Fire lookouts have a lonely job.
From their quiet towers deep in the wilderness, they watch for smoke. They're provided with little to no human contact, and their only link to the outside world is through radio communications. A person could be forgiven for going a little mad. There are some that certainly do.
With Firewatch, developer Campo Santo wants to explore what it means to be isolated — but also the kind of person who would choose to isolate themselves.
Firewatch, currently in development for Mac, Linux and Windows PC, is a first-person mystery game set in Wyoming. Henry (voiced by Mad Men actor Rich Sommer) is a lookout in the Shoshone National Forest. The year is 1989. The U.S. is scrambling to restore and restaff watch towers following one of the worst fires in Yellowstone National Park's history, when drought and dangerously dry conditions resulted in fires that burned for months.
Henry may not be the best candidate for the job, but he's taken on the responsibility for three months. His personal life is a mess, developer Chris Remo told Polygon, and for Henry, it's a way to escape.
In the woods, Henry's main point of contact is his supervisor, Delilah. Players interact with Delilah via a handheld radio, and the game will often allow you to select your own response. If you choose to not respond to Delilah — well, that's an answer in itself.
"If you don't respond to her, those choices you didn't say are gone forever," Remo said. "That is a choice; you can't just cycle back. All these things you say to her, you can't take them back. All those things make a difference."
Firewatch doesn't have branching paths or multiple endings, but its responses are a way to give players expressive freedom. This is a mystery game, Remo said, and players don't have much of an idea what's going on. How players react is how they express their intent and their comprehension of the situation.
"We're telling a story," Remo said. "It's not Skyrim. It's not GTA. It's not a big open sandbox game where you can literally do anything.
"We are telling a story, but within the context of that story, we want to allow you as the player to react in a way that is expressive and responsive. We want the world and the situations to feel like the way you react to and interpret these things actually matter."
During a hands-off demo of the game, Henry left his tower to confront two skinny-dipping teens. They're not hard to find. The teens leave a trail of clothes and trash in their wake, which players can choose to tidy up or leave behind. Henry doesn't even have to confront the pair if players so choose. He can lie to his supervisor and head home, or even take things to the extreme and bully the two before stealing their stuff.
Those teens will always be there, Remo said, but how players react to them can be remarkably different. There is no correct or incorrect way to play through Firewatch, which contains no death or failure state.
"We want the interactivity to come through your interactions with the world and your decisions that you make ... as opposed to through the challenge of an event," Remo said. "You can make bad decisions that you decide are bad decisions — because that's what you realize in retrospect — but you can't play it wrong."