What Works And Why: Mentoring in Far Cry 5

Far Cry Mentors

What Works And Why is a monthly column where Gunpoint and Heat Signature designer Tom Francis digs into the design of a game or mechanic and analyses what makes it good.

Far Cry 5 is a mixed bag, but one of the bigger, shinier objects in that bag is its companions system. It’s a crossbreed of Far Cry Primal’s pets – you can summon them and direct their attacks at will; and Far Cry 2’s buddies – they can revive you if you get taken down. Nine of the companions available are starring characters: people or creatures you meet and recruit through main story missions with backstories and (when human) dialogue. But I don’t really care about eight of those, and I only care about the ninth because he is a dog, which gives him three key advantages:

1. He is, again, a dog.
2. He never alerts enemies if I’m being stealthy.
3. He never speaks, a big plus in a world where almost everything anyone says makes you like them less.

Incredibly, though, Far Cry 5’s companion system includes something more compelling than a dog. Because the same system extends to most of the locals you meet: you can recruit them, order them around, and save or be saved by them. They’re kinda generic, they do speak, and they can break your stealth. But wait! There’s an upside! They also have no useful abilities. Yet.

The reason I love these generated nobodies is that they can level up. After six cultist kills – the standard unit of knowledge in this universe – they unlock a random perk. Some will re-loot bodies you’ve looted to find you stuff you missed. Others frighten enemies with their shots. I had a shotgun guy whose buckshot would occasionally ignite the scenery, causing understandable panic.

Jake Cooke

And after another six learning murders, they get another perk! My RPG guy can revive dogs! Sniper lady lets me carry more ammo! Hunter man prevents me from being tracked through long grass! That one is not useful in itself – he still sucks at stealth – but it helped because I didn’t know enemies could track me through long grass in the first place. Thanks for the heads up, genero-friend!

Then that’s it. Two perks and they’re done. And, if I’m honest, even the best ones don’t really make them as good as a dog. It’s not the end result of the level-up process I enjoy, it’s the process itself. Once my new friend has shot enough humans to understand how to heal a dog and help a friend carry more spades, I release them from my employ and let them find their own way in the world. They have self-actualised, reached the spade-carrying potential that was within them all along, and they have no further need of my training. So I find someone new, someone with no skills at all, and take them under my wing.

This column is called What Works And Why, and in a lot of ways, Far Cry 5’s generated companions don’t work: they’re ghettoised by the game’s focus on story companions, they’re incomptible with the stealth playstyle that the game is best at, and the reward for levelling them up is often no help at all. It might also be the only level-up system I’ve seen in a mainstream game where there is no fanfare for the level-up moment itself – I don’t mean not enough, I mean you are literally not told. You have to periodically bring up the companions menu to see if it’s happened yet.

And yet… it does work. I love doing it, and I never get tired of it. And this is an eye-opener for me. I’m basically grinding, and I’m not even grinding for my own benefit. I’m farming experience-kills for people who have no significance, no pre-existing relationship to me, and virtually no future usefulness. And it feels… lovely.

I think part of it is that I’m an obscene super-predator in this world. I’m absurdly tough, perfectly accurate, and my dog is psychic. No military operative in human history has had the capability to personally kill this many people with a bow, a rock and a spade. I enjoy taking down all the outposts undetected, but if I’m honest I’m doing it for sport. I’m trying to kill them without being seen just because it’s harder, and thematically cooler. It doesn’t actually matter if they see me, no-one’s coming to save them. I broke all the alarms and mined all the reinforcement routes, and I can kill anyone in this world with a mouse click. That kind of power can start to feel a little gross.

So taking some frankly incompetent rebels out on a little field trip, purely for the purpose of helping them improve, feels genuinely nice. Those six educational kills they need, I’ll level with you: they’re not getting them by helping me out. They suck. I have to hang back, hide in a bush, spot targets for them with my binoculars, and tell them when to strike. I watch them work, assign each of them targets suited to their abilities, and if they screw it up and blow themselves up, I finish the job and save them before they bleed out. Then I bring up the menu to check their kills, see if they’ve learned anything yet, and when they’ve learned all they can – which it turns out is two things – I let them go.

Open world games are the perfect place for this. Walking across a richly built one these days is almost, almost fun enough. Stuff happens! Fights emerge! Animals attack! Events chain together! It’s all technically stuff to do. But by itself, it’s a little too aimless. The game’s story missions are meant to address that, but for years and years, developer after developer have stubbed their toes on the obstacles inherent in trying to write a movie script for a protagonist who’s been told they’re free. It’s never a great fit.

But helping others, even in this rudimentary, unincentivised way, makes that trek rewarding for me. Imagine if it actually helped, if these people you mentored became recurring characters, if the talents you’d helped them develop contributed to your war effort, or if the game in any way acknowledged you’d even done it. Better still, imagine if they were dogs.

