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Firewatch - green forest of birch trees
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Polygon’s 2016 Games of the Year #4: Firewatch

For most of my life, I read books. I read books like dogs eat up treats: quickly, happily, voraciously. I'd clutch a hardcover and lie perfectly still, motionless for hours until I was hundreds of pages deep or, better yet, done with yet another great read.

I read dozens of books every year, racing through them with the speed and compulsion of an athlete. It was something I liked about myself. My love for reading was my best quality, I thought; my taste was unparalleled, and the stories I chose to rip through were almost always affecting, gripping, unforgettable.

That's changed in recent months, for the worse. I fall into these literature-less funks sometimes. During those droughts, I start to forget the addictive power of a great read, looking for pleasure in quick bursts. A few hours of a game I sort of like will suffice, until I get hungry again for something more substantive not long after.

This year I found myself in the driest spell of my life. It was one of 2016's smaller-scale tragedies, one that only I noticed and felt. The books on my shelf sat patiently in wait. I indulged in empty calories instead: bad pop music, lengthy but lackluster role-playing games and way too much TV. Those things kept me going for a while, but they didn't get rid of that guilt in the back of my mind: You should be doing something else. You would be happier doing something else.

It took me a long time to really listen to that voice. I have Firewatch to thank for waking me up.

Obviously, Firewatch isn't a book. It’s something just as powerful, though: a game with a story so powerful, I couldn't bear to step away from the controller until it was 3 a.m. and the credits had rolled. When I did, I couldn't stop thinking about it: its characters, and what happened to them, and the national park that was home to us all for the five or so hours it took me to finish their story.

A triumph of audiovisual storytelling, Firewatch is equal parts novelistic and cinematic. From the very beginning, I knew I was in for something special. Although the game is beautiful, the prologue makes it plain that that's not why anyone's here. It's all text, no imagery; I wanted a great story comparable to my favorite books, so it was time to gear up: Within the first five or 10 minutes, Henry and his wife's relationship is built up and broken down. My heart was, too, and I'd spend the rest of the game picking up the pieces.

Parts of the game make that easy, thanks to the spunky and unseen Delilah. Henry's first task as a boozy park ranger on his own — tiptoeing through an abandoned, litter-strewn campground to find some juvenile delinquents skinny-dipping in a lake — was way easier with her guidance. She continued to have his back as the fear factor ramped up, and her voice became soothing like a buzzing radio. It's why the truly terrifying reveal toward the end is so heartbreaking: The game gives you the choice of how, or even if, to break Henry's big discovery about someone important to Delilah. After becoming so invested in their story and relationship, it was one of the toughest choices I've had to make as a player. Whatever option I chose, I knew it would hurt both Henry and Delilah, and so I hurt them.

Firewatch left so much unseen — faces, futures — and instead let me fill in the blanks. That's a mark of a great story, to my mind; give the reader a little bit of rope so they have the means to pull themselves up, but leave the rest up to them. But that's actually true in the case of video games, as Henry has different dialogue options that subtly changed the nature of his relationship to the woman in his walkie talkie. Saying the wrong thing felt even more painful than it would have in a novelization of Firewatch; it was my fault alone that Henry did anything to piss anyone off.

That's a big part of why I took my time with Firewatch, walking the full expanse of the Shoshone National Forest.

Another testament to Firewatch's literary power is that, unlike other games, it rarely relies on its visuals to move the story along or grab the player. I'll never forget that burning sky that gets ever redder throughout, but it's the solitary moments of Henry trudging through the woods, armed with just a compass and map and Delilah's voice in a walkie talkie, that stay with me. I pulled myself through that riveting story in one sitting, treating every moment like a sentence I had to read and re-read for full meaning.

Just as there are no perfect books, Firewatch's narrative is not perfectly satisfying, but it's about the journey, right? And at the end of mine, I emerged anew, ready and raring to take on every story I could get my hands on, in the hopes that I'd again find one as lovely as that of Firewatch.

Polygon is counting down our favorite games of 2016. For more on the process behind how we choose our top 10, read this guide to our voting process.