Firewatch is a beautiful video game to behold. Set in 1989 in a remote corner of the Shoshone National Forest, it invites players to bask in sweeping, tree-lined vistas and sunsets that coat the nearby mountains with glowing gradients of orange.
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But that’s not how Firewatch begins. One of the surprise gaming successes of 2016 opens not with a scene of visual splendor but with an unexpected trick that will nonetheless feel familiar to game-players of a certain generation. It starts with a text game.
A caption informs you that the year is 1975, and you’re at a bar in Boulder, Colorado. You hear the murmurs of a crowd, the faint clinking of ice inside a glass, the sound of a drink being poured. But the only thing you see on the screen are words. It begins with three of them, the tripartite thunderbolt that will reverberate through the rest of the game: “You see Julia.” Two options appear on the screen: What should Henry, your character, say to the woman who will one day become your wife?
For the next several minutes, the game cuts back and forth between this interactive text story, which unfurls the last 14 years of Henry’s life with Julia, and a graphical journey through the woods to Henry’s new home at a fire lookout tower in Wyoming. You arrive at your destination as you arrive at the conclusion of Henry’s backstory, one that you have both inhabited and helped compose. Suddenly, you know not only where you’re going, but why you’re going there and what you are leaving behind—or at least, trying to.
It’s a powerful experience, one uniquely enabled by its hybrid nature and particularly by the way it uses text to communicate some of the most important information in the game in a way graphics alone could not. Your journey into the woods—and everything that follows—is ineluctably colored by what you learn, and by the weight of the tragic backstory your character carries everywhere he goes.
“We needed to inject all this knowledge about Henry into every player in the first five to 10 minutes, so I made a [text] game where you played as him,” said Sean Vanaman, the writer of Firewatch. “Then I never had to tell you who he was, you could just feel who you wanted him to be. Making that discovery of how it worked, how it made me feel, how it made other people feel—it felt like I’d won the lottery. I felt really lucky that we had stumbled across it.”
Text adventures were some of the earliest computer games of all, pioneered in the 1970s and ’80s as players adventured through interactive, richly described worlds in games like Wishbringer and Zork. Now, they’re often regarded as the products of a bygone era, relics from a time when computers were simply too rudimentary to muster proper graphics.
Yet interactive fiction is experiencing something of a renaissance these days, thanks in part to easy-to-learn tools like Twine that can turn almost anyone with a computer into a text game creator—no programming skills required. In recent years, DIY text games have been used to explore issues of sexuality and gender identity, memorialize dead siblings, and even heal from trauma.
It’s made its way into more commercial realms as well, with games like 80 Days, a clever interactive reimagining of the Jules Verne novel that Time named the best game of 2014. Or Lifeline, a mobile game where you guide an astronaut across a dangerous moon by exchanging text communiques, which rose to the top spot for purchased games in the iPhone’s App Store last year.
There’s more going on here than just nostalgia. Video games have privileged visuals for years, to the point where “better graphics” often feels synonymous with “better game.” But it shouldn’t be too surprising to see more developers putting words at the center of their games, particularly as more and more players seek out interactive experiences that revolve around telling personal stories and building relationships. And sometimes the best tool for those goals can be the simplest: words on a screen.
“What I like about interactive fiction is that forces your brain to imagine the space and to see the outcomes of your choices in ultra high definition,” said Vanaman. “Your brain is capable of such intense imagination. If you reduce the amount of information you’re showing players, then you have the world’s most powerful computer building not just the specificity of a space, but the emotional memories of their reaction.”
Even after you’ve entered the gorgeous visual world of Firewatch (the design is by British artist Olly Moss) the game still revolves around words—namely, the ones you speak over a walkie-talkie to a woman named Delilah, who works at another fire lookout station miles away. Much like Julia, the woman you met in the bar, Delilah is someone the player can see only in her mind, a person constructed by words and imagination.
Although games like Firewatch are sometimes dismissed as “walking simulators”—especially by players who prefer action titles—it might be more accurate to call it a “talking simulator.” While it’s common for players of mainstream games to skip through dialogue scenes in order to return more quickly to the action—a sign of how ancillary those words really are—the dialogue in Firewatch isn’t just there to just adorn or enrich the game. It is the game. Despite the pleasures of traversing its magnificent, three-dimensional landscapes, the heart of Firewatch is a conversation, one that unfolds across a walkie-talkie over the course of a summer. The choices you make, the stories you tell, the questions you ask, the ways you open to Delilah or don’t, listen or don’t—the sum of all of it is a relationship, because that’s what relationships are.
