Mad man in Wyoming: The voice behind one of this year's most fascinating games

Rich Sommer talks Firewatch, voice acting and even board games.

Henry is not having the best time.

Out by himself in the Wyoming wilderness, he may have thought he was getting away from it all. Instead, he may now be wondering quite what he's gotten himself into. "Henry is a damaged guy," says the man who voices him, "And he's been thrust into a place where he's entirely out of his depth."

Rich Sommer is almost certainly best known for his nuanced portrayal of the rather hapless Harry Crane in AMC's hard-drinking, heavy-smoking drama Mad Men. Playing the voice of Henry, Firewatch's lead, it sounds like he's taking the role of another rather dysfunctional fellow, though Henry has slightly different problems and is wrestling them in a very different place: a hundred feet up in the air.

"Henry's decided to take a job out of a newspaper in a fire lookout tower and his only contact, his only means of interaction, is with his supervisor, over the radio," explains Sommer. "He's gone there hoping for isolation. There are things happening in his life that I think he's trying to get away from and he'd rather have his time to himself rather than even interact with nature. But, eventually, something happens that forces him to leave that tower."

1
No, there probably isn't any running water, either.

That's a big deal for Henry, a man who's deliberately put himself in a lonely place in a time when it was also easier to be alone, to take a break from the rest of the world, and Firewatch looks very much like a game that's about isolation and introspection, or at least the search for those things. It's set at the end of the 1980s and, though that's hardly the distant past, it was still a time when people were much less connected by technology than they are now, something Sommer thinks is disappearing: "I don't know if we've completely lost it, but it's harder to find that alone time now," he says "Whether I'm on a computer, a phone or Twitter, it's rare now that I'm not communicating with someone."

While Sommer describes himself as an extrovert who enjoys that company and connection, Henry clearly desires the opposite and Firewatch makes it easy to see the appeal of that isolation, that chance for introspection that its protagonist has sought. The game depicts America's least populous state as a rugged wilderness of rocky ravines, lush forests and beautiful sunsets, all seen through Henry's eyes as he hikes, climbs and even mumbles his way about his new locale.

When he's not talking to himself, he's speaking with his colleague, Delilah, who reminds him of his duties as a firewatcher, a lookout stationed in a great, gangly tower who must scan the horizon for any sign of a blaze. Occasionally he interacts with his environment or makes key dialogue choices that send the plot in a new direction. It looks like each day could present Henry with a new challenge.

2
When Henry isn't talking on the radio, he's talking to himself, sometimes to extrapolate.

It's a curious and remarkably original setting for a video game and, by chance, there could perhaps be no better man for the job than Sommer. His connection to the project brings a strange collection of coincidences and curiosities. First of all, he's has actually had the rare, first-hand experience of staying in a fire tower himself, an experience that few have shared.

"One night, Michael Gladis [also of Mad Men] and I went to a fire tower just outside of Bakersfield, California, that you can camp in," he says. "It has a couple of beds, a little stove; it's like a camp site. I'd never encountered one until I found this one in a book of weird places to stay in California.

"It is phenomenal. It's basically a tower at the top of a small mountain. It's really windy at night, cause it's so far up. We took a guitar, a backgammon board and a bottle of whisky and that was it. We just kind of sat up there and looked out. It's made doing Firewatch a lot easier because I know exactly what those places are like, how small they are, what they smell like."

Though this wasn't any sort of attempt at method acting, as his trip was some time before he signed on to the game, he has since made another very deliberate decision that helps put himself in Henry's shoes. Fellow actor Cissy Jones, who voices Delilah, lives close to Sommer's own Los Angeles home, but while they're working together Sommer intends to maintain a very deliberate distance.

"We've not met in person," he says. "We both plan on keeping that how it is, even though we really only live a few miles apart. Henry hasn't met Delilah and it makes life a little easier. She's a disembodied voice in my headphones, just as she would be a disembodied voice on Henry's radio."

