You’re Henry.

A burly, bearded man from Boulder, fond of skiing and beer and a blend of all the attributes of your affable Colorado bro. In your late 30s and happily married, until life takes a serious nose-dive for the worse when your wife, Julia, develops early onset dementia. A couple years of this misery and, unable to cope, you fuck off to the wilderness to become a scout.

In recent years, we’ve been inundated by ’interactive novels’, wherein we guide characters down a narrative path and most of our ‘playing’ is comprised of:

1) walking from point A to point B and

2) making key dialogue choices that will change the story going forward, or at least give the illusion the story is being changed.

It’s the Choose Your Own Adventure paperbooks of yore, spruced up for the digital age. Telltale Games have been particularly prolific here, turning TV shows and comics from The Walking Dead to Game of Thrones to Fables to Batman into interactive novels. A sort of sub-genre labeled ‘walking simulators’ is also occasionally referenced here.  A beautiful environment is built, but all you can really do is walk around and ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ and not engage in your typical gaming actions — shooting, jumping, etc.

Firewatch is a walking simulator in its most pejorative sense, and interactive novel at its most limited and milquetoast, skewing very far towards the ‘novel’ or ‘short film’ path and very little on the side of game.

Shoshone National Forest is quite pretty, especially when burnished by the setting sun. You’d like to walk around there. Camp. But it’s difficult to acknowledge as an actual place. You’re largely walking down very defined paths with little room for deviation. There’s not much you can do unless the game has a very specific purpose in mind for you (find a backpack, see a raccoon). Your freedom is basically quashed. Exploration is pointless because there’s nothing to find. I’ve played plenty of games that are engaging while requiring you to do mundane tasks — farming virtual crops, climbing buildings to collect flags. But the tasks you’re set to in Firewatch feel pointless and rote, more like busywork to get you to the next dialogue segment instead of goals unto themselves.

Moreover, it’s hard to feel like you really are Henry, a person taking up physical space. The point of view is first person and all you ever see is his stubby legs when he’s climbing up and down things, in a perspective that holds little in common with how your legs actually look when you observe them. Instead, you’re more like a floating camera observing the story. 

In fact, that sort of spatial disconnect can link us to the real failing of Firewatch: for such a deeply personal story, I never felt like I could really own Henry. The game is spent communicating via radio with Henry’s  sarcastic boss, Delilah, a woman with a sordid past of her own. The whole draw of the game is Henry and Deliah’s relationship, and supposedly the impact the player can have on it. The dialogue is fairly snappy and engaging, but my agency within it was slight. Many times I was not given a choice in how to respond. I had to select a single line reporting something I had seen or a pre-decided sentence to respond to Deliliah. Even when I had choices, it never felt like they mattered. The choice was typically one of tone, not of content (angry / sarcastic / timid). What made things supremely annoying was that if you don’t respond quick enough, Delilah thinks you’re being purposely silent and responds as such. This response window is shockingly short. You have to read 3-4 different sentences and decide how you want to respond. Even as a real-life gap in conversation it was too short. Baffling.

What I’m getting at here is: Why did this need to be a game at all? It’s appeal is a human relationship and its composite back-and-forth dialogue. You barely have an effect on it. Were it a short film, we’d have some features enhanced: We could see the emotions on Henry’s face, and if he were a good actor, it would improve the narrative. Other negative features  would be removed: Actor Henry would not get stuck on a short hill he should be able to cross but can’t for whatever gameplay reasons. I mean, it’s not like some sort of cardinal sin to make a video game that would have been better as a movie, but it feels pretty wasteful to not actually use the elements of video games that film does not have to improve the experience.

My last complaint is going to be about the conclusion of the narrative itself, which wouldn’t really matter whether it was game or film or book or whatever. Some very general spoilers follow. When you have a plot based on ‘weird shit happening’, there’s a few different effective reveals we typically see.

  1. Character suspects something weird is happening. Turns out some really weird shit is happening. Aliens recently landed in his backyard and replaced his family with drones. It doesn’t have to be supernatural, but it often is. 
  2. Something bad happens to a character and it’s a completely plausible (albeit troubling) mystery. A child goes missing, but it’s never suggested to be anything more than the real-life, day-to-day misery of a child going missing.
  3. Basically a combination of 2 followed by 1. Audience is lead to believe it’s a “real-life” tragedy and then finds out it is something more. Character A spends 75% of the movie looking for a lost child and then stumbles upon the gateway to hell.

Those are all fine, workable plots. It’s #4 that I have a problem with.