“Games traditionally have done a really bad job of replicating that part of being in relationships, regardless of what type of relationship it is,” says Vanaman. “The unpredictability of emotional reaction comes up against the predictability of systems.”
Because their existing tools wouldn’t allow them to design interactions that flowed in the dynamic ways they wanted, the team at Firewatch developer Campo Santo built a new conversation system, inspired by a similar one used by the developer Valve. It was designed to let your discussions with Delilah unfold in the subtle ways conversations often do when people converse in real life, and tailors what each character says based on factors ranging from what time of day it is to what you’ve talked about with Delilah in the past 20 seconds, or even whether or not you interrupted her at the wrong time.
“Even in this conversation,” Vanaman said to me, “we’ve shared thoughts and ideas and questions that inform the rest of the conversation—the part of it that we haven’t had yet. And we’re already able to make little references to things we’ve said before. I wanted it to weave itself together naturally like that. I thought, if we have the right voice actors and we can pull that off, it’s going to seem real. It’ll feel like the story is just happening."
The result is a nuanced interpersonal experience so seamless that unless you play through the game more than once—or watch someone else play—you might not even realize how tailored your gameplay was to the specific things you saw, the choices you made, the conversations you had.
Once when I was playing the game, Delilah (voiced by the actor Cissy Jones) piped up on the walkie-talkie while I was hiking through a canyon at sunset. “I have a bit of a confession to make,” she said. I had a choice to make: I could listen to what she had to say; I could tune her out and just concentrate on the lonely, lovely grandeur around me; or I could elide over it and ask a question about something totally different. But unlike more action-oriented games, where skipping dialogue is often inconsequential, interrupting someone in Firewatch—a game about getting to know another human being through conversation—can diminish that relationship in subtle but meaningful ways. Cut Delilah off before she’s gotten a chance to finish, and—much as in real life—you’ll not only know a little bit less about her, you may even close off potential avenues of future interaction.
“The conversation is putting itself together dynamically, and that means it can be hyper-specific,” said Vanaman. “There are 10,000 events in the game—speech and everything else—that can happen.” Rather than simply shunting you from branch to branch of a dialogue tree, the game looks at everything you’ve said and done, and picks the truest and most specific thing that can happen next. “There are so many [variables] in our game that are so silly and weird. There’s stuff like, has Henry ever mentioned the outhouse? Maybe that matters.”
There’s something about this specificity and subtlety that makes your conversations with Delilah feel less like pushing clearly labeled buttons to achieve results—the sort of “gamified” relationship that only pick-up artists actually want—and more like the elliptical and sometimes uncertain dance of building intimacy. By contrast, the popular dialogue-focused games created by the studio Telltale Games—where Vanaman used to work—are famous for bludgeoning players with pop-up notifications that announce that characters "will remember" certain comments you make, and are thus significant.
“I don’t like drawing attention to [things like that],” said Vanaman. “It’s the game announcing, ‘I’m being a video game now!’ I just think we’re very sensitive, neurotic creatures, and you can use that. You can trust people to make the connections.”
Each line of dialogue is manually programmed to have a certain amount of delay—Delilah often pauses a little longer to make you feel like she’s considering what you’ve said, or even leave you in suspense, while Henry’s responses (voiced by Mad Men’s Rich Sommer) tend to follow much more rapidly. Vanaman said that’s intentional. “There are moments talking on a radio, just like talking on a phone, where you say something and there’s silence. That beat where you think, Oh, did I say something wrong?” he said. “When I realized that was a tool that I could use for my writing in the game, oh, I was so happy.”
It’s a testament to the success of Firewatch that the most exciting thing about such a visually stunning game isn’t what it does with images, but what it does with words. Exciting, too, that a game built around emotions and conversations at could find such a substantial audience, despite—or perhaps because of—how sharply it departs from the mainstream notion of what a video game do.
“You spend the game as a sad, pudgy guy alone in the woods talking to a [disembodied] voice. We couldn’t pitch this idea to a publisher,” laughed Vanaman. “But now that the game has come out and done really well, I know there are people who just want to be seduced and ensorcelled and given the space to feel things.”