Far Cry has a curious history. It's a series on the cutting edge, on the cusp of technology. But With Far Cry 3 Ubisoft hopes to go beyond that technology, beyond the camera. Far Cry 3 has aspirations, it wants to be a video game that's about something, but what? We spoke to Lead Writer Jeffrey Yohalem to find out.
"That's the problem with video games -- they've kinda evolved in reverse."
Jeffrey Yohalem is intense, almost twitchy, but that could just be the jetlag. He is, after all a stranger in a strange land. He's also the lead writer of Far Cry 3. A game, he claims, that focuses on what it means to kill another human being.
Jeffrey Yohalem is also smart. That's why we're here, doing this interview.
Jeffrey Yohalem is interesting. He’s passionate, even a little spiky. He graduated Cum Laude from Yale, and joined Ubisoft Montreal shortly after. After winning a Writer's Guild award for his work on Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, he found himself irritated by the subtle condescension of fellow writers in other industries.
Oh, you write for video games? Good for you.
He wonders if that condescension is justified. He cares about video games and their evolution. He cares about pushing those limits. Whatever that means.
"I think that the development process of video games has been the opposite of movies," begins Jeffrey. "It's moved in completely the opposite direction, and I don't know if we can recover from that.
"Film started out with artists wanting to express something. The camera had been invented and the camera, on its own, had been mesmerising. So there was no more tech needed really -- cameras could get better and better but the basics were there.
"With video games we've spent all of our time developing the lens. We keep developing new camera lenses -- it's like, 'throw out that camera, we have a new camera!'
"We’re not always interested in finding new ways to use that camera."
And that, according to Jeffrey Yohalem, is what's wrong with video games.
"It's almost like we say, 'we've got this great new camera, what should we film?' Oh, let's just film colours!
"Shooting! Explosions! And that's basically tech people just having fun. It's mesmerising because the devices they're inventing are mesmerising, but there is no meaning or purpose to the content most of the time. It simply sells because it's cutting edge.
"Video games have been thriving on this idea of 'a la mode', the idea of cutting edge -- the idea that, if it's cutting edge, it's inherently good. There's no drive to create interesting or engaging content because it’s easier to just create graphics that are shinier than before."
Jeffrey Yohalem is working on a video game called Far Cry 3; a game with colours and explosions, a game where the core mechanic is shooting. But, according to Jeffrey, Far Cry 3 is more than a game where you shoot things. It's a game about what it means to shoot those things.
But what does that mean.
"Far Cry 3 has violence, we have it in the game, but the reason we're using it is to look at that violence for the first time, and really look at it," he says.
"We're not saying, 'here's our protagonist, he's a special ops agent and he's killed hundreds of people’. We're taking an ordinary guy, who's in his 20s, who's frustrated with life, and is out having fun instead of engaging with society. We're sticking him in a place where there is no society. We're asking what happens when you give that guy a gun?
"What does this all mean for the player? We're examining that journey every step of the way, from picking up the gun, to killing each person -- these things will matter. Our idea is that the player is evolving the protagonist into something."
History Of Violence
Violence is violent. Obviously. But violence can also have meaning, Ubisoft Montreal is counting on that fact. The example Jeffrey uses to illustrate this is Pulp Fiction.
"Well, if you look at a film like Pulp Fiction," he begins, "which is incredibly violent, the message of that movie, ultimately, is actually really wholesome. That message is: redemption is possible for anybody as long as they're willing to engage with it.
"A lot of Pulp Fiction copy cats thought that what was cool about that movie was the extreme violence, so they made a series of very violent movies that were about nothing. The difference is that Pulp Fiction is about something."
Far Cry 3, unilaterally, is also about something.
"There's layers and layers of stuff in our game," says Jeffrey.
"But we don't want it to be didactic, because that's the other mistake that games make -- you either have games that say nothing, or games that are like 'HERE IS OUR MESSAGE!'
“Both of those are mistakes. You have to respect the player and understand that the player will search for meaning in an experience. There are a lot of things happening in this game that I can't wait for players to discover.
"There is a lot more going on here. It's very different. There's violence, but there's not a lot of it, and the violence is very different than what you'd normally see in a shooter.
"We're saying, 'there's something else here and this isn't your typical shooter'."
A New Language
Jeffrey Yohalem is an English Literature graduate, and I recognise the language. The second he starts discussing situational irony and foreshadowing, I wonder what I've gotten myself in for. Immediately I remember that, for the most part, video games tell their stories in broad, crude strokes. Perhaps because games haven't evolved their own techniques or, at the very least, learned to adapt old techniques to a new medium.
"There are things you can't really do in a video game," explains Jeffrey. "For example, you can't do foreshadowing.
"Remember in God of War 2 where Kratos is super powerful at the beginning, and then Zeus throws this sword down and he says 'grab that sword'? You just know that sword is booby trapped. It's clearly going to ruin you -- but can't continue the game without that sword. You take the sword, you lose all of your health and the player is like, 'I saw that coming a mile away!'
