Firewatch, five years old this month, released at the height of the mid-2010s narrative game boom. Where many other narrative games posited their choices as clear, divergent forks in the road though, Firewatch took a more subtle approach to decision making. Throughout the course of the game, the choices you make range in stature, but rarely offer a Sliding Doors moment commonly associated with the narrative game cliffhanger. So much so that many players didn’t even realise they were making choices at all.
For the fifth anniversary, I spoke to Chris Remo, the game’s story designer and audio director, about how those choices came about.
“I think in some ways we were at something of a particularly strong period for narrative games,” Remo says. “In addition to DontNod and Telltale, there was also Oxenfree, and they were trying to do a lot of things with interactive conversation that was sort of similar to what we were trying to do. And then, I think, a couple years prior to that 80 Days had come out, and that was something that was a big influence on us.
“When you think about the years since then, we’ve seen a big rise of sort of a new genre in the indie space that’s almost the complete opposite of this, which is the chaotic multiplayer game. Fall Guys, Among Us, and Human Fall Flat, which I’ve enjoyed a lot. But it’s a very different style of game, and that seems to be a lot more what’s going on in the indie space now.”
While Firewatch eventually came to be a contrast of the ‘Choose A or B’ styles of many other narrative games, Remo explains that this only came about after trying the binary system first. “We had mocked up a prototype, sort of a choice input mechanism that we had, when you can choose to take your allotted supplies from a supply box. Remo says. “Then if you want you can also take other supplies for other lookouts that have not been allotted to you. The game doesn’t present it as a choice in any way. It’s just Delilah, the person on the other end of the walkie talkie, says, ‘Hey, make sure you only take your own food’.”
Originally, this had been a set choice, where the game would have stopped dead and asked you what decision you wanted to make. According to Remo though, the team didn’t feel telegraphing thisin such an obvious way was necessary, or improved the experience for the player, so it was left as a more implicit decision. This also led to a greater design emphasis on dialogue, with how Deliah reacts serving as the reward – or punishment – for your actions. “If you take all the extra food, there’s an additional little dialogue that you get after that, in which Delilah yells at you for basically being an asshole,” Remo explains. “And that one little thing really opened up a lot of thinking for us.”
Once the team had figured out how to design the food supply choice, everything else in Firewatch could take on more subtlety. Even whether a player chose to pick up a bottle and then look out the window, or look out the window before picking up a bottle, was constantly tracked by the game, and could be used to influence the game’s responses. “Basically, anything the player chooses to do can be tracked by the game,” Remo explains. “Then as a result of those things being tracked, different lines of dialogue can play. In theory, other things can happen but in a game like Firewatch, the main payoff is lines of dialogue. And that can be anything from a whole conversation to just changing one line in the middle of a conversation and leaving anything else the same, or anything in between. So we ended up focusing a lot more on what you could sort of call micro choices happening all the time, as opposed to big, chunky branching choices.”
Looking back, the only issue Remo has with this approach is that he thinks it might have worked a little bit too well. “It’s quite possible for a player to play all the way through the game and not realise how many bits of dialogue were the direct result of actions they had taken,” he says. “In some ways, we were probably too subtle for our own good because I think a lot of players perceived the game to be completely linear and their choices to not matter at all. And if the way you interpret whether choices matter is literally the ending was different, then yeah, I suppose that wasn’t the case. But from our standpoint, we thought your choices did matter, if they resulted in believable payoffs. Hopefully, what works about it is that you don’t necessarily notice the difference.”
Tracking everything so precisely wasn’t just important on a narrative level, it also helped avoid issues for the game’s overall design. Before the game shipped, Remo completed a playthrough of Firewatch where he didn’t respond to Delilah unless the game forced him to, making sure that even a no dialogue playthrough of a dialogue-heavy game would still make sense.
Part of the reason a lot of Firewatch’s systems are so heavily linked – the music cues, much like the dialogue, also reacts to player choices – is because they were designed simultaneously. Remo says that aside from around a month’s worth of prototyping, Firewatch was never really designed before it started being built. “I think if we were literally making Firewatch from scratch again, we [would] – probably on day one – just go: ‘turn all this stuff up to 11’,” he says. “There wasn’t a huge amount of time for pre-production or sort of writing game design documents or anything like that – we really just started, we just physically started building it as we were designing it and creating the story. So all of these techniques that I’m discussing were felt out in real time.”
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. In real life, she normally stays home. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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