The summer of 1989 is long over, and so are the events of Firewatch, the mystery-adventure video game set in that year, which launched just two weeks ago. But it all lingers with the quality of real memories because, like the late 1980s, everyone is still playing and talking about the song they heard up at the lake.
The song is "Push Play." It's the dancey, peppy, poppy tune blaring from a boombox while two tipsy teens go skinny dipping, and the player's story in Firewatch unfolds in the solitude of Wyoming's Shoshone National Forest.
Firewatch's visual props include made-up hardback books with dust jackets that are dead ringers for the usual potboilers found in a vacation home. The game's dialogue references the 1988 wildfires at Yellowstone National Park, a disaster that became a cultural landmark for those living in the Interior West in that decade. But for many who have played it, nothing sutures together Firewatch's sense of place and time like "Push Play," by Joy Chun and Nate Bosley, a Louisiana couple who fell in love four years ago while concocting their marvelously hallucinated 1987 pop act called Cheap Talk.
"Push Play," utterly new and yet innately familiar, hits anyone who lived in that decade with the memory of a car-seat-dancing, one-hit wonder that dominated the FM dial, from the summer at the pool through every pep rally and football practice and past homecoming.
"We were in another world when we were making this record," Bosley, 35, told me last week. "We were somehow able to channel the artists of that time, like Stevie Nicks and Laura Branigan, and tap into that time and channel that feeling so well. It had to feel so real when we were doing it."
The original song at Firewatch's lake was 'Tell It To My Heart' by Taylor Dayne
Bosley and Chun, since married with a daughter not yet three years old, didn't make "Push Play" specifically for Firewatch. It was a fun diversion for them at the time, Chun from her work as a teacher, theater performer and director, and Bosley back in Louisiana working on a new project after a songwriting stint in Los Angeles (the two have since returned to southern California). They met in 2012 and bonded over over their 1980s music nostalgia, and together came up with the idea of a next-big-thing pop act whose breakout recording session was lost in a fire.
In "Push Play," the lyrics explore typical 1980s themes of invulnerable young love, highlighted by Chun's vocal fills that perfectly match the era. Bosley scrupulously used only drum machines and synthesizers available to the year they had chosen. The Yamaha DX-7 and the mainstay sound of its electric piano fell outside their budget, but still Bosley scrounged up a disc that had the machine's data on it and loaded that into an emulator to complete the sound.
He and Chun must have made 50 or so tapes, and Japanese audiophiles in particular were interested in them when the two launched "Let's Get Electric" in 2014. The two recorded their album over Hall & Oates or Madonna or Howard Jones cassettes scavenged from thrift stores and record shops.
The magnetic tape put a lot of age and character into Chun and Bosley's modern work, but manually recording each one was a hellishly long task. It didn't make them rich or famous, but it was a lot of fun, and their pop-star run otherwise should have ended there.
Except, around the same time, Sean Vanaman and his Firewatch co-creators were in need of a quintessentially 1980s pop song, and they were absolutely sick to death of the placeholder Vanaman put into the lakeside scene's development.
"It was Taylor Dayne and 'Tell It To My Heart.'" Vanaman said, almost regretfully. Her vampy, big-hair synthpop tune hit No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1988 and would cost a lot of money for any film or game replicating the era. Further, Dayne's power vocals just overwhelm anything unfortunate enough to be nearby. "There was no way we were going to license it, but it was in there for, like, a year," Vanaman said. "People were going to commit a crime if it was in the game."
With Penny Arcade Expo 2014 approaching, the scene with the teenagers at the lake, — and the music — would be shown there. Campo Santo had nothing in hand and everyone was dreading going to Seattle with Taylor Dayne. "It's just too big of a song," Vanaman recalled. "You can't hear anything else when you're hearing the song. The song just insists that you listen to it."
Chris Remo, the composer of Firewatch's original soundtrack, hadn't found any suitable replacement for Vanaman's unfortunate suggestion. It was long past the time to commission an original song. Besides, that would have been out of Campo Santo's budget for money and time anyway.
"This is like a soundtrack-to-your-life type thing."
