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Firewatch developer: suspend disbelief by 'going on a date with the player'

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In a GDC talk today titled "Pursuing Interactive Suspension of Disbelief," Campo Santo's Sean Vanaman laid out his strategies for creating believable characters and cohesive narrative design.

Vanaman began his talk by asserting that narrative and gameplay need not — and in many cases, shouldn't be — be so alienated from one another.

"I reject the notion that the player should have to ignore certain parts of the experience to find value in the narrative or connect to the story," he said.

He and the other developers at Campo Santo — who are in the process of developing Firewatch, a first-person adventure — have a metaphor they like to use for creating interactive stories. They liken it to going on a date with the player.

"The player is at the table with you, and for the date to go really well, you have to listen to what that person is saying, or what that person is expressing," he said.

"And then respond in a mix of comfortably predictable and excitingly surprising ways," he continued.

Vanaman highlighted examples from past work in narratively-driven games, including The Walking Dead, before going on to highlight goals and challenges with Firewatch, Campo Santo's first game.

As a story driven adventure, the new game is focused on a relationship between Henry — a volunteer fire lookout — and Delilah, his supervisor, whom he talks to via walkie-talkie.

Keenly aware of tripping up points for suspension of disbelief, the team is building tools that will allow the team to focus on writing real conversations and building relationships. It’s all part of creating a cohesive whole, and enabling the writing to be as good as it can be.

"For me, game writing equals systems design plus tool development plus creative direction."