This week on VGS…..
News of the week is back! As the team tries to explain to you once and for all…what the hell is Twitch and why should you be setting your account.
Plus: The Division BETA from Ubisoft came out over the weekend, the boys had a chance to play until their eyes bled- how did you feel about the BETA? An open BETA is on the way this coming weekend, will you be jumping in to play? Find out what the team thought from both and RPG lover and a competitive gamers point of view. Sneak peak: We all loved it.
Below you’ll find a video of the complete show but if you’re here for the Firewatch talk….scroll down.
Firewatch is a brilliant leap into the narrative world of the 1989 Wyoming wilderness where themes of isolation, responsibility and relationship depth are put to the test all rendered beautifully and fully realized.
The game is a new endeavor from Campo Santo a studio with cast offs from Telltale, 2K and all around the video game universe. Despite the small size of the team, they’ve been able to create an experience that is being hailed across the industry as, “just damn good.”
To talk about the game and where the industry is going, Firewatch co-creator Sean Vanaman joins the program to discuss his landmark game.
Interview with Sean Vanaman - Firewatch
Andy Borkowski: So what is it exactly, what am I talking about here? What is your game, because I gave it a lofty praise already? You know I already said it’s a very different experience. I put a pretty big bill out there. How are you going to pay for it?
Sean Vanaman: It is a single player, story driven, very character focused mystery, set in the woods of Wyoming in nineteen eighty nine (1989) and it is in first person, you’re walking around exploring a beautiful place, building a relationship with another person. Who is on the other side of a hand held radio and uncovering a bizarre mystery as the game unfolds. That is the best way I can describe it.
It’s an adventure game with systems, if your listeners have a history of playing video games, Lucas Arts is the “king” of adventure games back in the 80’s and 90’s and I grew up playing these games and, this game is completely different to those in design and philosophy to make a game that was living and breathing itself like a movie or like an HBO TV show or something. But also transported us like those games use too. That’s the best way I can describe it.
Andy: Visually, this game “Firewatch” is very striking you know? The first extended trailers that came out from it, showed an art style that I hadn’t really seen before but it borrows from so many different ideas. But it is ridiculously unique, how would you describe how “Firewatch” looks.
Sean: Gosh, that’s a great/difficult question, I should say. “Firewatch” takes a lot of inspiration from old, WPA, posters of a curtain era of Americana (…) but it’s sort of through this lens of our art director, Olly Moss and our 3D art director, Jane Ng. Who looks at those inspirations and want to build an outdoor space that your mind and body remembers, without striving for perfect realism.
That’s sort of the way we’ve designed everything. And the philosophy of the art and controllers with simplified naturalism with a focus on tone. What does your mind’s eye remember that contributes simony feeling like and we make it look like that. So it’s very vibrant, color palette, carefully chosen dramatic lighting and gross amount of focus for that outdoors.
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Whether they’re the soothing voice that guides you through the deepest depths of the rainforest in a wildlife documentary, the excitable commercial voice that entices you to purchase a new revolutionary product or in Ellen’s case, a tour guide on a journey through the intricacies of a game characters life and mind, one thing is for certain. Voice actors are essential players in adding just a little more character to our boring, everyday lives.
Andy: Now, there’s a huge amount of focus on this gaming media. A lot of people want to get their hands on it. It’s the same kind of focus that they usually find on the triple A titles that have a hundred and twenty people working on them. How many people are working Campo Santo?
Sean: I can tell you that thirteen humans have touch the code base, but were at 8 here in San Francisco. We have a designer, and programmer in Vancouver and a couple of guys. Ollie, like I mentioned who’s our art director and James who’s an animator in England. We’re very small by design. It allows us to move at a rapid pace and build short hands with each other and not get overwhelmed by our own size and ambition, even though sometimes we still do.
We’re pretty small. Co-founder of Campo Santo, Jake Rodman and I worked at a previous studio that was so much larger. But we were lucky enough to be a part of projects on a higher phase of development and get out in front of them and market them and learn about how to do the work that a giant triple A game would do to make people know the game so we build that into our company from ground zero.
