If you ask Rich Sommer about his greatest struggles while working on Firewatch, the answers you'll receive are at first a little puzzling. Heat. Claustrophobia. Dark spaces.
Not the picture that springs to mind when talking about a game set in the Shoshone National Forest.
Firewatch is not the Mad Men alumnus' first venture into video game voice acting, but it is his first starring role. As the lead of Campo Santo's Wyoming-based mystery game, Sommer faced the challenge of carrying the game's walking-and-talking exploration with acting; the power of his voice, and only his voice.
Rich Sommer, the voice of Henry in Firewatch
It started in the summer of 2014, with a four-by-four box in his Los Angeles home and a microphone jammed into his face.
"That kind of claustrophobia, while it might sound antithetical to being outdoors, it still sort of worked," he says of his time recording. "There's a kind of inherent, closed-in feeling that I think [my character] sometimes feels. I think that may have played into it a little bit."
Sommer does not paint the most glamorous picture: an actor hunched over and sweating on a tiny stool, cooped up in a coffin-like enclosure. To hear his voice filtered through Firewatch's questioning hero, though, you'd never know it.
In 2007, Sommer strolled into a Borders bookstore and purchased a guide on cabins and cottages in Southern California. It was just after he'd moved to LA to start work on Mad Men. He and his wife were looking for weekend getaways.
Despite the oddity of the idea, it was an old fire watchtower called Oak Flat Lookout that caught his eye. His wife was "deeply uninterested" in an overnight visit, he says, and so it was Sommer and co-star Michael Gladis who booked the reservation in advance. Many months later, they piled into Gladis' Prius and drove deep into the middle of nowhere.
It was a smooth ride for the first several hours. By the final 30 minutes of the trek, Gladis' car was not doing so well.
"I mean, gutted, his Prius," Sommer says. "Totally destroyed it, which he ended up paying for later when he had to turn it in. But it was worth it."
The visit gave Sommer the chance to escape civilization in a way few people do. It's a good memory — even the 4 a.m. trip to the bathroom during which he descended the tower's stairs, in the dark, with the wind whipping around him. That trip would prove insightful to him many years later, when he signed on to do Firewatch.
Sommer's journey into Wyoming's virtual wilderness began in the most modern of ways: a Twitter message. As Sommer recalls, it was Campo Santo programmer and writer Patrick Ewing who reached out to him. Their connection to one another was not through video games, but instead a mutual love of board games.
"Totally destroyed it ... But it was worth it."
"He wrote to me and said, 'We're trying to do this game, and we're looking for a voice for the main character,'" Sommer says of the message. "‘Would you consider sending in an audition?'"
Sommer, by his own admission, had auditioned for many games with little success. He hadn't heard much about Campo Santo; Firewatch was, after all, its debut title. He'd played a little of the first season of The Walking Dead, which Campo Santo team members Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman worked on, but considered himself a dilettante when it comes to video games. Yet his focus was on the future. Mad Men, perhaps Sommer's best-known project, was winding down. He'd already done some acting in video games with an appearance in L.A. Noire, and he was looking to do more work in the voice-over field.
He sent in an audition for the game's lead character, Henry — a man explained to Sommer as having troubles at home and seeking an escape for the summer. Sommer, who describes himself as "never feel[ing] like I nailed anything," remembers the recording as a simple one. A few monologues from Vanaman, written in the voice of the character. Straightforward, "not a lot of mustard on it."
"Part of the work was done for me," Sommer says. "First off, the writing was great. If the writing is great, that is most of your work. Because otherwise you have to try and shoehorn words into sounding like humans sound, and that's never fun. But Sean [Vanaman] really had a grasp on how these guys sounded."
Sommer's Henry isn't about great declarations of any kind. His personality is revealed by choices on the player's part and by nuanced discussions with the game's other lead, Delilah, voiced by Cissy Jones of Telltale's The Walking Dead. He's deeper than a video game everyman, but still a Rorschach test for the player. The challenge in front of Sommer was to play a character that could react to any scenario in several ways, and yet still feel like the same character.
Henry can be warm to Delilah, or jokey or combative, or he can ignore her entirely. If that's the tone you want, Sommer says, it's the one you're going to get.
