In November of 2016, I purchased the game Firewatch, a narrative-driven adventure game about a fire lookout named Henry patrolling the woods, talking to his boss Delilah. He talks to her about the job, his findings during hikes, he talks to her about the life he wants to forget; he talks to her about everything, and he talks to her about nothing. This conversation is integral in many ways; it is both the framing device and the theme, the gameplay gimmick and the main character, the best part of the game and the worst part of the game. Talking is the experience; it is a beautiful, touching, and humanizing experience that broke my every perception of what a virtual media could be – and it was ruined in the last tenth of the game. With its tension at an all time high and suspense aching through the Wyoming woods, Firewatch’s ending leaves the player hopeless, defeated and disappointed – and it makes Firewatch the most human video game of the last twenty years. In the last 10 minutes, the game finishes what it set out to do 3 hours prior: it immerses the player completely within the character of Henry. It leaves the player feeling as hopeless and tired as Henry is, and it is a masterpiece of modern storytelling. And the consumers hated it.
The reception of Firewatch’s ending seems to represent a trend in perception towards humanist (the philosophy of human importance) media. Many concluded that there was “no point” to the game because there was no big mystery reveal. This is a critique humanist art is no stranger to; because there is no grand reveal at the end, the entire project was worthless. This is seen again and again in not only video games like Firewatch and its contemporaries Gone Home and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, (lovingly dubbed “Walking Simulators” by the community), but with cinema as well.
The films “20th Century Women” and “The Babadook” show this perceptual skew best. “20th Century Women” is beautiful for the same reasons Firewatch is. It’s a story about a 15 year old growing up in 1979 with no one to screw and nothing to do. The movie is, again, about people: about his mother’s struggles to raise him, his best friend’s pressure to have a relationship with him, and his sister figure’s dilemma of finding time to build her own life as well as develop his. Every character can be argued as the lead, and subsequently has a million different subplots and character arcs, plot twists and biases. The film is a microcosm thriving with human life, all fit into just under 2 hours of screen time. How could that not be touching? Yet, critics and consumers alike chastised the movie for, in the words of Owen Gleiberman of Variety magazine, “never achieving an emotional power surge.” The Babadook received similar criticism. A movie about a single mother dealing both with the loss of her husband and raising a troublemaking preschooler, it uses the “Babadook” as a visualization of what grief can do to a family; Audiences proceeded to castigate it for never showing a big, bad, scary monster. All this begs the question; what will happen to humanist art?
As common as these criticisms are, they only seem to apply to moving-picture media. Musicians such as Bon Iver and Mac Demarco are often praised for their humanist approach to music, not to mention that the entire punk movement of the mid to late seventies was based on the power of people. Humanist painting is some of the most famous and important art in European history, and some of the most influential photographers of all time incorporate humanist qualities into their work. What makes digital media different? The answer is in the market. Saturation of films, although not bad by any means, often leaves artsy and intelligent films to those within its demographic. Easily digestible, inoffensive media is definitely good for entertainment, but it leaves an expectation for the average consumer that does not have its place in all works. Although the Call of Dutys and Avengers of their mediums have a healthy place in their respective industries, their big budgets and massive plot twists push out the character-and-narrative-driven nature of independent media by setting a popular expectation that cannot be broken. So my request isn’t to Hollywood, it’s to consumers: Stop demanding what art needs to be, and evaluate it on its own merits.