We are an entertainment company so if we are telling people about our games it’s got to be entertaining, it must beautiful, it must be surprising at all times. Whether it’s a trailer we put out or art or an event we throw, it’s always through that lens. What’s going to be ultimately entertaining for people to want to buy this game?
Andy: Speaking with Sean Vanaman, one of the co-founders of Campo Santo, behind the game. Firewatch the game everyone is talking about. You used a word there that I think really describes what people and from this game “beautiful” is not a word used often enough in this industry. Why do you think this game has really captured the minds of so many people, because that’s a word I hear a lot. That this game looks beautiful. And it’s a word to describe not only the art style but the game play mechanics and narrative. How does that term apply to Firewatch
Sean: I think its almost a placeholder, if it was a different game people would say that it was artistic or in the art house game but we’ve really tried to make sure that this game just doesn’t categorize itself that way. It’s a very attention grabbing story with really engaging dialogue and characters and places and it doesn’t insist on itself that its are, But people playing the game and being entertained and wondering what’s going to happened next all matters. So not the message obviously it does drive us when working on it.
I think people go use beautiful because I think the game is and Ollie and the graphic designers have done an amazing job. But I think it doesn’t look like an indie game. Its more main stream and that was the goal.
Andy: He doesn’t want you to call it an MD or a arthouse film. He just wants you to call it good!
Sean: I just want you get the game!
Andy: Yes there’s that too! But we talked about before the break that a lot of people are so excited about it we talked about the art style and the beauty involved I wanted to touch a bit more about the way you guys are touching base on narrative on Fire watch. How are we as players expiring the story of Firewatch.
Sean: So when we set out to figure out how we wanted to figure out a story in a game that wasn’t like how we makde4 games before. Jake and I were writers on the first season of the walking dead that some people have played. We knew we wanted it to be that level of engaging in regards to the character dynamic and what was going to happen next in you role of the story and all of a sudden we wanted to make this game where exploration was key and we never take control away from you. So you can walk and explore were the story is happening around you. They were interesting challenges that were almost in direct conflict with each other because it’s like “stop the story is happening” But we also didn’t want that the be the case but we also didn’t want it to be a game where your wondering in an empty space and not know who or what to interact with.
I love games like that but our game is really about the story that is happening directly to you and you are reacting too. The game is very mission based and it tells you to go to this place on the map and discover this thing or accomplish this goal and on the way you can talk about anything you see or what’s happening to you or the places you in. The main characters name is henry and your bosses name is Dalila and as you go to these places anything can happen to you. So it’s a very fluid and builds upon surprises, you don’t know what it’s going to be and how you’ll react.
You make decisions through dialogue trees, you can manipulate objects in the world, make story happen unlock doors and see what’s beyond them, and there are sort of lots of ways to push the story forward.
Andy: That’s such a difficult task even for teams of hundreds of people trying to make a story with a world you’re trying to explore but has a strong narrative pushing you ahead. What did you guys figure out early on that was the right way to use a guided narrative but still have the play enough time to play with that turtle on the pound without destroying it? There’s so many beautiful trailers and there’s a lot to times where I want to talk to Delia but then I want to explore more. Where did you find that line?
Sean: The goal is really is in a play verb select. Being able to communicate with her is your number one verb and then being able to exchange stuff and bring them with you. But that was the first thing. If you pick this up can you throw it? Can you take everything? Can you rotate it in your hands and find new things about it? Those are all the verbs you can use to see what happens.
Then we just try to stay yes to as many of those things as possible. And if we find ourselves saying “Man players want to destroy this object how we prevent them from doing that without taking that verb away” Then we sit there and figure it out. It’s a lot easier said than done and if we can figure it out we say “Maybe that can’t happen” we build a rule set for ourselves or that type of interaction can’t happen to drive the story forward so how else can the player discover this crazy thing. And you just go back to the drawing board and say I have this crazy idea and if its right in the verb set for the game and it doesn’t break anything else and its more surprising and a better idea from before.
Sometimes it’s not the best idea we have but normally over hundreds of creative decisions you make on the game just yields the best fit and is more surprising.
