Far Cry 3 was a lot of things, but a narrative tour de force wasn't exactly one of them. To hear Far Cry 3 writer Jeffrey Yohalem tell it, there were good intentions putting the wind beneath its hang gliders, the komodo (and/or blood) in its dragons, but the end result was rather... misguided. When Far Cry 4 was first announced, it seemed like it might be off to a similarly shaky start with box art that left some feeling uncomfortable, but the E3 game demo ended up telling a different tale.
That said, we still don't know much about this one is about, so I sat down with Far Cry 4 narrative director Mark Thompson to talk premise, plot, controversy, the inherent problems of videogame info hype cycles, and heaps more. Machete your way past the break for the full thing.
RPS: What's the basic premise of Far Cry 4 beyond all the stuff we already know - the setting, etc? What's the relationship between the main character and the pink-suited villain from the box/trailer?
Thompson: The main axis of drama comes from the fact that [villain] Pagan Min is an outsider, a Chinese national who invaded Kyrat, took advantage of being in the country, ended the royal family, stole the bloodline, and appointed himself the leader. He even went so far as to call himself the king and put his face on the money.
He's charismatic and charming, has a cult of personality. He's managed to run the place even as an outsider. He's divided the country into civil war.
In the shadow of that, there's hero of Far Cry 4, Ajay Ghale. He was born in Kyrat, his parents are from Kyrat. In that sense he belongs there, so there's an opposition between someone who belongs there and then the people are being oppressed by an invading outsider.
So the story starts when Ajay is in his late 20s, and the civil war started when his mom left Kyrat, when Ajay was five years old. So he grew up in the United States. Ajay's mom dies, but her last request is that Ajay returns to Kyrat to scatter her ashes at the top of a sacred place, a mountain.
But since Ajay grew up in the United States, he's returning with very little information about the country, about Pagan Min's regime. He's managed to present to the outside world as a benevolent leader, someone who's trying to rebuild a broken country, a failed state. He talks about the civil war as though he "has trouble with terrorist insurgents." The reality on the ground is very different.
Ajay's getting there not knowing any of this, and he also doesn't know Pagan Min has a very personal connection to him. So the game starts. Ajay's on a bus traveling across the border into Kyrat. He has a few days' worth of clothes, a little bit of money, his passport, and his mom's ashes in his backpack. He expects to be there for a week or so.
But within the first 15 minutes of landing in said country, shit hits the fan, everything goes wrong at a border patrol stop, and Pagan Min shows up.
RPS: So things go bad/murder-y within 15 mins, but is Ajay just, like, immediately a fighter? Far Cry 3 sort of charted its main character's progression from Average McDudeBro to cold-blooded killer. What's Ajay's progression like? How is it different?
Thompson: It's all about Ajay kind of rediscovering his roots and the connection his family has to the country, to Kyrat. Ajay doesn't know it, but his family were actually almost the founders of the rebellion that started the fight against Pagan Min. People know who he is before he even shows up. His father was a founder of the rebellion, his mother was important in the rebellion as well. His name is almost famous.
He becomes caught up in it first because Pagan Min puts him in personally compromising situations, but then later he starts to see exactly what Pagan Min is doing to this place that is essentially his culture and his heritage and his people. So he gets involved in the rebellion, The Golden Path, and starts to help them. Not lead them, but be part of that group.
At this point they've been pushed back for so long, but there's now a new generation [taking the reigns]. There's a new group of people the same age as Ajay who were born in the shadow of civil war and have grown up with war. They want to make a difference.
So Ajay arrives at a pivotal moment. There's a split in the leadership between the Golden Path. There's two internal sides that have the same goals - liberate Kyrat, take it back from Pagan Min - but they have different views about how it should be done. What Ajay does is, he isn't The Savior - ala Far Cry 3. He's more of an agent of change. There are two sides in opposition, and Ajay kind of turns it into a triangle that leads to change. So the story is you overcoming part of The Golden Path and uniting them to try and take the country back from Pagan Min.
RPS: That sounds very un-Far-Cry 3. It's another fictional culture, but it's about them taking back what's rightfully theirs from a very almost Westernized force, a leader who prances around in pink suits and takes selfies after murdering people.
Thompson: I mean yeah, we were very specific about the way we presented and coded Pagan Min so that he looks kind of non-conventional. We like to make interesting characters, and for sure the reason he takes a selfie is because he's profane, he has a lack of respect for culture and tradition. He has no shame, basically. He murders a guy with a pen because that was all he had in his coat pocket at the time, and then immediately - as his guys are setting fire to a bus full of civilians - he's taking a selfie with his new best friend Ajay.
We wanted to make sure it felt like Pagan Min didn't belong in this world. He's an outsider who has come in and caused a lot of problems.
RPS: Certainly. I guess my worry is that so far he seems like Crazy Kooky Far Cry Villain Guy - all mania and swagger. What grounds him? What makes him a person? Moreover, what makes him more than just another villain or better than a Vaas 2.0?
