I often catch myself when talking about new releases I've been playing or upcoming titles I'm looking forward to and notice that tend to dance around using the word "game." It's not an entirely subconscious act on my part; I think "game" is a limiting term when discussing electronic entertainment.
It's a damn shame too, because weaseling in "electronic entertainment" in its feels like a hamfisted attempt to elevate importance.
Aside from the inherent immaturity of pegging something a "game" brings, it can also feel straight-up inaccurate. I had this feeling last week while playing through "Firewatch," the debut title from developer Campo Santo, released in early February.
"Firewatch" takes place in 1989 Wyoming as player-character Henry starts a job with the forest service manning a fire lookout post in the Shoshone National Forest. He left behind his life in Boulder, a neat local tie that feeds well into the outdoorsy setting — and CU also gets a few small mentions throughout. It's a peculiar setting for a game, and I was immediately sold on the concept.
The only company Henry keeps while out in the forest is through radio contact with Delilah, another lookout manning a different post tower in the region. The game doesn't have the typical grand scope that many try for, instead placing its focus on the limited cast of characters and a mystery building around the characters in the isolation of the woods. It's like the conversation-driven indie-film equivalent of AAA gaming blockbusters.
And like these subdued indie films, "Firewatch" is not so much focused on keeping gamers constantly entertained as much as it is about building characters and fleshing out a story. What constitutes gameplay here is searching through the wilderness with a map and compass while choosing different conversation prompts to drive the relationship between Henry and Delilah.
The writing and voice acting in "Firewatch" is pretty stellar, particularly in the small moments at the beginning of the game when the two characters are just getting to know each other over airwaves. There are breezy back-and-forths that turn serious — and unlike many other games that have branching conversation systems divided into three options of noble response, neutral response and asshole response, all the speech options seem reasonable and fluid.
But wandering around the Shoshone isn't always fun. There's a good deal of backtracking through a somewhat limited (although pretty) setting. The recreated wilderness made me want to recede to the wilds for a few weeks, but there's a lot of time spent fumbling with map in one hand and radio in the other. Still, the meandering always held my interest as the two characters kept talking to each other as their personalities were built.
I don't want to come across as saying that when a game incorporates effective storytelling it ceases to be a game and becomes something more, with levels of merit and meaning that "Sonic the Hedgehog" will never reach. But it seems to be a rare focus for game makers to have a story be the main driver for progression rather than actual gameplay, and where the interactive aspect and intentions of the player take a backseat to character development, and I'm not sure if it's still a game at that point. Regardless, I hope to see more of it.
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