When we talk about Firewatch, we could talk about the attention to realism, or the choice to include narrative depth, or even the way feminized gameplay can rile up a community more interested in gatekeeping then pushing the medium to new places. These topics only manage to breach some of the discussions that can come out of finishing Campo Santo’s Firewatch. However, I want to zoom in and pay close attention to Delilah, the protagonist who accompanies our lead Henry for most of the game.
WHAT IS FEMINIZED GAMEPLAY?
Feminized gameplay is when a game performs in a way that is associated with female attributes. An example of this is how Henry talks to solve his problems rather than wielding a gun to shoot his antagonists. Feminized gameplay does not equal a woman being the main character. Lara Croft (Tomb Raider) does not explore and escape enemies using cooking mechanics but shooting a gun.
Firewatch as a game is filled with femininity down to how it structures its narrative and even how it approaches gameplay. Henry may be a straight white male, but his story is far from what typically comes along with that label. The game’s main hook is exploration. There is no violence or exercise montages. Henry doesn’t fight a bear or shoot lurking enemies. Instead, he talks to Delilah and walks around the woods. He communicates to solve his problems, seen as a feminine action, as opposed to using violence, a male assigned action.
As a medium, video games are often associated as belonging to men. This isn’t a wild concept to latch on to as most games feature male protagonists in which these manly men do manly things like shoot at people/creatures and flirt with female NPC’s. Even if a woman leads the game, she will be most likely holding a gun and reenacting the same basic video game tropes of fighting and being a tough gal who can hang with the guys. I’m not saying Lara Croft is a female protagonist we should ignore but it is worth pointing out how hyper sexualized she is in the space of video game discourse. Female characters can also simply be a replica of an already established male character (i.e. Ms. Pacman, Dixie Kong).
Video games are marketed as an escape for men to play off their urges to shoot guns in a virtual space, to practice their masculinity even if they can’t perform it in their everyday lives. When this hyper-masculine context is taken away, the community becomes toxic and angry. So fragile is this masculinity we have built that one crack in the structure and it all comes shattering down. It is fair to say that Firewatch has been a part of breaking that glass ceiling and while part of it can be attributed to the feminized gameplay (lack of guns, talking to solve problems, hero doesn’t get the girl), much of it is thanks to the character of Delilah.
Besides sharing a name with the Plain White T’s song and having a healthy hint of manic pixie dream girl, Delilah takes center stage within Henry’s narrative. The entire plot of this game is structured around the conversations between the two of them. This isn’t the game where Henry vents about his problems and Delilah just listens. This isn’t the game where we focus entirely on the male lead. As Olivia White so beautifully puts it, Delilah is “an NPC with agency.” 2 She takes shape and has depth right from the start with habits and a backstory and problems, something rarely afforded to female characters in a video game.
Women in video games primarily exist to further the man’s story arc. Should they be the ones carrying the story, they are often presented as fragile, the perfect human being, or the female option (i.e. Mass Effect gives players a choice to play a man or a woman, but the game markets itself primarily using the man on box art and promo videos). While Delilah is furthering Henry’s arc, she does not exist on a flat plain. She is not perfect but extremely flawed, in the best way possible. The game never puts judgement on her but simply allows her to exist, just as her male counterparts. In other words, Delilah isn’t there as a male support system nor is she there so the game can be more politically correct.
It should be of note that while Delilah takes center stage in this game, the player nor Henry ever sees her. She exists in her tower, merely a voice that Henry communicates with (and even sometimes questions as existing). This could raise questions about why Delilah never gets any screen time and what that says about the game developers. If Olivia White is correct, how could a woman with agency have no screen time?
The first and most obvious answer to this point is that Campo Santo didn’t have the budget to create character models. The only person they modeled was Henry and the player never actually sees him in full (unless they play the Audio Tour version of the game). Henry is only visible in a few photographs and the players sees his arms, legs, and hands throughout the gameplay. Making another character model would not have realistically fit into the budget. But this feels like more of an excuse to not give Delilah screen time so let’s make the narrative argument.
As mentioned earlier, video games fall victim to oversexualizing their female characters. Women exist for the male gaze and rarely get to be actual people. By removing the visual component from the equation, we suddenly are left with an opportunity to present a female character and players can’t sexualize her or judge her based on her appearance. Delilah may not have literal screen time, but her prescience is heavily felt in this game. The player doesn’t see her but they interact with her constantly. Talking to Delilah is her screen time and she is given plenty of it which is more than most games. Firewatch takes heavy strides into the nature of ambiguity, leaving much up to the player’s imagination. This is a tool often associated with the novel. The person experiencing the story has to use their imagination and can’t rely on the shallow form of an image to make up their mind for them. In this way, Delilah can be whatever the player wants her to be. And this is extremely empowering. Her appearance can’t be apart of her appeal.
Delilah is not the NPC that supplies Henry with exposition. Instead the narrative unfolds very carefully and organically around both characters. Although the player embodies Henry, both Henry and Delilah are running away from their problems. Their interactions with one another allow the story to grow through character development rather than contrived plot.
One of my favorite moments of the game is when Henry and Delilah named the controlled burn. It is night time and darkness surrounds Henry’s tower so that all he can see are the stars and the pink and orange flames burning in the night. He and Delilah watch the fire and name it together, their voices thick with tiredness. Delilah confides that she doesn’t talk to the other lookouts the way she talks to Henry. The scene is very intimate and even as I write this I long to experience it again. It presents a much more vulnerable side to Delilah, who we have so far witnesses swearing nonstop and cracking bad puns. In this moment you feel as if she is solid and a real human being. That happens very little in video games, especially with female characters. She is afforded her own humanity.
I could say that Delilah is spunky and kick ass and strong but the truth is, I am tired of using these words as an excuse that makes a female character worthy in the face of a male dominated medium. Delilah is a worthy character just because. Her character depth is beautiful and that all comes from the writing and Cissy Jone’s performance. She isn’t some one off gal for Henry to flirt with but a character who he gets to know and so do we the players. This defiance of tropes is welcomed. Here is hoping Delilah will encourage and empower not only more complex female characters in gaming but change how women are approached in the medium.
- Campo Santo. Firewatch. Panic/Campo Santo. Windows/OS X/Linux/Playstation 4/Xbox One/Nintendo Switch. 2016.
- White, Olivia. “Firewatch Took Away Our Ability to Be Good People, and That’s Where It Shines.” Polygon. February 12, 2016. Accessed April 30, 2019. https://www.polygon.com/2016/2/12/10966494/firewatch-agency-campo-santo.