Campo Santo’s “Firewatch” has been captivating the gaming world since it’s release last week. The story-driven experience has players take the role of Henry, a troubled, middle aged husband who decides to spend the summer in the remote Wyoming wilderness after things fall apart at home. During his stay watching fires he befriends a fellow lookout named Delilah by talking to her on a walkie-talkie and both of their lives are changed forever.
The game relies heavily on the player’s ability to make a real connection with Delilah, one that will mold what choices they make as the story progresses. It was a task that required the talents of Rich Sommer (Harry Crane from Mad Men) and video game voice actress Cissy Jones to make the interactions feel tangible in a virtual world.
Jones was able to talk to us over the phone shortly after the game’s release to give us an insight into what influenced one of the most memorable video game characters of 2016.
(SPOILER WARNING: If you have not played Firewatch yet we highly suggest you do so before reading this interview. Go for it, the game is short and affordable and really worth your time. We’ll wait.)
How did you get involved with “Firewatch?”
Well I worked with Sean Vanaman on “The Walking Dead.” He called me up about three years ago and said: “hey I’m writing a video game. Female protagonist. Are you in?” And I said absolutely. The game must not even have been “Firewatch” at that point… all I knew is that I will work with Sean on any project, anywhere, anytime.
How did it feel to have a starring role in such a conversation driven game?
Having all the reviews coming out…was harrowing and terrifying and exciting and exhilarating, everything all wrapped into one.
One of the things we loved about “Firewatch” is how natural the conversations felt. How did you pull that off?
I credit Sean with that. He actually had Rich Sommer (“Mad Men”) and I record simultaneously from our home studios. We called in and conferenced called together while we were recording. So what you are hearing are actual conversations. Typically for video games you record separately, one at a time. You’re in a booth all by yourself. You might get to meet the other actors on the project, you might not, but you never, ever get to record together. It’s like seeing a yeti.
The player never gets to see Delilah. Did you have any idea of what she looked like?
Sean told me: “listen, you are not going to see the character, but I am writing her based on you.” So, in my head, she is kinda me, but with a few different choices in her path of life. So, yeah, I never did have any concrete art to see what she looked like but I loved that, because it means that how you feel about her is not influenced by what she looks like. It’s based on talking with a stranger that you might never meet. I think it’s fascinating.
So did your personal experiences shape the way you molded Delilah?
I did. I mean, some of it. Obviously, she took a different path in life. I think at some point she got bored with expectations and decided “screw it, run off to the woods.” I did not make that decision (laughs). But, I mean, there is a lot of her personality in me. I love a good glass of scotch and a crossword puzzle and for her its tequila and, well, crossword puzzles. There is definitely a good amount of me in there.
I have a past, there are people that I choose to share it with and there are people that I don’t. Sometimes it’s a little too painful to talk about it with somebody that isn’t willing to open up. With other people it’s really easy to just lay it all out on the line. For me it was much easier to talk to flirty, open Henry, rather than the more standoffish one that was like “ok, you are here for the job, got it.” I think we all do that as people.
You expose so much of yourself through that acting, especially in a character as personal as Delilah. When you are watching a playthrough, does it make you self-conscious?
It does. This project with Delilah has been so nerve-wracking, more so than with any other game. This has been so deeply personal. You know? It has been a huge part of my life, we have been recording to two years, that to have it in people’s hands… it’s been really nerve-wracking. Thankfully people have been responding pretty well. You know, if it had come out and people were like, “oh god this woman needs to shut up,” it would have been hard to hear.
Do you think Delilah meets a lookout like Henry every summer?
I think Henry was special. I think there is something about Henry that really drew her to him. You know, I’ve often said that finding a soulmate is like finding a mirror into your own self, and I think for Delilah that was kind of Henry. I don’t think it’s something she does every summer.
Do you agree with Delilah leaving before getting to meet Henry in person?
Argh, I don’t know. That broke my heart. I understand why she did it. Sometimes when you build something up so much…it’s like Valentine’s Day, you know? Every time Valentine’s Day comes around it is this big deal and it always sucks. So it’s like, why ruin everything, you know?
If you were in her shoes, would you have stayed in the lookout at the end of the game?
(Pauses) Yeah, I think I probably would have. If you play your game in the friendlier and flirty way, you spent that much time getting to know somebody and you really bear your soul…yeah, I think I would have stayed.
At the end of the day, isn’t leading a fulfilling life tied to the relationships that you make? Most happy people that I know are people that give up themselves generously, and make very intense relationships out of it.
Would you be able to spend a summer in the Wyoming woods, looking for fires?
(Laughs) I live in the middle of Los Angeles. I am surrounded by people and concrete and sounds and stuff to do. That said, I did grow up near Boise, Idaho where there is a lot of wilderness around and one of my favorite places is just outside of Boise and it’s in the mountains and you can go skiing. Within ten minutes of leaving your door you can go get lost in the woods if you want. I think I could probably do it for about three days and then I would lose my mind.
Do you think the future of video games lies with games such as Firewatch or Gone Home?
There is always going to be first person shooters, there is always going to be MMORPGs, because they are for a certain type of audience that wants them and I understand that. But I think that people are starting to appreciate these kind of games, maybe less as a “video game” would traditionally be defined but more like an interactive movie. I mean, you get to choose your own movie? How rad is that?
You can catch more of Jones in the upcoming VR game “Adrift,” coming out on March 28.