Just over a year ago, Firewatch released to positive reviews and commercial success. It was an intriguing exploration-puzzle story set in a beautiful wilderness. But its main strength was in creating believable characters — Henry and Delilah — who spoke like human beings.
With sales of more than a million copies, developer Campo Santo is now working on its next project: unannounced as yet. I sat down with writer Sean Vanaman to talk about the direction he wants to go in next, and how he feels about Firewatch one year after its launch.
One thing that becomes clear in the interview is that Vanaman likes to talk. The first thing he's happy to state is that there will be no new Firewatch game, although a movie is in the works. "Firewatch is done. I'm going on the record and saying Firewatch is done. Henry and Delilah will not be characters in a future Campo Santo game. I can say that without a shadow of a doubt. I think."
So, what's next?
"This is going to sound egotistical but a lot of the work I've done with Jake [Rodkin] usually ends up having a pretty strong corollary with how I feel about my life right then. That's pretty fucked up when you think about the last two games I've worked on [The Walking Dead and Firewatch].
"But my life’s pretty good right now. On the one hand, how do we make a game that has us inside it? On the other hand, how do we push ourselves to do something new and different? We jump between those two things."
What can he say about his new project?
"We're working on something that I think is totally different from Firewatch. But I don't know. Maybe when people play it they'll be like, 'Oh yeah, it's obviously the follow-up to Firewatch.'
"We haven't played it yet so we don't know. We're still building bits and pieces. But we have a real core. The thing we're working on right now will come out. There's enough momentum behind the project where we're really excited about it.
"Because Firewatch has been successful we've had the opportunity to completely reimagine and re-examine every single aspect of our pipeline. How can we build better stuff? What sucked on Firewatch? What did we want to put into that game, but we were limited by our processes and tools?"
Before this current project, Vanaman says he and team worked on an idea for about six months that was then cancelled.
"We had this awesome idea and we just built it and it didn't work out. We thought of it as a game whereas everything I've ever worked on, they’ve always started out with 'How should this make you feel?'
"We kind of went the other way and said, ‘Let's do everything differently. Let's make it a different way.’
"Amir Rao from Supergiant said to us, ‘So let me get this straight. You made a game that you liked and that sold well and your response was to delete everything and start over and give everyone new roles?’ He said, ‘Why not change half of it instead of all of it?’ And I was like, ‘Oh ... yeah.’
"But we learned a lot from that about how to codify our processes and our pipeline and there were things we didn't throw out."
One of the more outlandish attempts to try a new approach came from Vanaman, who decided to basically recuse himself from the creative process, just to see what might come through.
"I had this idea where I was not going to say a word. I told everyone in the studio this. I'm not going to have any ideas or say anything for months. I don't want to be the loudest voice in the room. I don't want to suck all of the oxygen out of the room.
"That was a mistake, though, because by the time I had some ideas to add, everyone was like 'Thank you. Now can we all just work together like normal instead of you being like some weird manipulator' so we got back to something more healthy."
A look back at Firewatch
The conversation turns to Firewatch, a game I admire very much. In my review last February, I said that it "delivers a deft story about loneliness and paranoia in a world of deceptively far horizons and dreamy vistas."
One of the things I most enjoyed was how it pulled me through a network of corridors, while making me think that I was in the great outdoors. So I ask Vanaman about how this was achieved.
"It was really hard to figure out. At first we built corridors and it was bad. So we decided that where we were supposed to be building walls, we'd carve out more spaces. Most of that was Jake. We didn't really have any ethos. We hadn't made a game like this before, so we were just feeling it out.
"We wanted to make a game where you had the sensation of wandering around. It's fun to be lost in the real world but it's not fun to be lost in a video game. You get bored really fast. So we wanted to give you the fun of being lost while always being able to find your way.
"We carved the space from terrain as opposed to thinking about it like corridors and walls. We started to feel the way we wanted it to feel. It was important to us that like there was this buffer so before you hit a wall you knew you were off the beaten path. We pushed the walls as far away as possible."
Henry and Delilah
I was also enormously impressed with the subtlety of the portrayals of Henry and Delilah, particularly the latter who was funny, unpredictable, needy and not entirely trustworthy.
"I guarantee you that one of the first things I ever wrote down [for Delilah] was 'likable fuck up.' People don't think about this but Lee Everett [a central character in Telltale's The Walking Dead] was a likable fuck up. I just always liked likable fuck ups. We can all root for them. Everyone sees themselves as that and if you don't you're a narcissist or a sociopath.
"I find it easy to write characters when they are a version of me. Henry's a version of me and Delilah's like a weird version of me. I know her the same way as a close friend. They end up feeling like an extension of you because of how much you've brought them into your life and then you start to identify a little bit."
The emergence of gently flawed characters as video game heroes has changed the way games are represented. Grizzled, wise-cracking nihilists are on their way out, as gaming's audience demands something … anything … with a little more meaning.
"An action-adventure character is mostly like the world's best murderer. If we did a game where you had a gun and shot somebody then the words that came out of your character's mouth would be all over the map. The character would be completely bewildered. Like, what have I done?
"If it was something dark like Firewatch it would be somber and awful and quiet. That gun shot would echo through the valley for a whole minute."
Games that focus on story as much as mechanic — narrative games or so-called walking sims — are increasing in popularity. Vanaman's work on The Walking Dead did as much as anyone’s to thrust story into the center of gaming.
"It's a really thrilling time,” he says. “There's enough of an audience. The possibilities of what a game can be [are] so broad now with the work that we're doing and Giant Sparrow and Fulbright and others.
"It's not just about genre. I thought the first four hours of Resident Evil 7 were sublime and then I understood that they had taken so much from Gone Home.
"It was almost like a love letter [to Gone Home]. Just the mix of quiet moments where you're not shooting things and you're just exploring and puzzling through the world and being spooked by a clunky noise. I was so pleased that games can adopt some of these modes of design. It's thrilling to me."
Activism and politics
Firewatch is about the American wilderness. Campo Santo might have left the game behind, but some of its lessons are still part of the company's activities. Few people can have come away from the game without some appreciation of our wild spaces.
"We're working with a group called keepitpublic.org right now to help promote education around public lands in America. The public land system is really good. The federal government shouldn't reduce it. That stuff ties into Firewatch."
He offers, perhaps, a tiny clue as to the themes of Campo Santo's next game.
"No one wants to hear me write about why I think we should have a national service program or the National Endowment for the Arts. But we're always going to write stuff that's aware of the social facts and the social facts are a lot different than they were when we started Firewatch.
"The idea that games shouldn't have politics in them is fucking bullshit. Everyone knows that. Art is politics. Like, welcome to Earth. So we're political in terms of the social facts of the characters, but we're not going to do anything about, like, the rise of Trumps."
I ask him how he feels, overall, about Firewatch, now that it's been a year.
"Who gets to make games like that? It's outrageous. And then to turn around and see it be successful? I feel very grateful to Firewatch.
"I had to do a video capture of it recently. I see flaws in it, but I also look at it and I'm really happy. Like, ‘Yeah man. Look at the fucking thing we made.’"