Firewatch: A thrilling pursuit of discovery in the Wyoming wilderness - Games Weekly

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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Firewatch: A thrilling pursuit of discovery in the Wyoming wilderness

How far can your curiosity to unravel a story, world, and its characters drive you? Thanks to games like Gone Home, exploratory storytelling is taking off, showcasing how fun it can be to piece things together with few details. This is the approach for the debut game by Campo Santo, a studio packed with talent from Telltale Games, 2K Marin, and Klei Entertainment. Firewatch lets your intrigue guide you through the Wyoming wilderness as a fire lookout who’s trying to get his life back on track.

Since Firewatch’s announcement, Campo Santo has had difficulty conveying its game to the public. “Trying to describe this game is very hard... very challenging,” says designer and writer Sean Vanaman. The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home is always his go-to example describing the gameplay, so much so that Vanaman jokes that he keeps trying not to bring it with him when talking about Firewatch.


Campo Santo announced the game over a year ago, but it wasn’t until this past Game Developers Conference that people could play a portion of it. While it’s still shrouded in mystery, my hands-on time gave a better idea of the adventure, and it’s already holding a lot of promise.

Meet Henry
Firewatch begins with sparse details about the man whose shoes you’re stepping into. You read a short paragraph that details the awful year our main character, Henry, has experienced. His marriage has fallen apart and he’s had some trouble with drinking and driving. This leads him to move from Colorado to Wyoming, taking a job as fire lookout to gain some perspective. You’re then transported to a first-person view, controlling Henry as he communicates with his supervisor Delilah over radio.

I notice right away he’s still wearing his wedding ring, immediately wondering its significance, and this is exactly what Campo Santo wants to achieve. “We put that wedding ring on that finger in hopes that people would notice it and think about it,” says creative director Jake Rodkin. “The game is all about those details,” Vanaman adds. “Only half the story takes place in the dialogue.”

I also notice that Henry doesn’t appear to be the fittest guy. His arms and legs look average, not showcasing much muscle at all. Still, Henry has some strength to make his way through the wilderness. He can also rock climb to get around.

Your First Day On The Job
Firewatch starts on Henry’s first day and soon jumps forward to different days on the job. This allows the player to see how Henry rapidly changes during his time in Wyoming. It also serves for the player to observe the differences and fill in the blanks from the days they don’t see.

Each day has some sort of task, usually something for Henry to investigate. For Henry’s first day, he spots some suspicious activity. His job is to report questionable things to Delilah, and you respond to her via dialogue options. In this case, someone is having a celebration of sorts; beer cans, a bottle of whiskey, and fireworks litter the area. Henry then comes across some bras and panties, which you can choose to report to Delilah for some humorous dialogue. He’s clearly embarrassed, and Delilah takes great delight in asking him if he’s 12.

The dialogue also reacts to your actions as a player. As Henry follows the missing garments, he soon finds teenage girls skinnydipping on the beach. They’re far out, so I pick up their radio to get their attention then throw it in just to get a rise out of them. That gets their attention all right; they’re now yelling a bunch of expletives at me, calling me a creep. I didn’t have to go that far. I had dialogue options to simply reason with them, but that’s part of the fun.

Campo Santo has been playtesting to see what players would do in these situations, so appropriate dialogue reflects their actions. This scene can play out in a number of ways. “Some of my favorite things are grabbing the fireworks and throwing those in, bringing their whiskey in, just letting them yell at you,” Vanaman says. “My favorite play tester just grabbed the radio and held it. You can just walk out of there holding it, and they’re like, ‘Hey! Where are you going?!’ And then if you call Delilah, she’ll say [she] can’t hear what you’re saying because you have the radio in your hand,” Rodkin adds.

Something Is Awry
Don’t expect your time in Firewatch to be all fun and games. Various signs hint more is going on than meets the eye. During my demo, the first thing that stood out was going off the beaten path and encountering a tree with weird claw marks. I report them, but Deliah insists it’s probably just a bear. Things get even weirder when I spot a shadowy figure in the distance; I let Delilah know and she tells me to keep an eye out for him, but doesn’t seem too concerned. She insists, “Bad things don’t happen here.” This makes me all the more suspicious.

The demo ends with me approaching my tower and intense heart-pounding music beginning as I spot a typewriter on the ground, which is odd. As I go up the steps to my tower, I see broken windows, books thrown all over the ground, and missing bed sheets. Somebody has broken into Henry’s place. Reporting things to Delilah, she asks me who I think it could be. I could blame the skinnydippers, point to the suspicious figure that ran off, or not pick a culprit. I blame the man I saw earlier and Delilah says she’ll notify the police to be on the lookout for him. This decision will have repercussions. “That stuff comes around in day two,” Vanaman says. “That’s the hardest part about the game. It can affect stuff that happens in the plot, the world you’re walking into. Something I’ve kind of realized and learned with The Walking Dead [is] people are really good at remembering the continuity of a relationship to the tiniest details.”

This means what you report and don’t report to Delilah may affect the relationship, and you can expect some of your dialogue choices to come up again in the conversation. Vanaman thinks about the players’ actions in the context of the relationship. If you don’t report something, does that mean you don’t trust Delilah? How would she feel finding out you didn’t give her the full story?  “Omission matters when it matters to the characters,” Vanaman says. “What matters to the characters should matter for the player if we’re doing our jobs correctly.”

Between the claw marks, break-in, and Delilah’s insistence on how safe the place is, it’s easy to read deeper into something else going on. Both Rodkin and Vanaman emphasized there’s a deep mystery to uncover beyond just the characters, even citing the film Zodiac  as a big inspiration for the game. “It’s also important for us to point out it’s a thriller and an entertaining game up front,” Vanaman says. “We’re not setting out to make an art game. [But] we think it’s very artistic and it has a message.”

“We want there to be content and characters that people engage with on a real emotional level, but at the same time we do want them to actually be thrilled and be scared and embroiled in a mystery and feel like they’re making progress on that and having a concrete relationship with a real person,” Rodkin adds.

My head is already spinning from my demo. How will Henry and Delilah’s relationship grow? Is there anything blossoming there? Is someone or something set to torture Henry? What other crazy things will he encounter  outside of skinnydipping teens? From the onset, the world and characters hooked me, and I can’t wait to find out more.

Voice Actors Communicate Like The Characters
Delilah serves as Henry’s only confidant in the solitude of the wilderness, and these two instantly have a camaraderie and natural banter. The voice actors Rich Sommer, best known from Mad Men as Harry Crane, and Cissy Jones, who voiced Katjaa in Telltale’s The Walking Dead, actually have conversations in a similar way to their characters. They record over Skype conference calls and had never even met face-to-face until this year’s Game Developers Conference.

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