Thompson: I think it's the way he's actually very likable. He does horrible, horrible things, but sometimes he's very charming and charismatic. He's actually a lot of fun. The performance brings out this kind of very self-confident sort of swagger. So when you're in a room with him, you get this feeling like he's starting to talk and it's sounding reasonable. But then he snaps and does something hideous, and you remember that he is a horrible human being. He just has this ability to turn on the charm. He has this cult of personality around him.
RPS: Far Cry 2 and Far Cry 3 both, to varying extents, had elaborate webs of meaning beneath their plots and mechanics. Neither was entirely successful at grappling with certain ideas, but both had an almost meta layer to them. What about Far Cry 4? Same kind of thing, or is this story more immediate?
Thompson: When we sat down to create the story, one of the first things we talked about was, "What is the message we want to convey? What is the theme?" But what I wanted to make sure is that we kept the plot on the surface. That part needed to be very simple, understandable and it needed to be built around the gameplay systems rather than in conflict with them.
So, like, if you played Far Cry 3 and removed the story entirely - you just did a summary at the end, a school report of what happened - it would be the story of someone arriving to a place that had been taken over and slowly, area-by-area, starting to take it back for an opposing force.
That was one of the first things I looked at for the architecture of the story of Far Cry 4. The open world systems are gonna be built on a similar design philosophy [to Far Cry 3], so it was important to me that we came up with the idea of Pagan Min as an outsider who came into a country, took it over, and the story of that civil war is his army capturing outposts one by one.
Pagan Min is almost the hero of a Far Cry 3.5. The prequel to Far Cry 4 would've been Pagan Min arriving in Kyrat 20 years ago and capturing the outposts. So the throughline of the story is someone returning and helping the rebel faction to take back those outposts. That's really the simple throughline of the plot.
Sure, we have a cast of interesting characters that you meet along the way, that have their own personal stakes in the world. We've tried to color different locations to be more in tune with different characters. And like I said, we did a lot of work to make sure the story had deeper themes that ran throughout.
But for me it's important that, as much as possible, we give ownership of that to the player. We want to give them authorship just like we do in Far Cry 4's open world. We're gonna introduce you to characters, put you in situations where you reflect on things from your own life experience. I'm not gonna tell you what you should and shouldn't think about what happened.
RPS: Far Cry 3 also had fairly notorious instances of rape and what at least, on the surface level, seemed like racism. It was, to hear its writer to tell it, in the name of "straight faced satire," but it didn't come across as well as it could've. What did you learn from that example, and what - if anything - are you applying from that in Far Cry 4?
Thompson: Yeah, we definitely paid attention to reactions. We take a lot of feedback from players and critics. When nine million people play your game, you get a lot of feedback. On Far Cry 3 I was level design direction; I was a little more involved with the story of the world, almost.
Making the jump to narrative, it's difficult because the feedback you get is much less metric, much less immediately tangible and action-able. Like, when you get design feedback you go, "OK, people didn't like the fact that the mission didn't have as much freedom as the open world." That's easy to fix. You can tick that box, put that in production, and it's easy.
When it comes to story it's much more [complicated]. Far Cry 3's story was polarizing. There were people who disliked some of the themes in Far Cry 3, and there were others who kinda enjoyed that the game probed those darker corners. Personally I have a lot of respect for choosing to have a mature approach to content in games. But what's more important to me is [the bigger picture].
I love working on Far Cry because it's the kind of brand that lets us create characters like Pagan Min and situations like we do. We don't try and stay away from any controversial topics. For me it's fun to be able to play with those narrative things. But we have to learn from things the series has done in the past. When we get feedback from so many people it's gonna have an effect on us.
We have a different writing team on Far Cry 4, and those people bring their own diversity to bear. Their own life experiences. That has a big effect on how the game is written, how those themes come across.
It's not easy. We have a lot of debate, sometimes arguments, about what we do or don't include. Everyone in the room has a strong voice and opinion. To me, though, that means we're doing something interesting. If we put this out there and nobody reacted - or even if we just announced the game and nobody reacted - I think it would be sad. It would be a missed opportunity. There's so much content in the world that doesn't really provoke any kind of emotion or reaction from people.
But at the same time, we don't go looking for it. We don't hunt controversy. It can't just be meaningless. We don't shy away from controversy, and we have personalities on the team who are more inclined toward that. We like the wider bandwidth we have. At the same time, though, it's not just arbitrary attention-grabbing. I mean these days it's pretty easy to generate headlines. Why not do it right?
RPS: Definitely. Speaking of controversy, Far Cry 4's box art got a lot of people talking - at least, initially, before they knew what the story was actually about. But at the same time, Ubisoft really do much to clear the air or explain, so people saw racially charged imagery where that wasn't exactly the case. What do you think of that whole situation? What was it like being on the other side of that?
Thompson: It was a tough one because it was obviously released with almost no context. For me I was a little disappointed. I felt like the intention and the diversity of the development team were a little denigrated by the reaction, because a lot of people jumped to conclusions about what the image meant. They made it more loaded with their own interpretations.
