Everyday People: Paste Interviews Firewatch Director Jake Rodkin

Games Features
Everyday People: Paste Interviews Firewatch Director Jake Rodkin

Last week I reviewed Firewatch, the first game from Campo Santo. I liked it. You should play it, whether you like games or not. To appreciate Firewatch all you need is an appreciation of storytelling. That’s Campo Santo’s focus. The studio was founded by Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman, who worked together on Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One, which was heavily acclaimed for its cast of believable characters and naturalistic relationships, despite its zombie trappings and TV tie-in origins. Rodkin and Vanaman have continued in that realistic direction with Firewatch, in which a man fleeing a troubled marriage accepts a lonely job in an isolated national park and gradually grows close to the supervisor he only communicates with via walkie talkie. I recently talked to Rodkin, who is credited as the game’s director, about their goals with Firewatch and the spate of recent games that focus on story more than traditional videogame interactions.

Paste: When it comes to a small team like Campo Santo, when you have credits like director and writer, how thick are the walls between, say, Sean Vanaman’s duties as writer and your’s as director?

Jake Rodkin: Not thick. I mean Sean definitely has written like 99.999% of the game, there’s a couple lines here or there that come from other people in story meetings. So the writing largely lies with him, but as far as who’s doing game design, who’s doing creative direction, that’s being shared across a lot of the team. I mean, me and Sean handle a lot of—I guess head up a lot of the game direction and design, technically, but at the same time, we have Chris Remo and Patrick Ewing and Nels Anderson and James Benson our animator, all have contributed huge amounts of design work to the game over the course of it. It’s not a very big team, so who’s brought what to the game and who goes outside of their prescribed discipline bleeds out pretty far on this production, I think. Like when you see the closing credits for the game, there’s ten people, but if you looked up the number of jobs, there’s like 30 jobs, because we just sort of listed what everyone did on the game, the sort of multidisciplinary effort we ended up with will show.

Paste: Is there any one that has a final say on decisions, or do y’all just work it out collaboratively?

JR: It’s pretty collaborative. If something really ends up needing a tiebreaker or we just need to pick something and go, it’s usually either me or Sean. But, you know, it’s not like we have some, there’s not a chain of command or an official hierarchy as far as that goes. People sort of have, the buck stops with them. Like if there’s an issue of can we fit this thing into the world, then Jane [Ng, environmental artist on Firewatch] says I don’t think we’re gonna be able to build it in the scope of the game, she gets to say that. But at the same time, we figure out how to solve the problem, we figure things collaboratively as we possibly can, which is honestly pretty easy when you can look up from your computer monitor and see everyone who’s working on the game.

Paste: What are some of the challenges you face running your own studio vs. working for another one?

JR: All of them. Everything is different, I guess. Honestly, the part where you’re making the videogame is almost exactly the same, or at least I think I’m at my best when I trick myself into thinking I’m working for someone else when I’m doing production on the game. But there’s definitely a different type of thing you’re concerned about, I find. I’m still worried about the overall quality of the game, but I don’t necessarily have to worry about its content appeasing my boss, because that person doesn’t exist. However, the actual success of the game is important to me more than just do people like it, because now I’m…the company is the game right now. This is our first game, we’re a new company. So the way that Firewatch does in 2016 will actually matter a lot. I think even if the company, if you’re in a place whether it’s your own company or not, that you’ve shipped a couple successful titles, even then the degree that something does well or does not…it’s a weird thing to think about because we haven’t actually shipped anything yet, so I’m living in this cloud of “what if,” and it’s gonna be really interesting to see what happens in the coming weeks.

Paste: When it comes specifically to Firewatch, did you know what you wanted to do for your first game when you left Telltale, or is this a situation where you decided to start your own studio and then started to think up ideas?

JR: Sean and I each had some ideas bouncing around in our heads that had never really coalesced into full ideas. And then when we left, a lookout tower seemed like an interesting setting for a game, but we didn’t have a lot of detail. The story didn’t wholly exist just waiting to be told, the design didn’t exist off in a binder somewhere, it all came together as we were starting the company. The image of a fire lookout tower in the wilderness and the idea of being a person out alone, out in the middle of Wyoming and what that could mean…being out alone in nature is really beautiful, but also you’re out in the middle of nowhere with no people around, and what does that mean. Those things were intriguing before anything else really happened.

Firewatch started to coalesce as an idea when Sean and I pitched it to Olly. He got super, super excited about it, and his excitement helped spin us up a little bit, and he actually started generating some art really early on, completely on his own after talking to us about the setting, and that’s really what made us think, okay, there’s actually something here. And as we had thought about it and as we added on Nels and Jane and Chris and Will and Patrick and James and everyone else, people all sort of brought things to the table that they were interested in or that they had done. And that’s where the first person body where you see your character and it’s totally animated, like James and Will really brought that, and the way the walkie talkie system works came from a lot of conversations between Sean and Chris and Olly. The game really grew into what it is pretty quickly over the first couple of months that we were putting a team together, but it definitely did not just start out as a grand vision that we were able to execute on. It was very much a result of the people that came on.

Paste: It’s set in 1989. Is there a specific reason beyond having to get rid of cell phones and internet for the story to work?

