Spoilers for Firewatch are in this post. You've been warned.
When I was around 16, I fell in love with somebody. Harder than I thought I ever could, actually. To this day, in fact, there's a little piece of myself that's with the girl I fell for, and I doubt I'll ever get it back. I know, this is an uncomfortable way for a write-up on a video game to start. I know, that's more than a little pathetic. And, yes, I know, airing dirty laundry on the internet is a pretty shitty thing to do, which is why, for the sake of this article, I'll leave this person unnamed.
Thing is, I only really knew this girl, intimately, for a span of a little over a week. It was at a summer acting program. We became fast friends. We sort of, maybe, kind of fell in love with each other. And that love, however misguided it might have been, lasted after the program ended. It lasted until I tried to put an end to it, because I was already in a relationship at the time, and this girl lived hundreds of miles away. It could never work, especially since she was also in a relationship, and even when our feelings towards each other were at their peak, she told me to take all of the love I felt for her and to try to feel that towards the person I was with at the time. She said she'd do the same. As if it was transferable. As if that was how it worked.
That's why, at the end of Firewatch, when Delilah told Henry to forget about her, and to go love his wife as much as he could, for her, I probably felt more heartbreak than I ever have from a piece of media, let alone a video game. I felt it because I'd lived it, and, up until now, nothing else had ever captured the futility of temporary love quite the way I'd experienced it.
Firewatch is a game that everybody knows about, but barely anyone knows anything about. That's by design, too. The brunt of the game is narrative, and advertising any of the narrative beats would give it away. I'm glad I went in totally blind, with no preconceived notions as to what I was getting into. It's because of this that every tonal shift, narrative twist, and genre subversion took me by complete and utter surprise. I honestly hope that's how everyone plays it.
What also took me by complete and utter surprise was how, in the summer of 2010, a girl I'd been gawking at from a distance a day or two earlier was now hanging out with me. Like, of her own volition. She was gorgeous. Tall and thin, with striking facial features and a rich shade of brown in her hair, not to mention an impeccable fashion sense and the most disarming, vibrant smile. The kind of person that you see and immediately think, "nope, not in a million years, not me." And yet, here she was. Talking to me. Laughing with me. Laughing at things I was saying. It felt too unreal, but also like a completely natural series of exchanges. Was I dreaming? Probably.
But no. I wasn't. This girl wanted to be around me, for reasons that I still can't entirely figure out. We started hanging out all the time, first with other people, and quickly with just each other, even waking up early, before the day started, just to spend time talking. By the end of the program, people were joking that we were a cute couple. But still, I was suspicious. Did she just look at me and pity me? Pity the relationship I was always complaining about? Or was there something else? Was there something about me that she actually saw and thought there was potential in? Again, I'm not entirely sure.
These kinds of questions are one I'd also ask about the character of Delilah in Firewatch. Henry, the stubby, bearded protagonist, only knows her over the course of one summer. And by "knows," I mean "they talk on a radio." Both are fire watchers stationed in different towers. Players never actually get to meet Delilah, partially because faces in the Unity engine look real shitty, partially because that's the way the developers wanted it.
See, Delilah and Henry form a pretty tight-knit relationship over the course of the game. They trade jokes. They uncover mysteries. They have phone sex. In most games, and in most Hollywood movies, the two of them would meet up at the end of the game, throw away their current lives, and run off with each other. The audience would be left to think this is a happily ever after, and that would be that. Thing is, though, that both characters are too fundamentally flawed for that to end in anything but tragedy.
Henry is running away from his wife, who he still clearly loves, but has come to resent thanks to her early onset dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Delilah is running from past regrets and struggling with alcoholism, as well as most likely being a pathological liar. Delilah is prone to manipulating people, and Henry is easily manipulated. Both are very much like most real people: flawed, broken and filled with regret. But their individual struggles and internal problems are incompatible with each other. Henry clearly won't forgive himself for abandoning his wife. Delilah seems very set in her ways of routinely cheating on her longtime partner. Their relationship would be a disaster.
As would the one between myself and the girl I fell for, in all likelihood. The more I got to know her, the more I realized we were two fundamentally different people, and not necessarily in the way that we could complement each other. Her strong religious predispositions against my steadfast agnosticism (which, back then, was really obnoxiously self-righteous atheism fueled by people like Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins.) My willingness to try and solve life problems with conversation versus her willingness to ignore shit going wrong and try to stay positive. She wanted to wait until we were adults and hope we'd run into each other again (she directly referenced Serendipity,) while I wanted to work together to make that happen. I was direct, she was passive. She had faith, I had internally generated and often misguided self-determination.
