Where Dear Esther explores the sensation of being overwhelmed by a wild, unfamiliar environment that you don’t fully understand, Firewatch is about losing control of one you do. Campo Santo’s debut casts you as Henry, a man seeking a simpler existence in the wilds of Wyoming as a fire lookout. Part fireman, part park ranger, your job is to keep a watchful eye on the habitat that surrounds your tower and protect it from threats. It’s a lonely, inherently ominous existence.
You’re not entirely isolated, however: your supervisor, Delilah, is on hand via portable radio. When you’re not hanging from cliff faces, you’ll spend much of the time filing reports to her, exchanging sarcastic quips and making choices that will directly influence how she perceives you – for better or worse. It’s fitting, then, that a game about defining who you are through your decisions should be the result of similarly organic development.
“Firewatch now is very different to what it was 12 months ago,” says Jane Ng, Campo Santo’s senior environment artist. “I think we’re all happy with where it is now, but it’s at the point where it tells you, if you listen to it, where it wants to go. It’s important to be honest about stumbling on something amazing unintentionally. Originally, we had a lot more mantling, a lot more gamey stuff, because we thought that would be fun. Like, you’d do a cooler move if you timed your input well. But that just isn’t where the emotional resonance is. So we still have [mantling], but we’re putting less emphasis on it now, because so much of the real meat is picking up all the stuff in the world.”
There’s plenty to paw at in the short demo we play. Early on, we stumble upon a campsite strewn with beer cans, food packaging and a bottle of upmarket whisky. We came here to investigate who would be stupid enough to launch fireworks within the living tinder that is our forest home. When we arrive, everything can be picked up and either pocketed, carefully replaced or tossed away. A bra left hanging over a branch leads us to a path covered in more hastily abandoned clothes, and eventually to a radio blaring out music next to a lake. In the distance, two teens are skinny dipping, silhouetted by the setting sun. After a brusque exchange, we take revenge by tossing their boom box into the lake. The music cuts out with a crackle.
“That [outcome] was a total accident, actually,” Ng says. “Somebody did that during one of our early playtests, and we were like, ‘Oh, we should totally support that.’ And now we’re consciously aware of allowing people to do more things like that.”
“We want the game to react to whatever stupid thing you feel like doing,” adds artist and illustrator Olly Moss. “And we want it to have a surprising reaction to that as well. I think that’s weirdly delightful in a way when you do find something that you wouldn’t expect other games to support. And that’s one of the main intentions of our game: to give people these weird reactions.”
It’s not just the environment that the team wants to respond in a convincing manner; the conversations we hear between Delilah and Henry are snappy and believable throughout, and truly funny. Neither takes themselves too seriously, but you can steer conversations into darker territory. For example, those pesky kids back at the lake could be chided with an earnest request to be careful, or you could part ways by yelling out your hope that they drown. Further options are available when you relay the events back to Delilah, and we stay in character as a sullen grump, diffusing her attempts to lighten the situation. Making sure all of those branching choices work has been something of a sticking point for the team.
“It’s one of the reasons it’s taken such a long time to get to a point where we could comfortably put in the content,” Ng says. “We made the dialogue tool in-house, and it syncs with Unity, but there are all these areas where it could get really complicated. It was really important that the game knows what you’ve done, or if your Henry is mean. For example, if you picked up all the stuff from the ‘teen party zone,’ as we call it, the game knows if you actually did it and it also knows if you’ve told Delilah certain things. We really tried to make sure Firewatch was reactive to those kind of choices. And you can choose to not talk back to her; that’s also a valid choice.”
The game’s focus on backchat might have taken a toll on exploration were it not for the elegantly engineered UI. On our DualShock 4, we simply hold the left trigger to bring up a selection of actions or responses, then cycle through the options by squeezing the right trigger. Releasing the left trigger again makes your selection. The setup sits unobtrusively over the game and doesn’t inhibit your ability to walk about, stamp out campfires or toss beer bottles, making your interactions with the world both intuitive and multilayered.
Elsewhere, controls are similarly polished and there’s a satisfying chunkiness to your movement. “It was so important to get that right from the beginning,” Moss says. “We’ve got Nels [Anderson], who was technical designer on Mark Of The Ninja, so we knew it was going to feel good to play, but it was also a little bit reactive to [ Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman] coming from Telltale and working on those games. We definitely didn’t want you to feel like a disembodied head or a floating camera wafting through the world.”
The effort has paid off: although we give it a good go, we can’t make Henry put a foot wrong. “We have a secret weapon and his name is James Benson,” Moss says. “He did a Half-Life trailer where he took all of the assets from that game and did an incredibly good job of animating firstperson hands and a really reactive Gordon Freeman. When he was invited to work on something like that but in a real game, he jumped at the chance!”
That tech will be put to work in a sizeable open world that will unfurl as you collect additional tools and open new routes, but your experience of each area will differ depending on the state of your relationship with Delilah. “If you go to a certain location right at the beginning of the game, the things you talk about might be totally different at that point than if you go there nearer the end of the game, when your relationship’s in a totally different place,” Moss explains. “We want players to have totally different experiences, even if the thrust is the same.”
But while Campo Santo is happy to talk about mechanics, it’s secretive when it comes to the apparently malicious influence bearing down on Henry. At the end of our demo, we return to our watchtower to find it turned over. Revenge for a drowned stereo system? Perhaps. While we’d relish the opportunity to dig deeper, it’s Henry and Delilah’s charming, eminently human relationship that has us gripped.
”That’s one of the main intentions of our game: to give people these weird reactions”
Jane Ng, senior environment artist, and Olly Moss, illustrator and artist for Campo Santo
ABOVE Firewatch’s colour palette is imbued with the threat of overpowering heat. Even at night, when a cool blue haze falls overhead, the rocks retain something of their burnt orange hue.
BELOW This tumble, which happens at the start of the game, is thankfully less serious than it looks. Henry’s robust character design is evocative of TeamFortress2