Firewatch, Dementia, and the Power of Choice-Based Gaming

firewatch_dementia_and_the_power_of_choice_based_gaming

After months of staring longingly at the trailer and all the gorgeous screenshots online, I finally got to play Firewatch this past weekend. (Wondering why it took me so long to play a game I was so desperate to dive into? Read this post from last week.) I know I am late to the party, and that tons of people have written about the game already, so I am not going to talk about all the reasons I loved the game (I did) or how visually stunning it is (it really is). Instead, I want to look at a central aspect of the game that the countless articles online fail to really discuss (or at least discuss well): loving someone with dementia.

(If you haven’t played the game, prepare for spoilers.)

Firewatch puts players in control of Henry, a middle-aged man who, in search of an escape, has taken an isolating job as a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest after his wife, Julia, develops dementia. Your only human interaction during the summer is Delilah, another fire lookout whom you regularly talk to via walkie-talkie. The game falls under the unfortunately named walking-simulator genre, and is more psychologically oriented than it is action based. Everything in the forest seems normal until two teenage girls go missing, someone cuts the phone line to your stations, and your lookout tower is ransacked. And the more you and Delilah attempt to figure out what is going on, the more sure you both become that someone is watching you. The game is primarily focused on exploring questions about human psyche, and as such is in many ways perfect for starting a conversation about dementia.

Studies have found that reading literary fiction increases our ability to feel empathy for others because it immerses us in experiences that are not our own and gives us windows into the psyches of the characters presented. It seems to me then, that choice-based narrative games could likely have the same effect if they are done well. Firewatch offers an excellent look into how games can encourage increased empathy by offering players a better understanding of others’ experiences- namely by immersing them into the psyche of a man who is struggling to cope with his wive’s dementia. However, the game falls short by failing to fully immerse players in the reality of loving someone with dementia, which results in the game encouraging judgmental beliefs about families of dementia patients. As a result, Firewatch’s shortcomings also show the care that developers must take in order to successfully achieve this impact.

Difficult Decisions in Firewatch

When someone you love develops dementia, you are often forced into the position of deciding between equally terrible and heartbreaking options. Firewatch forces players to contend with a few of these decisions in the beginning of the game, when you are given a series of choices to make that will determine the details of Henry’s backstory. The choices begin innocent enough; you choose the first thing Henry says to Julia and what kind of dog you adopt together. You decide how to handle fights in the relationship and whether or not Julia moves across the country for a career opportunity. But as the years come and go, it becomes clear that something is wrong, and soon you discover that Julia has developed Early Onset Alzheimer’s.

This is where the choices become more difficult. As Julia’s dementia becomes more severe, a doctor suggests putting her into a full-time care facility. Many people instinctively resist the idea of putting a loved one in a home, because it is often believed that doing so is taking the “easy way out” by making their care someone else’s problem; it is often perceived as a form of abandonment. It is not uncommon for people without personal experience with dementia to judge families who choose to put their loved ones in care facilities. If players choose to put Julia in a home, this sentiment is reflected by Henry’s friends; one woman warns her husband that she would “cut off [his] balls if [he] ever put her in a home like Henry did.” And yet, the game makes it clear that this was the best possible choice between two terrible options. Taking care of someone with dementia is an emotionally exhausting full-time job that not everyone is capable of performing, no matter how much they love the patient. People go to school for years to learn the best way to care for people suffering from dementia in order to offer their professional, trained services in full-time care homes, and yet many are quick to expect the average person to not only drop everything else in their lives to care for a loved one with dementia, but to know exactly how best to do so. As Firewatch shows through Henry, this often results in both parties’ well-being being neglected in some form, and is not a good option for either person involved.