"It required being kind of fast on your feet, and I thought it was kind of fun," he says. "And it ended up being a lot easier than I thought it would be. Having it described for me it sounded like it was going to be sort of vocal gymnastics, and it really wasn't. It's still facets of the same guy."
Cissy Jones, the voice of Delilah in Firewatch
Unlike with most VO sessions, in which actors record their lines separately, Firewatch's leads recorded their dialogue together. Sommer and Jones Skyped in with Vanaman and read lines from their respective homes — Sommer, of course, being in his itty-bitty booth. He compares the work to reading for any acting scene: performing a page together, and allowing verbal exchanges to flow naturally.
"For the most part — with several little exceptions — but for the most part, when you hear an exchange between us, that's how it happened in the booth," he says. "That was the exchange that we had."
Sommer and Jones met briefly once or twice during the course of recordings. He was surprised, the first time, how different the real-life Delilah was from the image in his head. His version is far more Reba McEntire in Tremors.
"She has big, curly red hair, frizzy, and an olive khaki vest that has a lot of cargo pockets, cargo pants, boots," Sommer says, describing McEntire in the '90s film. "I saw her as a lot more butchy than Cissy is. Cissy is very feminine and very pretty, and blonde hair. That's not what Delilah looked like to me. Delilah looked like the lady from Tremors."
Although Sommer and Jones made a choice, initially, to avoid chatting much outside of recording, the need to stay separated has since evaporated.
"When I get back to LA, I would love to meet up and have lunch with Cissy and actually talk like people," he says. "That would be nice."
Firewatch is heavily rooted in escape. The game is set in the late '80s, but its themes of isolation are more relevant today, when technology and social media can visually connect and emotionally divide people in 140 characters or less.
The need to get away, or maybe even get lost, is something Sommer can relate to. He's already unplugged from Facebook. Even Twitter, which he views as a more impersonal channel, can be too much.
"I've said to my wife before, 'I never want to be on Twitter again,'" Sommer says.
"Sometimes, people feel very free to comment on my performance in things, my weight or my low level of attractiveness. I think that that's — people feel very free to do that behind the sort of anonymity of the internet, and that's not super fun for people who have a public presence. I use it sparingly. I chiefly am on Twitter to talk about board games. That makes life a little bit simpler. I try to take the bad in stride and the good as well and try to just stay afloat."
That struggle isn't unique to Sommer; it's something anyone with an online presence can relate to. But as an actor, there's an extra level of false familiarity that comes with the job.
"The worst for me is since I've been in a lot of people's living rooms, people forget that they haven't been in my living room," Sommer says. "They will sometimes approach on the street and instantly be inside of personal space. And you're like, 'Hey! Hi! Hi, I don't know you. You know me, I don't know you.'
"It can be a little bit weird. It's weird when people think that they know you just because you write a thing online. It's kind of the unfair part of this whole thing."
Sommer enjoys video games, but isn't huge in the gaming scene. He's a board game geek. He spends time each day visiting a board game community site, whether it's digging up rules, questions or whatever people are playing. It's the social nature of board games that gets him; the occasional brush against another person as you play, or the way you both pick up and move the same pieces.
"It's definitely my hobby, obsession — I don't know," he says. "All of those. It's an intense relationship I have with board games.
"Oh that's that guy from Mad Men making a weird voice."
"I love video games, too. I really enjoy being in that space, but it feels slightly impersonal as far as how you're playing with people. I get on Xbox Live and get called names, and that's fine, but I would much prefer to be sitting across from a person and kind of working on the problem together."
Still, the acting scene in games is one he wants to grow in. He finds the experience of ditching his face and exploring a new, virtual one exciting and, in many ways, liberating.
"You can be someone very different," he says. "In Firewatch, Henry sounds a lot like I do. But in other avenues, most of the time voice acting is not going to sound exactly like your everyday voice, and it's fun. If I were doing that on camera, people would be like, 'Oh that's that guy from Mad Men making a weird voice.' But seeing it attached to a whole different character, they buy it more easily. It's a lot more fun way to go about doing this."