Far Cry 4’s narrative team talks about the challenges of crafting a linear story in a game where players are encouraged to go off-script.
From an outsider perspective, Far Cry 4’s concept presentation looks like it’s being played by a psychopath. A room full of journalists watch a screen showing the movements of a player that hint at a rather unhinged demeanor.
We watch as the player takes aim at a peacock with a machine gun, lets loose a volley of bullets, misses and is then forced to run as the irate bird and its pals make a bee-line for him, pecking and squawking. We observe the player try to coax a tortoise out of its shell. When this doesn’t work, he places a plastic explosive on its shell, runs giggling to a safe distance and then blows it up with a remote. Unfortunately the explosion sets fire to the surrounding vegetation and the player dies in the flames, cackling maniacally as this happens.
As was mentioned, onlookers with no context to Far Cry 4 might find this behavior disturbing. Anyone familiar with Ubisoft’s open-world shooter, however, will recognise these activities as just another big day out in Kyrat.
The DNA strand that runs through the Far Cry games is essentially the practice of taking the player on a digital power trip in a harsh and unforgiving environment. Recent entries in the series placed players in an unnamed African nation on the brink of civil war and a tropical island populated by pirates and hostile animals. The locale for Far Cry 4 is Kyrat, a mish-mash of physical landscapes and culture found Nepal, Tibet and Thailand. It’s a huge sprawling environment that contains as many activities as it does roaming wildlife and adversaries.
Use a spyglass to look across the map and you’re staring at a location you can travel to. On the way there, however, you’re likely to run into animals, side-quests, gangs of marauding soldier, race opportunities – a virtual plethora of distractions. There’s so much to do in Kyrat that crafting a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end poses the developers a laundry list of challenges.
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The first and foremost consideration with regards to this, says Far Cry 4’s Executive Producer Dan Hay, is that the developers can’t force players into following the game’s main plot strands.
“The danger of making an open world game is saying the words: ‘well, they’re not playing it properly!’ The reality is there’s no proper way to play an open world game,” he says.
“Players are going to do what they want to do and in the order they want to do it. It’s smarter for us as developers to lean into that rather than fighting it.”
According to the game’s lead Narrative Director, Mark Thompson, one of the aspects keeping the player hooked is the depth and scope of Kyrat – not just as a map to roam around in, but as a place with its own culture and lore. Thompson says that balance between free-roaming and plotting is crucial if Far Cry 4 hopes to tell a story while offering the player enough freedom to stay fun.
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“People can leave the story whenever they want, right? They can explore whenever they want,” he says. “So the key for us was to take the narrative budget and distribute it as evenly as players distribute their time in the game. The open world needs to have as much narrative depth and time spent on it development.”
The two other hooks, he says, are the game’s protagonist and the colourful characters he runs into. The hero of the story, Ajay Ghale is a native of Kyrat returning home after growing up abroad to scatter his mother’s ashes in her home country. Once Ajay arrives, he finds Kyrat torn apart by civil war; an insurgent group, The Golden Path, is ranged against the forces of a dictator named Pagan Min, who is as flamboyant as he is lethal.
By presenting Ajay as a fish-out-of-water, Thompson says it’s easier for players to get into the protagonist’s headspace.
“Ajay was born in Kyrat but his mother left with him when he was three years old – so he’s pre-linguistic and he has no understanding of the culture of the country where he was born,” says Thompson.
“You never really know your place in the world as a young adult. There’s almost this post-education identity crisis in the current generation,” he says. “People are still searching for who they are and some meaning. So we take this character and throw him back into a culture he’s from but knows nothing about, which is a good symbioses with the player’s experience.
“When you pick up the controller you learn at the same pace as Ajay. As he’s discovering who he is, you discover who he is. We never put you in a position where you’ll disagree with him or his motivations.”
Far Cry 4’s narrative also gives players a far greater amount of freedom of choice than it’s predecessor, whose plot was rather linear. In Far Cry 4, Ajay’s conscience is a battleground; the two leaders of The Golden Path, Amita and Sabal, have vastly different ideas about how to proceed towards victory and narrative splinters based on the which leader the player chooses to side with.
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“Progress is different based on the ideologies of the different leaders,” says Thompson. “Amita is more liberal, more progressive and her morals are more utilitarian – she’ll do whatever she feels she needs to in order to get the job done.”
“Sabal is much more morally virtuous and way more religious than Amita. She’s not as profane as Pagan Min, but she’s not held back by the teachings of old, whereas Sabal is. Sabal wouldn’t support the drug trade – he feels it’s morally wrong – but Amita will if it allows her to build hospitals and schools.”
The plot and narrative sprinkle an enticing trail for players to follow. As they work their way through the story missions, the game branches off in different directions throwing up alternate plotlines and consequences for each action. The most compelling feature of the plot, however, is that it never gets in the way of the player’s freedom. Good thing too; no heavy plotting should ever get in the way of starting a brush fire…
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