Henry and Delilah be­come in­creas­ingly ag­i­tated by the im­plicit threat of some un­seen, un­known an­tag­o­nist

Sure is pretty up here. It’s just as well, re­ally, since in the ab­sence of just about any­thing to do, scenery is all this Wy­oming na­tional park has to of­fer. That, and soli­tude: pro­tag­o­nist Henry spends the sum­mer up here as a fire look­out and won’t see an­other face for the best part of three months. There are glimpses of other peo­ple, from time to time – a dis­tant shadow, the flash of a torch – and the oc­ca­sional old photo. But the Wy­oming wilder­ness is an empty, lonely place. It’s the per­fect spot for those look­ing to clear a con­fused head and mend a bro­ken heart.

Henry has both. The love of his life has been spir­ited away from their Colorado home to live with her fam­ily in Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia, af­ter be­ing di­ag­nosed with early-on­set Alzheimer’s while still in her 30s. Campo Santo spends the first five min­utes of Fire­watch aim­ing straight for the heart­strings, and ev­ery shot hits home. It’s a dev­as­tat­ing, del­i­cately han­dled and thor­oughly un­ex­pected way to start a videogame. Henry finds him­self alone not through in­fi­delity, death or the slow ro­man­tic at­ro­phy of a longterm re­la­tion­ship. In­stead this is a game that be­gins by putting a full stop on a mar­riage nei­ther party wanted to see end, leav­ing Henry griev­ing for some­one who isn’t even dead.

He’s a sym­pa­thetic fig­ure, then, yet you’re un­sure about Henry be­fore you’ve even taken con­trol of him. He’s a man who, faced with prob­lems, has cho­sen to turn and run, flout­ing the line in his wed­ding vows about sick­ness and health. While he’s clearly con­flicted about the things he’s done and the choices he’s made, he set­tles a lit­tle too eas­ily into his new gig.

Not that he has much choice. His first day brings an al­ter­ca­tion with a cou­ple of skinny-dip­ping teens who are set­ting off Ro­man can­dles in a park at peak fire risk. On his way back he glimpses a stranger who promptly van­ishes, and when he gets back to his look­out he finds it’s been bro­ken into and trashed. They’ve even stolen his sheets. It’s as el­e­gant an in­tro­duc­tion to this mys­te­ri­ous ad­ven­ture as its heart-wrench­ing prologue, im­me­di­ately putting you in a state of un­ease about who’s out there, what they want with you, and what you’re ac­tu­ally go­ing to spend your sum­mer do­ing. To talk about much more would be to spoil things, of course, but suf­fice it to say this is not the re­lax­ing, cleans­ing sum­mer Henry needed. There is sus­pi­cion, in­trigue and a se­ries of half-hints and semi-re­veals be­fore the cen­tral mys­tery, such as it is, is cleared up.

Henry isn’t en­tirely alone, thanks to the nearcon­stant avail­abil­ity on his hand­held ra­dio of Delilah, an­other look­out based a few miles away and vet­eran of a dozen sum­mers out here. She is, by turns, Henry’s tu­tor, han­dler, quest-giver, sound­ing board and con­fi­dante, and while she’s aloof and dryly sar­cas­tic at first, she soon warms up, and at times it’s clear that her in­ter­est in you ex­tends be­yond the pro­fes­sional. If you play it right, any­way. When it’s your turn to speak you’re given a hand­ful of choices, in­clud­ing the op­tion to not say any­thing, and the dy­namic of your en­tire re­la­tion­ship can change if you’re not care­ful. Since she’s all you have out there, a gen­tle hand might be the best ap­proach.

Con­ver­sa­tion is Fire­watch’s main me­chanic, though even dur­ing mo­ments of ra­dio si­lence this is no on-rails stroll. Clam­ber­ing, mantling and jump­ing are all mapped to the same, sin­gle but­ton press; ob­jects can be picked up and ex­am­ined, some trig­ger­ing new con­ver­sa­tion threads and oth­ers re­veal­ing an es­sen­tial item or clue when moved. Sim­ple nav­i­ga­tion is one of the game’s big­gest chal­lenges, re­quir­ing the use of a map and a com­pass that ob­scure your view and pre­vent sprint­ing when be­ing used. While you’re free to ex­plore for the most part, some gen­tle gear-gat­ing pre­vents you from ac­cess­ing a few routes un­til you’ve reached the part of the story where they make sense.

Henry and Delilah be­come in­creas­ingly ag­i­tated by the im­plicit threat of some un­seen, un­known an­tag­o­nist, and at times the player gets the same treat­ment from the game’s de­vel­oper. Campo Santo might make you think you’re in for a slog from one cor­ner of the map to the other, only to fade to black and wind the clock for­ward to the next chap­ter. When mak­ing a short, story-led game, you’d for­give a lit­tle pad­ding, but the pac­ing here is mas­ter­fully judged. Lit­tle me­chan­ics are in­tro­duced and made to feel vi­tal for all of ten min­utes be­fore be­ing sub­verted or aban­doned. Your first task for Delilah in­volves rap­pelling down a shale slide, but the rope snaps when you’re half­way down. You see a few more hook points dot­ted about and as­sume this is Campo Santo’s way of gat­ing off parts of the world – a feel­ing that lasts un­til the next day, when you find a backpack with an in­fi­nite sup­ply of ropes. Dot­ted about are pad­locked sup­ply caches, which you ex­pect will be hard to open and filled with good­ies. Not only are they all un­locked with the same code (1-2-3-4, nat­u­rally), but they rarely yield more than a cou­ple of books and a pinecone. The re­sult is that Fire­watch achieves this type of game’s great­est trick – the set­ting, and sub­vert­ing, of ex­pec­ta­tions – in not just its nar­ra­tive, but its me­chan­ics too.

The story’s the star, of course. Campo Santo’s writ­ers pre­vi­ously penned the first sea­son of Tell­tale’s The Walk­ing Dead, which spun an el­e­gant, af­fect­ing yarn about find­ing hu­man­ity where you least ex­pect it. Fire­watch, too, is a game of con­tra­dic­tion: one about a man griev­ing for some­one who isn’t dead, fall­ing for some­one he’s never seen, fear­ing a place he ex­pected to give com­fort and, later, find­ing only sad­ness in safety. It con­jures sus­pense and heart­break from the tall trees and wind­ing creeks of the Wy­oming coun­try­side, in a short game you won’t for­get in a hurry.

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