You know what game I am super late to the party on? Firewatch. Until recently all I knew about the game was how it is a story focused walking-sim and that did absolutely nothing to sell me on the premise. It wasn’t until after my partner expressed I might get something out of it that I decided to give Firewatch a go and was pleasantly surprised by the way the dialogue was implemented. Thus, here is some ramblings on how Firewatch uses dialogue to engage the player as an active participant in the story.
Beyond this point I’ll be getting into material that could be considered spoilers. Firewatch is approximately four hours long. If you have any interest in playing it go do so. It takes a single afternoon or evening to finish.
At it’s core Firewatch is a game about perception, specifically how we use confirmation bias to prove what we believe. For example, let’s say you have a co-worker named Steve who you don’t like. One day Steve brings in donuts for the team. When you go to retrieve a donut you find that your favourite kind, Boston cream, is suspiciously absent. Clearly Steve requested the box contain no Boston cream to spite you. No of course not. There isn’t a tangible connection between the donuts and your existing relationship with Steve, but you’ll use any anecdotal evidence you have to validate yourself. That’s what Firewatch is about.
As Firewatch is about how our perceptions shape our understanding of reality it is very important that it does two things. Firstly it has to provide the player with the ability to decide what they believe is happening. If a strict path is followed with no meaningful interaction this can’t be achieved. Secondly, the game has to respond in ways that makes sense. The illusion that our perception is shaping reality is shattered as soon as the game responds out of character so this needs to be maintained at all times. Amazingly, Firewatch manages to do both of these things.
Firewatch does a lot of clever stuff under the hood to maintain consistency across its run time. The first of these things is giving the player a buddy to chat with as they explore the Wyoming wilderness. Delilah is your supervisor and talks to you over a radio throughout the game. She is instrumental in the success of Firewatch’s execution because she allows the developer to guide players without them feeling like they’re being led. She also gives players a way to communicate what they see and are thinking so the game can focus in on those areas.
For an example of how Delilah leads the player, let’s look at one of the optional discoveries that can be made. On your way to stop kids from shooting off fireworks in the woods you pass by a circle of rocks. The orientation of the stones is such that it looks kind of like a ritual site, and Delilah will say as much. She also mentions that a group of cultists used to perform rituals in the area. With this conversation developer Campo Santo aims to plant an idea in the player’s brain to guide their thoughts. This limits the potential scenarios they need to write for and helps keep Firewatch’s responses accurate without removing player choice.
Once the developer plants an idea the ball is in player’s court. They are able to respond, or even choose to ignore any given prompt. This will let the game know where you’re at so that it can continue to act in character. If you take the bait and decide that there is cultists running around the woods you might also believe the rest of the game’s events are motivated by super natural causes. If you instead blow off what Delilah says or miss the rocks entirely you may paint a more grounded reality for your play-through.
Our brains are always looking for connections, so Firewatch only has push us a little and we’ll do the rest. Once the game knows what we’re thinking it continually peppers conversations with bits of dialogue that we’ll subconsciously use to reinforce the on-going narrative. Similar to our example of Steve and the donuts above, there doesn’t actually have to be any definitive evidence because we’ll assume any loose connection is valid. By leaning into this, Firewatch can always tell a story that makes sense while allowing players to feel like they’ve remained in control.
The other notable aspect of Firewatch’s dialogue is how it is used to inform the relationship between Delilah and the player character Henry. Players are given a lot of control over how these two characters will get along throughout Firewatch and the way it is handled feels a lot more natural than most other games.
Up until now I’ve talked about how Delilah leads the player, but the player has the ability to engage Delilah on their own terms. As they explore the woods prompts will occasionally come up which allow the player to communicate their surroundings. Obviously the more you speak with Delilah the more potential dialogue you’re exposed to, but this also influences the nature of your relationship with her. Future conversation will be affected in tone and context based on how you choose to have Henry act.
What’s especially interesting about this is that it is influenced by both positive and negative actions. Most people enjoy talking about themselves and this is true of Delilah so engaging with her more regularly in conversation sees her warm up to Henry. Conversely, ignoring her or going out of your way to irritate her will see her speak in a less personal manner to Henry, or otherwise choose to ignore him for long stretches of his wilderness hikes. In this way, the player is able to choose how Henry’s relationship with Delilah forms over the course of the summer.
The beauty of all of this is that it adds authenticity to the characters and conversations of Firewatch. While I’ve dissected the system very clinically here, in practice it helps to make both Henry and Delilah feel human. You’re given a really good sense of who they are and what makes them tick by seeing how they play off one another. And, as previously mentioned, the player isn’t alienated in this process so they’re actively engaged throughout whether it be through action or in-action.
That’s Firewatch’s dialogue system in a nutshell. This single aspect of the game turns what would otherwise be a very pedestrian experience into one of note. Watching play-throughs online and seeing how other players had a completely different experience from my own demonstrates the power of adapting your game’s dialogue to the player’s choices. Video games are interactive and it is important for developers to involve the player in the story telling experience and I think a number of games could stand to learn from Firewatch’s example.