On Firewatch and the Power of Human Voices in Video Games

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One of the great ironies of video games — which by nature and necessity are one of the more technologically progressive mediums — is how much they’ve learned to lean on recorded voices to communicate with the people who play them, even as humans use their voices less in real life. Once talking on our phones became optional, we decided that we were going to do it as little as possible: We prefer texting to talking, partly because smartphones aren’t really designed to value vocal communication, and partly because it’s a social anxiety that we’d rather do without. When was the last time you left a voicemail? Yet here are video games, talking to us, and to the characters we're inhabiting, more than ever before.

There aren’t any phones in Firewatch, the debut game from Campo Santo, a tiny indie dream team of a studio based in San Francisco. Instead, there is a walkie-talkie, and the voice you hear on the other end of it. That disembodied voice is part of what makes the game worth experiencing: Firewatch’s big draw is the relationship that forms between its main character and his dispatcher, who is both his only colleague and his lifeline to the outside world. It’s also representative of what makes video games’ relationship with the human voice so fascinating.

Firewatch is a story about Henry, a middle-aged man who heads to the forests of Wyoming following the unsettling implosion of his marriage to Julia, a woman grappling with early-onset dementia. While the particulars may vary some from player to player — the game’s introduction recounts the romance of Henry and Julia via text passages — the result is always the same: It’s 1989, and Hank has abandoned his wife to hike his way towards a watchtower for his first day on the job as a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest.

As Hank, you’ll clean up after rambunctious teenagers, inspect communication lines, and maybe squeeze in some fishing. You’ll also spend a lot of time with your walkie-talkie. That’s how you meet Delilah, your dispatcher. Firewatch is a lonely, lovely game, one where you wander through a vibrant, colorful wilderness without a single soul in sight — but Delilah’s voice tethers you.

Much of the game, in fact, is about how you choose, as Hank, to interact with Delilah. As the weeks wear on, a rapport develops between Hank and Delilah. The tenor of it is up to you. Maybe it’ll be standoffish. Maybe it’ll be friendly.

Maybe Hank will stop wearing his wedding ring.

There isn’t much that happens in Firewatch, at first. The earliest scenes of the game are purposefully uneventful — inspect this, fix that. Not long after, though, strange things begin to happen, things that suggest someone does not take kindly to your presence. Yet regardless of whether these occurrences are mundane or disturbing, what alerts you to them is almost always the same: the sound of Delilah’s voice. From her lookout tower, she can often see you, but you will never see her; in fact, you’re not even presented with the possibility of meeting her face-to-face until the game’s final moments.

Thing is, that detachment isn't unique to Delilah. You don’t meet anyone face-to-face in Firewatch. If there is any communication with any other characters, it’s solely through their disembodied voices, either over a radio, or committed to tape. This is how people have gotten to know characters in video games for a while now, most often through devices called “audio diaries” — the recorded thoughts of characters who may or may not appear in-game, but might shed some light on the game’s plot or world. Maybe they’re clues for a puzzle you’ve come across. Maybe they’re just a means of delivering a surprisingly compelling short story, just to be enjoyed as a diversion.

The device is an evolution of the more straightforward written diary entries often found in role-playing games, in which text passages are used to help flesh out a game’s setting in a manner that kept costs low. Audio diaries fulfill the same function while having the added benefit of  leaving players free to do other things, such as explore or shoot.

The modern incarnation of audio diaries first appeared in 1999’s sci-fi/horror shooting game System Shock 2, where players would find them strewn about a monster-filled spaceship and could pause the game to listen to them. However, they wouldn’t really catch on until 2007, when Bioshock, the spiritual successor to System Shock 2, arrived on consoles to great commercial and critical success, along with one big difference in how the audio diaries worked: You didn’t have to pause the action to listen to them.

The success of Bioshock spawned a cascade of imitators, and soon audio diaries were everywhere. Horror games like Dead Space, action games like Infamous, sprawling sci-fi games like Mass Effect — audio diaries become virtually inescapable. In no time at all, recorded voices went from curious storytelling device to game-design staple, and to this day are still used in critically acclaimed titles such SOMA, one of the games we named as best of 2015.

While the utility of aural storytelling in video games seems obvious (you don’t have to animate an audio log or radio transmission, the player can do other things while listening to them, etc.), the creative purpose they serve is harder to define in a consistent manner. Recorded voices can unquestionably be valuable when it comes to supplying exposition or otherwise advancing the narrative. But a less obvious function is the way that such audio elements speak to an inescapable reality of video games: For all their connectedness and potential for interactivity, they can still be so damn lonely.

Audio diaries offer a nice way around that. They’re a way of communicating the frailty and humanity of a world. Games involve making sense of, and finding meaning in, elaborate and finely tuned systems; seeing what happens to carefully constructed digital environments when a living, breathing person is allowed to muddy the waters. But no matter how lifelike a game may look, it's hard to unsee its mechanistic aspects.

By allowing you to listen to human voices, recorded with whatever diegetic justification there may be in the fiction, games shift your focus away from the stiffness of a character’s movements, or the limits of their vocabulary. Instead, you get missives from characters in a way you used to get them from real people, before we became more comfortable with staring at bubbles of text than listening to someone else breathing on the other end of the line. Recorded voices offer a better way of being alone, a way that acknowledges your loneliness but in a way that tries to imply even more humanity lurking in a game’s digital depths. Sometimes it works, ironically, by making you feel even more lonely than before.

That’s what Firewatch is really about. No matter how many trails you walk, teenagers you clean up after, supply drops you pick up, or conversations you have with Delilah, Firewatch wants you to learn one thing, a bittersweet truth at the heart of the lush wilderness it paints across your screen: how to be alone, and when it’s time to stop being alone and talk to someone.