In many respects, the story of Firewatch is the story of the player’s relationship with Delilah.
Firewatch, developed by Campo Santo, puts players in the shoes of volunteer fire lookout Henry on his first day on the job. Stationed in her own lookout tower several miles away is Delilah, who quickly becomes Henry’s — and therefore, the player’s — sole point of contact in sleepy Shoshone National Forest. Players will steer Henry’s conversations with Delilah, following up on threads that interest them or letting the ones that don’t simply fall to the wayside. From her watchtower, Delilah is the lens through which the player sees the world of Firewatch: objectives, tutorials, advice, dialogue, backstory — most of it comes from Delilah. In a very real sense then, Delilah — and by extension, voice actor Cissy Jones — is Firewatch.
“I think it’s really beautiful,” said Jones speaking to Hardcore Gamer. “You know, in a world where we are increasingly cutting ourselves off from people, to have a gameplay experience be about your relationship with this unseen character… I think it’s really beautiful.”
Delilah is very much an “unseen” character. Chiming in from her vantage point perched on a nearby mountaintop, Delilah is but a voice crackling in over a walkie-talkie. You won’t see a picture, video feed or any other physical representation of her; you’ll only have her voice to go on.
“I feel like it gives the player the freedom to decide how he feels about her based on conversation alone,” Jones said. “I think all too often you’re introduced to a character and you’re supposed to feel love at first sight or disgust at first sight or whatever they want you to feel based on how the character looks. But not having that with Delilah, I think it opens up a whole realm of possibility for how you decide you want to interact with her.
“Is she someone you want to be a little chummy with, or a little flirty with, or standoffish towards? It’s completely up to the player, which I find really fascinating.”
Jones has been recording Delilah for over two years, in and out of the studio as Campo Santo and writer Sean Vanaman refine the game and its characters. Vanaman and Jones worked together previously on Telltale’s hit The Walking Dead episodic series, in which Jones played a woman named Katjaa. As Jones explains, Vanaman approached her over three years ago with a simple pitch: “Hey, I’m writing a game, female protagonist; are you in?” Jones was sold.
“I didn’t need to know anything else. If Sean Vanaman was writing it, I knew it was going to be phenomenal. And it does not disappoint.”
As players will experience when Firewatch releases next week, the dialogue between Delilah and Henry is vibrant and sharp, yet flows naturally. It feels real in a way that’s rare in games — full of heart and humor, and peppered with the “ums” and “ahs” that permeate real conversation. Jones gives all credit to Vanaman for that.
“He’s just a master at these little moments that you don’t, that you wouldn’t think would affect you as much as they do. There have been scenes from Firewatch that I’ve played through in my head over and over and over again just from the recording session.”
Usually when a game is full of that kind of natural dialogue, you expect to hear stories of improvisation between actors during recording sessions. Nathan Drake from Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series is inextricably tied to voice actor Nolan North, for example, because North manages to project so much of his own personality into Drake’s character through improvisation. Not so with Firewatch, said Jones.
“[Vanaman’s] a very complete writer,” she said, explaining that the script already felt so natural that it rarely felt necessary to add anything. “He’s a master at writing for people. He’s amazing.”
A common issue with acting in games is when different sides of a conversation are recorded separately: two actors speaking to each other on different days, in different sessions, without ever seeing or hearing the other person deliver their lines. It’s not enough to simply see the lines you’re responding to written on a page; that’s how you end up with the stilted performances that plague most games. You need to be in the same room to see and hear the other actor live for a conversation to feel real.
But Firewatch presents an interesting problem then: Delilah and Henry in the game aren’t in the same room. They’re miles apart, buzzing in through walkie-talkies without any kind of visual on the other person. A face-to-face recording session wouldn’t exactly be true then, either.
“One of the things I really, really, really loved about this process was that [Vanaman] had us record as a dialogue,” Jones said. “So [Rich Sommer, the actor who voices Henry] and I were in our respective home studios, and we would conference call in together and go through the script. So it’s actually a dialogue, not just recorded in a vacuum like so many video games are.”
The conversations between Jones and Sommer make up the bulk of the story — Jones cited Vanaman’s claim of a thousand pages of dialogue — so it was incredibly important for the team to nail that aspect of the game. Casting someone for the role of Henry who Jones would vibe with became crucial. “It took them a while to find [Sommer] and have him sign on as Henry,” Jones said. But once Sommer was a lock, the rest of the script “just flew out of [Vanaman’s] mind.”
The relationship between Jones and Sommer mimics Delilah and Henry’s relationship in a way that made recording for their respective roles more authentic. “[Sommers] and I had never met,” said Jones, “and kind of made the conscious decision to not meet, just to keep that tension.” Combined with the live recording sessions from different studios that mirrors the method through which Delilah and Henry converse in the game, Jones felt like the end-result is something the whole team is proud of and players will really enjoy.
“There’s so many hidden conversations. Just explore,” Jones advises to players about to get their hands on Firewatch. “Explore the relationship, explore the world, explore the random buildings you find out in the wilderness. Explore the porta-potty, because they put one in there. Just explore. There’s so much to explore.”
Firewatch releases on February 9 for PlayStation 4 and PC.