Keith Stuart brings us part one of a two part interview with narrative designer Patrick Redding and producer Louis-Pierre Pharand…
Part one: on morals and maturity
Even in a year bursting with great first-person shooters, Far Cry 2 looks set to be a genuine benchmark title. In development at Ubisoft Montreal and scheduled for an autumn release, the game pitches players into an unnamed African state, torn apart by economic collapse and warring tribal factions. The mission is to assassinate a rogue arms dealer, but on arrival your character manages to contract malaria, descending into an Apocalypse Now-style hallucinogenic haze. While he’s recovering in hospital, your target decides to kickstart a major armed conflict – it’s time to drag yourself from your sickbed and get involved.
This is an enormously ambitious title. Taking place in a huge open landscape (50 square kilometres to be precise) and featuring a complex narrative system that lets the player shape the story, it promises a genuine sense of navigational freedom. It also chucks in a complex physics system, where foliage damaged by bullets or explosions slowly grows back; where you can set fire to huge areas of scrubland to flush out hiding enemies; where the wind carries those flames in a realistic pattern and rain puts them out. All this takes place in a realistic day/night cycle with one minute of real time equalling eight minutes in the game world. Don’t fancy taking out that gun emplacement during the day? Camp it out and wait for dusk to draw in.
Ubisoft is also keen to show that the game has more to offer than chaos and violence. So when we spoke to narrative designer Patrick Redding and producer Louis-Pierre Pharand recently, we chatted first about Far Cry 2’s underlying themes. Can a shooter really have brains as well as brawn?
ThreeSpeech: So how does the lead character become involved in this war-torn environment? How does his story develop?
PR: Well, the player quickly comes into contact with one of the two armed factions, and they tell him, “listen, a guy like you is not going to survive for very long unless you’re affiliated”. From that moment on the plot becomes what we refer to as the Red Harvest storyline; I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Dashiell Hammett novel, it’s like Yojimbo or Fistful of Dollars. The player has certain skills that are in demand by the factions and they both want him to work for them; he can walk up the street and take jobs for either side, but obviously there are consequences and a big part of our dynamic story system is tracking that, tracking how often he’s willing to screw people over.
ThreeSpeech: So there’s a moral angle?
PR: We have something called the infamy system – it’s a bit like a reputation system if you think of the way RPGs usually work. We didn’t want infamy to be sort of a reputation layer, though; we needed to tie it in to every aspect of the gameplay. So infamy is really a reflection of the player’s willingness to use extreme measures in achieving his goals. How much of a bastard am I being in a firefight? Am I shooting guys to wound them, then drawing their friends out and shooting them? Am I using fire? All of these ultimately contribute to a player’s infamy. The other contributing factor is – how am I completing the missions? Do I just take what I’m given and go do it or am I subverting these missions so the outcome is more extreme, creating more chaos, sowing more destruction and increasing my reputation, in the process?
There’s an important counter to this though, because the player is sick with malaria, which means he needs medicine and the only sources of medicine in the game are the civilians who are currently hiding out. There’s an underground element that’s trying to get the civilians to safety and they’re like, “okay, if you’re willing to do some things for us, help protect us, find some travel papers, etc, we’ll give you some of our malaria medicine”. So that becomes a way for the player to improve his health and his overall survivability.
ThreeSpeech: So is there a sort of good route and bad route through the game?
PR: It’s not about you picking the light side or the dark side, it’s not that binary. It’s all about how moderate can you be and still survive, and that becomes a more interesting dynamic. Infamy is a source of power within the game - it makes you tougher in combat and more able to defeat your enemies. The moral direction is embodied in the game’s mechanics.
ThreeSpeech: The game world seems to have a real ecology to it…
PR: Well if you take a standard shooter, the conflict is usually man vs man. The first Far Cry introduced this man vs nature component: the environment is also a challenge - I have to use it, but I also have to be wary of it. What we’re trying to do is add a third step: man vs himself. You’re struggling with inner demons, it’s got a Heart of Darkness component to it, which maps very well with the African setting.
What this comes down to is, as a player, I need to feel as though my actions matter in this environment; the actions that I take have an impact on the natural world around me – so if I set fire to something, the effects are lasting and persistent. At the same time, the humans that I’m dealing with are a kind of social wilderness - I’m not just trying to survive in the literal wilderness, I’m trying to find out who I can trust. I’m also actively betraying the trust of the factions when I take missions from them and then subvert them or take on missions for the other side.
ThreeSpeech: I heard you went out to Africa to research the game…
The interesting thing is, we’d been working on this game for a year and a half and we created this North American version of Africa, but it wasn’t quite right. So we went to Kenya last year for two weeks, we slept in the middle of the savannah, we didn’t do the lodge tour, we had a cook with us, we had a guide, we actually had a biologist with us who explained the wildlife and surroundings, and we were like “oh man, we got it so wrong!” So we came back and within a month we were able to turn things around and make the game feel like you were really there.
ThreeSpeech: What are your most vivid memories of that trip?
We went to three different national parks, we camped, we heard lion attacks in the middle of the night, they were fighting with elephants. Watch the ‘making of’ when our game is released – you’ll see some pretty interesting footage.
ThreeSpeech: So what was the one biggest change you made?
