Bad Hands in Firewatch


We’ve started playing Firewatch over the last few days. It’s one of the two games that got us off the fence and buying a PS4 (the other being The Witness). Full disclosure: we’ve only finished the first day and are kind of flailing around in the second, so this quick impression is based on not a great deal of the game, but it seems like a pretty fundamental element: the protagonist, Henry, is a massive asshole when it comes to picking things up and putting them down.

In short, you can pick objects up in the game: a typewriter, books, bras, photographs of your sick wife, pinecones, and so on. Once you’ve picked them up you can examine them, and then inevitably you need to put them down again. But it turns out that “putting something down” means throwing it listlessly in front of you – not so powerful as to be an aggressive throwing into the distance, more just kind of a lacklustre drop with a slight forward motion to it. It’s infuriating to experience because, I don’t know about you, but when I pick something up and then put it down, I don’t put it down by just tossing it on the ground.

There have been so many bad experiences with this simple aspect of the game that it has pushed us away from playing more. One memorable example is the typewriter. On the first night you find your typewriter has been thrown out of your watchtower, so you pick it up to take it back in. It’s a dramatic scene, with your personal space having been invaded and disrupted. Our natural inclination was to put the typewriter back where it belonged on the desk, restoring some small sense of normalcy – cue the avatar tossing the typewriter on the ground. So we pick it up and try again… back on the ground. And again, aiming high… the typewriter hits the window and bounces onto the desk upside down. That will have to do.

The absolute worst instance so far has been picking up a photograph of Henry with his wife (who is a key element of the narrative setup and, I assume, the rest of the game) – which is to say it’s an emotionally charged object. So you pick it up to look at this woman who you love but are tortured about – good dramatic moment. Then you try to put it down and… you throw it carelessly on the floor. We did this over and over trying not to be so callous. Eventually by doing some pixel-perfect aligning we managed to get a contextual message saying “put back photograph” (instead of “drop photograph”)! Imagine our delight at this, so we push the button and… the hero tosses it on the ground again.

It’s hard to express how upsetting this experience is. It’s a kind of “uncanny valley” except for normal human behaviour. Most videogame protagonists are psychopaths one way or another, and so when they do thoughtless bullshit you don’t really notice. But Firewatch is attempting to represent an actual human being with feelings, a voice, preoccupations, a life outside the game mechanics, etc. So when that person, who you’re trying to believe in, is such a dick with the objects around him, it’s a real killer to any sense of identification or being-in-the-world. All the dappled sunlight and poignant radio conversations the world can muster fall by the wayside.

They were probably thrown there by Henry.

27 February 2016
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