“you don’t know how it is!”


No one told me the premise of Firewatch.

(Spoilers below.)


It’s that your character’s wife gets early-onset dementia.

The most poignant moment of the game isn’t mandatory. It comes if you choose the “is this real?!” option, when freaking out down by Cottonwood Creek as the crazy shit starts getting crazier. At the time I just picked the option to get anything out on the table (thinking I’d be able to go through the other two later) but as soon as I heard the character, Henry, verbalize it my heart turned over. I knew exactly where he was going with it. “Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe I’m getting sick. Like Julia,” he whimpers. On the other end of the radio call, Delilah’s voice cracks, too, trying to console him, but he can’t be dissuaded. “Maybe our house is on some kind of…nuclear thing, and…and this is what it does to us.” Delilah eventually calms you down but still. Him dreading that the same thing is happening to him while at the same time, even in that damning circumstance, seeking some kind of explanation…


Because, then, of the huge weight the premise had for me, other than the fear of jump scares (there was only one but I shrieked, let me tell you) the intended oomph of the game fell flat for me, in the face of the prologue and the circumstances surrounding Julia. Yes it’s a shame about Ned and his son but. At least cowardice makes sense. At least cowardice has a context. History is full of fathers who fail at fathering their sons. How many parents completely forget their children? How many wives have their husbands obliterated from memory? How many people have to watch that?

The narrative chastisement of Henry makes no sense to me, either. “You don’t know how it is!” I had him angrily snap at Delilah over the phone at the end, meaning every word of it. Because who is she to judge him for fleeing to the forest in the face of his wife’s forgetting him? “Oh, har har, just bring that typewriter of yours and write a novel about it!” Are you out of your fucking mind? You don’t sit in the sterilized room of someone with dementia and write a goddamn novel about them. You hold their hands and say bright shiny things and none of it registers and then you go into the bathroom that smells like a hospital and cry. That is what you fucking do. You don’t write a fucking bedside novel.

Anyway. Obviously Ned’s judging Delilah for drinking was BS, but we are absolved from having to care what Ned thinks. But for the whole narrative arc’s point to be pushing Henry “back” to his wife is naive at best and waspishly short-sighted and tortuously vindictive at worst. I suspect, too, that had I chosen the “come hang with me in Boulder!” option, Delilah herself would upbraid you for it. Which again, what the hell. I know a guy whose wife lost it decades ago and has to now live in a psych ward. He takes care of her and everything, but he did remarry. His son disowned him for it.

Kids, you cannot do that.

You cannot hold people to a lifetime of that sorrow. You can’t. You cannot demand  your parents sacrifice any chance of future happiness on the pyre of their ruined relationship. You just can’t! It was my father who told me that story and I was loud and clear on this point. That the boy was wrong to have done what he did. And that’s as close as I’d come to saying I wouldn’t do the same to him. Can we please not start a cultural go-down-with-your-ship narrative re: dementia? Please?

Because see the screenshot up there? That “you think?” Fuck that. I’m going to stop you right there, Firewatch, with your deleterious and damaging insinuation. She’s going. It doesn’t matter what he does. She is fucking going and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, he can do to stop it. How dare you plant and nurture a seed of doubt in the mind of any player on that point. If only I’d done this or that more often or better, maybe she would have… No. It isn’t seeing her less that makes her forget you more and more, goddammit. It’s the disease. You are powerless against it. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, from a high-horse video game to your head-in-the-clouds in-laws who actually tell you that more sauerkraut (!) would have staved off the disease. Don’t even start with that shit. Don’t nod righteously when Henry’s friends quietly judge him for putting his wife in a home. Imagine your spouse, and imagine them shitting themselves day after day, getting angry with you for trying to clean them, trying to bathe them, to help, to do any little thing. How long, O Righteous Players, would you last? How good would you even be at caretaking? If you aren’t trained in it, spoilers, you’d probably suck. So who are you to judge? Who are you to craft a narrative that judges?

And finally, for the record, Etta James singing I’d Rather Go Blind as the credits rolled was just cruel. Because Henry tried to close his eyes to it, to the loss, just for a minute, by going out into the wilderness, and you didn’t even let him do that.

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