3
Henry's job isn't the safest or easiest one.

The two actors also have the added advantage of being able to record much of their dialogue together online, from their homes, responding to one another in a way that not many voice actors get to enjoy. As well as his television credits, Sommer has experience on the big screen and on stage, but while he says he "really wants to get back into voice" and very much enjoys it, it presents a particular disadvantage for someone who relishes working in formats where he can directly react to his colleagues.

Much voice acting, particularly in video games, requires actors to enter a booth and record their lines alone, frequently performing dialogue from many different scenes at once in a disjointed, piecemeal fashion, to be stitched together later. "You're throwing those lines into a hole," is how Sommer describes it. "Usually there's no response, or there's a director or booth operator who's responding. It really, really helps to have an actor on the other side who's interacting with you."

That said, he's recently enjoyed some rare exceptions to this rule, guest-starring in an episode of The Simpsons titled "My Fare Lady" and appearing several times in The Regular Show. "I had to go and sit while they recorded that Simpson's episode," he says. "They all record together. It was a pretty amazing experience. Having sat in group sessions for things like The Simpsons and The Regular Show, you quickly find out how much that helps. Having to do it alone is also, frankly, not as much fun."

Unlike Henry, doing things alone doesn't sound like Sommer's style. Though he says he's always been a fan of adventure games and games with strong narratives (he names The Walking Dead, Day of the Tentacle and the King's Quest games amongst old favourites), what he most enjoys now is the experience of playing with other people. "I really require some social interaction in my playing, which is why Call of Duty, or Titanfall, or Destiny are good for me," he says. "I'm online with humans, interacting with people, even if it's just to be called some horrible epithet."

This desire to play with others is also something that, thanks to another coincidence, landed him the role. Sommer's biggest gaming passion is of the cardboard kind and he says his use of Twitter has gradually become "almost entirely about board games. I've always owned a console of some sort, starting with the NES, but I don't sit and wait for a new release like I do with a board game." It was a fellow board game fan on Twitter who dropped Sommer a line, saying that Campo Santo's vision of Henry was as someone who sounded rather like him.

4
It's a strange thing to call home.

"They told me 'We're working on a game right now and your name came up as part of a dialogue model for this guy,'" Sommer says. "They kept saying that the character had a mix in cadence between me and Louis CK. Essentially, they knew they were never going to get Louis CK, so they thought they would reach out to me. I appreciate that both as accurate and fortuitous. They wouldn't get Louis CK, but I'll happily take his seconds!"

Early demos of Firewatch show Henry trying to settle in the wilderness, awkwardly tackling pranksters and struggling with the demands of his job. Sommer doesn't give away any plot developments, but there are hints that things will get very difficult for Henry before they get any better. It's likely no great stretch to suggest that his exploration of Wyoming may mirror some exploration of himself.

As for Sommer, he's enthusiastic about future voice projects, particularly as Mad Men has wrapped its final season. As we talk, one more coincidence arises. He's preparing to play board games with co-star Aaron Staton, who just happens to be known to many as the lead in L.A. Noire, a game that Sommer says "ended up essentially being cast by the Mad Men casting office." It featured many of the same actors in a remarkable crossover that was also Sommer's video game debut, both his voice and likeness being used (he describes it as "Andy Serkis-type work") for the character of John Cunningham.

Whatever role he takes next, it's surely not as likely to be as graced by coincidence as Firewatch is, and while he may so frequently be online and connected to the wider world, he says his focus has narrowed to one of his favourite ways of socialising.

"I have the people that I follow on Twitter, but... I made this list of board game people and now I don't so much care about the other stuff," he admits "I keep skipping all the other tweets just to get to the board games."

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About the author

Paul Dean

Paul Dean

Contributor

Paul writes freelance articles about all sorts of things, but gaming has always remained close to his heart. He is one half of the board games show Shut Up & Sit Down and tweets as @paullicino.

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