Far Cry 4’s gameplay may cut a little close to Far Cry 3’s bone, but its narrative structure has undergone a complete conceptual overhaul. Lead writer Lucien Soulban speaks to Patrick Garratt in Paris.
“The Far Cry team just likes throwing a monkey wrench into the process and going, ‘Were you expecting this? No? Voila.’
Far Cry 4 seems a lot like Far Cry 3, especially when played at a press event or show. So similar are the mechanics that a three-hour snapshot from a recent showing left us with cookie-cutter sweats. All, however, is not yet lost.
While general similarities may be undeniable, we’ve yet to fully experience the faceless characters of plot and setting. Far Cry 4 is a big game, and drawing concrete conclusions from brief, managed stints is folly. The shooting may be the same, but the narrative and theatre are not.
“Our approach was completely different this time around,” said lead writer Lucien Soulban, speaking in Paris. “We decided to shift away from a main character and no longer treat the player like he’s just along for the ride. We shifted to the story of the player and the story the player wants to explore.”
Far Cry 4’s setting, the Himalayan country of Kryat, is a “character” and “personality,” according to Soulban, whose intention is to allow the player to experience the environment at the same speed as protagonist AJ Gale.
“Gayle comes into the world to fulfil the last wishes of his mother, but discovers there’s so much more to Kryat, and to his own involvement in Kryat, than he ever knew,” he said.
Exploration is a primary objective in Far Cry 4, and the narrative has been tailored specifically to facilitate curiosity.
“We’re supporting the fact that you can walk away from a mission and go play in the open world for a few hours and come back, and there isn’t a sense of irresponsibility or time-related pressure,” said Soulban, who added that the teen-movie story from Far Cry 3 has been replaced with a more positive tale of encouraged success: “in Far Cry 3, the main character was criticised for going out and doing these things; in Far Cry 4, the player is actually supported and told, ‘Your participation is necessary. It’s essential to everything that’s happening around us.'”
The unravelling and resplicing of Far Cry’s narrative structure hasn’t been total. Far Cry 3’s NPCs remain some of gaming’s most memorable (Dr Earnhardt and Vaas Montenegro will live forever), and the Far Cry 4 team has reached for the same resonance.
“It was definitely a legacy item we made sure we carried over,” said Soulban, “because people better remembered the characters you ended up meeting and interacting with than the main character himself. That’s always been an integral part of it.
“You’re going to come across linchpins in the world that frame the context of its history, that frame the context of what’s happening in the region, of the struggle. Everybody in Kryat has a history there, has some way of belonging. We really needed to bring out these personalities and make them shine through. We definitely looked at everything we’d done in Far Cry 3 as far as our approach went to NPCs, and said, ‘You know what? It was winning formula. Now, how do we improve that formula and where can we take it?'”
And if the Far Cry 4 team has sought to venture into the unknown with the franchise’s stance on NPCs, the shooter’s mountain setting represents cliff-sized ambition. The only resemblance it has to Far Cry 3 is that there are roads, encampments and trees: high mountains are not the same as Rook Island. Soulban loved the surprise.
“The Far Cry team just likes throwing a monkey wrench into the process and going, ‘Were you expecting this? No? Voila.’ The player base has been a real influence on what we’re doing. You know, we’re watching videos and we’re seeing people go, ‘Look, I found this really high place on Rook Island in Far Cry 3, and I used the wing-suit to glide all the way down.’ People really enjoy that, so why not sort of go with it?”
Earth has plenty of mountains. Asian mountains became a necessity based on a demand from the top.
“Then they wanted elephants,” said Soulban, holding up his hands. “The game director wanted to roll into combat on top of one, to play Hannibal and just smash things to bits. And we were like, ‘OK, so let’s see. We have verticality, we have elephants. That kind of narrows our field of focus: Himalayas.’
While the core of Far Cry 4 does appear to be a reskinning of Far Cry 3, there’s every reason to hope Soulban and his team have reworked the structure and narrative enough to slap us again with last winter’s sensation of freshness. The writer shrugged when I asked how it differed to Far Cry 3 in terms of size.
“It’s a lot more ambitious,” he said. “It’s not only that the open world is more dense, or that we have a main storyline with options to support one faction or the other, but because we needed to create a lot of interstitial tissue in order to connect both of them together.”
Ambition is a goal worth chasing. We’ll be there day one.
Far Cry 4 releases November 18 for PC, PS4, Xbox One, PS3 and Xbox 360.