Chris Remo is a jack-of-all-trades and a master of most when it comes to the games industry. He’s dabbled in the design, writing and composition of games, and has also spent some time as a journalist. He co-founded Idle Thumbs, which started as a video games website and is now a hit gaming podcast. He’s been a community manager for both Irrational and DoubleFine, and most recently composed Gone Home, developed by the Fullbright Company.
I only discovered Idle Thumbs recently, and thought it was brilliant! Journalists or gamers record most gaming podcasts, but Idle Thumbs has a mixture of journalists and developers. Consequently, their take on gaming is drastically different and that’s refreshing.
Currently, Chris is working on Firewatch in many different capacities, including composition, programming and testing, and is still a co-host of the Idle Thumbs Podcast, along with Nick Breckon, Sean Vanaman, Jake Rodkin and Danielle Riendeau.
How did you get your start in the gaming industry?
It was really unintentional actually. I was a music major in college but I hung around on a couple video game related forums on the interest because all of my real-life friends weren’t really into games, so that particular interest of mine kind of only existed online unlike my interests in movies and books and things like that. I ended up meeting Jake Rodkin and some other people and we founded a video game website called Idle Thumbs in 2004. That eventually led to me getting a job as a video game journalist, which I did for a few years before being recruited by Irrational Games. Since then, I’ve been working as a video game developer.
It’s really interesting that you’ve been on both sides – as a journalist and developer/composer
It’s been really helpful actually. I’m glad I’ve had all these various positions, because they’ve provided me with a useful perspective on the industry.
How different is composing for a game than writing for a game?
It depends, on a case-by-case basis. In something like Gone Home, I was JUST the composer on that game. You know, I would give Steve (Gaynor) feedback on certain things, but really my responsibility was just music. Also, the music for that game was very specifically scored for particular moments. So all of the audio logs had unique music written to them. It was almost like scoring a movie because all of the music corresponded to very specific moments. Whereas on something like Firewatch; which I’m working on now, I’m much more involved in the actual game development – my responsibilities are broader than just music. On Firewatch, I’m responsible for non-music audio, am also heavily involved in the design and story-telling process, AND I do some programming work on various components of the game. In that case, I don’t feel like the composer, I’m one of the developers and just one of my responsibilities happens to be music. In the case of Gone Home, Steve and I hashed out pretty early on what the scope of the music was going to be. We talked with the team, and decided I would score the audio logs and do some ambient tracks for exploration around the house. The music evolved a lot, but the parameters never really changed. For Firewatch, on the other hand, I can constantly try things and reassess them, and we’ve gone back and forth on that a lot. Early on, I didn’t think the game was going to have very much music at all. When we were preparing our gameplay demo for PAX, Sean said, “What if we have some tense music at the end to set the scene.” I agreed, made some stuff, and then thought that it could be recurring within the game, and music could be more present than we originally envisioned. That change was only possible because I’m an ongoing member of the team and we can have those kinds of conversations.
As someone who is fascinated with music, especially video game music, and who has spoken with a number of composers, I’ve come to find that many have said that the process of scoring a game is very organic. Is that something you agree with?
I think games are inherently interactive and because of that it’s very difficult to predict the results of anything. Any type of creative work has its own challenges, but in film, it’s fairly easy with a screenplay to envision certain scenes and say, “Here’s how this scene should sound.” In a game, that’s impossible, because you could give someone a controller and they could have no idea what to do, they could be unable to figure out how to do a single thing, even if the developer feels it’s incredibly obvious. A lot of the organic parts of the process come as responses to things like that and rethinking your assumptions.
For those that don’t know, how would you describe Firewatch?
I would describe Firewatch as a first person exploratory mystery. The game is set in a connected, continuous world that’s not level based. However, it’s also not completely open world like Skyrim or GTA. It’s very narrative driven. You play as Henry, and have the ability to explore the world in a much more player driven way than a typical adventure game. The objective may be in one place, but the player can choose to ignore that and go to another place instead, and maybe they’ll find something before someone else would in a different playthrough. The most important mechanic is that you are in constant communication with your supervisor, a woman named Delilah, who is in a neighboring watchtower. Backtracking a little, you take a job as a fire lookout in the Wyoming wilderness, and she will give you tasks and what not. Very early on in the game, very strange things start to happen that sort of drag you out of your tower and set you off into this world in pursuit of answers. You and Delilah will talk things through, develop a relationship, have conversations, and wrestle with trust as weirder and weirder things begin to happen. We’re basically trying to tell a compelling story in a context where the player has a lot of expressivity and ability to respond to what’s going on.
When the player communicates with Delilah, are there dialogue choices?