JR: No cell phones or no internet in the story was a requirement for us—not a requirement but it gives you a lot. We picked 1989 in particular because it actually lends itself well to the history of Wyoming, because in 1988 there were huge forest fires in Yellowstone National Park, which is next to Shoshone, where the game is set. It was a huge political issue, like should we let America’s treasure of Yellowstone burn? Should we let nature take its course? Should we put out the fire? It gave us this fictional conceit that maybe some of the fire lookout towers that were slowly being phased out had to quickly be staffed up, so they’d take people out of a newspaper ad campaign. So Henry [Firewatch’s lead character] has the job in the fictional Firewatch because of a government response to the 1988 Yellowstone fires. Also, we like to think that not just pre-cell phones being able to call for help, but also it’s just a time when you could make a personal connection with someone and then you wouldn’t immediately be able to look up their Facebook page. The way that relationships form and break were just different at that time, and it lent itself well to the way that we wanted to set up the game.

Paste: So was that relationship and the mystery with that unseen supervisor your main initial focus in wanting to create the game? Did you build the game around that idea or did the idea occur as you were building the game?

JR: It kind of actually grew out of building the game. When we started, we knew that we wanted you to play as a fire lookout and we knew that we wanted you to have some communication with people out in the world that you find. Then over the course of really early development and story meetings and prototyping, it slowly boiled down to the radio mechanic that we have in the game, which in terms of the game is really a one on one thing. Then we realized that what this game should really be about is the relationship between Henry and Delilah and the conversations they have. That wasn’t the starting point, but once we hit on that we were like yeah, that’s obviously what this should be. It made it really easy to get rid of a lot of crust in the design. We weren’t sure early on…should there be other characters? Should we try to have Telltale style encounters of people in the woods? Early in development there’s all sort of crazy ideas, but once this idea of you have a radio in your hand and when you see something interesting you can bring up your radio and talk about it at any time, we realized that that two-way conversation mechanic and the relationship that was formed out of that mechanic would end up becoming what the game was about. But that’s not what we started with.

Paste: There’s this burgeoning scene of narrative-driven games that try to have, for lack of a better word, more of a realistic type of story than most games…I would say Firewatch definitely seems to be in that world. How much—

JR: I suspect that I know which ones you’re talking about, but what other games would you include in that? Besides Gone Home.

Paste: Gone Home, I would say Oxenfree, I would say that despite the zombie setting, you and Sean sort of kick started it a bit with Walking Dead, where it was the human relationships and the characters that really resonated with people more than the setting. How much room to grow do you see in storytelling in games still?

JR: My answer is gonna be really awesome because it’s gonna start with me saying I don’t know. It’s really hard to say because it seems like how you get a story seamlessly integrated into your game and still let players participate is a tough nut to crack, but I think the interesting thing about where we are right now, it seems like every team that’s doing a game like that, even though they’re all lumped together, they’re all trying to do it in a different way mechanically. Like if you look at the way Oxenfree works versus the way it looks like Tacoma is going to be doing stuff, versus the way the radio works in Firewatch—qe haven’t ended up in a bad place, where everything is codified and everyone is cloning the same system. That was maybe what destroyed adventure games in the ‘90s, everyone ended up sort of making the same game. But right now, it feels like there’s a lot of experimentation going on, and I’m really excited about that.

Paste: What are some of the specific influences on Firewatch’s story?

JR: Aw man. It’s such a long and wandering list that I feel like I might list too much stuff. But when we started talking about the setting of the lookout tower and being out alone in the woods and then something strange happened, the easiest way that we were able to explain it to people was looking at other isolationist, paranoid stories, like maybe The Shining or Moon by Duncan Jones, of course, about people who have communication with people but because of how out in the middle of nowhere they are when things start happening that no one else can quite vouch for, it’s just working them into thinking…you know, you don’t know what’s going on, you don’t know what’s happening to you. But those are probably the two easiest film hallmarks. I could probably list more stuff if I sat here for 20 minutes thinking and then occasionally saying a thing and then you’d be bummed out by that happening.

Paste: It could be interesting to run, in addition to this interview, five movies that influenced Firewatch.

JR: I could talk to the team about that, because me alone would not be the best list. But I could ask around and ask people to each name one or two things. And then we can get called super pretentious when someone says Thomas Pynchon is an influence on Firewatch.

Paste: Which Pynchon specifically?

JR: Probably The Crying of Lot 49, that part in the middle of the book when she goes wandering around the middle of San Francisco.

Paste: It’s been so long since I read that book. All I can remember is that teenage ‘60s garage band playing at the motel.

JR: And that story is definitely a story of someone who stumbles onto something and is not sure if it’s uncovered an Illuminati grade conspiracy or if they’re actually just making a huge amount of deal out of what might just be a misprinted stamp or something.

Paste: I think a lot of his books do that. Because in V. you have Stencil and the decades-long conspiracy he’s trying to unravel that may not be anything at all.

JR: I know early on we talked about that and Humberto Eco a lot, even though you’d never be able to see those influences on our game, because the game is nothing like them.

Paste: You talk about pretentious…when you make games, do you have to worry about shielding some of your influences from the audience for fear of them not getting it or alienating them?

JR: No. You can talk about all sorts of weird stuff in design meetings and the story room, but it doesn’t mean that the thing—even if something is a jumping off point, that doesn’t mean that anything related to it is gonna come out in the game. So when you start listing them off, it’s almost becomes not worth it. I mean, just things like an example entirely inside of games, we could say the map in Firewatch is really inspired by the map in Far Cry 2…but our game is absolutely nothing like Far Cry 2, and I don’t want to give people that weird impression. That said, that map is really fucking good. So, you know.

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.

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