But again, it was a piece of art and that's what art is about. That's what art is supposed to do. It's supposed to generate reactions.
That said, I don't think it was the perfect piece of art at the right time to fully represent the game. But I think now that people have seen more and learned more about who the game is, who the hero is, and the themes of the story, I think if we released the box art now there would be almost no controversy.
RPS: That kind of seems to be big budget game marketing and promotion in general, though. Agonizingly slow drip feeds of information over the course of months or even years, often with very little context. When you're aspiring to topics/themes slightly bigger than base entertainment, do you think that hurts games and developers? I mean, it clearly did here, at least initially.
Thompson: Yeah, us putting the art out there without context was kind of... I guess we were opening a door. But yeah, for us on the team it was a challenge, because in those situations we don't have a voice to speak back, if you know what I mean. So we put it out there and everybody started talking about it, and we sorta had to sit back and wait. We knew that as soon as we got to E3 that we'd show more, we could talk about what the game was. We knew that it would go from controversy to a non-troversy, as it were.
RPS: You've mentioned the diversity of the team a lot. What do you mean by diversity in this specific case, and how does it affect the game you're making?
Thompson: I mean, we have guys and girls, we have people of different races. It's about gathering a team of people who are engaged by this content, they want to make this sort of game, but also they have diverse backgrounds and experiences. It has to come from somewhere personal. It's important to have lived through different experiences. Otherwise everyone's just gonna make the same thing.
A lot of moments in the game are rooted in real experiences. Like, I spent two weeks in Nepal [in South Asia]. We went there to research and experience things. A lot of that was about the company putting me out of my comfort zone in that part of the world to see what kind of stories I would come back with, anecdotes to put into the game.
So that opening bit with the buses is very inspired by that. Obviously I never met Pagan Min, but I took a lot of those bus rides and there were moments where we'd stop at a checkpoint and people were speaking Nepalese and I had no idea what was happening. People would hand money over to guys at the side of the road at sort of makeshift checkpoints, and then they'd check under the bus with mirrors attached to poles. I was terrified. We'd roll through the checkpoints and be fine, but yeah.
I think it's important that when we tell those kinds of stories, it comes from somewhere real.
RPS: Absolutely. And Ubisoft does have a history of main characters from pretty diverse backgrounds in games like Assassin's Creed (well, the spinoffs and DLC episodes, anyway) and more recent stuff like Valiant Hearts and Child of Light. That said, the rationalizations for not including playable women in Assassin's Creed Unity weren't super great, and they even prompted a lament from Far Cry 4 director Alex Hutchinson about the fact that you all were "inches away" from having them in your game. As both a writer and someone who values diversity, does it disappoint you that putting playable women in Far Cry 4 didn't pan out?
Thompson: I can't really talk about the topic at all. This particular topic. There's been a communication, right?
PR: There was a statement released about Assassin's Creed Unity. You heard about that when you were talking with the Assassin's Creed team, didn't you?
RPS: Yes, but my question wasn't really even about that - certainly not in the way the statement addressed it.
Thompson: What I can say is... Yeah sorry, I shouldn't say anything.
RPS: Fair enough, though this is kinda similar to the whole box art thing - very little context, only a quick overarching statement instead of a discussion, etc. I totally understand that it's Ubisoft's call, but still. OK then, on a lighter note, what are the odds of a Far Cry 4: Blood Dragon?
Thompson: I know in terms of brand, we haven’t closed the doors to more kind of weird experiments like Blood Dragon. And I know that Ubisoft Montreal has really been allowing people to play with passion projects. Like after Far Cry 3, Patrick Plourde and Jeffrey Yohalem got to work on Child of Light, which is a huge change. A labor of love.
So yeah, there are teams who get the time, space, and liberty to experiment with smaller ideas like that. It’s really cool to see that the studio allows people to try different ideas. Sometimes they don’t get off the ground, sometimes they go all the way to shipping like Dean [Evans] and Blood Dragon.
They had a ton of fun with it. The team loved making it. Everyone was so hyped when they made that game, so I know there’s a lot of voices inside the studio that want to see [Far Cry 4: Blood Dragon] made.
RPS: If it happened, would it be another '80s spoof-type thing, or do you think it'd explore some equally bizarre uncharted territory?
Thompson: I think given the people that I know on the team and on the brand [it seems unlikely that it'd just be a direct sequel to Blood Dragon]. We never do the easy thing, so I think a direct sequel to Blood Dragon with the same type of universe and characters… I mean, it didn’t happen with Far Cry 4, right? We moved to a completely different part of the world. We’ve had to rebuild, throw away stuff we had and build new things.
Even characters. Some people were like, "Why are you even wasting time trying to find a new antagonist? Why not just use Vaas again?" And we were like, "Eh, he was cool but we want to make Far Cry 4 different. It’s a different world, a different story. We want different characters to say different things about the world they’re in."
Dean Evans jokes that if he made another Blood Dragon, it’d be called Blood Dragon 4. He’d just skip 2 and 3 altogether [laughs].
RPS: Thank you for your time.