In Far Cry 4, the newest installment of the award-winning Far Cry franchise, players take the part of AJ Ghale, an American who has come to the war-torn Himalayan nation of Kyrat to fulfill his mother’s dying wish that her ashes be scattered in her homeland. After arriving, Ghale becomes the “guest” of the nation’s despotic leader, Pagan Min. After escaping, AJ finds caught between the rival factions of a local rebel group, each intent on overthrowing Min’s rule.
Far Cry 4 is a thrilling and at times beautiful gaming experience that combines a living, breathing open world environment with all of the fast action of a first-person shooter. Gamers are free to play the game in any way that they want, from exploring the mountains and their mysterious ancient caves and shrines, to hunting wild game, racing cars, or taking a stand with the people of Kyrat against Min and his forces.
I recently had the opportunity to discuss Far Cry 4 with Ubisoft Narrative Director Mark Thompson. It was a conversation full of surprises that ended up changing the way that I viewed AJ Ghale and my adventures in Kyrat forever.
WARNING: THERE ARE HUGE SPOILERS IN THIS INTERVIEW.
Let’s talk about Far Cry’s evolution as a game: where it started and how it has evolved as far as the stories and experiences it presents.
I can’t talk about Far Cry 1 or 2 because I wasn’t on the team then. I joined Far Cry in 2009 for Far Cry 3. I was a level editor then, and at the end of Far Cry 3 when we started talking about what we wanted to do next, I took the role of narrative director for what would become Far Cry 4.
The idea for Far Cry 4 was a mix of… I guess at the end of of any project you have this thing where you’ve worked under pressure for so long and then you put it out into the world and you hope that it resonates with people. You spend the next month furiously refreshing any website that might have a review, critique, or analysis. You work in a vacuum for so long, and there are thousands and thousands of eyes looking at it, but they’re all internal. There’s layers of self-serving thoughts, and you don’t ever get an honest opinion about what it is. You don’t really know.
There are so many moving pieces in a game this size that honestly before the whole thing comes together and you can actually sit down and play the whole thing together like someone will at home, you don’t really know yourself exactly what you’ve created. You have an idea based on your intentions, and you follow that through development, but it’s just out there and it lives and breathes, and you have a good few million people out there telling you what they think, and sharing their experiences, that’s when you really understand what it is.
In that month after launch we just furiously try to absorb and see just what it is we’ve actually done: whether it worked, whether the things we thought would resonate with people do so, and whether the audience surprises us by coming back with something we didn’t expect. Sometimes a part of a game can take on a life of its own in a way that you really didn’t expect.
Far Cry 3, obviously, was a critical success. We knew the game was good, but we didn’t know it would be that well received. That was a good surprise. Sales-wise, we didn’t expect it all, because we always work from projections from the previous game. We expected it to sell as well as Far Cry 2 did, but it sold a lot more. That took us a little bit by surprise. We knew that we would want to build on that success, and we wanted to do it in a way that took some kind of initiative instead of just saying, “Hey guys, Far Cry 3 worked. Why don’t you come out with a quick sequel so we can make more of this fabulous money that we’re bathing in.
We thought about it as a team: What is it that we really wanted to do? What is it that we want to say with the next Far Cry that we couldn’t say with 3? What did we learn from the last Far Cry that we can apply to something in the future? As a developer, it takes us two or three years to make a game. In my head, I know that I have a finite number of games that I can make. I don’t want to make any that are bullsh*t. I want everything to count. Far Cry 4 seemed like a fantastic opportunity to build on the lessons of Far Cry 3; to build on that awesome foundation and to do something that I thought was interesting. I always want to make games that are of interest to me, because otherwise, why the f**k else would I bother?
One of the things I liked about Far Cry 4 are the factions, and the fact that there really aren’t any good guys—including the player’s character. It’s almost a deconstruction of the “good guy and bad guy” cowboy movie narrative that you see in games. Was that the intent? To deconstruct these kinds of scenarios and make the player really think about their role and their motives?
If you look at Far Cry, it definitely has some identity challenges if you look at the whole franchise, but the one thing that is consistent is that it operates from a very morally gray area. You’re absolutely right that there are no real good guys. It’s kind of the theme—i guess the message—on the franchise level: Humans really are the most savage animals and they’ll always be worse than anything else we could possibly find. Humans are the cause of all the trouble and you will rarely find a good one, even if they pretend that you can trust them. We fully embraced that.
The game is very self-aware: We know the culture that we live in, we know why people play FPS games, and why people play open-world games. We knew from Far Cry 3 what people expected and what they liked about it; what they wanted to do and see in Far Cry 4. On a narrative level, I wanted to play with those expectations. it’s always fun when you know why the audience is coming and what they expect, and to lure them in and play around with them a little bit.
