Firewatch: hope and heartbreak in the American wilderness

The outdoors in Firewatch isn’t like the outdoors in most games. It feels somehow bigger. This is a game set in Wyoming’s Yellowstone national park, a vast wilderness of lakes, mountains and hiking trails. When the sun began to set on my first day in the park – as the lead protagonist Henry, the volunteer fire lookout – it reminded me of rushing home at dusk while playing out as a kid, of escaping the dark as a small person in a big world.

This is all very deliberate. Firewatch is a relatively small and simple game, designed to engage players emotionally with a handful of basic, believable parts. It comes from a new studio, Campo Santo, though its dozen members have worked on lots of other games at various other studios. The lead artist, Jane Ng, worked on The Cave at Double Fine, while the writer/director pair, Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin, led the team behind the hugely acclaimed first season of The Walking Dead at Telltale Games.

Firewatch Photograph: Campo Santo

Campo Santo exists partly because of The Walking Dead. After its success, then-flatmates Vanaman and Rodkin realised if they didn’t strike out on their own at that moment they probably never would. The Walking Dead had given them experience of leading a team, and after 10m sales, games publishers were keen to talk business. There were offers, too, some for more money than they needed, but the pair were looking for an unusual level of creative control. Too much money, says Vanaman, comes with “too many meetings.”

In the end Campo Santo went into business with Panic, Inc, a software company from Oregon, better known for its FTP clients and MP3 players. This will be Panic’s first game, an unlikely departure which the company agreed to in part because of what Vanaman describes as an existing “personal, professional relationship.” Rodkin interrupts: “Let’s be honest about this professional connection, Sean. I made skins for their MP3 player when I was in college.”

Firewatch Photograph: Campo Santo

It all adds to the slightly unusual mix. Campo Santa seems a particular kind of place – with creative control written into its contract, the studio is happy to be completely open with its publisher (Panic has access to the team’s internal Slack chat) and development has been, if not without the odd bump, at least unfettered. The British artist Olly Moss, a friend of Rodkin and Vanaman, came on board early, and his artwork helped to explain the project to other prospective members of the team. They were looking for experienced developers who recognised the risk of a start-up (“If anyone ever said ‘This sounds perfect!’ I would stop them,” says Vanaman “It will not be perfect.”) and though there were some fixed ideas about the game Firewatch would eventually become, it was also shaped by who else joined the studio. “You design by hiring, sometimes” says Vanaman.

What Firewatch became is a first-person game primarily about exploration and story, rather than action or combat, nudging at the edges of a genre established by games like Dear Esther and Gone Home. Firewatch is not really about watching for fires, but what happens to Henry when his life reaches a point where the isolation of a lookout tower makes more sense than anything else. It’s a narrative game, with a mystery to unravel, though little is known beyond the fact that Henry finds evidence that something strange is going on out there. Deepening the interactivity of the experience are classic adventure game-style mechanics (picking up, inspecting and using items) and the game’s dialogue options, something carried over from Vanaman’s work on The Walking Dead. As Ng points out, at this level of production, and for a studio’s first game, it makes sense “to do what you’re good at.”

Firewatch Photograph: Campo Santo

In Firewatch these dialogue options shape what is, along with the American wilderness, another of the game’s key fixtures – the relationship between Henry and his unseen, distant supervisor, Delilah. Actually they start before that, in a text-only prologue sequence that, in a few economical minutes, establishes the reason Henry has volunteered for the Forest Service, devastates the player emotionally in a confoundingly straightforward way, and makes that first breath of mountain air seem like welcome escape from a decade-long slide into shadow.

It works. We totally get why Henry needs this job, why he’s quiet, and why the friendly Delilah – who he contacts via walkie-talkie and is his only contact with HQ and the world – is so appealing to him (and to us).

Vanaman stresses the importance of naturalistic writing to this kind of investment, with which he wants to “play on your emotions as an actual person.” Firewatch’s drama is all the more compelling precisely because its parts are unremarkable. There’s that feeling of the outdoors, the lack of a safety net afforded by streetlights and civilisation (there are no mobile phones in Firewatch’s 1989, and all in-game navigation is done with map and compass). And there’s the comfort and precariousness of the relationship with Delilah, who gains a certain power from being Henry’s only point of contact. The walkie-talkie through which they communicate is the focus of the game’s interaction, with Henry reporting objects and observations to her. She becomes his world – a subtle, human feeling of dependence that can easily shift into vulnerability (at one point I choose an undiplomatic response and Delilah steps away from her walkie-talkie, leaving me bereft).

Delilah and the walkie-talkie weren’t always this central. At one point, Ng says, Henry was going to interact with various people – other hikers, for example – but in terms of resources and time, having other characters physically appear in your game is “really expensive”. The realisation seems similar to that of UK developer The Chinese Room which adopted an equally lonely setting for its own rural drama, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.

Without physical interaction, Campo Santo re-focused on what was really important, a process of design by subtraction. “Sometimes when you accept your constraints completely, and design within them, you forget whether it was the constraint or the idea that drove it first,” says Vanaman. Henry and Delilah’s relationship now seems to be “what this is fundamentally about.”

Because of this, finding a voice for Henry was always going to be crucial. It’s not enough for the dialogue to read realistically, Vanaman says, it’s got to be spoken that way, too. The team drew up a wishlist of names, some based on the notion that the actor should resemble Henry physically – a stocky, Fred Flinstone type – and somewhere near the top was Mad Men’s Rich Sommer. Sommer, it turned out, is a big fan of board games, and followed Campo Santo’s programmer Patrick Ewing – who runs a blog about board games – on twitter. “Patrick said ‘I could just DM him…’” remembers Ng. He came in and impressed. “He’s energetic, interesting, fun to be around,” says Vanaman, who laughs about the sadsack on-screen image Sommer gained from Mad Men. “In street clothes, he’s the best-looking guy in the room.”

Vanaman and another member of the team, Nels Anderson, grew up in different parts of Wyoming, and there’s a glow of nostalgia to the game’s toasted sunsets, its stylised, airbrushed past. But setting Firewatch somewhere real and specific also made the storytelling easier, Vanaman says, and to help the team grasp the size and character of Yellowstone Campo Santo took a work field trip to the much closer Yosemite National Park. Rodkin says it was incredibly useful, especially for members of the team who hadn’t grown up in the States. Yosemite had a lookout tower built from the same blueprint as Henry’s in the game, and the trip become a contrast of scales – the huge space of the park, and the tiny details and objects it contained. It was this trip which brought home the sort of space in which the game took place, and helped shape that feeling of the somehow bigger.

“We had the most cheesy movie moment, like if there was a documentary crew filming the making of Firewatch,” Rodkin says. “It was Olly sitting on the railing looking out into the middle of nowhere. And he said: ‘I get it’”

Firewatch is released on Linux, Mac, PC and PS4 on 9 February.

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