Firewatch’s Cissy Jones chats with Game Rant about her character Delilah, crossword puzzles, and two years of recording sessions that went into Campo Santo’s debut game.
Firewatch is a game that is all about character, so obviously recruiting top tier voice talent was a major concern for Campo Santo. The game is all about firewatch volunteer Henry’s summer in the woods and his walkie-talkie conversations with his boss, Delilah, are the game’s driving force. The chemistry and tension between the Henry and Delilah are crucial to Firewatch’s success and luckily both the actors that Campo Santo recruited nailed their performances.
The playable protagonist is voiced by Mad Men’s Rich Sommer and the female lead is performed by The Walking Dead’s Cissy Jones. We had a chance to chat with Cissy a few days before Firewatch’s launch and talked about the unique recording sessions, working with Rich, and the game’s branching dialogue trees.
Cissy: Hi! Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.
GR: Of course. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, we’re all really pumped about Firewatch. It was one of our favorite games that we had a chance to see at E3 2015, so we’ve been looking forward to it.
GR: February 9 is still the release date, right? Right around the corner?
Cissy: Six days, man.
GR: That’s exciting stuff. Are you pumped?
Cissy: Not that I’m counting down or anything… Yeah, it’s only been, what, two years since we started recording? So I’m really excited for it to finally be out.
GR: So, you’ve had a few other games come out in that window of time as well, so are you just running from recording session to recording session?
Cissy: You know, I’m really (knock on wood) lucky that voice over is my full time job, so yeah, it’s been a lot of session to session back to back and making sure my family eats this month, so I can’t complain about that (laughs).
GR: So we wanted to start with some big picture questions first and then we can jump more into the details about Firewatch. Could you start by telling us a little bit about how you got into the field of voice acting?
Cissy: Sure, I was, for the longest time, a working grunt in Silicon Valley. I kind of like to liken it to Edward Norton at the beginning of Fight Club.
GR: Sounds scary.
Cissy: You know, every time my alarm clock would go off it was that “ughhhh god…” and what I always wanted to really do was be a voice on a cartoon, but I didn’t know how to get start. I just thought you had to be Hollywood, I didn’t know. And one morning I was getting ready for work and I heard Nancy Cartwright, who’s the voice of Bart Simpson, on the radio promoting The Simpsons Movie. And she was like, ‘you guys here in the Bay area you have one of the best voice over schools in the country right here’ and I was like, Hello! So I was making phone calls that day and I started taking classes that week and the rest, as they say, is history.
GR: Do you find that a lot of the people you work with are also formally trained or do people just come into the industry in different ways?
Cissy: Yeah, a good amount of people come from a theater background, which is really helpful for animation. There’s a few of us that were working stiffs before, which helps with commercial copy, things like that, because we don’t always hit it so big. but it’s all walks of life. I mean it’s really cool, the great thing about voiceover is it doesn’t matter what you look like, and it’s not even really about your voice, it’s about can you convey the message believably and make it fun for people to listen to. Whether it’s narration or commercial or video games, that’s what it boils down to.
GR: Well you definitely do a good job with it. We’ve enjoyed all of your work so far. Do you have a gig that you consider your breakout role?
Cissy: Well the first video game I ever booked was Katjaa in The Walking Dead and that changed my life. I had just gotten signed with an agent in San Francisco and I didn’t have an agent in LA yet, but that was my first booking. And to go to a studio and get paid to be a part of that game was life changing.
GR: Yeah, that’s a pretty big one to start with. Game of the Year from dozens of websites.
Cissy: It was and after the recording sessions were done I got to meet the other actors, Melissa Hutchison and Owen Thomas and Nicole Vigil and Nikki Rapp and you know we became friends because it was such an intense experience for all us and that just doesn’t happen. Usually you record in your little vacuum, you say the words into a microphone, and then you go home and cash the paycheck, but to actually get to meet the other actors that were in the game and then to bond with them over this intense experience… That game will always hold a special place in my heart just because of that.
GR: While we’re talking about The Walking Dead, you ended up doing multiple roles throughout your run on that game, what’s it like trying to manage different characters like that on the same project? How do you keep the different motivations and voices straight in your head?
