were kept from meeting each other for as long as possible, recording their dialogue in their own home recording studios via Skype.
Firewatch is also low-budget and although it does not focus on characters within their 20s and 30s, it still has a focus on personal relationships.
Like Thoreau and Mumblecore, Firewatch is far more interested in the idea of the quiet and being with nature. The game does not rush or demand anything of the player but to simply be of the space. Henry must experience isolation, something that at once can be both terrifying and calming, and must take some sort of responsibility caring for the woods in a way he can’t care for Julia (and spoilers, he doesn’t take good care of either). The same can be said of Ned who could not care for Brian. This subtle way of telling a story is more interested in a simpler approach, focusing on characters and their interactions in order to carry the narrative.
Character interaction is the key to this game. The conversations between Henry and Delilah are the core of the gameplay and the narrative, focused on organic dialogue instead of a forced plot. As Ned’s story is slowly unfolded and the controlled burn slowly gets out of control, Henry is confronted by nature to do something. All of this occurs without a gun, or any sort of weapon, but conversation.
Firewatch’s quiet and naturalistic approach to the story and gameplay are in direct opposition to video games as we know them. Video games typically involve violence, loud explosions, and high maintenance action scenes. Several games, even when story focused, are concerned with shallow showy mechanics. They’d rather grab the player’s attention instead of tackling what is hard. This is due to the idea that video games are escapism and can be nothing more.
To be blunt, video games are loud. Our lives are loud. On a personal level, I find that in my life I can rarely find a place of peace and quiet... which is why I usually retreat to the library. Either someone is watching TV and the noise drifts upstairs or our phones are ringing or an ad is shouting at max volume on our computer speakers. Everything is fighting for our attention. It is rare that we get a game that exists quietly in a field dominated by noise.
Melissa Kagen, in her essay “Walking, Talking and Playing with Masculinities in Firewatch”, talks about Firewatch directly avoiding what has been done before and thus recontextualizes it, often in ways that are much more subtle, quiet, and thought provoking. She writes, “Ned belongs in a conspiratorial spy-themed puzzle game, with all the traps and eavesdropping missions he manages. Alternately, Brian would fit into a platformer involving running, jumping, and finding caves (maybe as save points). His death [in] the cave is a chilling analogue of the million unimportant deaths that protagonists of these games experience, here made tragic by context.”
Stories in games carry a lot of potential to have meaningful dialogue about certain topics, and I do not mean dialogue between characters but rather dialogue that occurs because of the presentation of a video game. Art can be a form of coping and coming to terms with difficult situations. More often than not, games are prescribed as forms of escapism from real life...sound familiar? Players escape to games to avoid the stress of life itself. Firewatch does not pretend that it is also a form of escapism, prescribing on screen nature instead of actually going outside. Rather, it is multifaceted - escapism that pulls us deeper into understanding ourselves and the world around us. After all, that is what great stories do.
Firewatch is an example of a quiet video game. It is a more “psychological product that taps into the atmosphere and wonder of loneliness rather than looking for simpler thrills the medium usually provides,” says David Sims. Henry escapes into the woods for solitude. What we end up with is a game not just quiet in story but in its very atmosphere. The game desires to be challenging not just in gameplay but in our very understanding of what game narratives can look like. Henry doesn’t have to fear a bear mauling him to death or being crushed by a falling rock or falling off a cliff. The game is more concerned with Henry’s humanity.
In the tradition of Thoreau, Firewatch deliberately immerses itself in the natural. In its environmental aesthetic and its focus on conversation to tell the story, it allows us to see video games in a brand new way than once allowed and challenges the medium to grow, just as Henry grows by the end of the narrative.