Can a juxtaposition between thought-provocation and in-your-face nudity be taken as seriously as Ubisoft Montreal would like? Nathan Grayson plays the E3 build of Far Cry 3 and talks to lead writer Jeffrey Yohalem.
Far Cry 3 is trying desperately to be the smartest, most thought-provoking shooter on the block. The demo I played, however, began with a topless woman writhing in pleasure on top of my character and ended by killing me with tigers and fire. (The tigers, technically, were also topless.) At first glance, you'd think Ubisoft Montreal was trying to bridge the distance between these two goals with some kind of blind, nigh-impossible Hail Mary throw. Guns, explosions, (literally) in-your-face nudity, fire, leaping off cliffs and knifing thugs Ezio-style, and pondering the larger implications of our medium's fascination with ultra-violence? Yeah, one of these things is not like the other. According to lead writer Jeffrey Yohalem, however, that's the point.
“We started out with Far Cry 2,” he explained during a post-demo interview. “We shipped that game, and then it was like 'What are we going to do with [Far Cry 3]?' So we turned everything over and looked at everything, and there was a point where it was going to be similar to Far Cry 2 – I guess you would say gritty and realistic.”
“But I think trying to put a serious narrative wrapper on a game – and when I say serious, I mean Schindler's List serious – I don't think that can happen yet. The mechanics are so wild in games. You have a guy who's killing 35 people in ten minutes, and you want to do something that's about the gravity of killing? It's almost funny. There are all these moments in games where it's doing a really serious narrative, and the gameplay ingredients are funny – in a good way. They're joyous. There's joy in interactivity. So I think fighting against that puts you in the – I guess you'd call it - uncanny valley of storytelling.”
So obviously, Far Cry 3 definitely isn't Far Cry 2. But what is it, then? Well, to hear Yohalem tell it, it's “a game about games.” The silly, over-the-top FPS cliches are out in full force, but they're marching to the beat of an entirely different drum.
“We put the player into all these situations where they expect things to happen in a certain way, because Jason is a 25-year-old from Los Angeles. So, on some level, it's the western world's view of what's supposed to happen in a videogame. And then we say, 'OK, how are we going to subvert this? How are we going to challenge it or cause you to look at it in a new way?' It extends to the game itself. You're getting XP and you see it on screen, and that's part of the story. There's reaction to getting that XP and the feeling they get when they level up. That's part of the story,” he explained, referring to tribal tattoos on Jason's arm that represent XP and unlocked skills like improved aim, the ability to hold your breath for extended periods, and some positively brutal executions.
One final enemy – an armored man with a flamethrower – emerged, and I got the bright idea to shoot the door off another tiger cage. This one didn't even try to earn my trust. It just beelined straight for me, jaws and claws held in stance that said, “Are you going to finish those intestines?” So yeah, that's how my demo ended – with two tigers mauling me while I was on fire. It was pretty great.
In other words, Far Cry 3's goal is to crank up everything we take for granted about shooters to a point where it's so defeaningly loud that we can't ignore it. So, sure enough, my demo kicked off with a topless, tribally painted woman moaning and monologuing (moanologuing?) at Jason atop some kind of strange ceremonial pyre. “You are a warrior,” she said, face partially illuminated by the flames all around her. “You live for battle.” Then Jason stood up, took a few steps forward, and addressed a horde of tribal fighters. “We are the warriors of the Rakyat,” he bellowed, “and I will lead you to victory!” So basically, it's male power fantasy 101 – and also oddly reminiscient of Avatar, which (at least, in reference to that particular part) Yohalem claimed was very intentional.
It's quite a – I am sighing loudly as I type this – far cry from the stranded, terrified Jason we met last year, and Yohalem chalked that up to the game's story progression. “This game is about killing in games, but it's about killing in games,” he emphasized. “It's not about killing in the dark, gritty, realistic Schindler's List way. The player's joyful experience of playing a game and killing, and the player becoming a killer – Jason's journey mirrors that.”
After that, the scene skipped to Jason standing atop a gorgeous, sun-seared cliff, surrounded by so many shades of green that I felt like I was inside a box of Crayolas. Now, I experienced this demo multiple times – both playing it myself and watching others – and while Ubisoft can claim it's nailed the balance between linearity and openness that's eluded so many others, it was really encouraging to see it in action. For instance, our presenter began by taking a dive so powerful it could've parted any number of seas (red or otherwise) into the waters below. I, on the other hand, bellyflopped so embarassingly that even the oceans themselves cringed upon hearing it.
