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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Firewatch review

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Gorgeous and clever, Campo Santo's debut is a triumph of craft - but it may keep you at arm's length.

Her first question is: what's wrong with you? That's Delilah, Henry's new boss, talking to him over the radio as he takes in his surroundings.

As luck would have it, I knew exactly what was wrong with him. I'd spent the game's opening minutes choosing between quiet human tragedies in order to give Henry a backstory, a narrative sufficiently stocked with devastating personal failings and disappointments to ensure that he would run away here, to a lonely lookout tower in the middle of a forest in Wyoming. What a place to spend the summer! A rickety bedsit at the top of the world. Isolation, in an era before mobile phones and social networks, where the only tweeting is from the birds. The kind of isolation that can get inside you, frankly. The job is simple enough: scan the horizon and watch the forest for flames. Call them in when you see them. Bear witness - and maybe witness a few bears while you're at it.

Firewatch looks like a wilderness adventure, but really it's a character-driven game, an internal mystery - and as such, though I've avoided anything explicit, it's hard to discuss it without spoiling something or other. Proceed with caution. Anyway, that horizon you're faced with is Firewatch's greatest asset. Mountains, clouds, an expanse of tinted sky. Silver in the early morning. Lurid, throbbing orange when the sun begins to set. There's such a lot of horizon to take in, and that's the point. Something bad is happening, but you don't know exactly what form it will take, and you don't know exactly where it will show itself. Fire is not enough here, in other words. Something deeper must be smouldering away alongside it, waiting to erupt. It must be! What's wrong with you?

Firewatch could have been a game about studying the horizon. That would have worked fine, I think: mechanical and taxing, a Paper's, Please for outward-bounders. The fire table in your lookout cabin could have been more than a wry prop, and you could have spent a pleasantly anxious couple of hours triangulating flames and lights and waiting for the big one. You could have been content with that. But backstory happened. Firewatching is Henry's job, and contentment is not part of the Henry deal. Your job is watching Henry. Your job is wriggling your way into his life and speculating about the things that happen around him. You control Henry, more or less, and you see the world in first-person through Henry's eyes, but you are not Henry and you never will be. When the game asks for choices - and they tend to be small, critical but small - the most you can do is tilt Henry a little in one direction or the other. You choose between choices that Henry has already very nearly settled on himself.

Somewhere along the line you pick up a camera, but if you're playing on PC F12 will already be your best friend.

And Henry is everywhere in Firewatch. As the game unfolds, day one giving way to day two, day three, day 55, you're learning about Henry as much as you're learning about the landscape that the game plays out in. The landscape itself is an absolute triumph: a small but multi-faceted square of wilderness with streams, lakes, caves and secrets. Each day presents Henry with its own task - kids messing around down by the shore, reports of a severed power-line up on a bluff - and so Henry grabs his map and his compass and heads off, with you guiding the way. It's really a beautiful environment, a coherent and stylised take on nature that borrows the flat pastel colours and sharp lines of a romantic old travel poster, without losing any of the toughness that comes with rocks and streams and bracken. Even its slow unfolding is done with a sweeter grace than that of most gear-gated adventures. Yes, this is a place you'd want to get lost in, if only it weren't for the map in your hands, magically showing your position with every step - a concession that presumably caused huge arguments at Campo Santo, the developer behind all this. Maybe you need concessions, but how many? Firewatch is all about the wild, but over time, and beneath the glorious surface, it becomes clear that it is not particularly wild itself.

Even without the magical map, Henry isn't alone. Delilah is a constant companion, and while the map and the compass are a bit of a fumble, the radio you use to communicate with her is absolutely brilliant. A bumper allows you to select basic responses while a timer ticks down, then a squeeze and release of the trigger locks you in, and passes agency from you to Henry, who fills in the blanks. CB paradise, good buddy. And hey, what's wrong with Delilah? She's chosen this lonely life, too. Her own tower is visible on the horizon, windows angular and bright and unreadable. She's funny and warm, and slightly scary at times: a bit of a drinker? A bit of a mystery. She's watching Henry, but how closely? And for what reasons? And is anyone watching her?

Firewatch is very good at this: the geometry of paranoia. It eschews puzzles for the most part, and the most that is asked of you in terms of physical control is to get Henry from A to B and to fumble with the odd point of interest - an abandoned pack hanging on a splinter of wood, the combination lock for one of the ranger storage chests that are scattered all over the place. But on the other side of the screen you are kept very busy indeed. As Henry watches the trees and grass and sky, as Delilah watches Henry from her position in the far mountains, you watch the both of them, and you're tacitly encouraged to guess where all this might be going. Hitchcockian threads are left dangling throughout: a colleague who disappeared, rumours of a wandering bear, those kids by the lake who have been drinking, those scientists up on the hill. And, like any good Hitchcock, Firewatch is relying on you, the audience, to muddle stuff up - to complicate, to confuse, to make things tawdry, romantic, supernatural. But what if you're right?

Cache 307 is a lending library - a lovely touch, especially when Olly Moss in on board.

This may sound a bit manipulative, but throughout its machinations, Firewatch is endearingly eager to be appreciated. Appreciated for its art, by Olly Moss and Jane Ng, which is genuinely transporting in its vividness and colour. For the elegance with which it guides you from one moment to the next, allowing you the room to think without having to fumble your way through busywork. For the classiness with which it picks its self-consciously grown-up themes and grants you judgement.

And anyway, the moment-to-moment story doesn't ultimately matter as much as you might expect - or rather, it's not really the primary focus. Firewatch sells itself as a mystery, but over time I came to think that it's not a narrative game so much as it's a character piece. Its Wyoming map presents a geographical prison, and it serves to remind you that Henry is a prison too. He's there to trap you: in the moments when there are ways you would like to react to something that do not fall within his parameters, and things you would like to say that he will not find the language for. It's easy to write this off as a constraint of narrative game design itself, a kind of internalised invisible wall, but it actually feels like something more here - like character expressed through game design constraints.

Character expressed slyly, too. Like Gone Home, Firewatch knows that even a second or two faced full-on with an in-game character model will kill any human drama dead (there are a couple of cartoony photographs visible at crucial moments, and even these feel like mistakes), but whenever Henry climbs over a rock or eases himself up a slope, you get to catch a quick glimpse of part of him: his hammy, sunburned arms, his tubby body snug in T-shirts and shorts. It can be hard to fully respect a man wearing shorts, and context aside, every glance quietly confirms a sense of arrested development. Of a boy fleeing the pressures of an adult world.

Henry is a very considered piece of work, in other words, carefully arranged to elicit a measured degree of pity, fear and even quiet empathy as and when the internal clockwork of the game demands it. In that you have the brilliance of Firewatch and also, I think, its limitations. Firewatch is a triumph of craft, but the consequence is that, when it comes to genuine emotional involvement, it always keeps you at a slight distance. The price of this kind of cleverness is spontaneity. Like anybody who knows they're being watched, Firewatch is just a little too self-conscious.

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