Warning: This review contains some spoilers from Firewatch

We are all a product of our choices in life — that's the lesson Firewatch tries to teach us right from the game's opening moments. The product of indie developer Campo Santo, this is a game that puts story at the forefront and focuses on character and narrative in the same way other titles cherish mechanics and visuals. It's a heartbreaking, life-affirming, emotionally devastating story that aims to hook you not with blistering action scenes but with the ramifications of your own decisions.

When Firewatch begins, your character, Henry, is a 20-something lost in a world that offers him nothing, until he meets Julia, the woman who will eventually become his wife. This relationship doesn't unfold on the screen in the traditional way — in fact, you never really get a look at Julia throughout the whole story. Instead, it plays out in branching dialogue windows, giving you choices on whether or not to have children, which type of dog to adopt and how to deal with the arguments that arise in all marriages.

These choices might not seem like big deals at first, but as the opening of the game progresses, and years pass, they get brought up again and again. A choice you made one year might put additional strain on your relationship the next — leaving your relationship with Julia in a completely different space. It might sound like an interesting video game dynamic on the surface, but it's just Campo Santo putting a spotlight on the ripple effect of all of our life choices here in the real world. To see these moments play out in a game, and in such a down-to-earth way, is a sobering reminder of the impact of all our choices.

No written synopsis of Firewatch will really do it justice, though, because as the years go on and the choices you face become more dire, it's impossible not to get pulled into this world. It might be hard to imagine just reading this review, but with the bare minimum of text, Campo Santo creates a deep, loving relationship between two characters that you never even see or really hear at first. It's more relatable than most titles you sink dozens of hours into, and the emotions feel more authentic than most movies and TV shows can ever dream of achieving.

And then it ends.

You see, the relationship with Julia is the preamble to the game itself. Once that's over (and how the relationship ends up will likely leave you stunned), Henry leaves his life to become a park ranger in charge of looking out for forest fires. It's here in the woods, alone, grief-stricken, where Firewatch begins its foray as an actual video game. Along with the friendly radio voice of Delilah, your supervisor, you literally take control of Henry's life as he tries to figure out his own future and unravel a bizarre mystery going on in the park.

In terms of gameplay, Firewatch is fairly simple: most of the missions involve retrieving items, disciplining rowdy teenagers and hunting for supplies. That's just the surface-level stuff, though. In terms of gameplay, Firewatch won't leave you reaching for a cigarette once you're done; however, the story from Campo Santo is so consuming that eventually you'll see gameplay as just a tool to advance this beautiful narrative.

While trudging through the forest, covering the same ground dozens of times and getting lost on every trip can get downright dull after a while, each mission — no matter how insignificant — explores another layer of Henry's character and unravels a new thread in the story. You forget that the gameplay is fairly one-note and shallow because the story wrapped around it is so intricate and nuanced.

Though the actual nuts-and-bolts controls of Firewatch might be fairly bare bones, the visuals are actually quite striking. The cel-shaded, cartoonish feel adds an unexpected dimension to the story, bringing an ambiance that distinguishes the game from anything else on the market. Don't let the cartoonish elements fool you, though, because the environment in the game is extremely detailed, ranging from sun-scorched canyons to lush forest and streams.

From the shafts of light breaking through tree branches, to the different plant life inhabiting the park, Firewatch is gorgeous on every level. Even the views of this digital park are breathtaking — for an indoor enthusiast like myself, looking down on a lush forest from atop a canyon wall almost makes me want to take up hiking myself. Almost.

One of the best things Firewatch brings to the table is knowing when to end. Despite some hiking and back-tracking missions that seem overlong, the story itself never drags. For such a narrative-heavy game, that's key. This is a tight, focused experience that flourishes when it keys in on the human element of the story. It only takes a couple hours to go through the whole story, but with all of the different choices at hand, it's easy to see gamers going back and trying to have a different relationship with Julia in the beginning or Delilah near the end.

Firewatch is an incredibly hard game to review. The story is so personal and so unique to each player that to give it a blanket summation seems unfair. And the gameplay may be weak, but that's not really the point of the experience in the first place. What you need to know is that Campo Santo further bridges the gap between gameplay and storytelling here, and while Firewatch doesn't offer any really interesting mechanics, it does provide a story that is completely fresh for the medium.

This review was done on a Playstation 4. Firewatch releases for Windows, Mac, Linux, and PlayStation 4 on Feb. 9.

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