Overcoming trauma through emotional storytelling.
The following piece extensively covers some distressing topics – read at your own discretion. (And as a less important note, contains spoilers for Firewatch and Outer Wilds).
“You’ve got to take the emotion out of it.”
It’s a funny statement, this one. When it comes to making a purchase, striking out in a new direction, or ruminating on a past event, it most certainly rings true. Yet there is a funny contradiction in the way our human brains react to trauma in the moment versus the reactions that come afterwards. During a truly distressing experience, our fight-or-flight response, our amygdala hijack – whatever you want to call it, through a primal physical reaction, displaces emotion to such an extent that we can say that we are void of it, or at least so full of it that we become truly overloaded and malfunction. An overloading of our ability to cope – that is how I personally define trauma, and in this sense, there is a flooding of emotional responses akin to a dam wall breaking. And yet these feelings need to go somewhere. Just as all energy exists in some form or another, the emotions that come from trauma need to be sorted through – like cleaning up after a hurricane, or sifting an enormous amount of flour through a sieve. So, while our brains are brilliant at keeping us alive in the midst of a perceived threat, we are perhaps somewhat flawed in our ability to process the emotional hospital pass that follows and require a little assistance.
The absence of emotion during the event, and the oversaturation that follows after – this is a strange yin-and-yang that our bodies undergo. For a period of several months, an inconsequential amount of time ago, I was subject to chronic trauma, of which I was unable to see the effects of until sometime afterwards. When the ordeal was over, and I was no longer wondering how life had gotten so awful, and in the safety of the aftermath, my mind and body collapsed under the weight I had been carrying through those difficult months. Hyperalert, succumbing to panic attacks and a sick feeling that would rise in the back of my neck, I knew something was wrong, and I had a pretty good feeling that I was undergoing some reaction I had not experienced before. I’d stare off into space, that feeling of a fist closing around my heart, restricting its beat, before an often-irrational outburst of sadness or frustration overcame me. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and, now that the beast had a name, the time had come to deal with it. This diagnosis, accompanied with job loss, a global pandemic and absence of human interaction led to the deepest depression I have experienced; perhaps a necessary evil, since the processing of trauma inevitably takes its time. Momentarily it was all too much, but today I am glad that I moved myself to the centre of the platform that day, as a train roared through the station and hot tears squeezed from my closed eyes.
You might have seen the title of this piece and, having read this far, be wondering what the hell this has to do with Firewatch or Outer Wilds? We’ll get there, but first of all it might be worth explaining for the uninitiated that they are a pair of video games I played on my PS4. Given their easy genre (the divisive ‘walking simulator’) I would recommend them to anybody, gamer or not, for their wonderful storylines and microcosms of artistry; really anybody who enjoys a good book or movie would find something from these games. What I gleaned from them was a comforting distraction from the horror that had become my normal, and a lovely little insight to humanity, discovery both internal and external, and a grounding in reality that gave clarity to the situations that life can throw at us. Just how these two games did that, I’ll expand on soon, but foremost I think it best to explain a little further.
Firewatch was released in 2016 by Campo Santo, and while it moved me the first time I played it, it was a second playthrough a few years later that really hit me in the heart. It tells the story of Henry, an everyman who signs himself up as a park ranger in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest, where he spends the summer of 1989 volunteering and living in a watchtower. His days are spent in complete isolation, that is except for the voice of Delilah, a fellow park ranger, who communicates with Henry via a walkie-talkie. The outset of the game delivers a series of questions that the player will assume affects the playthrough in some way; through this we learn of Henry’s past and what led him to Wyoming. His long-time flame Julia was diagnosed with early onset dementia. Through seeing his wife’s health deteriorate, Henry is faced with a decision – does he continue to try and look after her? Or does he need to admit that Julia’s needs are beyond what he can provide, and admit her to a hospital? These are questions the player is given the choice to answer, but regardless of what is chosen, the story goes the same way; Julia’s health gets worse, she is taken away, and Henry is suddenly left with nothing else in his life. Would it matter to Julia if he took a summer off to soul-search? The player can make their own interpretation, but what I wanted to highlight was the fact that the story plays the same regardless of what the player chooses. Through dialogue choices in conversations with Delilah, Henry can be introverted, outgoing, or a straight-up jerk – the player moulds the character – but in the end this changes very little. Julia doesn’t miraculously get better. Henry’s grief and trauma from losing a big part of his life are something he cannot hide from, even in the trees of Wyoming. And while the detached voice of Delilah might seem something of a harbinger or guidance, no – she too is a flawed character who has made bad decisions, and sometimes offers some pretty crappy advice between nuggets of wisdom. The truth is that none of us have all the answers, and often we cannot change life’s outcomes even though we try, but our mindset can be shaped from the bits and pieces we gather from those around us, and in this way, it is through connection with people that we take our first steps to recovering from a mental breakdown.
The climax of Firewatch’s story flirts with the idea of a grand conspiracy, of which Henry and Delilah are centrefold – except there is no conspiracy. The pair’s thinking took them to the realms of government spying, secret plans and testing; in the end however, they are merely being tricked by another hermit named Ned who is trying to cover his own discrepancies. We never even meet Ned, only learn about his own issues through a slowly unravelling story. And the story drifts into its ending as quietly as it arrived; like all seasons of life, Henry’s summer ends, and he heads home to an undisclosed future, having never actually met Delilah in person either. Not all of his problems have gone away, but through the emotional processing undertaken in a national park one summer, Henry can move forward. Trauma becomes little more than just bad memories, in the past, where they belong. The books that were scattered on the floor have been picked up one by one and rearranged back on the shelf – our brains are clever like that.
