Indie games about dealing with difficult mental problems are hardly anything new (see Rime, Journey, Gris, and Celeste, just to name a few), and joining their ranks is relaxing puzzler The Last Campfire. This adorable little game sees players exploring a beautiful world filled with people to help and challenges to overcome. It’s a fairly quiet title that released without much fanfare, contrasting the last title from Hello Games, No Man’s Sky.
The Last Campfire differentiates itself from the games mentioned earlier in both its gameplay and its story. This isn’t a tale about processing your grief like in Rime, nor is it about learning how to deal with anxiety like Celeste. Instead, The Last Campfire is much more interested in what happens after you’ve come to such realizations – and where you go from there.
A Helping Hand
The Last Campfire focuses on Ember, a small creature who finds themselves lost in a mysterious world. As they explore, they encounter Forlorn – embers like them who turned to stone as they gave up hope. Ember can help pull them out of their despair, which is represented by solving a puzzle that seems to take place inside the Forlorn’s head. This awakens the Forlorn and later they can be found at the area’s campfire.
Along the way, Ember meets the Forest King, a massive birdlike creature who tries to prevent all the embers from moving on to the eponymous last campfire. It’s later revealed that this King is just an elaborate contraption being controlled by the Wanderer, an ember who appears occasionally in the distance. The Wanderer laments that there is nothing after the final campfire, that this place is all there is, and then turns Forlorn, prompting Ember to help them. Afterwards, Ember, the Wanderer, and all the embers you helped travel to the Last Campfire together.
Into the Unknown
It wouldn’t be out of place to say that The Last Campfire is a metaphor for death. The world the embers inhabit is strange and could be called a limbo or purgatory of sorts. The Wanderer’s statements certainly support this hypothesis as well given that they talk about how there is nothing else after the last campfire and how they created the Forest King in order to keep others safe from that fate.
It’s certainly possible to read this game as a story about accepting one’s own mortality, though that doesn’t seem to be everything that the game is talking about. Delving a little bit deeper into the characters and the dialogue reveals that the theme of moving on is applied much more broadly than simply to symbolize death. Through its systems and dialogue, we can understand The Last Campfire as a game about moving past trauma and re-entering the world.
Let’s Go Camping
Each of the Forlorn who you help has a different reason for turning Forlorn – maybe they left their friends behind or were abandoned themselves, or perhaps they got caught up in anxiety or self-doubt. The problems these embers face are broad and varied as each of them have their own experiences and their own problems to overcome in order to move on. You even encounter Forlorn who reject your help altogether as they – for whatever reason – simply aren’t ready to move on yet.
The embers you do help wind up at the campfires, where they sit and talk about their experiences. It’s not a stretch to liken this sort of setting to group therapy – different people facing different challenges who nonetheless come together to support one another. You are effectively creating a space for these embers where they can be comfortable to share their stories and their difficulties with others, which in turn can help them move forward.
The End of the Road
What’s very telling about the game’s themes is that it refers to the fires where the embers gather as campfires. Camping is, by its nature, transitory. At the end of the trip, you pack up your tent, put out the fire, and go home. It isn’t a place you stay forever but rather a place you visit until you’re ready to return to the world.
The Last Campfire likens the groups of embers supporting each other to sitting around a campfire. They know that they will have to leave eventually but for the moment are happy to sit around the fire, talking and listening. This mirrors the path of recovering from trauma as you must take the time you need to process what you’re feeling, but the end goal is still to rejoin the world when you’re ready. It may be scary and uncertain – as the Wanderer demonstrates, it may even feel like there’s nothing left after that final campfire – but remaining where you are is not a solution. The journey can be long and it can be difficult, with many bumps and setbacks along the way, but you will be ready one day.
A New Day
These themes are somewhat simplified in The Last Campfire but they are certainly present. It’s a game that could easily be played by children and as such it doesn’t touch on the darker and more intense traumas that many people go through. What it does do is provide a framework for handling such things as it teaches that it’s okay to not be ready to move on, even as it encourages us to seek out help and support. Whatever our path to recovery may be, The Last Campfire tells us to keep at it, even when we can’t always see what’s ahead.
It’s a fascinating take in this genre of indie games dealing with mental issues. So many titles deal with the specific challenges themselves such as depression or grief or anxiety, but rarely do they touch on what happens afterwards. It can be frightening to imagine yourself returning to the world and it can feel like you’re abandoning your support system by doing so, but The Last Campfire ends on a hopeful note – it’s okay to move forward, so long as we move forward together.