Neither of us, however, were really in the right. At the end of the day, we both were in relationships, came from entirely different backgrounds, and had our lives going in two different directions. We may have both said we loved each other, but I like to think there was a mutual understanding, as our long-distance pseudo-relationship went on behind the backs of our partners, that this would simply never work out. But even after our respective relationships ended, we both jumped into things with other people instead of first asking each other if we wanted to try and make something happen. Maybe we were both just too scared. I know I was.
That's why, even though I've been in a relationship for over 3.5 years at this point, with a beautiful, charming, and talented woman who I feel lucky every day of my life to be with, I had nagging doubts and regrets during a lot of that time. What if I'd chosen the other girl? What if we could have been happy? What if we could have worked out our differences? What if I could have saved her from some of the terrifyingly self-destructive behavior I had to watch her engage in from afar? What if she could have saved me and helped me through the personal grief I had from being in a series of abusive friendships throughout high school?
I believe that the answer lies in the ending to Firewatch.
Henry becomes gradually convinced that things between Delilah and himself can work out. That they can run away together and be happy in Colorado together. But no matter how hard the player works, through dialogue choices, to make that happen, the ending will always be the same. A fire starts tearing down the forest you've called home for a whole summer. Both characters have to leave. And even if Henry asks Delilah to wait for him, she'll simply lie and let the disappointment sink in as Henry finally approaches her watch tower to find it empty.
I did, in fact, ask her to stay. I wanted to see things between the two characters work out. Part of me, in my heart, believed that things could happen between them. And then, as the game started to wrap up, I realized that I was wrong. I was putting myself in Henry's shoes too much. Because, as Delilah helps Henry realize, their relationship could never be anything more than what it was. A brief, fleeting moment in their disorganized, messy lives. An escape from the chaos of the outside world. That was the function that they served to each other. It was a singular event, them meeting and changing the direction of each others' lives, and one that couldn't be sustained indefinitely.
It was this that finally made me realize what my brain had been trying to parse for all these years. The relationship between this girl and myself was never going to last, thanks to the very nature of it. We lived in two different states, knew barely anything about each other, and fell for those versions of each other. We could pick and choose what details we shared. We could entertain notions of longevity without ever following through with them. If anything, the girl was the smarter of the two of us. She probably knew this all along, and thus, her "let the chips fall where they may" approach was more sensible than my "let's uproot our lives for each other." Our lives were on a diagonal collision course towards each other. They intersected in a major way, but after that, they would keep drifting further and further apart. My desperate attempts to hold onto what we had in that span of a few fleeting days were, in the end, only prolonging my own suffering.
And that was suffering that I prolonged for years. In fact, I still feel raw about it. Because, much like Henry and Delilah, I believe, in my heart, that most romanticized of vital organs, that what we felt for each other was authentic and genuine. It was love. It had to be, right? And Hollywood tells us that ultimately, love conquers all.
But Hollywood lies. Love doesn't conquer all. That's a myth. It would be truer to say that "love and common sense work in tandem to guide us towards a greater truth." So the love I felt for this girl told me that it would work out, but if I'd listened to my brain sooner, I'd have realized that I should have just appreciated what we had and left it at that. Now, I can look back on the feelings we shared a little easier. I love the fact that we did find, however briefly, something beautiful in each other and fell in love with that. The fact that we at least had something like that, something that some people spend their whole lives convincing themselves that they can't find, is beautiful in and of itself. And the best thing that both of us can do, in the long run, is to remember that love exists. If we ever fall on hard times, we can remember each other, and that can give us hope to keep going.
Love is real, and it can be found.
I've found it again, too. I see it whenever I look into the eyes of my girlfriend. I see everything and feel everything right with the world when I hear her voice, when I hold her hand, when I hear her snore at night (it's pretty cute.) I finally understand what that girl was trying to tell me, all that time, but I was too bullheaded to try and wrap my head around. Now, I look back on her, and feel nothing but gratitude. We both did and said some fucked-up things to each other, but none them truly take away from the greater truth we learned from each other. Well. She'd already learned it, apparently, so it was just me.
And it took me playing a fucking video game to actually get it.