Distraction, Memories and Escape – Why Games Like Firewatch and That Dragon, Cancer are Significant

I can’t recall the amount of times I’ve been asked for advice, or how each conversation begins and ends. However, I can remember the themes, motifs, and the glimmer of hope that somehow I’ve helped. I could tell you that each conversation started differently, but end almost at the same point: don’t try to escape…




Read time:

7 minutes

I can’t recall the amount of times I’ve been asked for advice, or how each conversation begins and ends. However, I can remember the themes, motifs, and the glimmer of hope that somehow I’ve helped. I could tell you that each conversation started differently, but end almost at the same point: don’t try to escape the present. It may tough, and it may hurt, but it will get better. There’s no better gift than that.

Admittedly, giving that sort of advice is a coin toss; after all, things getting better isn’t something that can be guaranteed or proven will happen. Consequently, trying to escape from the problems only provides a temporary relief that leads to even more pain. A situation won’t get better if it’s avoided: what might have been easily resolved or needed to be tackled head on becomes difficult and bigger in consequence. It’s asking the person to find strength to overcome the pain of the experience.

Equally challenging? Practicing what you preach.

Couple months ago, I was told by phone my grandma has cancer, one that might still be possibly terminal, and there’s nothing I can do to change it.

When the news first hit I wanted to run away from the problem and act as if it wasn’t there at all. Maybe if I found some sort of distraction that could keep me occupied I won’t feel the regrets that plagued me immediately after finding out; I should’ve talked more with her on the phone, I should’ve visited family out there more often, I should’ve been a better grandson: the list goes on.  However, the heart of my problems was a question I hated asking myself every time it crept into my mind: did I take her for granted? I know, the fun questions ++++ are rhetorical and come from an irrational place, but that doesn’t negate their existence in my mind.

When I saw Firewatch, I found myself resonating with it as much as a game I’d been following years ago, That Dragon, Cancer. Each game dealt with themes that coalesced into what I was experiencing.

It also reminded me of how important these types of games are because of the experiences they capture.

Distraction: The Pain of Loss

Firewatch is a story about a man named Henry who volunteers as the Two Forks Firewatch in the Wyoming Wilderness in the summer of 1989. Upon arriving at his station, he’s greeted over the radio by his “supervisor” named Delilah, who becomes the only source of human connection he’ll have. As Firewatch, they’re to keep an eye out for any signs of fire: smoke, flames, etc. However, what they end up finding out is that they’re not alone; someone has been watching and surveying them. As the mystery deepens, so does a fire begin to spread out throughout the park (half of their doing, half because of a natural fire). It’s only a matter of time before finding out not only the truth about the mystery man, but also about themselves.

Firewatch is a story about finding a distraction in the midst of pain. Each of the characters (including the mystery person) are all doing their best to avoid the problems they left at home: Henry’s wife Julia having dementia and his failing as a caretaker, Delilah and her relationship struggles, and even for the mystery man. There’s an implied recognition by both Delilah and Henry that they can only deny the truth for so long, but they’ll try for as long as they can.

That’s what I love about this game; it’s so human and real. The story isn’t really about what’s happening, but is fueled by everyone’s inner demons and their adverse reactions. Delilah and Henry are so flawed in every facet that you can’t help but relate to them. Even the mystery man is relatable, even if you may not agree with his choice of handling his issues.

While it’s easy to argue the ending is anticlimactic on a superficial level, the ending within the subtext is very powerful and moving. With evacuation necessary due to the fire spreading too fast, both Henry and Delilah know it’s time to face their demons.

Firewatch showed me that running away from my problems will only do so much for me, and only make the pain of my circumstances stronger. For the months before Firewatch’s release I fought my desire to run with my desire to face the truth head on. I would have lost so much time with my grandma by running away, but by embracing what’s happening now I get more time with her.


Memories: That Dragon, Cancer

That Dragon, Cancer is equal parts a game and a time capsule, retelling the story of a boy named Joel’s 4 year battle with terminal childhood cancer. It’s a poetic game interlacing real life moments throughout the years with imaginative storytelling moments. It’s a raw, uncomfortable experience from the perspective of the father who’s trying to remain hopeful in the face of death.

I haven’t been able to play the game yet (I’d been waiting to hear of its release and just found out it was released over a month ago), but based on what I’ve read over the years the game has strongly resonated with me. My experience may not end up the same way as Ryan’s has with his son Joel, but the experience of coming to grips with the situation hits on a very personal note — the struggle of remaining optimistic and trying to live in the present when you can only think about what’s coming in the future.

That’s what I love about this game; it’s about how all the moments you build up now up until it’s time are so vital and important. They’re going to be part of the treasure trove of experiences you go to enjoy with that person, as well as a way to honor their life. It’s the building of these moments that are going to matter, not what’s going to be. Being able to overcome that challenge of being in the present leads to the greatest of rewards.

More importantly, it’s a game that reflects as a contrast to Firewatch. Ryan and his wife didn’t run away from reality and instead lived in the moment with their son. Where they could have found various means of escape because the struggle was too hard, they found the strength to face reality with a smile, love and compassion.

It’s a beautiful reminder of how precious life is, and how little of time we have.

Games Like These are Important

Games like That Dragon, Cancer and Firewatch are important because they not only offer us a glimpse into those types of experiences from another perspective, but challenge us to be present in those moments. As a player, we’ve been placed in uncomfortable situations to invoke the feelings the characters are experiencing. Games like these can help us become better at empathizing and understanding what someone may be going through now.

It might even give us a better tool set to handle these issues right now, or in the future when it happens directly to ourselves.

These two games in particular served as a personal reminder that the time with my grandmother is far too precious to waste with worrying about what’s going to eventually happen. They’ve helped me realize that right now, more than ever, I need to be in the present to enjoy whatever time I can with my grandma. Running away from my problems won’t solve what lies ahead. It’ll only make the impact of what’s to come worse.

Games are like these are the ones that are necessary, and will make a huge impact in the industry.