If the player chooses to try to care for Julia themselves, Henry is unable to keep up with the housework, struggles with everything caring for Julia entails (feeding, bathing, making sure she does not wander off or hurt herself, etc) and is forced to ignore his own emotional well-being. Eventually he becomes so desperate to escape to a temporary sense of normalcy that he starts leaving Julia home alone after she is asleep, a recognizably irresponsible decision. Henry gives up his life, forces himself to try to care for Julia on his own despite becoming increasingly overwhelmed, and Julia still does not receive the care she needs and deserves. In the end, she ends up being taken away anyway; when her parents visit and see the state of the house they insist on removing her from Henry’s care, and Henry, knowing she requires more care than he is capable of providing, does not fight them. The game makes it clear that while both options are difficult and painful, the option to put Julia in a home provides the best case scenario for both Julia and Henry.

Where Firewatch falls short in this respect is in its failure to fully immerse players in the experience of loving and caring for someone with dementia. The game does not do nearly enough to help players understand just how emotionally and physically demanding this experience is. Instead, it seems to assume that players would automatically understand the impact dementia has on both the patient and those who love them. But many don’t. As a result, many players struggled to empathize with Henry, and instead tended to judge his failure to properly care for his wife. Firewatch often does not offer the “good” choice that players are used to looking for; Henry makes a lot of terrible decisions, which you as the player are forced to partially contend with as well because you are the one making the choice, even if you didn’t like either of the options. You don’t get to be the perfect person in Firewatch; the option is removed entirely. But rather than fully immersing players into the situation and enabling them to understand the reason Henry is making these (often terrible) choices, a lack of nuance leaves players feeling like the lack of a good choice stems from Henry being an uncaring husband, and this creates an unfairly negative perception of him in the process.

The Question of Moving On

The second series of choices that could have been used to encourage empathy within players (but which largely fails to do so) is in how players choose to shape Henry’s relationship with Delilah.

When it became clear that Firewatch was giving players the option to romantically pursue Delilah, my first thought was to wonder how many players would respond to such an option with judgement; how many would perceive the decision to pursue Delilah as abandoning Julia. This article from Press Start,while an excellent overall analysis of the game’s plot, suggests that perhaps any player who chose to pursue a romantic relationship with Delilah “wants to abandon Julia, his/your wife, too” (that added “too” implying Henry already has). The author continues by (rather condescendingly) asking “I wonder how many of you spotted the ring on Henry’s desk and decided to put it back on.” Combined, this commentary certainly seems to suggest that players who pursued Delilah should feel a certain level of guilt for playing the game as they did. A quick Google search finds a number of others sharing similar discomfort with the option to flirt with Deliliah, and others who admit to struggling to decide between allowing Henry to be happy and doing what they perceived to be right. An article on RockPaperShotgun, “Am I A Good Man?,” for example, concluded:

I had Henry choose to go home, back to a wife who would probably no longer recognise him and in-laws who would loathe him for his former absence, back to pressure and grief and no freedom, and I felt devastated by it. Both at how dark his and his family’s future would be, and that he had to leave the woods and canyons and gulleys behind – one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen…

Was I a good man to go back home, to resolutely spurn a possibly brighter future with Delilah (not that I presume she would have wanted that herself; I talk only of where my imagination went to)? Or to decide not to wait for the fire to come and burn away my grief and guilt and responsibility? Was being a good man worth it?

I really enjoyed that article and appreciated the extent to which the author considered the questions and problems the game presented him with, but I cannot help but wonder why he, and so many others, saw allowing Henry to be happy as the bad, “incorrect” decision.

To be fair to these players, the conclusion to Firewatch thoroughly encourages this perspective, but where others considered this to be a positive aspect of the game, it is perhaps what disappointed me most about the ending of Firewatch. No matter what choices you make, in the end no relationship forms between Henry and Delilah; they go their separate ways and Henry heads to Australia to be with Julia. More so, depending on your choices and the dialogue you get access to (I did not get this particular line) this conversation can occur near the end of the game:

Delilah: Henry, not knowing what to do isn’t okay! When you’re supposed to look after someone, you… (gasping for words..)

Henry: You figure it out.