Admittedly, the mission itself was fairly linear – go to Vaas' lair, infiltrate it, discover (shock!) he's not there, escape from exploding fire trap building, kill more dudes, etc – but battles were impressively multifaceted. Where the presenter coolly stalked through the balmy jungles, slowly picking off baddies with arrows from his high-tech bow (“Have you noticed, like, every game is into bows right now? It's because of Hunger Games,” joked Yohalem), I played as though I had the body of Rambo and the brain of Evil Kenevil. Sure, I was constantly riddled with bullets and rather gleefully knocking on death's door, but my enemies were already inside – and they were on fire.
The fairly brief demo culminated in an incredibly chaotic battle outside Vaas' now-exploded home, and it was there that the open nature of combat really shined. The presenter, for instance, cut down the crowd of ten or so enemies like they were a slightly unruly lawn. At one point, he even managed to knife a man, pull the pin from the grenade on his profusely bleeding body, and “300” kick him – off a roof – into a truck with a pesky machine gun turret. Both – somewhat predictably, given the way grenades generally work – exploded in a glorious blaze of satisfaction. And fire. Lots of fire.
I, meanwhile, opted to improvise, and it was then that I was most reminded of Far Cry 2. Basically, everything went horribly, horribly wrong, and it was wonderful. After fleeing through a couple buildings and stabbing my veins with so many health needles that I was sure some doctor was going to walk up and hand Jason a “great job” sticker and a lollipop, I caught sight of a tiger cage. So, cackling maniacally, I shot its door off and watched as the tiger mauled the face right off an unsuspecting thug.
And then I learned a very valuable lesson: tigers are dicks. The striped embodiment of biggie-sized feline spite, of course, immediately turned on me – which surprised me at the time for some reason. Probably because I'm a bit thick. Then one final enemy – an armored man with a flamethrower – emerged, and I got the bright idea to shoot the door off another tiger cage. This one didn't even try to earn my trust. It just beelined straight for me, jaws and claws held in stance that said, “Are you going to finish those intestines?” So yeah, that's how my demo ended – with two tigers mauling me while I was on fire. It was pretty great.
There is, however, still a lot we don't know. Will, for instance, over-the-top action and writing collude to create a noticeably different effect from the player's relationship with The Jackal in Far Cry 2? I mean, this demo – played properly and not with death by tigerfire – ended on a trippy hallucination that had Vaas pull the player's gun to his face, at which point it morphed into Jason's. Then, with his trademark mix of charismatic suave and foaming-at-the-mouth psychosis, Vaas shouted “You are me, and I am you.” So, will it be third verse, same as the second? I don't know – but an incredibly bizarre halucination of Vaas seductively pole-dancing has me convinced that Ubisoft Montreal's at least taking this theme as far in the opposite direction as possible.
And of course, there's the question of whether Far Cry 3's really open or just Crysis 2 open. And while we have no way of knowing for the time being, Yohalem had some fairly encouraging words on the subject.
“Most sequences are approachable from 360 degrees,” he said. “So people who love Far Cry don't have to worry. In reality, this is kind of a hybrid of Far Cry 1 and 2 with a really rich story. Far Cry 1 had a ton of linear sequences. You got the sense that they were open world, because you could wander horizontally a lot. But you were constrained by, like, a canyon. So you were basically being funneled to one particular spot, but you didn't feel it.”
“It is an open world. Again, part of what we're trying to explore is, when the player's going off on missions, there'll be something to the side, and the player's like 'Oh, what's this and what's this and what's this?' So Jason is doing that too. He's on this island trying to save his friends, but then he's distracted by an artifact he wants to find or stealing a vehicle. So Jason is moving away from the search for his friends because he's attracted by what's going on on the island. So the player's narrative and Jason's narrative are the same. And the friends will react to that. There's a sense of 'Wait, what were you off doing? You were out joyriding and stealing cars instead of saving us?'”
That comparison, however, is rather simple, and Far Cry 3 – by and large – seems dead set on being a creature of an entirely different sort. So no, it's not some long-winded, perfume-soaked love letter to Clint Hocking's brain, but honestly, we don't need another Far Cry 2. Far Cry 2 was Far Cry 2. And in that sense, Vaas' notorious spiel about the definition of madness is pretty applicable. Why keep doing the same thing over and over with such a potential-packed franchise? Yohalem and co, then, aren't aiming to pave over what's come before, but they're not afraid to build something that stands on its own either.
“The way that [Far Cry 3's] similar to Far Cry 2 is that they were trying to push what a game can be. I think we are as well, but we're doing it in a very different direction. All the movies that have stuck with me – like, for instance, Terminator has all these ideas about what the state should be and how it ultimately becomes all powerful. Or there's ET, with youth versus authority. For me, the great blockbusters of the past were always about deep social issues.”
ET and Terminator, however, didn't have flaming betrayal tigers. So maybe – just maybe – Ubisoft Montreal's on to something here.