Cissy: Well [TWD SPOILERS] one of them dies, so they never shared a screen together, which helps. But for me it came down to character development, you know, knowing that Kat was a middle-aged veterinarian with a 13 year old kid made her sound very different from Jolene who was just bat-shit crazy. And the backstory they gave me for Joellene was really intense. She had all this baggage that she was bringing to it she was angry. You know, so it was really easy to keep them separate. And as far as the other characters, it was the same thing, you make sure you know their backstory and what their fears are, what drives them, what’s their motivation. You know, what’s the first thing they think of when they wake up in the morning? And once you know that about the character it’s easy to just kind of slip into their shoes and go to the races.
GR: Right. So you said that The Walking Dead has a special place in your heart, would you say that those are your favorite roles?
Cissy: Oh no. Delilah takes that cake. Hands down. The Walking Dead will always be very special to me, but Delilah… Oh, Delilah. I’m so excited to see people’s reaction to her because I’m having so much fun. She’s at the same time funny and mysterious and there’s a sadness to her and just so much humor and fun. I’m so excited for people to get to see her. We’ve been recording Firewatch for two years, so there’s just so much there.
GR: A few of the trailers that we’ve seen have some really fantastic comedic moments in them that hint at that humor you mentioned. But the game as a whole definitely feels like it’s going to tackle some very serious subjects. What’s it like trying to nail comedic timing like that, particularly in a role like Delilah, where you’re off screen coming in through a walkie talkie?
Cissy: One of the brilliant things that Sean Vanaman (the writer of Firewatch) did was have Rich Sommer and I record simultaneously, so we were in our respective home studios and we called in to a conference call style Skype and we got to record together, so if it didn’t fly when we read it, then we knew it wouldn’t in the game.
GR: That’s great. So you were kind of in the same situation as your characters. Talking to each other, but never really seeing each other.
Cissy: Exactly. And Rich and I live just a mile apart from each other in Los Angeles, but we kind of made the decision not to meet because it just kept it more real in the game.
GR: Does the humor kind of stick around throughout most of the game or does it kind of have a turning point where it becomes dramatic and the humor starts to fade away.
Cissy: I’m going to let you find that out… (laughs)
GR: Were you a fan of Rich before Firewatch? Did you watch Mad Men and his other work before you started working together on this project?
Cissy: Don’t hate me… But I’ve actually never seen Mad Men. I knew who Rich was though. I’d seen The Devil Wears Prada and I knew that he was on Mad Men. It took the team at Campo Santo a long time to find the right Henry. They had a lot of people audition and then they told me that they had a direct message Twitter conversation with Rich Summer and he was onboard and I was like, ‘Sweet! Let’s do it.’ And he was so gracious, he’s such a great actor. He’s so talented and so easy to work off of. He’s great to bounce ideas around with and he’s just fantastic.
GR: Were there any other games or movies or comics or anything that you read or watched to get in the right headspace for this role?
Cissy: I did a LOT of crossword puzzles, because that is who Delilah is. She does crosswords with one hand and drinks tequila with the other.
GR: Did you also have the glass of tequila with you during your research?
Cissy: I will neither confirm nor deny…
GR: Well that sounds like good research to us. So it seems like, from what we’ve seen so far Delilah’s dialogue really pushes the player through this game. Do you consider the role similar to something like GladOs was in Portal or Cortana is in Halo where she’s kind of the driving force through the game?
Cissy: Yeah, I mean, you go on missions based on what she tells you, but how you experience the missions is entirely up to you. How you want to expose yourself emotionally to this person is going to drive your gameplay experience. If you want to be friendly with her, she’ll be friendly right back. If you want to share details about your past with her, she’ll share back. If you don’t, then she won’t. And I think that will really drive the different experiences that you can have. It’s not just the same outcome for everyone regardless of whether you pick up the widget or not. It gets really deep in places, it can get really funny in places, or it can become standoffish and sort of like, ‘Hey, here’s your mission. Go.’
GR: This is similar to The Walking Dead, so you clearly had some experience, but what is it like voicing a character that has branching dialogue trees? The way one person plays the game may make her a totally different person than the way someone else plays it. Is that challenging?
Cissy: The weird part would be months later in a recording session and Sean would be like, ‘Ok, we need to record this line and if you remember, six months ago you recorded X conversation and Henry responded with Y and then you responded with Z and that’s what this thread is.’
GR: That sounds like it gets super complicated.
Cissy: Yeah, but they had this great spreadsheet and they were always able to reference everything. But yeah, there were times where it took us a couple of tries to remember what the tone was and that carried throughout the two years of recording, so it was definitely fun. It’s a good little brain quiz.
