I was sitting on my couch with a friend, huddled over her ancient laptop when I heard the song “Someone Like You” by Adele. She was performing at the Brit Awards in 2011 and this fuzzy YouTube video was the first time I’d ever seen her sing.
The song is brutal, devastating to anyone who has felt the sting of saudade. As she performs the pain in her eyes is evident with each emotional swell of her voice and you can feel her loss through the computer screen, thousands of miles away. We both watched as her face trembled, and she warbled with her tremendous powerhouse of a voice,
Nevermind I’ll find
Someone like you
I wish nothing but the best
For you, too
Don’t forget me, I begged
I remember you said,
“Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.
As the song ended we were both in tears. I turned to her and said, “I’ve never heard a song that encouraged me to handle a breakup so graciously.” She nodded. “I’ve never been taught to let go, only to hold on. Whether the person I was with wanted me to or not.”
Adele’s response to love lost is one that you don’t hear very often, especially in pop culture. Fiction is rife with imagery of persistent lotharios, lovelorn damsels, tragic characters whose very existence is framed on their inability to move on. Not often are we asked to accept that some loves are inconvenient and not meant to be. Usually entertainment serves the fantasy of romantic wish fulfillment, a longing for the ways we wish things would be.
Firewatch recently debuted to strong reviews, affecting critics from many different social circles across the gaming community. There are many themes to unpack in the Wyoming-set mystery game, from loss of intimacy to isolation and deception, to heterosexual friendship and unrequited love. The protagonist Henry has escaped to the wilderness, taking a job as a park ranger to avoid the reality that his wife Julia has succumbed to early onset dementia. His boss Delilah, an alcoholic stationed in a distant watchtower, self isolates even as she is desperately lonely. Their dynamic, facilitated only by sporadic conversations on their walkie-talkies, is immediately sarcastic but imbued with unique energy, the kind sparked by equal parts attraction and boredom.
The dialogue of Firewatch plays out as multiple choice. With each conversation the player is given the option of how to progress the banter. Frequently they are invited to participate in the fragile process of vulnerability extended and returned. Over the summer, unsettling events start to occur. Henry and Delilah begin to bond over their personal lives and the drama unfolding in the forest. Henry tries to process his guilt over abandoning his sick wife. Delilah shares her regrets over the disappearance of a young boy. But as a mystery starts to unfold, one that could result in serious legal implications for them both, Henry and Delilah are drawn closer together even as fear and paranoia threaten to drive them apart.
As the tension of the game heightens, you begin to wonder, will these two end up together? Should they? When two people bond over self imposed exile and pain, can there be such a thing as platonic love?
One major flaw in the popular depictions of relationships in entertainment is that the audience is rarely offered an example of how to deal with the end of a romance gracefully. So often the focus is on passion and the willingness to “do anything” for the person you love, at the expense of convenience and, sometimes, personal well being. While themes of self sacrifice predominate in love stories across all mediums, relying on an idealistic commitment to “love at all costs,” rarely do they center on making the “right decision.” But human beings are highly adaptive creatures, referencing their surroundings and the relationships within them as a plumb line for what their own should look like. The end result is that we do not know how to make decisions within a romantic relationship that aren’t ultimately centered on selfish motivation. We’re not given the tools to know when to let go.
Henry and Delilah’s repertoire is witty and fast paced. Anyone who has encountered that kind of spark can sense it. It’s the kind that gets your blood racing and your thoughts pulsing when you’re in the moment. But despite any vulnerability you may exchange with Delilah when you’re playing as Henry, it always ends the same. Ultimately she realizes pursuing a romance between them would be foolish. Delilah withdraws as the game comes to a close. She does so passive aggressively, misleading Henry at the last second and slipping away in a tepid confrontation that leaves little significant resolution.
It’s uncanny how that mirrors the reality of inconvenient love. It dissipates like a thought unfinished, a child conceived and miscarried within a day. It slips through your fingers before you begin to grasp it, processed only in retrospect, in memory, when it has already begun to fade. It is a tragedy all of it’s own. The things that were never meant to be always are.
Sometimes, I still miss F.
We met at the Game Developers Conference in 2013. He was a games writer working on a major series who was giving a talk that week. I was there to sit in on as many sessions as I could, soaking up the amazing wealth of knowledge provided by the speakers and attendees. We crossed paths at a bar one night, bonding over our shared love of strong craft beer. I remember the sneers on the face of the San Francisco locals as we talked, my shrill hysterical laughter piercing through their chatter and the cigarette haze drifting through the open garden air. He was attached with kids. We were both only in town for a week. We knew better than to let it progress from that moment.
But we did.
Over the next several days we found every excuse to spend time together. We texted from opposite ends of the city while suffering through vacuous parties. We sat on the curb as I smoked a 3 AM cigarette to calm my nerves. He was there when my new smartphone slipped from my stiffened fingers and landed face-down in the street, the screen shattered to pieces.
Three days later F slept over. We lay together in the dark as anxiety gave way to insomnia. He had to scramble for excuses to explain his absence to his coworkers the next day. As he spoke during the GDC session his voice was raspy, abused from the hours we spent bantering into the night.
It was the kind of attraction you stopped traffic for. The chemistry was intoxicating, addicting, It dared us to make a mistake.
The last day of the conference, I packed up my luggage in the tiny hotel room I’d rented for the week. Only a six pack of beer remained. An IPA, a present from F. It was 9 AM and I had drank too much that week to find time to enjoy his gift. I quickly downed two, then left the other four behind. Maybe the maid would drink a couple on the job. In refusing to let her enter our oblivious cocoon over the course of five days, I’d trashed the room. Certainly she deserved the break.
I attended my last talk that morning, half-drunk from the beer and dreading the goodbye. Even as I boarded my plane, texts were exchanged. A decision had to be made. Who would be the one to make it?
“I wouldn’t have let it happen if I wasn’t unhappy with my life,” he said. “I want to come be with you. But I have to honor what I already have. I can’t afford this mistake.” He was my Delilah. His family, our Julia.
It was over. But for me it wasn’t over.
After that day, I withdrew. We reach out to each other every now and again but I’ve accepted that it’s no longer my place. I love him. I still miss him. He did the right thing. And when you care enough about a person you know how to let them walk away without making it hard for them. You know when to let go.
Henry didn’t have a choice. Delilah made it for him. In the final moments of the game, the fire that has been slowly burning over the past three months engulfs the woods with smoke and they must make their escape. As the forest is overcome with flames and Firewatch draws to a close, Henry storms up the steps of the watch tower to meet her, but she is already gone.
They exchange final words via walkie talkie and despite her drunken veering and aimless missteps into flirting over the summer, she is elusive and non-committal. Maybe one day they will meet. Probably they won’t. It can’t be helped. They both have stuff to deal with first. It wasn’t meant to be.
In a way, the affection between Henry and Delilah is as reciprocated as it is unrequited. The beauty of Firewatch lies in its fearless ability to ask the player to look heartache in the face and accept it. You can’t always get what you want. And sometimes you shouldn’t. But it’s going to be okay. Because it has to be.
Holly Green is a reporter, editor, and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gameranx, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.