How the team behind Firewatch made a thrilling game about being alone

Sean Vanaman doesn’t feel so well. It’s Monday afternoon, the day before his studio, Campo Santo, is set to release Firewatch, its very first game. Vanaman previously worked at Telltale on adventure games like The Walking Dead, and he says he’s felt this way before every game release he’s really cared about. He calls it “launch sick”: he feels nauseous for several days leading up to the release, and loses feelings in his fingers. But now that he’s working on a smaller, more personal game without the safety net of a big company, things are a bit different.

“If I’m being perfectly honest, it’s been harder,” he says. “I feel this way because we’re out there doing this on our own, and there’s no publisher, there’s nothing to insulate us from the risk or the emotional impact.”

Firewatch is a narrative-driven adventure game about a man named Henry who tries to escape his troubles by becoming a fire lookout at a national park in Wyoming. It’s a contemplative story about isolation and the relationships between people, and it’s game that’s been anticipated for some time due in large part to the team behind it.

At Campo Santo, Vanaman worked with his former Walking Dead writing and design partner Jake Rodkin, programmer Will Armstrong (Bioshock 2, The Bureau), designer and programmer Nels Anderson (Mark of the Ninja), animator James Benson (Ori and the Blind Forest), Gone Home composer Chris Remo, and others. Renowned graphic designer and pop artist Olly Moss created the distinct look, while environmental and lighting artist Jane Ng (The Cave, Brutal Legend) translated his work into a 3D space you could explore. Only 11 people worked on the game, but it’s an impressive lineup, especially for a brand-new studio. “Firewatch is a bet on these people, and seeing what they can make all together,” says Vanaman.

To that end, the team at Campo Santo didn’t start out with an idea for a specific game. Instead, they began with goals. "It started out as, these are the values and types of things that get us excited about making a game," Vanaman explains, "here are some unique challenges of things that I’d like to explore." Vanaman grew up in Wyoming, which inspired the setting. "I’m probably not going to get the chance to make a game in Wyoming again, so might as well take the opportunity," he says. The look evolved as Moss and Ng added their own interpretations of the expansive landscape.

From that starting point things started falling into place. A story about isolation and being alone was perfect for a setting like that, and because the studio is small and new, a focus on a tiny cast of real characters was much more practical than inventing a whole new fictional universe. "I felt more comfortable with a real story about people," Vanaman says. "I didn’t trust myself, or us, to really concoct anything fantastical."

One of the elements that emerged from this focus became one of Firewatch’s defining traits. Henry is alone for most of the game, except for when he talks to his supervisor Delilah on a walkie-talkie. Over the course of the game the pair form a close relationship despite the fact that Delilah is just a voice; the act of simply hearing her talk becomes very intimate.

This focus on just two characters and their conversations means that voice acting plays a bigger role than in most games. Cissy Jones, who previously played Katjaa on The Walking Dead, among other roles, is the voice of Delilah, while Mad Men star Rich Sommer plays Henry. Jones says she signed up for the role before the concept of Firewatch even really existed. "I had no idea what it was about, I don’t even think they knew what it was about. I just knew that if [Vanaman] was going to be writing it I was all in."

To create the feeling of intimacy that’s so important to the game, Vanaman employed a somewhat unique way of recording the actors. In most games, actors perform in isolation, spending hours in a recording booth reading lines. The game developers then take those performances and put them together to make it sound like two people are talking to each other. The results can sometimes feel stilted and forced, however, and Vanaman wanted something much more conversational. Jones and Sommer recorded their lines over the phone, calling each other from their respective home studios, going over dialogue together.

"I like that whole process a lot, because they started doing the thing that you do on the phone, which is you sort of wait," Vanaman says. "You have these protracted moments where you think, ‘Did I say something that overstepped the line? Is everything okay?’ There’s a lot of bated breath in phone conversation." It’s definitely something you notice when playing the game; Henry and Delilah slowly become more comfortable talking to each other over time, in the same way that Jones and Sommer did while recording. Jones says that "when you’re listening to these two characters have a conversation, it’s actually a conversation."

Creating a character that’s just a voice came with its own unique set of problems. For one thing, Vanaman couldn’t rely on all of the non-verbal ways a character might react to something, like walking away from a conversation, or even just being silent. But being a disembodied voice also means that players won’t have any preconceived notions about Delilah based on her appearance, which makes her somewhat unique. "I think that when you’re introduced to a character, particularly a female character, how you feel about her is a reaction to how she looks," Jones says. "I love the fact that you don’t know, so you have to decide how you feel about her just based on conversation and intellect and dialogue."

Even with the all-star team behind it, Firewatch is still an impressive feat. It is confident and self-assured, with a look and feel that’s really like nothing else out there. It’s also part of a growing trend of games, like Gone Home or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, that emphasize characters, story, and setting over just about everything else. "Is that the kind of game our company always makes? I don’t know yet," says Vanaman. "We have one point on a line, and I’m excited to see what the second one is and see the trajectory of that line."

Whatever that point ends up being, it will probably make him sick — in a good way.

Read next: Firewatch review