Yes, your character very rarely will say something that the player has not indicated should be said. You can choose what to respond, and you can also choose not to respond. Since you’re on a walkie-talkie, if Delilah asks you a question, you can decide not to say anything, which is a response within itself, and she will react to that. Maybe in some cases she’ll be worried, or she’ll get fed up with you, it depends entirely on the situation. That’s a very significant part of the player expression within the game, because that helps shape the relationship that you have with this person, and is also the way the player can express his or her reactions to what’s going on in the world. Through these conversations, Henry can say the things that you as a player are thinking.
So you said that something is driving Henry to get out and explore, but is he doing this reluctantly?
That’s a really good question. Henry is someone whose personal life was a mess before the events of the game begins. Actually, at the start of the game, the player is able to make choices regarding what exactly Henry’s life was like before the game begins. He is someone who is bringing a lot of baggage to this job, and didn’t have a clue what he was getting into when he signed up. Certainly, the events of the game are surprising, so, I guess I would say that he is reluctant. More than anything, though, he’s just out of his depth, confused, and in over his head. He’s not a park ranger or a private investigator by training, he’s just some guy who made some questionable choices, and he’s not supposed to be some badass. Both Henry and Delilah are really just human.
Do you always play as Henry?
The players will always play as Henry, and part of what we thing is really interesting about the relationship between Henry and Delilah is that Delilah is ONLY a voice on a walkie-talkie. So you develop this whole complex connection with her based only on this one specific angle of interaction. The goal is to create a tense, dynamic relationship between the two.
Where can I expect to play Firewatch?
Currently, we are working on Windows, Mac and Linux, and the game will be out in 2015. While we would love to see the game on consoles, we are not doing that right this second. As a new studio that is fairly small, any decisions like that have to be made very carefully, and we have to take a lot of things into consideration. But, it goes without saying that we would like this game to be played by the highest number of people possible.
Being an indie developer, what are your thoughts on indie gaming?
I think it’s great; it’s the only reason that we’re allowed to exist! I think the resurgence of the PC has been a huge benefit; Steam in particular has been an absolute boom for indie developers. One of the things that’s happened platform wise over the last several years, is “Xbox Live summer of indie, or IOS indie sale”. These things rise and fall, but there’s this very robust PC market chugging along in the background, and that’s one of the main things that have made a sustainable indie market possible. Platforms aside, one of the other things that allow indies to exist and thrive is the proliferation of games over an incredibly wide band of genres, settings and premises. It used to be the case that if you were going to make an indie game, it was probably going to be a puzzle game or a platformer. There’s been so much experimentation and growth in terms of the kinds of games that are feasible to develop and to sell that it doesn’t feel like your locked into those assumptions anymore. Games like Braid, Gone Home, Depression Quest and Super Meat Boy have almost nothing in common with each other except that they’re all indies, and that’s a really great thing. I don’t think we would have the confidence to make something like Firewatch if we didn’t think there was a receptive community of people out there willing to play something a little different. In the 90’s, there was this amazing subversion of genre conventions, and in some cases the conventions hadn’t been determined yet. In the first decade of the 2000’s, everything kind of crystalized into these very specifically defined genres, and that was kind of disappointing for me, as someone who grew up playing all sorts of games. It feels like now, especially with the indie scene, we’re getting back into that mentality of the genre not necessarily mattering too much, and we’re starting to see a lot of different, cool stuff.
Do you think that crowdfunding has had a positive impact on the indie scene?
I think crowdfunding has been a really interesting development. I have a lot of association with this in that I was involved with two different Kickstarter’s at DoubleFine and with the Idle Thumbs Podcast in 2012, and those were all great experiences. They all took criticism for various reasons, but they’ve all made good on their promises. There have been a lot of great things that have come from crowdfunding, but with any source of funding, people can start to feel like they’re getting free money. The thing that I would like is for crowdfunding to be JUST one of the possible ways to finance your game instead of being seen as this magical Holy Grail. Like for a while, it was expected that you would do a Kickstarter if you were an indie studio. I don’t like that for the same reason I don’t like genre expectations, I don’t really like just having these expectations for things. We did not crowdfund Firewatch, not because we’re against crowdfunding, just because it wasn’t the route we wanted to take. Something I also really like is Patreon, which allows people to back something on an individual level, and it’s a fairly low ask. So you can choose to give $1 monthly, and it allows people to sort of vote with their dollars extremely directly.
Unfortunately, at this point, my phone ran out of space and stopped the recording, but Chris and I went on to talk about his favorite games and favorite soundtracks from games. Once again, I’d like to thank him for his time, and was floored by his immense insight into the game industry.