The making of Firewatch The story behind one of 2016's most unusual, human and thought-provoking games.

Back in 1999, Cabel Sasser and Steven Frank, founders of Portland-based Mac software developer Panic Inc, decided they could do a much better job of designing the Mac’s interface than Apple had managed thus far. As part of their grand vision, the pair created Audion, a tool for playing CDs and MP3s that was originally intended to be just one component of a suite of focused apps, but which ended up being released in standalone form. The app took off and attracted developers keen to customize it, one going on to create skins that caught the attention of the Panic team. After reaching out, Sasser discovered that he and this accomplished designer shared other common interests – including an obsession with LucasArts adventure games – and through infrequent contact watched as his career developed.

Fourteen years later, Sasser found himself listening to a video game pitch from the guy whose Audion skins had triggered their friendship. The man was Jake Rodkin, and the game was Firewatch.

Rodkin made the pitch with writer and longtime friend Sean Vanaman, whom he’d worked with on The Walking Dead: Season One during their time at Telltale Games. Now doing contract work to tide themselves over, the pair had founded indie studio Campo Santo and were looking for someone to fund their first project. “Sean and I worked on Tales Of Monkey Island and then on some smaller projects like the Puzzle Agent games and Poker Night team together, and all of that led into The Walking Dead,” Rodkin tells us. “But some time prior to that, when Sean and I were living together, we kicked around a lot of ideas. One of the things we had talked about was the idea of a fire lookout tower, and we also really wanted to do something in first-person.”

It was a vision born as much from nostalgia (Vanaman grew up in Wyoming, where Firewatch is set) as a desire to innovate. “When we finished up The Walking Dead: Season One, I was a creative director and Sean was head of the writing department,” Rodkin explains. “That was an amazing place to be – I was initially hired as a community manager, and I spent eight years slowly sneaking my way into game design meetings. During those years I had the opportunity to learn all these new things and I got to this point where the next logical step was probably The Walking Dead: Season Two and potentially Three. I felt like I was hitting the end of the road for being able to learn a bunch of new stuff in that particular place, and I think Sean was feeling the same way, so we decided to try going out on our own. And once again, we found out we knew nothing.”

“We decided to try going out on our own. And once again, we found out we knew nothing”

Rodkin and Vanaman had had meetings with other publishers before presenting their ideas to Panic, but didn’t yet have a clear picture of what the game would be. They had a handful of potential ideas, but decided to go for broke and present the most ambitious, and expensive, concept first. “Basically, they just pitched it as an adventure game in a firewatch tower,” Sasser recalls. “But that was all I needed. I could immediately picture what that world would feel like, and I’ve always wanted to go to one of those towers. I’d known Jake for a really long time, of course, and I knew these guys could make games – it instantly added up.”

While primarily an app developer, Panic had a history of experimenting in other areas (including, at one point, creating Katamari Damacy T-shirts) and had been interested in exploring the world of game development for some time. But Sasser and Frank didn’t want to tackle the daunting task of building a game studio from scratch with no previous experience in the industry, and so Campo Santo represented the perfect opportunity. And, conversely, this unusual partnership meant that Rodkin and Vanaman’s nebulous idea was given the room it needed to breathe.

“It was perhaps a one-of-a-kind relationship,” Rodkin tells us. “When we were in the contract and negotiation stage – a term I use ridiculously loosely because it lasted approximately four hours – Cabel and Steve said, ‘Well, if the spirit of this is that we have no creative control, we should write that into the deal.’ Well, we said yes, obviously, and it meant we ended up sharing everything because there was no worry the guys funding it had some ulterior motive. It was very trusting, but it worked out well. For example, when we finished our first playable build, the first thing we did was fly out to Portland and have Cabel and Steve playtest the game. That’s the sort of thing you would never do normally – you’d playtest the hell out of it before showing it to the people who are funding it. But instead we were like, ‘Hey, guys, we’ve got a fully playable game – what do you think?’ And that was actually one of the most helpful playtest sessions we had.”

But long before Campo Santo reached that point, there were the small matters of creating a team and figuring out what the game would actually be. During online conversations and weekends spent together, Rodkin and Frank had talked about working on a project with people such as former Double Fine lead artist Jane Ng, Mark Of The Ninja lead designer Nels Anderson, and BioShock 2 progammer Will Armstrong, but now they had the financial backing to make it a reality. And Rodkin had been “Internet friends” with artist and graphic designer Olly Moss since Moss posted a complimentary tweet about Sam & Max: Season 3, on which Rodkin had worked. “[Moss] half jokingly said, ‘Do you know anything about making video games?’ to me, and just hours before, Sean and I were talking about who would be a good fit for an artist on the project. It was very fortuitous, I guess.”

“We decided to stop worrying about the story part of it and figure out what it’s actually like to be able to walk around and be able to push a radio button and have a conversation…”

Skeleton crew assembled, Campo Santo moved into its San Francisco office in January 2014 and set about working out what a game about a lookout tower would actually look like. “The six of us had this thing that was a mirror inversion of Double Fine’s Amnesia Fortnight,” Anderson explains. “We called it Reality Fortnight, and we just scribbled shit on a whiteboard. We decided to stop worrying about the story part of it and figure out what it’s actually like to be able to walk around and be able to push a radio button and have a conversation. We just decided to make the thing – we knew it would be bad, but we learned a lot. And then it was like, ‘OK, well, we think based on this absolute hot trash that we can probably turn this into a real video game with a lot of work.’”

