Firewatch premiered on February 9, 2016 on PS4 and PC. I can’t quite remember how I first heard about the game. In most cases I watch a Lets Play on YouTube, enjoy what I see, then buy the game myself so I can explore and experience the story first-hand. I’ve done this with games like Far Cry 3, Life is Strange, and The Assassin’s Creed series and it hasn’t steered me wrong since. I think it was Christopher Odd’s early access to the game that brought me to playing it on it’s release. But I digress.
As I’m sitting here contemplating how to approach writing this blog about an incredible game, I’m listening to Firewatch’s OST (Original Sound Track) on YouTube. There are very few games that have a memorable soundtrack to the point that I’ll go out of my way to search for the music online. (The only other is Life is Strange).
On one of the cassette tapes during the Audio Tour, Chris Remo, the music composer of the game, stated that he wanted the music to be interactive in the way it responds to actions in the game. “Its designed in six parts. Where the player hits certain points in the narrative then it sends a signal to Wise (Audio Tool used) and waits until the next musically appropriate transition point”. Jake Rodkin, one of the writers, jumped in and said, “It gets sadder and sadder as your life gets sadder, (laughs)”. Pretty accurate to be honest, music helps build emotion, just turn on your TV or a movie and listen during the scene. Exhibit A:
Remember this badass scene from Braveheart? It wouldn’t be nearly as badass if there wasn’t any music to set the tone and convey the emotion they were all feeling. It just wouldn’t be the same.
English reaction without music: “What’s that William Wallce guy yelling about? I don’t know, but it will be over soon.”
With music: “Send in the cavalry, we’re in for a fight.”
This article is going to be strictly describing my experience during the Audio Tour (a mode you can play after you beat the game). Audio Tour is essentially a bonus to the original story mode. (NOTE: If you haven’t played Firewatch then I strongly recommend you do what I did, watch a few minutes of a Let’s Play on YouTube to see if it’s a game for you it will be duh, Christopher Odd’s Firewatch Let’s Play, or buy the game, come back here to peek at Audio Tour. There is some background below and spoilers begin halfway through the article after the pic of Henry standing in the watchtower.)
You play as Henry voiced by Rich Sommer, who is a middle-aged man that took a job out of a newspaper as a Firewatcher is 1989, a year after the fires in Yellowstone National Park. You correspond through push-to-talk walkie-talkies with your boss, a fellow fire watcher, Delilah. You have multiple-options in dialogue to choose between while talking to her. It’s in similarity to the popular TellTale games, where Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin starred as leads in The Walking Dead.
As the game begins you get a brief background on Henry and his reasoning behind accepting the job out in the Wyoming Wilderness.
The background goes on to talk about Henry’s wife from Australia named Julia, how they met, the things Henry does with her, and eventually brings the player to starting his job. The Audio Tour is probably my favorite inclusion that any game has added to the story after the fact. Because the game is set in 1989, there are no CD players, iPhones/IPods, etc. They do have cassette players. And at certain points in the game Henry can travel to a podium with a blue number on the Firewatch shield and play a cassette tape corresponding with where you are throughout the storyline. No other game has connected the player with the developers, artists, writers, designers etc this way than I’ve ever experienced before.
In the beginning of the Audio Tour, you as the player experience the story as it would normally play with the added bonus of those who made the game chiming in on the Who,What,When,Where, Why,and How they chose to approach each task in the game. It’s fascinating to say the least and provides the player a sneak-peak into what it’s like designing a game and the amount of work that goes into every detail. After listening to each individual cassette, all you want to do next is to get to the next one, it’s really cool.
What made me so impressed by this game is the research and attention to detail. The Audio Tour reveals a lot of really cool aspects in every designing and writing department. They talk about the reasoning for including minor details like Out-Houses, how Firewatcher’s really get drinking water, and Tower Design. In one of the Out-Houses, there are lyrics to Chris Remo’s original song “Ol’ Shoshone” found later in the game (sidenote: Thankful that playing the cassette for this song is an achievement or else I would’ve likely missed it like I did the first time I played).
They talk about the reasoning behind the Day Structure: Day 1, Day 3, Day 76 etc. They says its “to convey time passing as well as the loneliness of fire watching”. This establishes the reliance on communication between Henry and Delilah. Vanaman got the idea of the Day Structure from the film Dallas Buyers Club, because it helps build tension.
I also liked the “Montage-Days”, these were the shorter days for example when you watch the wildfire at night spreading. You and Delilah talk back and forth and decide on a name for it. I believe I chose “Flapjack fire” over “Delilah” and something else.