“If you can bear to… watch the things you gave your life to, broken, and stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools,” – Rudyard Kipling, If –
Outer Wilds, a 2019 game from Mobius Digital, may differ greatly from Firewatch in setting, but the basic premise remains the same. You are an unnamed alien from the planet Timber Hearth, and as per Hearthian custom, you are about to embark on your first journey into space – albeit in a wooden toy-box of a spaceship. While you fly around and fiddle with the controls of your ship, you might float past Giant’s Deep, a planet where tornadoes ravage a sunless sea; or watch the crust of Brittle Hollow collapse into the black hole that has become its own core. The sister planets of Ash and Ember – aptly named the Hourglass Twins, trade places as time ticks on, and the sand from one planet falls into the caverns of the other. Or maybe you’ll fly too close to the sun and get drawn into it by its massive gravity, facing a certain death until – you wake up. And you’re back on your home planet of Timber Hearth. For you see, Outer Wilds works on a 22-minute timer. Once the time is up, the sun goes supernova and you loop back to the beginning. The rest of the game is spent trying to figure out the cause of this time loop and how to break out of it. The player pokes around the neighbouring planets, gathering titbits of information about an ancient race called the Nomai, and how their efforts to locate the centre of the universe resulted in them blowing up their own sun (whoops) and trapping everyone in a time loop. You will die over and over again in Outer Wilds, often horribly. Yet you continue to wake up and begin the cycle anew, with just a little bit more knowledge than you had last time. For me this really spoke of the cycle of distress we can find ourselves in, how we can fail repeatedly, and must face those failures and try again. The protagonist of Outer Wilds is seemingly the only character who realises he is stuck in a loop, and thus has to figure out a lot of things for himself. We can gather information from other sources, but when we try to regain control over our minds, we have to piece it together ourselves. The game’s most mysterious planet – the Quantum Moon – appears randomly and will disappear as soon as you look away, only to reappear elsewhere (quantum mechanics – don’t ask me to explain them, they make my head explode!); but I’d simply like to compare this celestial body to our negative mindsets. They remain, sometimes out of sight, but eventually we need to face them and figure them out.
And what of that wonderful revelation? When everything falls into place and you can say you’ve successfully processed all those negative emotions? The finale of Outer Wilds shows that our little alien friend has shattered the time loop, and the game ends with him and his friends playing music around a campfire. A still image is shown at the end of a galaxy being born some 14.3 billion years later – life carried on.
“To live at all is miracle enough.”– Mervyn Peake.
What of the traits that both games share? A vital, perhaps overlooked feature of these two games is the lack of measurable improvement to the player character. This isn’t a race to the high score, or a search for that next upgrade; in both games the protagonist has the exact same set of abilities at the ending that they did at the outset. In the case of Firewatch, it is Henry’s middle-aged lack of fitness, and for Outer Wilds, our unnamed Hearthian is but one creature in a spacesuit trying to conquer the physics of astronautical travel. It is so easy to lose control of your character in Outer Wilds; half the game feels like you’re wrestling with basic movement – something it and PTSD have in common. When you come out the other side of trauma, you are battered and bruised, raw as my pasty skin in summer sunlight. But you’ve learned things, and you might not have the physical prowess to show it, and your body might have failed you a few times along the rocky way, but you are better.
Both games have the protagonist plonked into an indifferent and awe-inspiring environment – the august beauty of Firewatch’s Shoshone National Forest, and the far-off imaginary galaxy of Outer Wilds – that leave you feeling like an insect underfoot of impartial humans. The battleground where you overcome trauma is one where you are not the main character; life existed before you, and will carry on after you’re gone. The trees in the Wyoming wilderness are still standing, regardless of what has happened to you. Further out, the planets are still spinning, too. We can take this in one of two ways – the route of pessimism and by extension, selfishness (I am SO guilty of this) – that we are inexplicably alone; or, we can take the far more helpful approach of realising that our problems are only as big as ourselves, and if the world can carry on without that burden, then you can learn to as well.
“If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be.” – Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness.
So, who says video games are meaningless? I certainly owe these two little indie games a huge piece of my very sanity, and while they were just one part of a major play wherein I tackled adversity, I carry both stories close to me and often reflect on some of the things they taught me. I am pleased to say I am no longer suffering from PTSD, and though life will have more ups and downs, I feel I am equipped with a toolkit that can work through a lot more problems than I could before. ‘Just change your thinking’ is an oft used quote that holds a lot of truth, but fails to highlight just how bloody difficult that is. To change a negative mindset is one of the hardest things a person can do, and it can be very hard to know how to start. For me, I took a deep breath, turned my face away from the past and said to myself, “I am well.” – that was probably a lie the first time I said it, but for now, it is the truth. Hang in there, and don’t just take the emotion out – rearrange it into its proper place.
I hope in sharing some of my experiences, I have been able to help others and provide some insight. I’m not trained in anything like this, merely a patient. If you are experiencing distress, you should speak with a loved one or a medical professional.