LP: I think Alex, our art director explains it best, but when you’re out there, you’re so small, it’s so big and there are animals that could take you out at any time. It’s an extremely violent environment, you see lions attacking animals every day… And you basically make the correlation that we’re doing the same thing, we’re animals too. We we’re going back to the roots of humanity in a way. And we got the chance to go to villages, we spent a day with Maasai tribes – our guide was from Kenya and he took us to places the tour buses don’t go. The leader of the tribe took us into his house… We also saw a lot of the corruption, and that feeds into our game. It’s just a different planet, it’s such an eye opener.
ThreeSpeech: So there are 170 people working on the project, that’s a lot of people to keep motivated!
LP: Yes, but we didn’t go from 20 people to 170 over night, we ramped up pretty slowly. On the management side it gets to be difficult when you reach the infamous number of 100. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Jack Walsh the ex-CEO of General Electrics – he said 100 people is the cut-off, so when we got to that stage we thought okay we’ve really got to look at what we’re doing – because you can easily forget things. The videogame industry is not like the rest of the software industry – it’s a creative environment, you’ve got guys going nuts everyday with new ideas. But we’ve got a pretty good structure in place to finalise, converge and polish game features.
And what we’ve done - and our creative director, Clint Hocking, feels the same way – we’ve made it clear that everyone can speak their mind, the best idea will always win. The creative guys are sitting with the engineers and if the engineers have got a better idea, well, we’d be stupid not to go with it.
Also, the average age of our team is a little older than usual. We’ve assembled a team with a lot of life experience. We wanted to make sure we gathered people from all backgrounds.
PR: Even internally. I mean, we’ve got guys who worked on Splinter Cell, guys who worked on Assassin’s Creed, who worked on the Rainbow Six games and GRAW as well as from other studios.
LP: We’ve got a few guys from the Battlefield series.
ThreeSpeech: It’s interesting that you mentioned having a more mature team. Games these days seem to be exploring rather than just portraying violence. Do you think that’s about development staff being older or about better technology, or a combination?
LP: I’d say it’s a combination. We have the people who want to make a game like that and the company accepted the challenge. Ubisoft handed over the reins, they said, go ahead, here’s the budget. All the games being developed in Montreal are pretty creative. Far Cry, I think will be one of the first Ubisoft games that says, “okay we’re still a shooter, but let’s make this a meaningful experience for the gamer”. I think we’re going to be able to bring a lot of new people to the genre.
PR: We’re never going to be able to get out of selling shooting games to teenagers…
LP: That’s not our goal we want to add a mature, 30-something audience…
PR: Admittedly this is a game that has its moments of brutality and violence but I want somebody to be able to show this to their mum and say, this is interesting, this made me think, this made me understand something I didn’t appreciate before.
LP: If you had to put one sentence to it, our game is about how far you are willing to go to do the right thing?
PR: Are you willing to get your hands dirty, to get a few stains on your soul if it serves the greater good? That’s a question we ask, we don’t answer it. We ask, are there situations that are so terrible that you have to do terrible things to put an end to it? The annoying thing is, there’s nothing stopping games from posing these types of questions and then inviting the players to explore their own answers…
LP: In fact, that’s one of the things that games are better at than anything else, but we hardly ever take the opportunity to do it. I think we’re starting to see it…
PR: Often you’ll ask what is this game about, and the developer will begin to describe the plot and you think, ‘no, no what is the game about?!’ There doesn’t have to be a conventional plot, it could be that the mechanic pushes you to explore elements you hadn’t thought about before. That’s what we want to be doing. By choosing a shooter… a shooter is something that’s palatable at a commercial level, people like running around shooting things, the idea is, can we subvert that?
LP: Consumers are ready for something else. I think Bioshock was a benchmark moment for that.
PR: When I first heard about Bioshock, I thought ‘Guys, I don’t know about this’. System Shock, System Shock 2, Deus Ex, these were games that people loved and critically were so well-received because of how deep they were… But I was at a demo of the game and I was thinking, ‘are people going to buy this?’ It’s cool but it’s so weird, it’s so out there… and in fact it turns out that they were. What that game demonstrated – and to a certain extent Half-Life 2 did it as well – was that you can make a shooter that’s commercially viable, that is about something, that has a good story, that has some moments that are not conventional adolescent power fantasies…
LP: I think the mass media is actually waiting for us to step up and create games with more meaning, and I think Bioshock started that…
PR: And Portal. Portal surprised the hell out of everybody – I would argue that Portal has one of the best game stories ever developed, because you are IN IT, you’re inside it, you walk out of there feeling like you experienced a true story. There’s a maturation process going on.
ThreeSpeech: It’s a slow process though, isn’t it?
PR: We were at GDC this year and Clint participated in the Game Development Rant – and his was the only real rant. Lot’s of people stood up and practically said, hey everything’s great, but he stood up and said, “I want games to be about something - is there any reason why Call of Duty couldn’t actually have been about duty? Is there any reason Medal of Honor couldn’t have been about honour?” (More here.) We have it within our means to make games that are about those things, to communicate these experiences to gamers, but we’re limiting ourselves, we’re being naive – we just need the courage to do it.
LP: I think previously people could hide behind technological limitations – “oh it’s too complicated we can’t go down that route”, but we’re arriving at a time when we can deal with these issues, it’s just a question of, do you want to invest your time and money to do it? I think it’s going to pay off in the end. Honestly, I think we’re making something special…