GR: Do you feel like you get to know the character better than you would in something like a film where things just happen the way they happen, whereas this way you get to see multiple different outcomes?
Cissy: Well, I’m not a film actor, so I can’t speak for film actors, but yeah, just in terms of getting four to six hours with this character and it being entirely up to you how it goes. There are certain conversation branches that maybe only 5% of people will actually find. There are other conversation branches that the majority of people will find, so it’s so different for everyone and that’s what I love.
GR: You’ve mentioned a few times how positive the recording sessions went. What’s the different between working with a big studio like Bethesda on a gig for Fallout 4 and a smaller studio like Campo Santo?
Cissy: I put a lot of heart into Delilah. Sean is just an amazing person and getting the chance to work with him again was something I didn’t want to take lightly. I really wanted to bring everything I could to this role and, not that I don’t with other games that I work on, but I didn’t have as much of a chance to create the characters with Fallout 4 or some of the others just simply because a lot of times they don’t send out auditions. They just send a direct booking because they don’t want the information out there. So, you kind of show up, you’re given a 5 minute breakdown, and they’re kind of like, ‘All right, this is who the character is, this is what’s going on, are you ready?’
[With Firewatch], Sean really crafted these characters to a T. There’s so much backstory and learning about them and they evolved as the recording evolved, you know? So, she was really like a buddy. Like a buddy that I went to college with and we still keep in touch a couple times a year.
GR: So, Firewatch, Life is Strange, and The Walking Dead. A lot of these games on your resume kind of stand out from the mainstream crowd in terms of characters. The protagonists aren’t just Nathan Drake clones or Indiana Jones style action heroes running from adventure to adventure. Does that sort of unique project appeal to you or is it just luck that you keep ending up working on these really special projects?
Cissy: Both. There seems to be a movement in video games that is going for a more cinematic experience, so you get narrative and a lot of dialogue and character exploration. Not to say that Uncharted doesn’t have that, but it’s definitely a lot more… shit blows up, if you’ll pardon my language.
So for me, it’s been really fun getting to go in and act these beautifully written characters. There are a lot of times when I go into a session as “various voices” and just scream in the background. “Hey! Get down! Take Cover!” And that pays the bills sometimes, but it’s not as engaging and fun.
GR: So when you’re not record, do you like to play video games for fun or do you does it feel too much like work?
Cissy: [Laughs] I’m a terrible video game player. A horrible video game player. I tried playing The Walking Dead and I think I got bit by the first zombie that game along and I was just running into walls. But I do love watching gameplay. I have a lot of friends who will record gameplay and send it to me or fans who will send me clips on Twitter and I love watching it and seeing how people choose to interact with my characters.
GR: Do you have any other projects lined up that you’re able to talk about?
Cissy: I do. There are several that are still under NDA, but the next big one that I’m sooo excited for is Adr1ft, which launches on March 28 with Oculus Rift. It’s a virtual reality Lost in Space opus and I’m really excited about that one. I’m the playable character, so you get four hours of me mouth breathing, which is so awesome. I’m also one of the side characters, so you get to discover a little bit about that character too. That’s been an immensely satisfying project to work on.
GR: Have you had a chance to try out the Oculus experience yet?
Cissy: Adam Orth, who is the head of Three One Zero, invited me down and I did get to see it. It was at once beautiful and stunning and nauseating and vertigo inducing. It’s really just going to blow people away.
GR: Yeah, it’s hard to describle that experience to someone. You need to really put this thing on your head and get taken away to a different world to understand it.
Cissy: Yeah, one with zero gravity and you’re running out of air. Good luck.
GR: That sounds a little terrifying actually…
Cissy: Yeah, take a Zanax.
GR: Do you have any tips for our readers who are aspiring voice actors and want to find a way to get into the industry?
Cissy:Yes. Take acting classes. Act, act, act. Take every acting class you can. Take improve classes. It doesn’t matter what your voice sounds like. It’s not about what your voice sounds like, it’s about can you act.
GR: That’s great practical advice. Is there anything you want to tell our readers about Firewatch?
Cissy: I would say, explore everything that you can. Explore the relationships, explore the world. There’s an outhouse in there that you can explore… Just explore, enjoy, and let me know what you think. I’m on Twitter @CissySpeaks and I’d love to hear from anybody who wants chat about the game.
If you haven’t already read our review of Firewatch, we highly recommend checking it out.
Firewatch is now available for PC and PS4.