Firewatch mixes modern thrillers with meaningful personal experiences

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Out in the Wyoming Wilderness, Henry’s only other human connection rests in the palm of his hand. The crackling of static permeates through the walkie-talkie, as Delilah comes to life to offer a witty retort to Henry’s last awful joke. Their relationship is a central part to what Campo Santo is trying to achieve in Firewatch – a 1980’s set mystery adventure that has you tackling a little more than just forest fires.

There’s a reason why it’s not just the former. Chatting to Designer and Writer on Firewatch, Sean Vanaman, it’s clear that a lot of Firewatch’s premise seeps through from personal life experiences. Like exploring acres of wild forest for hours on end, to snapshots of monuments in the distance that cement themselves in a child’s memory. All of that is important to Firewatch, but also important to its creators.

“One [influence] would be my childhood growing up in Wyoming. The imagery and feel of that place, the discovery of hiking through the woods, the striking silhouette of the lookout tower, all were floating around inside of my life experience.“

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But there’s definitely an underlying mystery surrounding Firewatch, and it’s cheerful tone suddenly takes swerves into the sombre with the footage that has been released. There’s an air of tension about the game – so it’s little surprise then that such popular thrillers have helped mould the atmospheric tone that Firewatch is setting out to create.

“Psychological thrillers such as Zodiac, The Shining, The Conversation and anything written by Richard Linklater (especially his “Before” series). Those were huge.”

The time period adds to this too, with Firewatch taking place in the 1980s rather than the present day. It’s why Henry yells in anger that his typewriter has been thrown out of his lookout window rather than a laptop, which Vanaman feels adds more weight to the tension than it otherwise would. That, and the fact that national parks and forest fires were somewhat of a trending topic at the time.

“Historically, the late 80’s were a central time in fire danger and prevention in Wyoming. There were huge fires that devastated the region, most notably Yellowstone National Park. Furthermore, the technology and the politics of the time made 1989 feel like the most interesting time to tell the story.”

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It also tends to inject a little more excitement into exploration though. Games like Fallout and Bioshock manage to capture so much richness in their settings because they offer up something new for players to discover in their smallest details. Firewatch seems to be no different, with explorative freedom allowing players to soak in every little bit of atmosphere that they can from the Wyoming Wilderness during this time.

But Firewatch doesn’t feature what would be considered a massive open-world. Vanaman explains that while exploration is still central to the experience, the game does follow a linear path. How you choose to follow it is entirely up to you though.

“The videos you’ve seen, that’s usually just me playing and I’m sort of performing my playthrough the way I like it. You might play totally different — shun Delilah, explore every corner of the world looking for secrets before moving on, etc. You’re going to get a linear set of quests but how you move through the world and what you do is up to you.”

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Although Vanaman suggests not shunning Delilah too often, as the dialogue between her and protagonist Henry is one of the most important pieces in Firewatch’s puzzle. Even the gameplay trailers and walkthroughs we’ve seen up to now have been dominated by the humorous, captivating banter between the two, with the rather fantastic writing doing wonders to establish a believable, interesting relationship. And there’s a lot more of it too.

“The script is about 1000 printed pages, thousands of lines. I’m not sure how much you’ll hear in your playthrough but I would venture to guess less than half. I still hear new stuff I forgot I wrote when I play today.”

That’s all stuffed into a strikingly beautiful package too, with artists Olly Moss and Jane Ng bringing their pedigree and expertise to truly bring Firewatch to life. And from what’s been shown it works too – with the minimalist aesthetic managing to capture some gorgeous vistas with colourful hues and tones – which are then flipped a little bit to give that tense atmosphere a little kick when it needs it.

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It’s all powered through Unity, which then begs the question as to why Firewatch is only launching on two platforms. Aside from obviously PC release, Firewatch has chosen to stick squarely on PS4 in terms of a console release. A decision that came down to Sony really helping Campo Santo through the strenuous process of actually releasing a game on console.

“We’re a small team and had a great relationship with Sony — they offered us some generous support and we felt confident they would help us get the game out to folks. You really have to make a choice as an indie developer. “

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As to whether it’ll eventually find its way onto Xbox One is a mystery unsolved, but it doesn’t hinder Firewatch in any real way. The game is out in just a few weeks time on February 9th (it’s actually going through certification right now), and it’s clearly one of the most anticipated games of the year. Vanaman and the rest of Campo Santo simply can’t wait for players to explore their version of Wyoming, and I certainly can’t wait either.

Last Updated: January 13, 2016

Alessandro Barbosa

You can all call me Sandy until I figure out how to edit this thing, which is probably never. Sandy not good enough? Call me xXx_J0k3R_360degreeN0Sc0pe_xXx. Also, Geoff's a bastard.

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