Many video games encourage isolation. They’ve long been an emotional safety net for me, in addition to my favorite hobby. Sudden depression occasionally corrupts my mood, and the only thing that seems useful, practical, and healthy is to hide. This is difficult when working an office job and living with my significant other. Thankfully, wonderful and supportive people around me understand my occasional need need for space.
In one of these states of self-imposed isolation, I completed the two loneliest games I have ever played. I played both Firewatch and The Witness while hidden. In a strange way, I enjoyed both more than I would have if I had proper control of my emotions and my mind.
Warning: Minor spoilers for Firewatch.
The Witness felt like a surreal parallel to my life — to be reductive, it’s about a meandering man playing with things all alone. The Witness has no fail state, and because nothing on its serene, beautiful island can hurt you, I felt no stressful sense of tension or urgency, as many others did. Alone and utterly at peace, I explored and experimented at my leisure, never worrying about…anything.
Challenging as it is, The Witness is nothing but a sequence of rapid rewards, earned because you — ideally without the help of others — developed a solution with your peerless, genius, flawless mind.
I cannot understate how intoxicating that feeling of success is while your brain unwillingly poisons itself with deep feelings of doubt, lethargy, and inferiority.
Every puzzle I solved was another step toward conquering my insecurity, anxiety, and indescribable unease. The island of The Witness was where I went to soothe my aching mind. It’s where I went to win against myself.
Firewatch resonated with me for very different reasons than The Witness, but it was equally profound. Let’s distill Firewatch to its core, too: Henry, a lonely man whose life is spiraling out of his control, retreats to a solitary place to recover. When you’re playing Firewatch alone to contain the volatility of your mental illness, Henry’s retreat into serenity becomes extremely relatable role-play.
Henry becomes a fire lookout in the Wyoming woods to ground himself. He takes a job to be alone, outside, without the disturbance of others. He’s been tragically, helplessly hurt, and decides to regain control of the chaos that is his life. Henry speaks exclusively with his boss Delilah via radio, and spends a lot of his time walking in complete silence. Human contact is minimal. But in the privacy of what should have been a summertime security blanket, everything goes wrong. Unpredictable turmoil worms its way back into his life just as he’s finally grabbed hold of purpose.
Henry fights back to find the answers, because that’s what Henry does. He, in his own way, has the conviction to solve problems on his own terms. It’s how he became a fire lookout in the first place — he’s not a coward fleeing from his problems, he’s doing what he can to come to terms with them. He writes it all down. He can ask Delilah for help, or turn to her for therapy. He literally walks through fire to get what he needs. He’s not a macho, manly protagonist. He’s vulnerable and he’s determined.
As flawed and sometimes insensitive as he can be, Henry inspires me. He’s living a nightmare scenario, betrayed by his own safe space and doing what he must to endure on his own. While using Henry’s turmoil to distract myself from my own, that strength connected with me. Henry made me feel strong, and Firewatch gave me what I needed to face the world again.
Video games are not just toys, or art, or stories to me. They can be a salve when I need it most. I think it’s remarkable that I can comfort myself in problem-solving or interactive human drama, and that both have significant calming and healing effects.
I hope everyone gets this when they need it, in whatever form it comes.