Andy: So you’re telling me I can lift up that turtle and look at it then talk to Delia about it?
Sean: You can make a decision about that turtle that will impact things about it. You can take it home with you, bring it home, throw it in the lake, a canon and hopefully stuff will happen and depending on where you are in the story. If you’re hiking in the woods and you’re on a quest to deal with these campers that are causing trouble and find the turtle and tell Delia and chuck it in the lake and something happens. But maybe later in the story it won’t be appropriate, maybe you and Delia have discovered something sinister and when you find this turtle joking about it and then another joke happens when you decided to put it in your backpack. It wouldn’t fit the story. We just have to know that stuff. We manage the tone of the story all the time.
This is when the jokes happen, this is when the jokes are replaced with story. It’s another timeline we managing while you play the game. The game is segmented intelligently its broken into chapters even though it’s a free world open roaming game. But there’s some areas you can’t get to and some days that end before you can get back to town. It’s a giant spread sheet. So many lines of code! And you do that for a couple of years and you have a Firewatch and you’re done
Andy: And there you go folks that’s what it takes to make one of the most highly anticipated games of the year. I wanted to ask, because this isn’t entirely confirmed and maybe it’s the wrong question to ask, because you look this in a different perspective but because there’s so many different choices and it’s about, very much this relationship between two people. Will there be dramatic differences in that relationship felt throughout the story if you do make some kind of choices throughout the tail.
Sean: We try not to telegraph the choices because I think it’s always more powerful to wait a half an hour then realize that you should have kept it to yourself. The dynamic here is different than I thought it was going to be or you will be glad you shared it with her. Because now she’s opening up to you in a fascinating way and your learning a lot about this character and it pertains to the plot of mystery that this happening. And that’s something I really like. So there the plot events and then this is the stuff that will happen to Delia in the game then there is the relationships and how those things are connected and not connected produces this interesting meaning and I’ve always like this stuff. Making games like that. And Firewatch was just a bigger examination of that sort of thing.
When people finish the game, there’s always a comparing and contrasting with difference in story, what was your story like and my story like. A lot of that is what the person feels about these characters now. And those things are so different with people. It’s so funny, it’s a game where when two people play it in the same room. What do you think about Delia and this thing that happened and it’s all argumentative between the two people.
Andy: It’s so fascinating for someone who’s listening that maybe doesn’t really understand why you would want to have a relationship with a fake person in the forest in the 80’s. You know, because I’m trying to make a compelling case as I can. This is your baby, why do you think this would apply to people that really love others forms of media that’s high quality like HBO, why is Firewatch in that category?
Sean: I think we deliver relationships with those characters. Like when I was watching mad men and it ended, I thought “those characters are gone now and I didn’t like them but I looked forward to seeing them and games haven’t done a good job making you miss those characters. The uncharted series are like that and the last of us. It’s not something that video games are known for.
I think that if characters are believable and the stories are tight and compelling. So when its gone and over you miss them. But ultimately I think that’s what our goals were. And I look back to the beginning about making designs decisions across the board. Of you are the kind of person who binge watches Jessica jones on Netflix or game of thrones then this game is for you. It means that you like to transport yourself to places where there are interesting character and we tried to accomplish that with the game.
Andy: Again thank you so much Sean Vanaman from Campo Santo talking all about the title Firewatch. What in your estimation, do you believe this game should give characters, you’ve talked about all the man hours? What’s the big pay off in terms of playing this game?
Sean: It was just an exciting fulfilling entertain experience. Like when you close the cover to a good book. Or the credits role on a good movie and say that it was so satisfying and that’s what were always going for. Whether it’s this game or the next game.
The games comes our on Feb 9th on steam and it will be available for PC and Mac. And when you’re done with it that week. And you feel like that then we feel like we succeeded. I want more! That’s the goal. Nothing you get lost in during the middle or lost your attention. I’ve had games like that. This game we wanted it to be a satisfying conclusion.
Listen to the entire episode below and on iTunes
Editing + Transcript by Nason Ibrahim