4. The reverse of 3. Something really damn weird is happening, same start as #1. The plot wants us to believe in the supernatural. But, oops, turns out it was really just banal human ignorance and cruelty all along. Gotcha! You might call this the ‘Scooby Doo’ plot. It wasn’t a ghost, it was your dad wearing a sheet. You have to be a clever creator indeed to pull this off without leaving the viewer dissatisfied.

Needless to say, Firewatch hit me with #4. Worse, the ending is completely set in stone. Your choices, insofar as they exist, cannot affect the outcome. That’s anathema to the whole notion of choose your own adventure and yet another reason the game failed for me.

The Recognitions by William Gaddis

the recognitions“–Reading it? Christ no, what do you think I am? I just been having trouble sleeping, so my analyst told me to get a book and count the letters, so I just went in and asked them for the thickest book in the place and they sold me this damned thing, he muttered looking at the book with intimate dislike. –I’m up to a hundred and thirty-six thousand three hundred and something and I haven’t even made fifty pages yet. Where’s your pants?”

This book is big. Simply noting it has 956 pages & tiny print does not do justice to the physical presence of the damn thing. It’s of a size you think twice about before packing in your bag for a hike. The size where you have to develop strategies of how you plan to read it on the bus when you can’t find a seat (answer: arm behind the spine with your fingers looped over the top, cradling it against your body like an infant). On top of this is the inaccessibility of the text itself — endless allusions to flemish painters, mithraic cults, obscure martyrs, not to mention the multitude of untranslated french, latin, spanish, german and more. 

The Recognitions in a nutshell: the final fate of the closest thing it has to a protagonist, Wyatt Gwyon, is entirely in latin.

The Recognitions is described as a book about art forgery. Nominally, it is, I guess. But if you asked me to describe it, which several people did after seeing me lug it around for a month, I’d tell you it was a book about vacuous art posers having amusing conversations in bars and parties in 1950s New York City, with occasional jaunts in Paris, Madrid, and Mount Lamentation, Connecticut. Also, the soulless zeitgeist and deadened spirit of our modern times and corrupt civilization.

Gaddis is among several other angry men of the 50s, declaring our society dead, slain by consumerism. You might call it phony, like everything from paintings to twenty dollar bills to novels to music that are made counterfeit over the course of this epic. The things is — all the terrible and occasionally correct things these guys were pissed off about happened. While we’ve eased up on some things Gaddis mentions like marketing drugs to children, we’re even more bombarded by constant marketing, consumer messaging, products products products. We’re living William Gaddis’ dread future. But, somehow, we survived. Art survived. Idyllic yearning for the past is now suspect. The whole thing feels passe. It’s almost self-congratulatory to be nodding your head along with Gaddis at this point. Like you just discovered Catcher in the Rye for the first time and found it found it shockingly new and illuminating.

Gaddis is especially angry though. He writes his characters to skewer them. We’re invited along to listen to them spout all these lines that the narrative voice pretty much loathes, follow them from one disappointment to the next, until Gaddis has virtually all of them try to kill themselves! This isn’t bleak, it’s caricature. I found myself wishing to grasp Gaddis by the shoulders, which I imagined slight and fleshless like Wyatt’s, and shake him while demanding “Then what is good, William??” Dedicated monastic life? Passionate flemish painters? Some sort of obscure and not entirely nailed down historic ideal that was probably bullshit in the first place?

The thing is, the reason I actually read this whole screed is that Gaddis manages to sell his hateful pessimism in an entertaining way. His dialogue is absolutely masterful — it’s a collection of unattributed lines separated by hyphens ‘–’. It strives to give the reader the impression they’re overhearing several different conversations at once and it works perfectly. Possibly the best application of unattributed dialogue I’ve ever read. He actually courts the vagaries of human speech — interruptions, repetition, filler sounds and words, the type of thing that generally isn’t readable — and it rolls right off the mental tongue.

This is all well and good, but what really drives this home is that Gaddis is funny. Even when he’s being an insufferable asshole, breaking the fourth wall by introducing a bestselling novelist just to mock him, he’s drawing laughs. Black humor abounds. He rivals Joseph Heller and David Foster Wallace in being able to sustain a single conversation for tens of pages at a time that is both deeply engrossing and hilarious. Indeed, the book is at its worst when it abandons the humor and tends towards solemnity, mercifully a rare occasion.

Still, I hoped for more. This guy supposedly influenced several of my favorite authors afterall. But Wallace and Heller and DeLillo and Pynchon are all fueled by something other than crotchety malice and doomsaying. I don’t think a story has to be hopeful. Not at all. But The Recognitions is just kicking you in the face with the message that society is corrupt and art is dead forever over and over and over. It’s gleeful almost.