This is interesting, and It was obviously a failed experiment, but I like to experiment anyway and am lucky enough to do so on these huge AAA games. We normally don’t in this kind of space. The whole idea of AJ [Far Cry 4 protagonist AJ Ghale,] was an experiment. I’ll get to why it failed, but I’ll give you the hypothesis first. The idea was that when we got to making the game, we said that the protagonist was actually Kyrat: the world.
We put our effort into making it a coherent universe that all of the factions and everything fell into, and in terms of the player’s character—the traditional hero who would normally be the progagonist—we made a conscious decision to make him completely empty, to the point that he almost has no voice. The most important thing, and this is where I think we get into themes and meanings, is that the theme of the game, really, was about choice, and choices having consequences.
If you look carefully at the narrative, AJ never makes a single decision himself. All of the decisions are made by the player, so it’s interesting when the players say things like “I don’t know why AJ would join this rebellion when all he was doing was trying to scatter his mother’s ashes”, when the reality is that AJ never joined this revolution. People wonder why he would murder a thousand people to try and reach the top of the mountain on this noble quest, but AJ doesn’t kill anyone unless [the player] pulls the trigger.
There were a couple of journalists who understood that, especially with Edge’s review—it was really in line with where we were—but the majority of people, and this is obviously where we failed because it’s not their job to interpret correctly, expected a standard narrative where this character had a backstory and motivation to make choices, and that you would be a passenger on this journey with him, but for us he was a passenger on your journey: He’s a guy whose life is about to be ruined by making terrible, terrible decisions.
Do you want to know what AJ’s real story is? You’ve probably heard about the “alternate ending” right up at the top of the game. That isn’t the alternate ending: That is AJ’s real story, because if AJ was a normal person, he would sit at that dinner table and wouldn’t even move. He probably wouldn’t eat the crab rangoon because he would probably throw up. He would just sit there stuck in that seat and wait for Pagan Min to come back. Then Pagan Min would fly him to his palace, and then scatter the ashes. Then AJ would quietly sit in a room terrified and cry and worry about what’s going to happen next. That’s the story that any normal, sane human would do. Nobody would leave the room and try to fight their way through a compound of armed guards, join a rebellion, kill a thousand people, work alongside a bunch of lunatics, overthrow the king and become the new despot. Nobody i their right mind would do that.
To come back to what I said before about knowing what players want, everyone who bought the game bought it to do just that. They paid sixty or seventy bucks to run around in an open world full of animals and lunatics with guns to shoot and to have fun. We knew when we put that choice in that any normal sane person would sit in that chair and Pagan Min would come and collect them, but every single person who played the game wouldn’t consider that an option. They wouldn’t even realize that they could just sit and be a normal person: They would run and look for the first opportunity to murder someone in the face with a gun.
The theme is right there from the start: AJ doesn’t make decisions, you make decisions, and what you do is ruin his life. You’re a player in a game and not a normal person.
What I thought about is that even if you were the kind of person to make the choice to get up and fight your way through a fortress and go wild like that, chances are you’re not going to have the ability to pull it off. Even from the very beginning, it’s an absurd fantasy. No one is going to be able to pick off people with pistols and do these take-downs if they’re just an average backpacker.
That’s another interesting thing. There’s the idea of inherited context. I never worked on a sequel before, so I didn’t know how much people carry over philosophically or spiritually from one game to the next. There’s a lot that the audience carried over from Far Cry 3 to Far Cry 4, especially with AJ. Because we didn’t provide any context for who he was, a lot of people took their context from who Jason Brody was in Far Cry 3.
We didn’t define who AJ was as a person. We didn’t say he was a tourist or that he had never fired a gun before. For all we know, he could be a mercenary. He could have done three tours in Iraq. He could have been in Blackwatch, or a ninja from the future! We don’t know: We didn’t say who he was, and we let people paint that story for themselves. Most people chose to paint his background story as a douchebag tourist who had no place shooting guns and running around with combat abilities, when in fact, you could have imagined whatever you want.
We left it completely open so that people wouldn’t have to fight against the back story, but the mistake on my part was not realizing that people would carry over so much from Far Cry 3, because the last time we gave them a protagonist, he was a tourist: a fish out of water who had never fired a gun before. People took that frame and used that to define who AJ was. It was another lesson learned in the narrative experiment, but like I said, it’s cool that on a game this size that’s going to reach eight or ten million people, we get to experiment. it’s kind of fun.
I couldn’t help but to see some analogs in the game between the choices we make as players and the ways that America has tried to play nation-builder over the years. There have been situations we’ve been involved in that have had centuries of backstory and context before we arrive, but we still think that we can wander in, kill someone, install the “right” guy, and then everything is going to be okay. I felt this particularly in the sequence of the game where you decide who is going to lead the Golden Path, and what is going to happen to the opium farm: Okay, well great, you’ve blown up all of the opium, but now what are the farmers going to do? Now they’re going to starve thanks to your idealism, but at the same time, do you really want to fuel that much death by allowing that much opium to go out in the world?