Video games can be frustrating.
"In movies we love that stuff, because we get to scream, 'DON'T GO IN THE ROOM!'
"Games can't use that technique, but I think we can come up with new techniques. If the protagonist in the game knows more than the player? That's fine. The problem arises when the player knows more than the main character and that makes the main character look stupid."
Check The Technique
Foreshadowing is a commonplace dramatic technique, a subtle way of engaging an audience. I ask myself what techniques video games use to achieve the same affect.
Exposition? Recurring imagery? I can only think of visual techniques -- the smart HUD of Dead Space, the subtle cues of Journey, audio tapes in BioShock.
"You can have situations where the protagonist knows more than the player," says Jeffrey. “That can be neat. Let's say the main character meets a stranger, like a Resident Evil situation where some girl in a jumpsuit flies in, and the player's like, 'oh my god, who’s that'. And the protagonist is like, 'oh my god... Angela!'
"You're like, who's Angela? Those are cool moments where you can deviate."
In a sense, the distance between player and protagonist can be used to manipulate your experience and create a unique type of foreshadowing.
"It's important to realise that, in game narratives, the protagonist is a character, and the player is a character -- but they're not the same character. If you think about it that way you can play with it a little -- you surprise the players at some points, then you surprise the protagonist at other points -- that kind of interplay creates a new type of narrative.
"In Far Cry 3 we have these hallucinations," continues Jeffrey. "The hallucinations are levels that you play through, which show Jason's psychology -- you're essentially moving through his psychology. There are things that you're hearing and seeing that he understands but you don't.
"The player is saying, what does this mean? But our protagonist will recognise those things and be like, 'oh no'. He reacts. The player will be like, he's sensing something -- what is it?"
It's easy to forget just how different the motivations of the video game character and the video game player are. The most obvious example is death -- the video game character fears it, while the player -- for the most part -- sees death as a minor inconvenience. It's poles apart -- danger often signifies enjoyment for the player, and this can distance the player from the story they're supposed to be engaging with -- particularly when it comes to violent behaviours.
"The stakes are very different and you have to learn what makes the stakes high for the player. What is he going to react to? Treating them as the same thing is a dangerous mistake.
"What I'm focused on is trying to create meaningful experiences for the player."
The Dead End
Then Jeffrey says something that will most likely upset fans of Far Cry 2’s emergent gameplay.
“Another thing that's a problem in this industry is the focus on meaningful choices. I think it's a dead end. If you're working all day and you're making choices in your life, it's not interesting to be like, ‘do I save my family or do I climb up this building’. That's exhausting, that's not entertainment.”
I can already hear the gnashing of teeth.
“I think what players want is to be surprised,” continues Jeffrey. “It's much more fun to walk through the Disneyland Haunted House ride, and have weird things happen to you, than it is to walk down the ride and have the choice between two corridors and you're not sure what's going to happen to you if you go down a specific one. You're like, 'maybe I'm going to miss something cool'. I just don't see a future in that.”
Far Cry 3 is hardly a linear shooter -- at one point Jeffrey refers to it as an “open world, first person, action adventure”, and likens it to a first person Assassin’s Creed -- but Far Cry 3 is destined to be far more of a guided experience. Precisely what that experience is remains to be seen.
“I think games should be compelling, and I'm not sure Far Cry 2 was as compelling as it could be,” explains Jeffrey.
“With this game we focused on creating an exhilarating, surprising experience like Pulp Fiction or ET that has strong messages. I think it's the best of both worlds.
“This really is a reimagining of what Far Cry is. We have this incredible motion capture technology that is the best in the industry -- we're doing facial and body capture simultaneously, so you'll be getting full performances from actors and subtleties like you've never seen in a game before. We're really telling a strong narrative. It's not like Far Cry 2 where it was a procedural narrative.
“My feeling is we're delivering a candidate for game of the year, and that's different than Far Cry 2. Clint [Hocking, Lead Designer on Far Cry 2] was really interested in realism -- like, the guns would jam -- it was almost as if he felt games shouldn't be fun. That sort of thing is fine, but my feeling and the feeling of our creative director is we want to create something that has a great message and is interesting and engaging, but is also fun.
“Far Cry really is an open brand, which is exciting and difficult at the same time! But for us the core of Far Cry is ‘a stranger in a strange land’, and being immersed. Other than that it's pretty open.”
But, ultimately, Far Cry 3 has a focus -- and a mission statement.
"Far Cry 3 is really looking at what a video game is today, and what that means for the future of games," says Jeffrey. "One of the metaphors layers on which this game operates is that this game is about video games. It's also an adventure you live through, but hopefully this game will cause people to question and look at games, at their society, their life and say -- there are things here that I've taken for granted and maybe I should examine that."