Tom Francis is the designer of Gunpoint and Heat Signature and a former games journalist. You can find more of his thoughts on making games on his blog.

18 Comments

  1. Grizzly says:

    Imagine if they were bears!

  2. Viral Frog says:

    I just… I just don’t see how this works at all. It sounds like one of the most half-baked and easily ignored features in modern gaming.

    • Nogo says:

      Humans can empathize with a literal rock. We are magical creatures

    • KingFunk says:

      Tom does indeed acknowledge this and then goes on to explain why he still finds it fun nonetheless.

  3. cairbre says:

    Tom Francis writing for RPS what strange witchcraft is this! More I say, more.

    • battles_atlas says:

      Thirded. I’m still, all these years later, coming to terms with the fact that Tom wasn’t part of the original Hivemind. My brain regularly defaults to believing he was.

      Presumably he wasn’t due to some vendetta between him and Jim, as the two Top Guns of early 90s UK games journalism, like a much less homoerotically pleasing Maverick and Iceman. Now Jim has sold out to Raytheon or whoever it is that bought RPS, Tom has seized the opportunity to get one over on his old nemesis.

      That’s what I imagine is the case anyway.

    • KingFunk says:

      To be fair, surely stepping up from the cheery fanzine to the real thing (via a modicum of development) is the logical progression…

  4. Shinard says:

    My Shadow of Mordor senses are tingling.

    • Darth Gangrel says:

      Yeah, I also thought Shadow of Mordor, where it’s much more fun to mind control orc captains than to kill them, because then you can help them rise in rank. I don’t know how useful the can be to you, but it feels good to help them.

      I’ve always liked forcing the bad guys to do good stuff (or stuff that fits my agenda) like in Knights of the Old Republic, when you can either trick bad guys that you’ve done their dirty work or mind control them into backing off from doing bad stuff to someone.

  5. dsch says:

    I think the fact that they are released at the end of the process is an important aspect. I mean, they probably are digitally vaporised as soon as they’re out of your sight, but you can at least imagine that they are now in the open world, doing things. It gives you the impression of making a difference not only in your hyper-circumscribed, plot-driven in-game existence, but also in the open world itself, which, despite all the supposed “difference” you’re making through liberating outposts, still feels quite impervious.

    Perhaps it’s also an escape from the fact that the open world cares about you way too much. Almost every reviewer has commented on how the game is afraid of letting two minutes going by without some kind of encounter, and I think that’s a sign that the world tries too hard to cater to the experience of the player, which has the effect of making the world seem paradoxically smaller (being concentrated on this one person). Part of what was wonderful about Far Cry 2 was how it didn’t really seem to care as much about whether the player is having a good time (see the love-hate relationship of players with the always-respawning outpost system). This was something later Far Crys tried to capture, mostly through animals, but it seems they never understood what the point of having non-player-focused systems was: to make the world bigger by not putting the player in an awkward personal relationship with the designer of the open world (like one of those dates in which your partner is always anxious about whether you’re having a good time).

    • Nogo says:

      Years down the line one of them revives a dog after hitting it with his truck. Looks up into the night sky.

      “Thank you, Tom”

  6. sagredo1632 says:

    Honestly I’m a little mystified as to why this works. It seems to buck the trend of ye olde RPGs where leveling out-of-party companions used to be such a grind that most modern systems implemented (scaled) auto-leveling. Then again, in something like Skyrim, the presence of auto-leveling really gave you no incentive to switch up your followers, but I could see how serially leveling them could be fun to do (despite their total stealth incompetence).

  7. peirceg says:

    The game got a little silly when I basically recruited the terminators. An RPG wielding and a Assault rifle maniacs that would self revive, then would also heal me back to full in the event of me going down. I watched them take out swathes of enemies in an already very easy game!

  8. empty_other says:

    The two male companions gets themselves (and me) blown to pieces as soon as combat starts. The helicopter mom doesn’t even need an enemy to crash her helicopter into me. Archer-chick have a hard time killing anything, but often set stuff on fire that shouldnt be on fire. The dog keeps running into crowds and gets himself killed. The panther takes forever to kill anyone, and then gets himself killed. The bear gives my enemies free cover from my bullets and is a very big target. Nick is great, but I have problems understanding what he says over the radio noise.

    So for most of the game it was me, Grace and a random army clothed rebel. It was a great team.

  9. latedave says:

    More Tom Francis please!

  10. GallonOfAlan says:

    The human companions do talk a lot of annoying shite.

    I played nearly the whole thing with sniper lady Grace and either Boomer or Jess depending on whether I needed enemies tagged. I found that Grace and Boomer give a combination like having both Quiet and D-Dog in MGS.

    The only other ones I used were plane guy to keep cult aircraft off my back and helicopter lady to soften up locations that had already been alerted.