‘Firewatch’ Makes You the Romanceable Companion


“I don’t talk to other lookouts as much as you—not in the same way.”

In video games, love is most often portrayed as a reward for persistence, as defining for your personal experience with a game as a robust character creation system. From massive series like Dragon Age or Grand Theft Auto to indie titles like Stardew Valley or We Know the Devil, romance is usually built on a simplistic mechanic: pick your target from a stable of eligible choices, then figure out the correct sequence of actions that completes your goal. Solving riddles in The Witness can take weeks of careful work; EV training your Pokémon party requires specially-designed calculators. Romancing a companion in Jade Empire, on the other hand, can be as simple as conversing with them at each crucial plot point.

Part of the beauty and lasting impact of Firewatch is in the way it flips the script on video game love stories and the way we’ve been taught to play them. Instead of agency and persistence, the romance, such as it is, is defined by acquiescence and compliance. When you play as Henry in Firewatch, you are Delilah’s romanceable companion.

The illusion of choice evaporates quickly during the prologue when you’re still discovering the nature of the story and its gameplay. At first, it seems as though the character dynamics will operate as they might in any other game. You learn that it was Henry who first approached Julia, your future wife, and then you make most of the key decisions in their relationship. It is your choice whether she moves to another state for her work, what kind of dog you adopt, and if you plan to have children.

However, no matter what you decide, Julia will succumb to a disease that overrides all the preceding exposition. It simply plows through whatever you had thought you were building. The final sequence of title cards reflects the totality of this effect: they each have only one way to advance to the next, instead of the binary choices that the player was getting used to. When Henry sees an ad to serve as a lookout in Wyoming, the player has no choice but to select, “You take it.”

Continue reading “‘Firewatch’ Makes You the Romanceable Companion”


‘No Pineapple Left Behind’: Oh, The Humanity of Ed Reform

No Pineapple Left Behind

No Pineapple Left Behind is a simple management game painted with the timely imagery of the education reform movement. It’s a “school simulator,” to be precise, where instead of keeping track of tax rates or the number of cows, you keep a close eye on things like teacher’s salaries, grade averages, and how many students have given up on their humanity today. It’s designed by a small team, Subaltern Games, and strongly influenced by its “Captain of Industry’s” experiences as a part-time teacher. 

If you’ve played management games in the past, you’ll find the controls and mechanics to be easy and familiar. What lore exists in the game is straightforward as well, setting up and explaining only what it needs to in order to get you playing and thinking about its subject matter. You are the principle of the school, with a staff of teachers that you hire, fire, and order through individual menus. These teachers can cast spells and shoot lasers to influence the grades and attitudes of their students and, at least in the public alpha version of the game, are uniformly white. The students, on the other hand, are black or brown and uncontrollable by you, though you can see their current goals and personality traits, and it’s their academic performance that determines the overall grade of your school, directly impacting your budget’s bottom line. Or, they are pineapples, who only care about their grades thanks to a mysterious curse (or blessing?) that transforms students into pineapples once their humanity levels reach a certain low point.

This juxtaposition of students to pineapples is the crux of the game. The latter is meant to be defined by their lack of individuality or ambition, their hollow nature, but, in actuality, there’s very little to distinguish the pineapples from the students. The students don’t speak beyond the occasional text bubble, they have a seemingly random series of letters for names, and they are resources to be managed as much as your teachers’ spell points. Whether any of this is intentional or a limitation of the alpha version of the game is unclear, but it feels uneasily familiar and suitable for a game set squarely in the context of education reform and driven to deliver a message about the topic.

Continue reading “‘No Pineapple Left Behind’: Oh, The Humanity of Ed Reform”

Long Way Home: ‘Dragon Age 2’ on Immigration & Identity

Dragon Age

you broke the ocean in
half to be here.
only to meet nothing that wants you.

[“Immigrant” written by Nayyirah Waheed]

Dragon Age 2 is the story of immigration. It’s dressed up in the high fantasy that defines the series, but it portrays the struggles of forced migration, acculturation, and xenophobia closely and honestly. In fact, the strengths and weaknesses of the game’s design are far more harmonious when viewed through this lens. The themes of fate and choice — of defining your place in the world of Kirkwall — are at the heart of the plot and an immigrant’s journey. In much the same way, you could view the limitations of scope and content as a reflection of the harsh realities of forging a new life from precious few resources.

From the first moment of the game, Hawke is characterized by their migrant status. We’re given precious little information about their life before, because all that matters now is that they must start a new one. During the game’s prologue, narrative and mechanics conspire to push Hawke and their family into the unknown, far away from their home. Fires block paths, a horde of monsters lurk just behind, and the only company on the road are other survivors, just as desperate and lost.

Hawke has no choice but to keep moving, further and further away from everything they have known. And they must pay a terrible price for this journey, one that they didn’t even want to take; a sibling, an ally who they may even have to kill with their own hands; and their agency, as they are forced to enter a deal with a potentially malevolent force in exchange for safe passage.

Even though the prologue is packaged for the player as a tutorial on controls and an introduction to the game’s larger story, it reflects so much of an immigrant’s struggle. It’s The Blight that drives Hawke away — one of those faceless, generally evil plot devices that you find in fantasy stories like these — but it could have easily been corruption, violence, hopelessness, or one of the many true evils that we find in our world (see: “How This Happened” by LatinoUSA).

Worse, the sudden and horrible trauma of the journey is true to life as well (see: The Beast: Riding The Rails And Dodging Narcos On The Migrant Trail by Óscar Martínez). Even Hawke’s precarious deal with Flemeth, a mysterious being who offers aid at an uncomfortable cost, mirrors reality (see: “El coyote” by Radio Ambulante). 

Continue reading “Long Way Home: ‘Dragon Age 2’ on Immigration & Identity”

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