All Firewatch screenshots via FirewatchGame.com
A couple of weeks back, I was wrestling with an article on why I don't see myself diving into many 2016 video games. The reason: what's yet to come out in 2015, particularly Fallout 4 and No Man's Sky (it pays to be optimistic), could easily keep me occupied for a solid 12 months, leaving many releases from the first half of next year, at least, collecting dust on the shelf – assuming I even bother to pick them up. I canned it, because the truth is that I rarely get so into a game that I actually want to see everything it has to offer, from the main campaign through to all the side-missions and optional quests and collectibles and so on and so forth. The fact is that most games just aren't so good that they can keep me hooked for the length of whatever story it is that they're trying to tell. And I'm sure you can relate.
I've "finished" (i.e., not 100 percented, because who the hell has that much time going spare in their lives?) only a handful of big games in 2015. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Batman: Arkham Knight and The Order: 1886 (jokes, as who hasn't) are the first three that spring to mind. There was Until Dawn, too, and a whole bunch of smaller titles like Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, the splendid Transformers: Devastation of the other week, and every episode of Life Is Strange. But my completion rate isn't so high with the significant time-sinks that I can begin to kid myself that Fallout 4 will become an obsession to overshadow all other games in the coming months, that the as-good-as-limitless exploration potential of No Man's Sky will preclude me from visiting other, smaller open worlds. Some of them fantastical, others rooted in reality, based on places you can visit in the flesh, set in times we've so recently lived through.
No amount of adoration for anything yet to be experienced this side of January 1st is going to keep me from powering up my PlayStation for Firewatch just as soon as the game's released on February 9th. It's the first game from a new San Francisco-based indie studio, Campo Santo (working in collaboration with Panic Inc), employees of which have quite the pedigree with past credits on Telltale's The Walking Dead, Mark of the Ninja, Puzzle Agent and BioShock 2, all of which are, face it, fucking amazing games.
Firewatch is set in Wyoming in 1989, the year after forest fires tore through the state's Yellowstone Park, causing unprecedented damage (which it has since recovered from). You play as Henry, a lookout working in Shoshone National Forest, whose job it is to watch out for threats to the wilderness that runs from his tower to the horizon in every direction. On the other end of his walkie-talkie is Delilah, who's watching everything that's going on from the comfort of her own tower – at least, that's what we're led to believe. Oh, and there's definitely someone else out here with you, and they might not be friendly. The imagery shown of the game so far is stunningly beautiful, a chunky, cartoon-like aesthetic mixed with the convincingly captured splendour of the natural world – graphic designer Olly Moss kicked off the look, before environment artist Jane Ng (The Cave, Spore) brought it to digital life.
Firewatch's writer and designer is Sean Vanaman, formerly of Telltale Games. I reached out to him to learn more about Campo Santo's debut as, while it looks sublime, immediately a virtual world I want to wander, it's not totally clear what it is that you, as Henry, are going to be doing.
'Firewatch', E3 2015 trailer
VICE: The game's just confirmed a release date of February 9th. What does that announcement mean to the team? Does it feel like you're creating in a sort of limbo prior to having a clarified end point, that's public?
Sean Vanaman: It really just brings everything into focus. We are very self-directed team – we don't have a publisher over our heads giving us milestones, we have to make our own. That can obviously be a recipe for disaster but it hasn't been for us, I think due to the majority of the team being so experienced. Nevertheless, the date on the calendar helps you make the grey-area decisions faster. Things like, "Do we do that sorta wish-listy thing we've always wanted?" You don't have to make a judgment call; you just do what you can with the time you have.
You've said that the game is now in its final stages, tweaking and testing, and finishing up the very last bits. From this position, looking back to when the project started, is the game living up to the ambitions you had at the outset?
That's a great question. Man. So, our original Firewatch pitch, both to Panic Inc. and to ourselves, was entirely "character-driven exploration thing". That was really it. We had tons of design ideas and some strong early visuals so we said, "Is there enough here that it's worth spending two years and X amount of money on?" The game is much more ambitious now in ways that I could not have imagined then. Being able to explore the whole world with no area-by-area loading. It's got more dialogue. The character story is totally different than what I thought. Earlier in my career I think that would've freaked me out in a quite a negative way.
Games aren't movies: you don't start with a complete script and see the movie from start to finish in your head before you start spending lots of time and money. You have to discover a game by making it, and if your game is story and character driven then you have to discover that story. Knowing that, I put a lot of specific ambitions aside and succumbed to the nature of the process. Any other ambitions are normally just, "Make something great and very high quality." In February, folks can let us know if we did that.
I love that I'm still not clear what the game is about, and yet I really want to play it, if that makes any sense at all. It strikes me as something completely refreshing, in terms of looks, sound, the whole package.
Well, hopefully that's not too big of a failure of marketing. But the game just doesn't slot into a defined genre that sets clear expectations. It's an adventure game with some systems. To me the game feels like playing a classic adventure game but with continuous control, no esoteric puzzles and a lot less un-directed, boring downtime.
Design wise, was it always vital to the team to make something that really stood out, just in screenshots, before the game was even played? How much iteration did the visuals go through?
