The Tech & Art Direction of FireWatch

It was early evening. I was in my watch-tower – admiring the view. I remember it clearly. To the west, you could just barely make out the slopes and details of the jagged peaks as the sun dipped below them, hiding their mystery in the shadows. The day had been beautiful. The kind of day any sort of artist dreams of. Seemingly, I was in the most beautiful place on earth – doing a job that; for one reason or another, nobody else wanted. Kicking back, closing my eyes, I remember hearing the sweet melodies of birds kissing the daylight goodbye – and somewhere in the distance, a cricket was belting out a familiar tune.

For just that one moment – I never wanted to leave the lawn-chair in the tower. I wanted that unbelievably beautiful sunset to last forever.

As a fire watchman, however – things rarely last. To deny change in this setting would be to deny the very mechanism that defines our perception of “nature”. Nothing ever can stay, and every single thing eventually will return to carbon.

I’m not sure there has ever been a video game that so successfully contrasted my busy, every-day city life. Everything about this experience reminds me of just how easy it is to feel lost in civilization. Nothing is simple – buying a house, paying a mortgage, buying a car, having a bank account, saving for retirement. Somehow, the world of Firewatch sets those mind-rambling responsibilities to the side – and, at least for a few hours, the beautiful world these developers have created will take all of your earthly cares away. The triumphant sunsets will shock you, the beauty of the gullies, passes, and underpasses will ignite some primal urge inside of you to get out to where we all came from. To go back to a world which is constantly singing for our attention – a devastating tune which most of us have learned to ignore.

Firewatch is one of the early indie darlings of 2016. Developed by Campo Santo, it casts you in the role of Henry, a man who takes a job as a fire lookout in the Wyoming wilderness to get away from his ‘real’ life. Firewatch struck a chord with me during its powerful opening sequence, and it continued to strike chords with me as I played with its humor, fascinating characters, and beautiful art direction. Firewatch isn’t perfect by any means, but it is a special game with a special little place in my heart.

Firewatch is special because of three core reasons; Art Direction, it’s Characters, and its use of the Unity Engine. Firewatch gives us the unique opportunity to explore in-depth the technology and processes behind its creation. Unity is available to the public, something that I usually can’t say about the engines powering other games. Campo Santo maintained a rather detailed development blog that gives us even more information about the development process behind Firewatch. Before we start getting technical though, I want to take a moment to talk about Henry and Delilah.

Henry and Delilah are some truly flawed individuals, and they give Firewatch the weight that it needs to make it a compelling narrative. It’s difficult to talk about them without diving into spoiler territory. I identified with Henry quite a lot. The game starts with you making choices during some of Henry’s major life events. These choices don’t change the overall story of Firewatch, but they can tilt your version of Henry and some of his dialogue options in a few varying ways. More importantly, they give you the opportunity to give Henry a bit more complexity to his personality. As the introduction to the game unfolds, you continue to make choices for Henry. As I played, I made choices as myself. I took over the role of Henry, and by the time the introduction was over and Henry’s reasons for being in the woods were laid bare to the player, I was truly saddened by what he had gone through. I have some personal experience (in varying degrees) with the subject matter that Firewatch’s introduction touches on. I have no doubt that my experiences led me to have a strong connection to the game.

That was tough to write without spoiling anything.

Delilah, who is Henry’s boss, is another deeply flawed person. I found myself very attracted to her. While she isn’t the bubbly type, Delilah’s outgoing nature and witty humor is something that I find myself attracted to in women and she has it in spades. She’s also an alcoholic with, what I was able to pick up from my play through, a rough past. That’s another check in the attraction column. I believe that was the point of her too. Delilah isn’t just a narrative device that shuttles you from point A to point B, she’s a person with her own problems that you, as Henry, can choose to engage in whatever way you want. I radioed her about everything. When I was given the opportunity to discuss my past, I did. Delilah reciprocated, and it felt as if Henry and Delilah built a strong, somewhat complicated relationship around those early interactions. It’s entirely possible that another player might choose to not say a word to her for the majority of the game and still have a very rewarding experience.

Henry and Delilah are the heart and soul of Firewatch. But without the beautiful art style to hook you in, many people would miss out on the experience.

Firewatch’s art style stands out in a few ways. It has a very bold color palette. Color is very important in this world, and everything has it. From the dry grass and small saplings to the fully grown trees, color is everywhere. Henry’s cabin is full of colors itself. The bold color, in combination with the lack of any real visual noise in the textures makes Firewatch very easy on the brain visually. You know exactly what is stone, grass, dirt, tree, and so on. Perhaps the real star of the ‘color show’ is the skyboxes. They appear to almost be majestic paintings in the heavens. The clouds and mountains are these simple yet bold shapes that blend in with the gradients of the skies to such a degree that at times, you can just get lost looking up. Firewatch does bold shapes and colors very well.