This moment very clearly has dual meanings; Delilah might be talking about Ned abandoning his son, Brian, in the cave, but Henry and the player inevitably connect it to Julia. This very intentionally encourages the players to view Henry’s struggle to take care of Julia negatively by definitively dismissing any justifiable explanation. Not knowing how to handle a situation is unacceptable. No matter what, love should be enough to get you through, and if you love them enough you will, as Henry says, figure it out.

Am I saying that I would have preferred Henry choose to wash his hands of Julia an run off into the proverbial sunset with Delilah, never to think of his previous life again? Absolutely not. But the line between allowing yourself to be happy again in the face of tragedy and abandoning someone you love is not nearly so thin as Firewatch makes it out to be. Henry clearly loves Julia and is heartbroken over losing her, but no amount of self-destructive sacrifice on his part is going to bring her back. He should absolutely return to her. He should absolutely continue to make her an important part of his life and to love her and to remember all of the amazing memories he made with her, but that should not require him to put his entire life on hold. Henry’s needs and well-being matter, too. To expect him to give up everything and spend his entire life grieving for his lost wife is not only unrealistic and unwarranted policing of how individuals deal with tragedy, it is also downright cruel.

Final Thoughts

I have a grandma with Alzheimer’s, so the dementia aspect to Firewatch really resonated with me and it impacted how I played the game. I chose to put Julia in a home where she would receive the best possible care from trained professionals, because I have seen what can happen when loved ones stubbornly refuse help. I was frustrated that Henry’s visits slowly dwindled, and did not approve of that decision on his part, but unlike many players I had the context and experience necessary to fully sympathize with how difficult it is to look into the eyes of someone you love and know with certainty that they have absolutely no idea who you are, and how hard that sometimes makes it to want to visit them. And when I was given the opportunity, I pursued Delilah, not because I wanted Henry to abandon Julia, but because when he was once again finally forced to confront the painful reality he was attempting to escape from, I wanted him to have someone to help him. And because Julia would have wanted him to be happy.

Games like Firewatch have remarkable potential to positively contribute to important, complex conversations. By immersing players in experiences they would not otherwise be privy to and giving them the ability to decide how to handle difficult situations, these games can encourage empathy for those who do personally experience those difficult situations and choices. However, Firewatch also shows that simply creating choice-based narrative games alone is not enough. While this game certainly had potential to help people understand the struggle and pain of loving someone who suffers from dementia, it creates a clear dichotomy between the perceived correct and incorrect ways to handle that situation. As a result, rather than challenging common beliefs and encouraging a more nuanced conversation by offering a spectrum of potential, healthy responses, the game inadvertently reinforces the harmful, judgmental beliefs that many people without personal experience with dementia already hold.

Firewatch centers around a single theme: that running away from your pain and your problems is not a solution. What it fails to articulate, however, is that shackling yourself to your pain and your problems is not healthy either. In order to fully recognize the potential for empathy building that choice-based games like Firewatch have, developers must first focus on rejecting the black-and-white morality system games have for so long relied on, and learn to be comfortable forcing players to struggle with shades of grey.

XOXO

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  • My issue with Firewatch and how it went about the story of dementia and mental health and all that was it was very surface level. The game was so short, so it only lightly touched the topic. If it were longer that might have been different. I think choice based games are a great way to go about teaching empathy.

    • Katie Conigliaro

      I totally agree. Especially in the beginning sequence there needed to be more to really show what dementia looks like and how it effects not only the individual but everyone around them. Instead the game seemed to assume that everyone would understand those things and just glazed over them.

  • I REALLY enjoyed Firewatch, but I wish the game had a bit more depth, especially in the beginning. You could tell they wanted the quickest and easiest way to set up the story with just enough background so you’d feel bad for Henry. So cheap!

  • Kay

    While I really enjoyed this game, I do feel that a lot of the aspects dealing with dementia were a bit shallow. I also have a Grandmother who is in early-stage Alzheimer’s, and it really doesn’t convey just how devastating it can be to witness. You don’t get that deep sense from Henry; it kind of just breezes past it and you feel a little bad for him, but it comes off as him running away. I think it could have been a little deeper and had a lot more impact. But, the game was still good, and flipping gorgeous for sure!