But even after the team, which was growing in numbers, created what Anderson reluctantly describes as a vertical slice of the game, things weren’t much clearer. “We still didn’t realise what the game was at all,” admits designer and composer Chris Remo, whose other soundtracks include those of Gone Home and Thirty Flights Of Loving. “But I don’t think we realised how much we didn’t know what it was. We had to solve so many design problems – such as, what do you actually do when you’re walking around? How do you talk to Delilah about anything that isn’t a [primary] conversation? And how do we get the player to go to the place they’re supposed to go? Just the fundamental, ‘what’s the game?’”

As a result, the team started at the beginning, literally. “We worked on day one first, and the end of the game last,” Anderson laughs. “That’s super-unusual in game development, and it means there’s definitely some pretty rickety shit under the hood early on. We had some time to go back and revise stuff, but not an infinite amount, so there are still a few things that probably nobody who plays the game notices, but for me it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s set up in the old way.’”

Campo Santo’s leftfield approach to the unusual project, coupled with a lack of any real precedents to reference, resulted in a distinctive, grown-up-feeling game. Firewatch manages to rival the cinematic drama to which video games so often aspire without ever compromising the interactivity that sets them apart from other mediums. “We forced ourselves to solve problems without falling back on the best-practice game design answer,” Remo explains. “In a lot of cases we either intentionally or unintentionally just didn’t pay attention to that, and I think the result was to solve all of these problems from an almost naive perspective. There are so few crunchy systemic underpinnings to this game, other than the conversation system, and I think that took us off the hook from a lot of video-gamey design decisions that might have prevented the game from feeling like it does.”

“A lot of players didn’t understand how much actual video game is going on under the surface… the interactive conversations feel so natural it doesn’t necessarily occur to you how systemically complex they are underneath”

That conversation system is Firewatch’s crowning achievement, a mechanic that allows for uncommonly naturalistic discussions. It’s also responsive, adapting to a huge range of factors to ensure that everything flows convincingly. It can use trigger volumes to check where the player is in the world, it knows what you’re holding in your hand and how many times you’ve picked up a certain object, it keeps track of everything you’ve done and said, and it even knows where you’re looking at any given time. It’s a level of surveillance GLaDOS would kill for.

“A lot of players didn’t understand how much actual video game is going on under the surface,” Remo says. “In some ways it’s a testament to Sean’s writing that that’s the case, because the interactive conversations feel so natural it doesn’t necessarily occur to you how systemically complex they are underneath. But I would strongly suspect the complexity of our interactive dialogue would stack up favorably against any much more mechanical RPG in the past ten or 20 years. It’s so interwoven and complex it just sort of washed over a lot of players. And that was also by design, because we intentionally didn’t signpost these things.”

Before Firewatch found its focus, the project was taking a more traditional shape, inspired by Metroidvania games and the open world of Far Cry 2, which had fans throughout the team. In building the world, Campo Santo took inspiration from the way Metroid Prime’s maps were constructed (“Their design was a little cheesier than we thought,” Rodkin admits), and environmental gating was more pronounced. The team even briefly considered a timing-based combo system for Henry’s mantling, but a lack of resources and time derailed these early ambitions.

This focused efforts on the game’s conversation system, environment and the relationship between Henry and Delilah instead, and what remains of those earlier ideas simply reinforces your sense of presence in the game world. “It was all built by hand and then just revved on a bunch between me, Olly and Jane over most of the production of the game,” Rodkin says. “Then it was somehow magically set-dressed with only 20 trees and eight rocks – Jane is a machine. The Jane Ng building block reuse technique allows you to put together a convincing large space by basically pulling dupes of a few rocks then scaling and rotating them.”

“I thought it was really important that the ambiguity of the ending, and therefore what you reflected on, shouldn’t be about what happened, but about what it means to be human and deal with loss, responsibility and grief”

Artistic smoke and mirrors or otherwise, Firewatch’s Wyoming environment feels like a natural space, reinforcing the convincing nature of the game’s world – a facet bolstered by Firewatch’s outright refusal to stray into whimsy or bombast. “The original intention was we never really collapse the possibility space of whether or not this was a crazy conspiracy,” Remo reveals. “But I pushed hard for the ending to be really muted. I thought it was really important that the ambiguity of the ending, and therefore what you reflected on, shouldn’t be about what happened, but about what it means to be human and deal with loss, responsibility and grief.”

Anderson: “If the ending was, ‘Oh, what if there was some crazy government program?’ then that ends up being what the game was all about. And if you look at all the things the characters dealt with, there are some deliberate themes. We didn’t want to overpower that.”

It may conclude in an understated way, but that makes it no less powerful. And now that Firewatch is out in the wild, the team can turn their attention to the next project and another burgeoning relationship. “It’s a little bit different now,” Sasser muses. “But it was a really special experience for us, and I think that even though [Campo Santo] probably don’t need as much money as they did last time, there’s still stuff that we can contribute. I really want to do it again.”

“For sure,” Rodkin says. “And if you guys ever make another MP3 player, let me know.”

This feature originally appeared in Edge. To try a free two-issue Edge subscription, click here for iOS.

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