Firewatch also does world building very well too. Each landmark or region on your map corresponds with a different type of geographic form or body. For example, the Two Forks Lookout is on top of a hill that looks out over the whole valley. Walking from Two Forks to Jonesy Lake takes you past some very artfully crafted terrain. You’ll see a large stone formation jutting out, breaking up the horizon and giving the world some verticality in its visuals. Right before the lake, you’ll walk through some heavy brush that’s growing around a well-worn trail that the past lookouts used. When you walk out form it, the view of Jonesy Lake is spectacular and feels well worth the trip. Returning from the lake, you may walk through Thunder Canyon, which is comprised of bold stone shapes. It start out wide but narrows considerably as you trek back to your lookout. There are many other geographical features and landscapes as well that you’ll only see as you venture off of the beaten path.

Firewatch’s style helps make up for one of its faults too; a fairly significant lack of asset diversity. All games make use of modular, reusable assets. It’s a huge timesaver when in production and it gives you the ability to combine these assets in interesting ways to make even more assets with little effort and no wasted time. It’s irresponsible to make unique assets for everything. Unfortunately, you can end up on the other end of the spectrum too and that is where Firewatch resides. When walking down the aforementioned Thunder Canoyon, I was struck with how much reuse there was. The same four or five simple, large shapes were used to create the canyon, and then used again to create the landmarks you might see. This happens again and again during the game. Towards the end of the game, there is a spot that reuses the same singular stone asset far too much for my liking. While it gives that area a unique look, that look wasn’t something I liked. I prefer more variance and in Firewatch, that variance was reduced because of a lack of landscape assets. With the diversity of landscape assets of Fallout 4 still fresh in mind, Firewatch let me down a little in that regard.

To be fair, Campo Santo is a very small team so I understand the cost benefit ratio of spending more time building out 5 or 10 more terrain assets. It’s just something I really wish they were able to do.

Firewatch was built on the Unity Engine, and I’m glad that Unity has a chance to get into the limelight for a bit. While I personally prefer the material and Blueprint systems of Unreal 4, Unity is a fantastic engine that is a favorite of universities and independent developers. Unity was previously known for producing some really poor games, especially in the PC realm. This was really no fault of the engine however. Steam Greenlight and Early Access can be a wasteland of unfinished and cash grab games, often times built with Unity (check out this video by Jim Sterling to get an idea). Within the past few years, games like Republique, Crowfall, Cities Skylines, and Firewatch have done the engine justice. Click here to see some of the best Unity has to offer.

Firewatch is a perfect showcase of the best of what makes Unity special. Built on Unity 4 and then ported to an early build of Unity 5, the team at Campo Santo was able to easily continue the Unity 4 work they were doing in Unity 5 but with less draw calls and thus more performance1. While a lot of Firewatch’s style is influenced by the texture work, it takes more than just textures to get the final look of the game. Campo Santo took advantage of Unity’s support for engine plugins. They used SECTR, Marmoset Skyshop, Amplify Color, NGUI, and Playmaker to help them build out the game, with SECTR, Skyshop, and Amplify Color being directly related to the art process.

  • SECTR is a toolkit for building large, structured spaces in Unity. It’s a method to stream from one area to another. Firewatch often streams from one area to another and Campo Santo uses various gameplay and world building mechanics for streaming transitions.
  • Skyshop, by Marmoset, is an image based lighting program for Unity. It has custom shaders and tools that allow for some truly beautiful images. Campo Santo took the shader core from Skyshop and added their own code to tweak the system for their needs. They also used its ability to blend between HDRI images to add time of day transitions.
  • Amplify Color is a plugin that allows for very powerful color grading. This was used to bring out the colors and to get the final images you see in the game.

Campo Santo actually has 3 blog posts that further detail their art processes. Here is part 1, part 2, and part 3.

It’s worth noting that the only other problem I had with Firewatch was its performance on the PS4. Firewatch isn’t an overly demanding game, with only a handful of gameplay systems outside of walking around. However, on PS4, there were multiple instances when walking and turning would create a pretty intense framerate hit, especially when looking towards an area I recently came from. In my past experience, this has more to do level streaming than anything else. It’s not a big deal thanks to the lack of combat, but it does take me out of the experience a bit when it happens. Campo Santo is working on a patch and hopefully this will be addressed the next time I play it (update: It seems to have been addressed).

Firewatch is an outstanding game. While it has a few flaws, it stands out because of its strong characters, unique art style, and excellent use of the Unity engine. First person exploration games can often be hit or miss, either because the narrative experience is weak or the visual component of the game is uninspired. Firewatch nails both components, with characters that stand out as real humans and a visual style that is both inspired and delightfully simple. I cannot recommend Firewatch enough.

  1. Unity Focus: Fueling the Firewatch by James Batchelor for Develop-Online.Net
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Daniel Rose

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