At Ubisoft’s massive Montreal studio, some of the key minds behind Far Cry 4 stand before me and play a video. It's not the typical slick PR showreel, or a trailer showing off the game's best new features.
In the video, a man stands on a lush green island, with two large turtles on the ground in front of him. The animals are hiding in their shells. They're scared. It probably has something to do with the explosive device he's holding in his hand. After a bit of taunting, he throws it at the turtles, backs away, and then hits the fuse. Maniacal laughter follows. But the explosion has an unintended side effect: not only are the turtles dead, but the grassy hill catches on fire, soon igniting a huge swath of the island. "Oh shit," the man says, as he runs for the safety of a nearby river.
This is how many people payed Far Cry 3. While the developers at Ubisoft Montreal spent years building a carefully crafted story, they also set it in a vast open world, where players could do whatever they liked. And many of them didn't want anything to do with the story the game wanted to tell; they wanted to make their own fun. For Far Cry 4, which launches later this month, the studio realized that it needed to embrace that fact.
"As soon as you give someone a controller, they become their own director. They become an author," says narrative director Mark Thompson. "If you try and fight it, you'll always lose."
Far Cry 4 takes place in a fictional country called Kyrat, but it's a place that feels very familiar to the real world. It's sort of a cross between Nepal and Bhutan, but with its own fictional history — it even has its own religion. "Kyrat is a very specific place that we've created and curated specifically for Far Cry 4," says Thompson. Though it's the fourth game in the series, each Far Cry takes place in a new location with a new story, so Far Cry 4 stands on its own as a narrative.
Within that new world the game does tell a specific story. You play as AJ Gale, a man who was born in Kyrat but raised in the United States. He returns to fulfill his mother's final wishes and deliver her ashes to the country. Eventually he gets caught in a battle for the fate of Kyrat, involving warring factions and a flamboyant, violent dictator named Pagan Min. The story is still there for people who want it, but the studio's focus has shifted dramatically. "With Far Cry 3 we were really heavily focused on the cutscenes and the main missions," says Thompson, "and there was way less focus put on the open world." He estimates that for Far Cry 3 the split was around 85 / 15, whereas as now it's closer to 50 / 50.
Those extra resources have been spent building the world, and, as Thompson describes it, creating "depth and meaning" in that space. The idea is that, even if you decide to stray from the path and do your own thing, your actions still have meaning. One example is the towers you have to liberate. In Far Cry 3, in order to open up new areas of the map you had to take over radio towers scattered throughout the world. In Far Cry 4 they've been replaced with prayer bells that have been outlawed by the dictatorship. With religion now illegal under the new regime, the bells have become broadcasting stations, spreading propaganda throughout Kyrat. Liberating them not only opens up new areas to explore, it's also an act of defiance against Pagan Min and his regime.
Thompson cites another example, which involves hunting rare and dangerous animals. In Far Cry 3, a number of side missions involved killing different animals so that you could unlock new perks and abilities. Essentially you were killing a beautiful creature so that you could have some more space to hold ammo — it was weird, and made me feel like a bit of a psychopath. For Far Cry 4, the developers decided to take that feeling and run with it. "What if we embrace the fact that it's a little crazy?" asks Thompson.
This time around, a series of side missions will have you hunting animals at the request of Pagan Min's own deranged fashion designer, who will craft you new gear once you deliver a pelt. I'll still probably feel horrible shooting a peaceful deer, but the idea is that there's some justification for what you're doing. (The missions are also optional, so it's your choice if you want to be a jerk.) There have also been some changes to the structure of the game, so that you can take on multiple missions simultaneously. The map icons for story missions and side missions now look the same, so that "it's not always clear if it's the critical path you're following," according to Thompson.
To go along with this newfound focus on the player as author, Far Cry 4 stars somewhat of a blank slate. AJ Gale is a character with his own history and motivations, but he's also much less defined than most video game heroes. He talks very little, allowing you to make your own choices based on what you want to do. "AJ will never, ever make a decision that you disagree with," says Thompson. "He doesn't say much, and when he does it's thing that absolutely everyone would say in that scenario."
Thompson still views the story as an important part of the experience; Far Cry 4 has been designed to appeal to both sides. "For us, narrative is there to support the gameplay, it's not to slap people across the face with story themes until they appreciate our beloved art," he explains. "We're there to provide context and meaning to the things that you can do in the game." In some ways, it's almost like Thompson is trying to wean players off of the concept of a traditional story, one game at a time. He sees the potential for future Far Cry games that let you build your own character, or even tell several stories at once. "I think more and more we'll branch away from that one specific story," he says, "and perhaps have four or five different stories that people can explore."
I only spent around an hour playing Far Cry 4, so it's impossible to tell if Thompson and the narrative team have been successful. In that short period it felt very much like a Far Cry game: there were a bunch of cutscenes that I had to watch in order to get to the fun. But there were hints at the emergent storytelling Thompson described. As I wandered around the fields of Kyrat, I came across multiple skirmishes, as rebels fought against Pagan Min's forces. When I helped the rebels to win the battle, one of them invited me to come over and celebrate. We all spent a minute or two firing our guns into the air. A little while later I walked past a group of men praying on a hill, and I felt a bit bad to disturb their peaceful time with the sound of gunfire.
But, just like the psycho who killed the turtles in Far Cry 3, my most memorable moment with the game had nothing to do with the story. I was speeding through the fields in an ATV, when a pissed off rhino charged at me head on. I decided to play chicken with the beast, and it ended up smashing me into a nearby river that was dozens of feet away. It patrolled the beach waiting for me to come out, so I had to swim across the entire river to safety. It was a moment that took me completely by surprise, and one that really had nothing to do with Kyrat, or Pagan Min, or any of the world building elements that Ubisoft Montreal has spent so much time crafting. It was just me having some fun at the expense of a rhino. Thompson recognizes that, for many people, that's what Far Cry is about.
"We don't want to convince those people that want to blow up a turtle that they shouldn't be doing it."