Disclaimer: This article is meant to be informational and not serve as assessment, diagnosis, or treatment of mental illness. If you feel you need help with a mental-health-related issue, you are encouraged to seek the professional expertise of a qualified mental health professional.
This guest feature was written by Kim Shashoua, LMSW. Kim Shashoua, LMSW is a therapist who specializes in working with teens. She has presented at the GDC’s Narrative Summit, academic conferences, and to many 15-year-olds.
Welcome to No Rx Needed: A Therapist Recommends Games. We explore the themes of a game, related therapeutic principles, then provide a recommendation as you would to a friend. You know when a friend hands you a book and says “read this, it helped me get through a hard time”? Well, that’s what we’re doing with games.
Firewatch, developed by Campo Santo, is a first-person adventure game set in the United States. Your character, Henry, has volunteered to go into the wilderness and watch for fires in an attempt to avoid dealing with his loss.
The game starts by recounting the relationship between Henry and his wife, Julia. Through only text, the game shows snippets of sweet moments, arguments, and challenges. This story builds and shifts when Julia shows symptoms of and is eventually diagnosed with early-onset dementia. Julia’s family decides to take her back to Australia to care for her. Faced with this loss, Henry decides to take a position as a fire lookout and the next part of game begins.
Firewatch combines the existential pain of grief with the immediate challenges of being a fire lookout. You explore your surroundings in Shoshone National Forest and try to understand the mysterious situations you encounter. These mysteries – what were these people doing, where have they gone – highlight that Henry didn’t switch out crisis for solace, but moved from one unsteady situation to another. Henry traverses the beautifully stylized setting mostly alone, except for a walkie talkie. This minimal interaction and open environment highlights Henry’s sense of loss.
The Psychology of Loss
How would you deal with losing someone you love? What can you do when there is nothing you can do?
Loss is an ever-present possibility, and Firewatch’s introduction is terrifying in how realistic it feels. This isn’t a tragedy that is set aside for some cosmic hero; any one of us could find out that a person we love has a terminal illness. The game, in its beautiful but unflinching description of Julia’s decline, directly challenges us, confronting us with one of our worst fears. “To love is to open yourself up for loss,” Firewatch seems to say. It moves us through that shared vulnerability to ask “if you’ve lost someone, what now?”
Grief is often misunderstood or oversimplified, in the hopes that if we don’t think about something, it won’t come true for us. When someone struggles with grief, they can sometimes find that their friends and family members have taken a step back, uncomfortable with the intensity of the person’s pain. Platitudes like “they’re in a better place” or “life goes on” often offer little comfort.
When we take the time to understand grief, we find that it follows more complex patterns than we previously thought. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s “Five Stages of Grief” have become a cultural touchstone, but it is a little behind. Recent research by George Bonanno suggests that people tend to follow one of three main paths: through grief resilience, recovery, or chronic dysfunction.
Resilience, to some, may seem like an underreaction. People who respond this way to a death of a loved one tend to feel fairly stable afterwards. They are still able to function, work, and take care of themselves. Even though they diverge from the commonly-held image of a grieving person, their reaction is completely normal. They might face accusations of being callous or never caring about the deceased; when, in reality, their grief follows a fairly usual path.
Recovery is an image of grief that more people are familiar and comfortable with. A person who is grieving this way will have difficulty with their daily life for a while, usually several months at least. Eventually, they return to their original levels of functioning. This path is more expected. Many workplaces and religious communities have rules and traditions that give a bereaved person a respite from having to work, cook, or look after children. Even though this path is more common, people grieving still face others who are uncomfortable with their grief or tell them to “just get over it.”
People who experience chronic dysfunction after losing a loved one struggle for a long time. They can have difficulty taking care of themselves or functioning at work for possibly several years. Many people who have chronic dysfunction would benefit from therapy. Their maladaptive beliefs can help them feel stuck and hopeless. Challenging these beliefs with the help of a mental health professional can help them start feeling unstuck.
Henry starts the game struggling. As Henry has conversations with Delilah, his supervisor, you get a glimpse into his thoughts and beliefs. Henry is overwhelmed, angry, and ashamed. At one point, he tells Delilah that he feels like he abandoned his wife. Henry says he became a fire lookout in order to avoid the situation he felt. These thoughts, combined with avoidance, could keep Henry stuck in a cycle of shame and lead to chronic dysfunction.
Who this game is for?
Firewatch captures the heart of vulnerability and how frail we all are. This game isn’t just for people dealing with the loss of a person. This game is for anyone who wants to or is afraid of forming attachments with others.
Firewatch shows that deep connections to anyone or anything is an act of bravery. Players can reflect on their own experiences with loss. How did they deal with it? What did they think that it meant?
Players can also use the game to think about their own fears. What would happen to them if they lost someone? How might they react? Would they run away to the forest? Curl up? Or keep going? What would feel most natural? Expected?
Firewatch deserves a lot of praise for helping normalize grief. By experiencing it through Henry’s eyes, players have a close-to-but-not-real sensation of loss. It is realistic enough to stir authentic reactions, but not so personal as to become overwhelming. Once again, if you feel like such a story might be too much, this might not be the right time or right game for you. Otherwise, this moving game has much to offer.