The picture above is one of the notes found in Brian Goodwin’s hideout. Look at the detail on that! It’s one of many notes in the hideout and it’s not even something Henry has to pickup and look at. That’s what amazes me. Another note had “Gladius Sylva (Sword of the Forest) a mythical hero. Nels Anderson, one of the programmers, said that was a character he wrote when he was in 8th grade because he needed a cool character to impress his friends. Nels noted it as the “Geek History of Firewatch”. Like Nels, I imagine many of us followed suite in similar ways growing up with imaginary or made-up heroes we fantasized about, escaping our reality.
Vanaman said that during research for the game they read books and interviewed real fire watchers. One book titled Fireseason by Phillip Connors. Connors said how fire watching is, “incredibly impossibly boring” and one fire watcher exclaimed, “Why would you make a game about that? That’s the most boring time of my entire life” told by Vanaman. You laugh while listening to the tapes while learning new things. And nothing makes me happier than learning that creators take the time to get the smallest of details correct. Instead of taking short-cuts that may not be authentic.
“We wanted Henry to look like Louis CK or Wreck-It-Ralph”, Olly Moss, the artist of Firewatch. This photo is from the Audio Tour so you as the player can see what Henry actually looks like. On Day 3 Henry is up in his Watchtower talking to Delilah when she asks him what he looks like. One of the options for Henry to say is “Rollie Fingers, an A’s pitcher”. It’s the small references that help build the setting and reinforce the plot. And even if you don’t know who Rollie Fingers is, I bet gamers who aren’t baseball fans will start saying: “Rollie Fingers, the baseball player who looks like Henry from Firewatch”.
What made this game connect with so many people is because the connection established between Delilah and Henry feels real and authentic. The ending made me feel disappointed that Delilah wasn’t there so Henry could leave together with her. But then hearing the reason behind this “creative decision” made by Remo and Vanaman, “Delilah is simply not the type of person to wait for anyone”, Vanaman said. “Henry wanted nothing more than to feel better than the last 5-10 years even this past year”. Vanaman wanted the player to feel that emotional build-up so there was a feeling of disappointment. (It worked, BIG TIME).
I don’t know if it’s just me, but games that I’m passionate about and truly have a wonderful experience playing, I try to 100% or Platinum the game (Hey Firewatch where’s my Platinum trophy at? Guys? PLEASE!) The other games I did this with are: Ratchet and Clank, Life is Strange, Infamous: Second Son, Far Cry: Primal, Tales from the Borderlands, and Valiant Hearts: The Great War. And now I’ll add Firewatch to this list of one of my favorite PS4 games ever.
I also liked how the writers played with the what-ifs. You can listen to all the cassettes and they will explain it much-better than I. Basically it’s based through Henry’s actions and what he decided to tell and say to Delilah. Whether or not he investigates Ned Goodwin’s bunker. There were WAY more what-ifs that I never thought about as a player, but it was comforting to know that they planned for everything and made it possible to flow smoothly if the player decided to do something different.
I love the humor and real-life banter that adults would have between each other. There is sarcasm, flirting, concern, anger, sadness to name a few emotions and dialect that’s included. The first play through I didn’t give it much thought on how amazing the voice actors and actresses were for this game. Thankfully the Audio Tour opened my eyes.
Cissy Jones voices Delilah. She also voices Joyce Price from Life is Strange and Katjaa from Telltale’s The Walking Dead. When I learned of this, I got like fangirl excited. Like a belieber for Justin Bieber, just not like a 10 year old girl, but as a 22 year old immature male. But seriously, what a freaking resume. Instead of only seeking out games that are soon to be released, I’m going to seek out what Cissy is working on next, and play/watch that, because I know it will be incredible.
This brings me to my next point: FIREWATCH IS BECOMING A MOVIE!!!!
As a fan of Firewatch, I’m ALL-IN on having the voice actors and actresses be the lead roles in the film as well (not confirmed). Hearing another voice other than Rich Sommer’s for Henry will be bananaland. You know how I feel about Cissy, and Julia’s Australian accent voiced by Larissa Gallagher did it for me. Maybe I’m just attracted to female Australian accents, (Margot Robbie anyone?)
This is starting to go off the rails, Matt, bring it back.
It’s going to be interesting to see how they approach the film and whether they will include parts of the background in the beginning or not. Maybe our boy Louis CK will play Henry, that would be surreal.
This is one of my favorite games for the PS4 and I’m genuinely happy for those involved that a movie is being created.
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The Twitter handles for those mentioned in the article are:
Give them a follow, they are funny and responsive on Twitter (haven’t Tweeted the Firewatch guys yet, just Odd, but SOON).