In terms of the style, it's been an evolution. The art on our homepage was something Olly did at the very beginning of production and we made the game look like that in-engine – if you watch our most recent E3 trailer, note its final shot. That's all in-game footage. So no real "iterations" as much as it was one on-going evolution.
Article continues after the video below
The game has a real-life setting, both geographically and in terms of time. Did this rooting in reality prove a restriction as development progressed, or an invaluable framing for everything you were making?
Oh, it's definitely a framing. I really enjoy working that way. I was head writer on season one of The Walking Dead at Telltale and even then it was really important that we had "they are in X town, this man is from Y city" to inform everything. That choice does a lot of the connective-tissue work for you, and you can then fall into more of an anthropological mindset when thinking about building the world and architecting the systems. I hope that doesn't sound like bullshit. I love to learn about places so I think we'll always try to do that, even if we were to make something that was more genre or fiction or whatever. We can create worlds inside of those framings and, for me, I just get a lot out of it. I know so much more about Wyoming now thanks to Firewatch, and I grew up there!
You've got Mad Men's Rich Sommer voicing Henry, but I feel it's the Delilah role that may shine the brightest here, through only having a connection with her through her voice. How easy was it to cast Cissy Jones here? What led you to her for the role? I know that she starred in Telltale's The Walking Dead, so there's a connection there.
I wrote Delilah for Cissy Jones before we even started production. We started Campo Santo in October of 2013 and before we had an office I called her up and said, "You blew my mind as Katjaa in The Walking Dead, I'm writing this game with a female co-star, are you in?" And she said yes. A lot of it is that she's so easy to work with. She'll brighten your day. She gives you 100 percent trust in terms of direction. On The Walking Dead I had written a Belgian-American immigrant and she just went, learned the accent and nailed it. I was so impressed by that. Back when we cast her, everything was scary at that time: starting a company from scratch and making a game from scratch and using a new engine and the list goes on and on and on; so picking Cissy right then gave me, personally, a lot of creative comfort.
The talent on this game is just silly, from the art and design through to Chris Remo's music. Do you feel the stars have aligned for it?
Certainly. The thing I learned was that if someone was in, they were in. If we had to do a lot of selling or convincing to get someone's talents on the game, they weren't the right person. It's really easy to hand-wring over it, getting the people together, but Jake (Rodkin, Firewatch creative director) and I just sorta let the process happen, and I think that energy attracted people with the same energy and ambition. But yeah, there isn't a day that goes by where I'm not grateful for everyone here.
You know, thinking about the question of "did the stars align", I realised I just said "certainly", and I think that's true, but maybe not in the sense you were asking: did we just win the lottery, or something. I think "stars aligning" can really be the by-product of emotional honesty. We always were very clear about what we were trying to do, creatively, and what our limitations were financially and what upside we were putting on the table for being involved. If you put yourself out there when you're building your team, and really try to minimalize "selling" people on the idea, you'll get the right folks.
Is the game combat free? Presumably there are animals out there, not all of which will be friendly?
Yeah, the game is combat free. There are animals out there but "dealing with them" is not part of the experience. The way we make games and tell stories is about specific violence and drama, which I believe, if you're making characters that people are supposed to relate to, is really important. For instance, if someone you can relate to gets attacked by a bear, that is in almost all life-circumstances the most dramatic, intense, and extreme thing that happens in that person's life. It's really hard to tell a story where "killing the bear" is just "a thing you do" on the way to a bigger goal. We can both imagine a game where that's the case, certainly – a movie like The Edge with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin is a good example – but man, if our story has you killing "dangerous" wildlife in it then I believe that would have to be the core of the story and the experience. Does that make sense?
New on Motherboard: We Asked a Park Ranger if This Four-Eared Bunny Is a Nuclear Mutant
Sure does. What led to Firewatch being a console exclusive with PlayStation 4, rather than releasing across other consoles as well as PC and Mac?
We just really liked what we heard from them in terms of their excitement about the game and the energy they'd be putting behind it. We weren't in a position where we needed their money, or anyone else's, as we already had that sorted. So we were able to have frank conversations with them about what we wanted and what we needed, and it was an agreement that came along in a solid, organic way. I'm really impressed with they way they've worked with us and the culture they've built around the PlayStation. We also thought it would be ridiculously cool to see Firewatch on stage at E3 in, like, 8K resolution, and so did they.
What do you hope that players take away from their time with the game, when it's out? I sort of see it as fostering, or encouraging a sense of adventure… Like, just look at this wilderness here, isn't it amazing that we haven't concreted over it?
I certainly think that would be great, the game is a tacit celebration of that. It's a tough question to try to answer while I'm still working on the game… Like, there's no mission statement, there's no "this is a game about X idea", because I hope the game has enough inside of it that folks make of it what they want. Even if there was a mission statement, I wouldn't feel comfortable declaring it. Games are what you make of them as a player. I just really just hope you're entertained and I hope it's a game that leaves you thinking about something or feeling something, anything, when you turn it off; whether that's the sense of adventure you described or something else.
Firewatch is released for Mac, PC and PlayStation 4 on February 9th. Find more information at the game's official website.
More from VICE Gaming: