Uncertain Futures: An Analysis of The Last Campfire

**SPOILER WARNING**

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.

Further Reading

With The Last Campfire, Hello Games is exploring a future beyond No Man’s Sky | GamesRadar+

Chasing the dream of four people in a room | Eurogamer

Hello Games’ Sean Murray on the studio’s next No Man’s Sky-sized game | Polygon

A Calming Journey: The Last Campfire Review

The Last Campfire is the latest title from indie studio Hello Games, and it puts players into the shoes of Ember, a lost little sprite of some kind navigating a strange and mysterious world. They seek the titular Last Campfire, where they will move on to something else – exactly what, it’s not clear. Each area you explore is dotted with the Forlorn – beings like you who turned to stone when they gave up hope. Helping them sends Ember into a miniature landscape where they must solve a short puzzle in order to help the Forlorn come back to themselves.

Gameplay: 3/5

The gameplay of The Last Campfire is largely fine. It deals with small puzzles, none of which are too difficult to figure out and often focus on positioning some object in the space in a specific way. This becomes very apparent once you acquire the lanthorn, an object that allows players to manipulate certain objects in the environment to create new paths or remove obstacles.

The systems of The Last Campfire are interesting, but they never really combine in any interesting ways. The first puzzle where you need to protect a flame from getting blown out is not that much more complex than the last puzzle where you do that again. Working out the solutions is still a satisfying task, but the game’s systems largely stand on their own.

Originality: 2/5

An indie game about dealing with difficult emotions through puzzles! Now where have I seen that before? All jokes aside, The Last Campfire is distinct from other similar games such as Gris, Rime, and Journey. Its gameplay and story are different from those titles, and it has its own art style that sets it apart.

However, there isn’t really anything new in this game. Spatial reasoning puzzles make up the bulk of its gameplay, which is nothing that hasn’t been done before, and the various other systems like fire and wind management aren’t very remarkable either. It’s not derivative by any stretch of the imagination, but it doesn’t bring any fresh ideas to the table, either.

Accessibility: 3/5

The Last Campfire is a mechanically simple game – and that works very well for it when it comes to accessibility. Players are limited to three total actions – move, interact, and play the lanthorn. This dramatically reduces the learning curve compared to other games which have a number of complicated systems using a myriad of buttons to control things. The Last Campfire is an exercise in control-minimalism, which makes it very easy to understand how to play without any real tutorials.

The absence of certain other accessibility features is notable, though. There is no colorblind mode and no option to remap the controls (at least on the Switch, where I played the game). There is no way to increase the text size of the narrative popups, either. The Last Campfire still winds up being pretty accessible due to its simple controls, but could improve in some areas.

Look: 4/5

One of The Last Campfire’s best selling points is its artistic style – the game is just nice to look at, from the gloomy caverns to the swampy marshes. The characters’ designs all really stand out as unique and memorable, ensuring that you won’t soon forget the massive pig that demanded treats, or the lonely fisherman waiting for a bite.

It’s not the most graphically demanding game, to be sure, but it still looks beautiful. Everything about the world, no matter how strange and disparate it may seem, works together to achieve a cohesive visual philosophy. Its takes some talent to make a boat building robot, a massive bird creature, and a tortoise chef all fit into one aesthetic, but this game succeeds.

Story: 4/5

The story of The Last Campfire is its other major draw. It’s a solid tale about the challenges of moving past difficulties in life. The nature of these difficulties are left vague for most characters, with only brief hints given to the struggles they face, letting the story feel relevant to any number of personal challenges. The message seems to be about helping people, and how that can help you on your own journey as well given that Ember must bring back a certain number of Forlorn in each area to progress.

One element that I personally didn’t care for was the narrator. The actual narration was fine, and the voice was never obtrusive or unpleasant, but it felt largely unnecessary to have someone speaking the dialogue and descriptions that appeared onscreen. This game felt like it could easily have followed in the footsteps of those I mentioned earlier (Gris, Rime, Journey) and done away with narration – and indeed, much of the dialogue. This may be my own preferences, but the narrator just made the voices of all the characters feel too similar and didn’t seem to contribute to the story enough to warrant their inclusion.

In Conclusion

The Last Campfire is a pleasant and relaxing game, albeit not a very challenging one. It’s a nice few hours and can be very cathartic if you’re taking a break from more intense games. While it’s not the best game ever made (really, what game is?), it’s certainly worth the cost and makes for an enjoyable experience.

Final Tally: 16/25