What Firewatch taught me about UI design


Originally posted on February 17th, 2016.

I’m not one to write about the User Interface of any game. I’m not one to write about much of anything, if I’m being entirely honest. So compelled was I by the excellent use of a user-interface (Or lack thereof), the beautiful implementation of Verlag and the captivating art-direction in general of Firewatch, I had to share my thoughts on this near perfect display of User Experience.

Day 1: New user INTERFACE

When you begin Firewatch, one of the first screens you’re greeted with has an alluring use of imagery and an interface that’s so clean, so uncompromising in it’s simplicity that it’s a joy to behold. It’s not flash, it’s not big, but it works extremely well and reflects the ambiance of the game entirely.

The animation here is subtle. The sound design is excellent, with the faint audible noise of what can only be described as a warm breeze. Like an animated painting, it’s tempting to pause slightly and bask in it’s summertime mise en scène.

The Verlag font is used throughout to great effect. Verlag, the affable modernist, was initially created for the Guggenheim Museum by Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones. A geometric, sans-serif font that echoes classic Bauhaus fonts like Futura — yet modern, crisp and versatile.

It’s use seems considered, understated and well, beautifully aesthetic. It’s simple, and often overlooked, but a thoughtful approach to typography can set the tone and theme immediately in any design discipline.

Affordances (and signifiers)

One of our fundamental principles is that of perceived affordances: that’s one way we know what to do in novel situations. — Don Norman


Throughout Firewatch you will have many, many items to interact with. Doors, Walkie-Talkies, Pictures, Letters, Maps, Compasses and Cache boxes. Don Norman, whose book The Design of Everyday Things discusses the use of affordances throughout everyday life; self-evident ways in which a user can interact in novel situations. Coupled with signifiers, there’s a clear approach to what users can interact with, there’s absolutely no ambiguity.

Norman goes on to say, “ A ‘signifier’ is some sort of indicator, some signal in the physical or social world that can be interpreted meaningfully. Signifiers signify critical information…”

Consider affordances and signifiers in your projects. How can users determine what a button is? Try to use standard interface controls. Does the user know that they can interact using gestures? Signify this, don’t leave it to chance. I submitted the form but nothing’s happening! Give the user feedback.

The best interface is no interface

Firewatch is about escapism. About leaving your hectic life behind, and trading your city environment for one of nature, solitude and minimal interference. The best interface is no interface, as Golden Krishna would proclaim. That is to say when walking around, there’s no health meter, no on screen map, no point markers. This encourages you, as the player, to swathe yourself in your surroundings.


An interface of any other type would simply be an unwanted distraction. Whilst of course an extreme example of minimalism, we as designers should also know when to pare back the superfluous, the scope creep — the kitchen sink.

Don’t compromise your design at the expense of the user. Whilst 100% affinity is probably somewhat of a stretch, it’s exactly what you should be aiming for at all times as we move further towards a more user-centered approach to design.

For more on Firewatch, check out firewatchgame.com

Chris Kernaghan is a UX designer based in Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland. He’s passionate about beautiful user interfaces and exceptional user experiences — uxchris.io

About the author


Chris Kernaghan us a UX designer based in Newtownabbey, just outside Belfast. He's passionate about empathetic design and creating amazing user experiences.

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