Imagine being lonely. Not ‘no dates for a year’ kind of lonely. No, we’re talking no physical human contact for days on end, with only a voice on the phone for company. Then, things start to get tense. Trust erodes. What would that do you? Firewatch aims to find out.
The indie game is coming next year from Campo Santo, a dev studio made up of people who worked on The Walking Dead, Mark of the Ninja, BioShock 2 and Gone Home. Players will be controlling Henry, a man who goes on a stint as a volunteer firewatch lookout in 1989 Wyoming after he makes a bunch of not-so-smart life choices. The only person he regularly talks to is Delilah, another lookout who works with him to help spot and end the incidents that can spark epically disastrous forest fires.
I saw a quick demo of the game’s first ten minutes at PAX Prime last week and from what I’ve seen, Firewatch is at its core a game about how two people talk to each other. The chunk of Firewatch that I saw had Henry getting used to his surroundings in the watchtower while Delilah ribbed him. Their joking around was interrupted by a sudden blast of fireworks over the horizon. Lighting rockets in a national park is a big no-no and Delilah urged Henry to go investigate where and by whom the fireworks were being set off.
Tracking down the rockets to a campsite with a smouldering fire that can be stamped out, Henry then followed a trail of clothes — women’s underwear, mostly — to the shore of a lake. When talking about the fact that he might have to get authoritative with naked people, Delilah snorts back at him. “What, afraid you might see a p-p-penis?” The player can then tell Delilah that it’s two girls who are doing the drinking and horsing around. Or not. Yelling at the skinny-dipping girls that they need to stop wasn’t working so programmer Will Armstrong picked up their nearby boombox and threw it into the water. A dick move? Sure. But it resolved the situation. The Campo Santo devs also made it clear that that action was one of many that players could do in that scene. After a few more sequences where Henry gets a climbing rope and explores the world a bit, Armstrong steered him back to his watchtower. Henry finds his beloved typewriter on the stairs, having been thrown from above, and the living quarters are a ransacked mess. That’s where the demo ends, teasing the mystery of who exactly was here and what they were looking for.
While Henry and Delilah banter easily, you can tell that they don’t always get along. The player will control what Henry does or doesn’t say when he and Delilah are talking. Silence is an option, too, and not picking a line from the timed dialogue prompts will colour things in a different way. As you explore the wilderness and try to root out the games’s mystery, you’re essentially shaping Henry’s personality as the game goes and Delilah will react to that.
Supple, subtle reactiveness is what Campo Santo is trying to accomplish in Firewatch. Many of the interactions will have multiple options and branches but won’t affect the plot of the game. Composer Chris Remo explained that the plot is made up of things outside of Henry’s control and the play of Firewatch will be in how the people steering Henry perceive and respond to those happenings. Do you freak out? Run away?
Each player will be able to live Henry’s relationship with a unique set of highs and lows. It’s not going to be the kind of game where you die and restart. “We’re going out of our way to make the game reactive, since it’s about human interaction,” Remo said. Designer/programmer Nels Anderson explained that all this branching is easier because the devs don’t have to render new animations since all they need to change or add are lines of spoken dialogue.
With a shlubby, prickly everydude at its center, I got a bit of a John Hughes/1980s movie vibe from Firewatch. This could’ve been Say Anything main character Lloyd Dobler or The Breakfast Club‘s Andrew Clark, a underachieving guy at a crossroads just as likely to be sympathetic as he is to be a cranky jerk. Firewatch also has strong echoes of classic paranoid thriller The Conversation, a movie about how listening to other people impacts the eavesdropper’s own psyche. “There are real people who did this,” said Anderson, talking about actual lookouts. “We want to trying and get into the ‘why’ of that. What brings them out here to be all alone?”
Firewatch looks beautiful, thanks in large part to the concept art from fan-favourite artist/designer Olly Moss. That colorwork and art comes to life in the game with the help of special tools that make it look like Moss’ signature style. And there will be fire in Firewatch, though it’s too early to say just how much. Trees and brush might not be the only things to catch Firewatch comes out for PC, Mac and Linux in 2015.