"There was too high of a risk of doing something from scratch," Vanaman said. "We just didn't have the flexibility where we could commission something that could be shitty for a year until they got it right. We had to find a song, it had to be done by an an independent artist, and they have to own the music. We can't negotiate with a label."
Somehow, Remo threaded that needle and found Cheap Talk, and "Push Play." Yet much more than just satisfying Campo Santo's developmental (already done!) and financial (doesn't cost a lot!) needs, "Push Play" pressed the buttons everyone on the 12-member team was trying to hit, especially for such a pensive story anchored to a specific time and place.
"This song, in particular, is not opening credits music," Vanaman said. "If the tone of a song is taking you, the player away from the game, we don't have anything to pull you back or make it better. This is the one that's like a soundtrack-to-your-life type thing. People don't make a lot of music like that, and they (Cheap Talk) just nail it.
"The song opens with that cassette tape," Vanaman said. "I just remember having stacks of cassette tapes and a Sony stereo boom box my mom owned, for the few years we lived in Houston, and the fidelity of that. There's something about background music that makes you feel the moment more."
Firewatch is not biographical but it is based on Vanaman's memories of Wyoming, where he lived in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and summers when he tuned into 97.9-FM KTAG, Cody, Wyoming — The Basin's Station! — even developing a crush on one of its DJs. "Every morning my alarm was set to KTAG," Vanaman recalled.
The same sense of nostalgia deeply influenced Bosley and Chun's work. Bosley recalled riding around in some tiny backseats as a 7-year-old, cradling Star Wars toys and being lulled to sleep by The Cars, Rick Springfield, and Madonna's "Borderline."
"Songs are definitely a placeholder for me," Bosley said. "I remember who I was, rather than what the date was."
Vanaman says the scene was set by the time they found the song, but they still were worried about the atmosphere around it. In the scene, a couple of underage drinkers have left their underwear hanging on a log as the game's protagonist, a man in his late 30s, unsure of his authority, is ordered to find some kids lighting off roman candles and big-stick bottle rockets in the middle of a national fire hazard.
Vanaman said originally the two teenage girls in the lake were accompanied by a male character, but he turned out to be a clunky and uninteresting figure. "The fact there was a guy there (skinny dipping) was really boring to me, and then I wrote him out, and then we cut it," Vanaman said. "It it's just these two young women out there having a good time. That's the scene we decided on when we found Cheap Talk."
When the player, who is a 39-year-old man separated from his wife of 10 years, encounters the girls, "Push Play" is a perfect accompaniment. The player can't see the teenagers, but they chirp creeped-out accusations at him from the middle of the lake, presumably covering up, while he stammers and tries to order them to knock off their dangerous behavior.
Like most other items, the boom box may be picked up and carried in Firewatch. Some have hurled it into the lake. Others have held it while radioing the main character's narrative companion, Delilah, provoking an amusing conversation about the song. Others still have carried it with them for the remainder of the episode, which is one of the longest in the game, but it disappears by the next "day," or chapter in Firewatch's narrative.
"This was my first time having a song in a video game," Bosley said. "I'm watching the scene and I'm thinking, 'Oh, that's my wife's voice, thats us, that's the song we made.'"
A totally new song that recalls good times long gone
Audiophiles have gone hunting for Cheap Talk and "Push Play" after reading the credits in the postgame sequence, and Bosley says the traffic to Cheap Talk's Bandcamp page has spiked noticeably since the game's launch. He and Chun are talking with a small label about producing cassettes to fill new orders for physical editions of their work. For now, both are taking satisfaction simply in their song's resonance with others more than looking to capitalize on it.
The couple have moved back to L.A. where Chun is teaching, Bosley is working in advertising and both are raising their daughter. Nate jokingly mentions doing a new jack swing album together — another distinctive sound specific to a period in time — but there are no concrete plans for that. Besides, they never made their album, "Let's Get Electric," to make money. It was for themselves. A picture of the two at a party is on the cover, a dead ringer for cassette released in 1987.
"The song and everything you're hearing is at the height of a new love," Nate said. "That's where we were. Maybe that has something to do with it all. It had to have helped."