What makes a game a game? That question has arisen around some of the more popular independent video games of the past few years - titles such as "Gone Home," ''Her Story" and "That Dragon, Cancer" that steer away from traditional 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 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. The only "gamelike" obstacles occur when Henry has to chop down a tree or climb some rocks, and those are accomplished 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. And if I wanted to spend the weekend hiking, I might, 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.
"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 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.
The puzzles in "Unravel" don't have enough variety. It's a shallow experience, and its attempt at narrative depth - the yarn connects the memories of a sad old woman's life - is sentimental hokum.