Earlier this year, there was controversy over a promotional image of Far Cry 4 showing a light-skinned man sitting on a makeshift throne, with a dark-skinned man kneeling at his feet. It was, as some pointed out, not the first time a Far Cry game had drawn criticism on the subject of race: Far Cry 3, for example, had a white protagonist who saved an entire island and its dark-skinned inhabitants from pirates, a premise many found uncomfortable.
While we don't know how well Ubisoft will portray race relations in Far Cry 4, we do know some basics for the story. The man in the promotional art is not white, nor is he Far Cry 4's protagonist. He's a pink-suited despot by the name of Pagan Min, who rules over the small Himalayan country of Kyrat. The game's hero, Ajay Ghale, learns of Min's tyranny when he honors his mother's dying wish of returning to his birth country, only to get caught up in a civil war. The developers are conscious of how some thought about the main character from Far Cry 3, and are trying to create a more sympathetic story this time around. "A lot of people found Jason Brody problematic," C.J. Kershner, one of Far Cry 4's writers, said at a Sony event in New York this week. "He was seen as a white savior, a kind of millennial dude bro."
Kershner is one of five Ubisoft Montreal developers working on narrative content for the upcoming open-world shooter. While developing Far Cry 4's story, Kershner found a YouTube clip of a Far Cry 3 player calling Brody an "Aryan warrior king." Similar feedback influenced the team's decision to look for a more culturally diverse setting for Far Cry 4, but with the same characteristics as past games: varied terrain, exotic animals, and a rich history that would lend itself easily to a nonlinear narrative. They settled on the Himalayas. The team organized a field trip to get acquainted with the region's climate and culture; they read books and watched documentaries, taking particular note of accounts like Into Thin Air, a 1997 television movie about the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, in which eight climbers died during a storm. "We wanted to know what draws people to that part of the world," Kershner says. "We thought a lot about what kinds of stories we could tell against this dramatic backdrop."
At this point, a man behind us playing the Far Cry 4 E3 demo shoots an elephant in the head. Kershner buries his face in his hands. "See? Far Cry is a game about choice."
Given the success of previous Far Cry games, the narrative structure has largely been left untouched. There are new elements, of course--new characters, weapons, and vehicles--but as far as story is concerned, Kershner says it should feel familiar to anyone who has ever played a Far Cry game. It's the smaller moments in the game--those narrative threads that players can pick up and follow--that presented the best opportunity to get creative. Kershner calls this the "anecdote factory," because this is what players seem to love most about Far Cry: stumbling upon unexpected moments that make them feel their experience of the game is unique. Kershner himself has plenty. "I was sitting on a hill with my camera [in Far Cry 3] surveying an outpost, and out of nowhere a tiger attacked me from behind. And rather than engage the tiger, I ran off, straight through the outpost, with the tiger in tow; and suddenly the tiger forgot about me and cleared the outpost for me. Not my original plan, but it worked out well anyway."
Sharing these moments has become something of tradition among Far Cry players. YouTube is full of videos of players participating in a range of amusing, and sometimes disturbing, in-game activities, such as the guy who liked to antagonise turtles in Far Cry 3. "He just kept walking up to the turtles and going, 'Hey turtle, hey turtle,' and then hitting them," Kershner says, amused. "We love the YouTube videos of people screwing around and having fun just as much as the actual constructive criticism of what the game is and what it's about."
Hunting animals is core to the Far Cry games--crafting with animal skins, for example, is essential to gameplay, giving the protagonist the ability to hold more loot, ammo, and weapons. Both crafting and rare hunts will make a comeback in Far Cry 4. And, as a treat for those who enjoyed Far Cry 3's animal antics, the game will feature rideable elephants, which can also be used as weapons. Far Cry can get away with it--it has a reputation for the unexpected and for the crazy, so a weaponized elephant fits right into this world.
(At this point, a man behind us playing the Far Cry 4 E3 demo shoots an elephant in the head. Kershner buries his face in his hands. "See? Far Cry is a game about choice. If you want to engage with a compelling story, that's an option; if you want to play in the open world, that's an option; if you want to ride an elephant, that's an option; if you want to shoot an elephant...that guy is a monster," he says, laughing. "Given our conversation, that just breaks my heart.")
The elephant incident, although briefly terrifying, demonstrates Kershner's point about players making the game feel like their own. Open-world games present a bigger challenge for writers than linear ones, for obvious reasons--there's more to write. If players are free to roam to any corner of the world, they always need to find something there that justifies travelling that far. So there's no reason, for example, that a player can't pick non-player characters in Far Cry 4 and just follow them around, listening to what they say. "It sounds creepy, but one of the things I love doing in this game is hiding in the bushes and just listening to NPCs talk," Kershner says.
It also means nonlinear narrative is a lot more fun to write. Kershner gets a kick out of imagining players' reactions to particular lines of dialogue he's created solely for their amusement.
"There's something I'm particularly proud of, and it's to do with Pagan Min's pink suit. I don't want to spoil the surprise, but it's a good one."