Writing Firewatch, and capturing the beauty of being alone
Campo Santo's new game, a narrative mystery set in the Wyoming wilderness, will be the culmination of two years of hard work for the studio. But Firewatch writer and Campo Santo co-founder Sean Vanaman says that he's been preparing to make this game his entire life.
Firewatch casts you in the role of Henry, who has recently accepted a job as a lookout for the National Parks Service. His newfound duties involve watching for any sign of fire from his lookout tower. That image of a lone watchman is one that stuck in Vanaman’s mind early in childhood. “I had locked into the iconography of the lookout tower early, because I had seen one growing up in Wyoming," he said. "It was just so enigmatic, it stayed with me a long time.”
Vanaman first pitched Firewatch to the rest of Campo Santo with this image alone, and it worked.
“We all got ensorceled by the same image. We felt like we could spend two years in that place.” And that’s what they did.
"People go to Wyoming because they’re captivated by the beauty and the aloneness. Growing up in there creates certain feelings inside you that you don’t really get rid of for the rest of your life."
Vanaman was born in Cork, Ireland. He has lived in Los Angeles and most recently San Francisco, but the impression Wyoming left on him is something he’s never been able to shake.
“People go there because they’re captivated by the beauty and the aloneness," he said. "Growing up in that, it creates a certain feeling inside you when you experience either of those things. You don’t really get rid of it for the rest of your life.”
But Vanaman couldn’t convey that gorgeousness and solitude of the place to his team singlehandedly. While Firewatch designer and Campo Santo co-founder Nels Anderson also grew up in Wyoming, conveying the scale and feeling of the American wilderness to the other members of the development team proved difficult. Instead of trying to explain, Campo Santo went to the source material...or as close as they could realistically get.
For "Camp-Out Santo," as Vanaman referred to it, the team traveled to Yosemite National Park. “With a larger budget, I would have taken everyone to Yellowstone,” said Vanaman. Since Yosemite was only a few hours from Campo Santo HQ, it was a more manageable trip.
“Yellowstone and Yosemite are very different places, but they do have similarly dramatic geography,” said Vanaman. “The mountains are created by completely different forces, but the drama is equal.”
The trip was particularly valuable for Olly Moss, the illustrator for Firewatch. “He’s from Winchester, England,” said Vanaman. “His apartment looks across at a cathedral that was definitely built before the founding of this country. In the first six months, when he would draw the terrain, it just didn’t feel like the American West.” After their camping trip, they never had to have a conversation about that again.
Capturing the authentic character of the people who live in the place was also a priority for Vanaman. “If I hadn’t lived there, I might inject it with really pat, podunk stuff,” said Vanaman. “I think it would be easy for a writer who didn’t experience what I experienced to get a little Deliverance-y. There’s a certain vibe of small town-ness that definitely influences the way I think about stories and characters. Not everyone who lives in a small town is a hick.”
Firewatch wasn’t the first game where this aspect of Vanaman’s writing style showed itself. Telltale's The Walking Dead, arguably Vanaman’s best-known piece of game writing, was also about the intimate relationships between a small number of people. “In The Walking Dead...there’s no such thing as a city anymore," he said. "It was a small group, so all the interpersonal stuff in the game is small-town, too.”
That wasn’t the only way that writing for The Walking Dead prepared Vanaman for Firewatch. When beginning to develop the relationship between Henry and his supervisor and lone human contact Delilah, Vanaman drew on techniques he had learned from writing the characters of Lee and Clementine.
“I try to endear people to the characters through their sense of humor,” said Vanaman. “Lee had a weird sense of humor in The Walking Dead, for example. I knew it wasn’t enough for the audience to really fall in love with that character relationship, with him to just being the protector.”
"There’s a certain vibe of small town-ness that definitely influences the way I think about stories and characters. Not everyone who lives in a small town is a hick."
Divorced from the stark setting of The Walking Dead, Vanaman’s playful wit comes through powerfully in Firewatch. But just as important in making likeable characters, says Vanaman, is mutual respect between them.
“You let the characters play off each other, and like each other, and respect each other, even if they don’t agree," he said. "In the first two chapters of Firewatch, Henry and Delilah can be dicks to each other, but they don’t disrespect each other, and that allows you to stay engaged.”
Outside of writing, Vanaman’s past at Telltale prepared him for the difficulties of deciding what to do in a space of so much possibility. “When you’re making episodic games, especially games in an engine that’s built for the games that Telltale makes, you know exactly how big your box is,” Vanaman said. “You know where your constraints are, and you can innovate and push yourself inside that box.”
Vanaman says that the difference in making Firewatch is that “we were able to decide where the walls of that box were.”
With all that freedom, Campo Santo decided to double down on the narrative and artistic talents of their team with a more ambitious scope than any of them had previously attempted. “If I looked back at it today, with what I know now, I’d be paralyzed,” said Vanaman, laughing. “But we weren’t. Luckily.”