The art of creating can sometimes be bogged down by too many ideas. When someone tries to pack in idea after idea after idea into a creative project, they are often left with a muddy mess and it is hard to tell what they are trying to say with what they created. By trying to do everything, a product is often ruined by the desire for too much.
On an episode of Bravo TV’s 15th season of the popular food competition show, Top Chef, contestants were told to choose from a set of ingredients. Each of them had their turn to pick. Once they had each chosen 4 ingredients, a twist was implemented when another chef returned to the show and was allowed to steal some ingredients from the chef’s. Contestant Joe Flamm stole pork from Carrie Baird, leaving her with only onions, lemons, and honey. This put her at a noticeable disadvantage as she was suddenly restricted from creating the dish she had at first envisioned. However, this restriction ended up working in Carrie’s favor as she ended up winning the challenge with her creative dish, and was thankful that the pork was taken away from her.
This is an example of restrictions benefiting a final product. To many, restrictions can be bothersome obstacles to overcome. Restrictions often feel as if the creator is being held back. But restrictions can be a great practice in the art of restraint. Less is more.
Firewatch was created with several restrictions, usually budgetary, that ultimately serve as an advantage to the plot and game as a whole. In addition, the game doesn’t try to overcompensate for this boundary but keeps a tight hold on the leash of their story, allowing the narrative to breathe. Restriction and restraint are the largest contributors to the success of Firewatch as they keep the story from going off the rails and allow the narrative to grow organically.
While most games rely on spectacle and high action moments, Firewatch could not do this due to the team’s budget. The developers working on the game had to instead work through obstacles and figure out ways to keep the player active and engaged while still creating a solid product. This is a challenge that most big budget games don’t face, or at least not in the same way. Firewatch had limited resources and had to use what was at their disposal in the most meaningful way possible.
One large example of budget restrictions is the lack of a proper human model in the game. The player gets to glimpse Henry in photographs as well as seeing his body during gameplay (players can see a full scale model of Henry in the Firewatch Audio Tour which can be played after completing the game at least once). We see the silhouetted Ned and teenage girls on the first day, and the masked man in the helicopter at the end of the game. Other characters may show up in photographs but this is limited to Henry, Brian, and Ned. Julia is partially in a photograph but her face is covered. The player never sees Delilah. Wildlife is also scarce apart from the raccoon that attacks Henry, the elk during the prologue, the dead elk off to the side of a trail, and the turtle Henry can find. There are signs of life such as animal tracks and a clawed up tree but that is it. Even the very design of the game, from the musical score by Chris Remo to the environments by Jane Ng, are minimal in their approach.
The developers don’t simply remove these elements typically expected from games and wipe their hands of it. Instead, they create meaningful reasons for the lack of character or wildlife interaction to create a space of isolation and leave certain elements up to player interpretation (i.e. Delilah). The player is allowed to imagine Julia and Delilah however they want. Just as if this were a novel, the player does not have a clear image but has to make one up and this requires much more creativity on the part of the player. While budgetary restrictions paved the way for these choices, they are then reinterpreted into something far more meaningful than would have been allowed with a game that had access to all of the tools they desired.
Removing the ability to meet or see Delilah in particular forces the developers to come up with a more interesting way to interact with her and create meaning. Since the game takes place in 1989 and there are no smart phones, or even cell phones for that matter, Henry and Delilah are extremely limited to how they can interact. They are forced to communicate via the walkie talkie. This allows the writer to come up with new ideas on how to have characters interact. They are removed from each other, creating a very specific and intimate form of communicating.
By limiting communication, it opens up more creative avenues for how to tell the story. This singular form of communication also becomes a form of scaring the player when Henry and Delilah realize that their only form of communication is being tapped and recorded by a stranger. There is no escape. This restriction to only communicating via walkie talkie and being cut off from the world allows for more narrative focus. What matters are the conversations between Henry and Delilah. This is where the game’s narrative strives.
We don’t meet Delilah because the developer’s, Campo Santo, didn’t have the budget to create another human model. That is the fact. But Campo Santo were able to use this to their advantage in the department of story, allowing the characters to grow as people and allowing them to feel disappointed. If Delilah had been at her tower, the ending of Firewatch would be far less unique and impactful. Campo Santo were able to paint over these restrictions and make them important elements of their game.
Firewatch succeeds because it is focused in all aspects. The restrictions the developers faced allowed them to think outside the box and tackle situations in a more creative fashion. Their management of resources makes the game incredibly strong. Firewatch is all the more memorable because of its limitations. Instead of producing something that looks and behaves like every other game on the market, Campo Santo uses these limitations as advantages to serve the narrative in more stylized and nuanced ways.
- Campo Santo. Firewatch. Panic/Campo Santo. Windows/OS X/Linux/Playstation 4/Xbox One/Nintendo Switch. 2016.