What we learned about Firewatch: ghost stories, toilets and mental health

How easy is it to get lost in Firewatch? Not very, Campo Santo co-founder Sean Vanaman tells me, but I’ve done it all the same.

Take that not as a knock against the game, but more of a credit to my terrible, no good, very bad sense of direction.

Firewatch is the debut title from indie dev Campo Santo coming to Linux, Mac and Windows PC. It’s a gorgeous exploration of isolation and choice, filtered through the lens of a man named Henry who takes a job as a fire lookout. In the wild, his only companion is his supervisor, a woman named Delilah that he interacts with via radio.

The sun is setting in Firewatch‘s Wyoming wilderness, and I’ve just finished dealing with some rowdy teens. After stamping out their campfire and confiscating their blaring boom box (this is why we can’t have nice things), I start the hike back to my watch tower. Delilah offers me directions. I get distracted poking around in some bushes and promptly forget. After awkwardly wandering, I radio her again. Could you repeat that, please? Maybe a few times?

Vanaman reassures me that no matter how many times I bug Delilah for directions, she won’t get frustrated. That’s important, because out in the woods, Delilah is all I have. And while that relationship will change, it will be mine to shape through my responses, or lack thereof. Firewatch takes place over the course of several months, and while there is an important relationship element between Henry and Delilah, it has a mysterious story to tell.

Many of those mysteries remain intact as Campo Santo continues development on Firewatch, but after spending some time with the team, we’ve gathered up a few interesting tidbits.

How Olly got involved

Olly Moss, an esteemed artist and graphic designer, set the tone for the game’s overall aesthetic — the bold oranges and reds that are so prevalent in Firewatch‘s tonal vibe. Although you might recognize his work from his limited edition, game-themed prints and posters, or maybe even the cover of Resistance 3, Moss has never directly worked on a video game before. So, why now? Well, Firewatch was the first one that came along, he said. Really.

“It’s not like there were other people beating the door down to work with me,” Moss said lightly, “but it was the first thing that had come along that I was like, ‘I could dedicate myself to this for two years.'”

Moss was friends with co-founder Jake Rodkin, the only member of Campo Santo he knew, when he was asked to come onboard. When he spoke with Campo Santo about the game more in-depth, he said he knew it was the kind of project he wanted to be a part of. As for sticking around in games, Moss isn’t opposed to the idea.

“If the next project is something I want to work on, then I’ll do it,” Moss said. “I’m really enjoying working on video games. I always loved video games before I started making one. If the next thing is something that I want to be involved in, yeah, I’d love to.”

Mental health is a factor … somehow

Mental health plays a role “in a major way” in the story of Firewatch, but probably not how you’re expecting, Vanaman said. The developer isn’t talking about exactly how that aspect comes into play yet, but it appears early on.

“You learn about Henry’s life in a really interesting way, and mental health pops up in that story,” he said. “… That’s outside of the actual world of Firewatch. It’s not about that, but it’s not not about that.”

Vanaman continued with his cryptic explanation, saying that no, Firewatch is not about Henry “going crazy.”

“We would definitely never talk about Henry’s mental state in terms like that,” Vanaman said.

“That is definitely something I am personally really interested in in the story, but that doesn’t mean that’s what the story’s about.”

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Asking actors to be ‘insecure’ yielded some … interesting results

Campo Santo wanted to avoid a voice actor for Henry that came across as “very voice actor-y,” Moss said. They eventually settled on Mad Men actor Rich Sommer, but not before exploring other options.

“One of the problems that we had was every time we got a read from a guy who did a lot of game voice over,” Moss said, “we would say, ‘Can you make him more insecure?’ And then you would get back Woody Allen. Like, instantly. No solid nuance.”

“you would get back Woody Allen. Like, instantly.”

Vanaman adds that “insecure” was a term that had to be removed from the description entirely. Instead, they opted for “unsure.”

“It’s funny, when you’re directing and trying to find these characters, you get really into how loaded language is,” Vanaman said. “When you ask a man to be insecure, what does that mean versus if you ask him to be unsure?”

The game’s towers are more true-to-life than you might realize

When it came to the lookout towers in Firewatch, artist Jane Ng said she built it to government specs, which includes realistically sized lumber — 2x4s, 4x4s, that kind of thing. It sounds oddly specific at first, but Ng said it helped bring a sense of balance to the game’s look.

“When I first made it randomly, it just felt like a weird Orc tower,” she said. “It felt like a weird fantasy tower and it was like, ‘I don’t know how to make this right.’

“Then I just had this epiphany when I was looking at the schematics that, ‘Well of course they use standard lumber.’ And then once we used standard lumber size, it just instantly felt like a real stairwell.”

Ng said that despite not actively thinking about what size lumber a tower might use, our brains are just used to knowing.

“‘Tables or always this size,’ or, ‘Couches are always like this,'” Jane said. “So if it’s a little too big, you brain just goes, ‘This is not a real space. This is not a real stairway. I can’t walk up it.’ And all those things add up to be not immersive. Toilets!”

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Speaking of toilets …

While writing the game, Vanaman frequently adds new lines of dialogue for Henry or Delilah based on requests from the team. Some of them get pretty out there.

“Sometimes they’re just insanely specific,” Vanaman said. “Like, ‘I was walking back from wherever and I passed the outhouse holding whatever, and I wanted Delilah to make a joke.’ And I’m like, ‘I’ll dance for you, Jane.'”

“‘I really want there to be a time when Delilah just randomly calls you and just makes a monster sound,” Ng added.

Other requests have resulted in Henry singing Toto’s “Africa” or the story of “the curse of Raccoon Carter,” (a ghost story crafted in-game with an ending we won’t spoil). But the weirdest requests seem to involve toilets.

“People just want to interact with toilets in games.”

“It’s so weird,” Moss said. “People just want to interact with toilets in games.”

“You know why?” Ng said. “The whole thing about making the world believable is like, how does he go to the toilet? … I feel like that’s the stuff you don’t tell people, ‘This is how you live,’ but without those things, your brain kind of knows, ‘This is not really real.’

“All these things add together to make a believable space. So having stuff like the toilet, it always bugs me when I go into a game that’s a huge space station and there’s no bathrooms in it.”

Preview Trailer: Firewatch – Reveal Trailer (2014)