Picture this. You're a park ranger living in a watchtower in the Wyoming wilderness. No cellphone, no internet, no co-worker to keep you company. Your only human contact is with your boss on a handheld radio. But when unexpected events occur, you’re faced with exploring a wild and unknown environment…and that's where a new video game set in Wyoming begins.
This is the plot of Firewatch, the first video game to be released by a small game developer in San Francisco called Campo Santo. The game is the creation of two former Wyoming residents, designer and programmer Nels Anderson, and designer and writer Sean Vanaman. Their past work includes big-name video games like The Walking Dead and Mark of The Ninja.
Firewatch is set in the vast Shoshone National Forest in 1989, a year after the devastating Yellowstone fires. Nels Anderson was born and raised in Jackson and remembers the fires.
"I was pretty young but I still vaguely remember what that summer was like…towns constantly smoky," says Anderson. "That was the thing that always growing up, it’s summer, it gets really smoky for a few days and people worry about their house getting burned down, that’s normal right? And actually that’s not an experience that most human beings have to live through."
Sean Vanaman moved to Cody when he was 9 and lived there until he went to college in 2002. He says living in Wyoming inspired Firewatch.
"I like to be alone a lot and Wyoming's a really good place for that. You can just go five minutes from your house, or sometimes just right outside your front door depending on where you live and be like really by yourself," says Vanaman. "And that's the feeling that I think has been sort of internalized in a lot of my work maybe? I mean it's something I feel I always bring to it, I'm always pulling from it."
Firewatch is what's called a first-person exploratory adventure game with a focus on plot and dialogue. What sets Firewatch apart from many video games is that there are no aliens, zombies, or monsters. Vanaman says it strives to be about real people from a real place.
"The game is basically about the relationship between two people set in the Wyoming back country. The game is not about challenge or defeating enemies," says Vanaman. "It's about learning to be the person that you are and forced to make dialogue decisions in conversations with someone you're getting to know. But at the same time, you’ll be uncovering a mystery."
The mystery unfolds as the protagonist maintains radio contact with his supervisor. Based on those conversations and decisions, the player dictates the direction of the game’s plot.
As with any good mystery set in the wilderness, the notion of isolation is fundamental to what Firewatch is about.
"If you go out into the middle of nowhere with emotional baggage, how long is it until that stuff catches up with you?" says Vanaman. "What does it take for that stuff to really start to like eat away at you in a way that's not healthy?"
And Vanaman and Anderson want the game to feel as tangible as possible. From the books sitting in the lookout's bookshelf, to the foliage and geology, the game will transport players to smack dab in the middle of Wyoming.
"We'll be using real cities names," says Vanaman. "People are from real places in Wyoming in a real time and talk about how there's a rodeo every night in the summer in Cody. What it's like when there's traffic between Jackson and the Tetons, road construction I should say. Hopefully we make good on…"
"The Wyomingness." Anderson finishes Vanaman’s sentence. "On all the Wyomingness," chimes in Vanaman. "That way we can go back to our respective towns and not be…"
"Ashamed," says Anderson.
*Firewatch is set to be released in mid-2015 and will be available on PC, Mac and Linux.