After a hands-on multiplayer session of Ubisoft's upcoming archipelago-em-up Far Cry 3, MCV took the time to speak to head writer Jeffrey Yohalem.
How did you get into videogame writing?
I’m from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I played my first videogame when I was seven. My parents left me at Radioshack because I loved Prince of Persia, and I just played through the whole thing, then bought the game. That game changed my life. Ever since then, that’s all I’ve ever wanted to work on.
Wow. That was easily one of my defining games too.
Yeah, there were so many moments in that game where you’re thinking ‘How do I get out of this level?’ and you just have to jump where you’d normally die in order to progress – it was really subverting the traditional ideas of gameplay direction.
I think [Jordan] Mechner established first this idea that rules are not written in stone. Which is a big deal, and is for me what separates the idea of a game which is an experience like Far Cry where you’re living a journey and a game like Madden where you’re given a set of rules. If Madden broke one of the rules it established at the beginning of the game, you’d say ‘F#$k this game!’ and you wouldn’t play it any more.
Prince of Persia, on the other hand, did that. They established this rule where there was a pit, and if you fell into that pit you died, and then there’s one particular pit which you have to jump into to teleport to the next level.
Just like that section in the final level where you have to walk across thin air having faith that the potion you just drank will somehow help, and it magically does, creating a bridge as you walk across it. But then, my trust in the game’s rules was broken, so when I was within reach of the other side, I jumped those last few panels just in case they were going to mess with me even further.
Haha! Yeah, I did that too. Just in case.
This is your first Far Cry game. How do you try to follow the nonlinear and sometimes obtuse storytelling of the previous games?
This is really a complete refresh of what Far Cry is, but I’ll tell you which few things we have kept. I’m working with Far Cry 3’s creative director Pat Plourde, who is an absolute genius. Our visions are very much in parallel and we push each other in both directions, so for us, the core of the game was this sense of a Stranger in a Strange Land. You get put into a location which is unlike anything you’ve seen. The second idea is stalking prey – the way the combat works is that you’re going through trees and coming upon people who are unaware of you. Far Cry 2 then added the notion that you can control things like fire to your advantage.
So that was what we took to be the core of Far Cry, and the rest we’ve reinvented. Far Cry 3 is narrative-focused. You can think of it like an Assassin’s Creed game in first-person. We’re talking about a first-person shooter action/adventure game. Some levels don’t even have shooting in them at all.
We’re really trying to take the player on a journey and we’re trying to subvert expectations in the same way that Mechner did in Prince of Persia. You can see the protagonist’s psychology when you’re in the dreamlike levels where you’re playing through what’s going on in his head. It’s very much a psychological action game.
And at the same time, we wanted to deal with the core mechanic. That core mechanic is the idea that you can climb on anything, go anywhere – that idea of freedom. So the story is about freedom, and at the same time it’s a shooter.
So we wanted to make a game which was about shooting and killing and what that means for the protagonist. So most shooters cast you as a Black Ops agent or Spec Ops agent who has killed hundreds of people before. That’s how they circumvent this idea that killing that many people in a game is somehow weird. Or that you’re a superhero with countless villain henchmen who deserve it, or they’re aliens or whatever else.
So your particular role in something like Far Cry is only made harder by not having a familiar war setting or some other scenario which makes justification of killing that much easier?
Right! And I think we’ve beaten it because we’ve literally negated that. We’ve cast the main character as the player. So we took a guy in his 20s who’s on vacation with his friends in South-East Asia who has athletic ability (but that’s it), and his friends get kidnapped, and in order to survive the island and to save the people he loves he have to pick up a gun. So his first kill will be a very extreme experience for him – he’s never killed another human being before – and the player’s and character’s journey run in parallel.
There will be moments where they’re not and where there’s dissonance, but purposely. My approach is past what they did with Portal. There’s this idea [Valve] talk about in Portal where the main character and the player should have the same journey. My feeling is that the main character and the player should each be treated as separate characters. So the player has their journey and the main character has their journey and when they’re paralleled it’s nice, but also when the main character experiences something (like noticing a person and saying ‘Oh, it’s Angela’), the player immediately says ‘Who’s Angela’? So I don’t think they always need to run in parallel.
So you’d say you apply the dissonance between the rules of gameplay in something like Prince of Persia to the rules of the narrative in Far Cry 3?
For me, the idea of messing of the rules is what storytelling is. What storytelling is is that you think you understand the rules. You think you understand that in Game of Thrones that the Queen feels x way, then all of a sudden she kills the person that you think she loves. Then you go ‘Wait, how is that possible? She loved him!’ and then you look back at what happened over the series and go ‘Oh, no she absolutely didn’t’, but then I didn’t detect it. That’s what Mechner does.
Right, so the whole reason there is a narrator in a book, lens in a film or gameplay structure in a videogame is because you want to be able to guide what the player’s experience is and only reveal certain things to them at certain times.
Exactly! So, what Mechner did (in that level where you have to leap into the pit or the level where the bridge builds itself) is say to the player that although there were rules which existed before, there are now new rules which can be part of that framework. It may change your perception of them, but those rules still exist.
And of course, subverting the rules in that way leaves the character feeling disconnected from the game, but sometimes that’s a useful place to have a player when readying them for an alienating experience within the plot.
And that’s exactly what they pulled in Bioshock. They followed a set of rules without telling you even what they were, then you learned what those rules were later. And it changed your whole perception of the game.
We’re playing tricks like that all the time. This game is filled with twists and turns where you think you understand what’s going on and then the rug will be pulled out from under you.
What’s going to make you look back at Far Cry 3 and make you personally satisfied?
I want players to have a compelling experience that changes them. I would love to hear someone say that they’d played this game and that it made them think about their lives in a different way.
Thank you for your time!
To register for the MCV Pacific News Digest, head to the registration page:http://www.mcvpacific.com/user/index/register/journey/register