What makes a game a game? That question has arisen around some of the most popular independent video games of the last few years - titles like "Gone Home," ''Her Story" and "That Dragon, Cancer" that steer away from traditional video-game mechanics in favor of narrative and character development.
"Firewatch" (Campo Santo, for PlayStation 4, PC, Mac, $19.99) left me wondering at times if I was playing a game at all. I spent long stretches of it simply hiking around its setting, a lush national park, without much to do other than discourage a couple of drunken teenagers from shooting fireworks.
The protagonist is a schmo named Henry who's at the tail end of a marriage gone wrong. He escapes to the Wyoming wilderness and takes a job as a fire lookout, living alone in a tower and keeping an eye out for smoke. His only human contact is his boss, Delilah, who contacts him by radio a few times a day.
Most of the story in "Firewatch" emerges from those conversations with Delilah, a funny, sarcastic, flirtatious yet faceless presence. The only "game-like" obstacles occur when Henry has to chop down a tree or climb some rocks, and those are accomplished easily enough with one push of a button. Eventually, Henry stumbles upon some nefarious doings in the forest.
While Henry and Delilah try to solve the mystery, he does a lot of walking. Granted, the forest is pretty, drawn in a painterly style that evokes both calm and foreboding. Still, if I wanted to spend the weekend hiking, I might actually, you know, go hiking.
"Firewatch" delivers some lovely images, but its storytelling is so laid-back that I dozed off a few times with my controller in my hands. Two stars out of four.
"Unravel" (Electronic Arts/Coldwood Interactive, for PS4, Xbox One, PC, $19.99), on the other hand, is unquestionably a game. Indeed, it's the type of game that's been a staple since "Super Mario Bros.": You move left to right, navigating around obstacles and avoiding monsters that want to eat you.
The hero, Yarny, is a skein of red yarn that's magically transformed into a sentient, cat-like creature. Yarny can turn his thread into a lasso, then use that thread to climb trees. He can create trampolines that let him jump a little higher. If he's lucky, he might hitch a ride on a passing kite.
He's not the most versatile guy; the yarn-based lead character of last year's "Yoshi's Woolly World" makes him look like a slacker. And the puzzles in "Unravel" don't have enough variety, even at its relatively short six-hour length.
"Unravel" does look gorgeous, with vivid landscapes drawn with painstaking detail. But it's a shallow experience, and its attempt at narrative depth ￢ﾀﾔ the yarn connects the memories of a sad old woman's life ￢ﾀﾔ is sentimental hokum. Two stars out of four.
Follow Lou Kesten on Twitter @lkesten.
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