If you look back at the choices, they slowly escalate. Amita and Sabal [rivals to the leadership of the Golden Path revolutionaries] have this conflict of ideals, and they don’t really show who they are as characters in the beginning. As you make more and more choices, you see them evolve or become more involved, I guess. The choices become more harsh; loaded. It represents more of what these characters will become. I didn’t want it to be a surprise to people. I hate it when you play a game and in the end it slaps you in the face and tells you you’re the bad guy for running around and having fun shooting guns. I didn’t want to make the game a morality play or to people feel like they’ve been scolded at the very end for having fun. You can’t make a game that celebrates all of this action and fun, and then try to hamfistedly contextualize it as bad at the end through a cutscene. I wanted to make sure that throughout the whole game we were foreshadowing that there is no right choice. You can try to rationalize it, and I’ve seen people online try to rationalize the choices that Amita or Sabal make based upon their favorite, but there’s no way you can.
In the end, if you balance all of the actions of everyone in the game, I would say that Pagan Min is the lesser of all evils. It’s intentional: We knew because of Far Cry 3 that they liked to have the bad guy on the box and that it helps sell units, so it was a fun challenge to me to try and make him not the bad guy: to sell him to the world as the bad guy, but to secretly have him be the least bad person in the whole experience.
I saw that a little bit in Far Cry 3’s Vaas as well. None of these guys exist in a vacuum: There’s context, and they all have reasons for doing the things that they do. That’s one of the things that attracted me to the series: Nobody’s bad because they’re a demon, alien, or zombie. Like every other bad person, they didn’t step in the world wholly made. Even my character in Far Cry 3 had become a bad person. There’s no way that he could have left the island and returned to being just another backpacker party guy. He had gone into the heart of darkness and was changed. Do you think that we know these kinds of things when we play games, but that no one wants to make us face up to them? You can’t be a good person and do the kinds of things you do in video games, even if you’re doing them for the “right reasons.”
Like any piece of entertainment that has a message, it’s up to the author to decide what message they want to deliver. For me, I always like to be close to the truth of the action: whatever it is that the mechanics lead you to do as a player, i want the narrative to reflect that, not to be in opposition to it. I don’t think that every reaction to a game where you can shoot a gun and kill people needs to be in a morally gray space or to portray the player as necessarily a bad guy or not a good guy. There’s definitely space for other people to do other things, and with Far Cry 4, that wasn’t what I was trying to do.
Far Cry 4 has a very well-developed mythology that shares parallels with many different religions, but isn’t any of them. It’s a unique blend. What was it like developing that and working it into the game? Were there any aspects to that you were especially careful to avoid? Were you worried about offending people’s religious sensibilities?
One of the things that we wanted to improve from Far Cry 3 to Far Cry 4 was that we made the world the main character. In doing that, we gave it more importance than anyone else in the cast. We built the world in the same way that you’d build a character, so that it has its own biography and backstory. Obviously, for a place instead of a person you’re talking about centuries rather than decades, so there’s a lot of history there that we had to look back on.
Whenever someone was building an aspect of the game, whether it was a temple, weapon, or poster on a wall representing an even in the world, we wanted to ensure that there was always a solid, coherent foundation to build on, so that every single piece of information created for the game made sense and that there was never anything alien or weird. Everything had a sense of space and place, and that it belonged in this universe.
For worldbuilding, we wanted everything to be rooted in the Himalayas, specifically. We didn’t want to refer to a culture too far away, and everything, from the landscape to the man-made objects, had its own cultural identity and history. In terms of building a credible space and world—a foundation for everyone on the team to draw from—that was a huge, huge exercise.
Specifically in terms of religion, we made the decision from day one to not use any real-world religions in the game. We knew the tone of the game was going to be irreverent and that there was going to be a lot of violence, and every time that you juxtapose violence and religion you get into areas that… to be honest, video games don’t have the right range of nuance to deal with that kind of thing.
In Far Cry 4, I knew that with the mechanics that we had we were just going to cause trouble and offend people, and I don’t want to do that just for the sake of entertainment. We decided to take inspiration from key areas that I think are more historical than spiritual, and paint a picture of the world that people can reference and see where it’s influenced from, but not ever be able to look at it exactly and recognize it.
If we’re talking about violence and that we can take AJ anywhere we want to—that we’re the ones that bring the violence to this—I’m wondering how many stories can one work out of this? Beyond the “alternate ending”, once we refuse to that option, aren’t there areas that you can’t unlock unless you ally with Amita or Sabal and advance the campaign story?
There are a lot of things that you can do in the game. It’s something we argued about in the team: It’s an open world game, so when is it finished? There’s so much to do. It’s almost a legacy that we have this idea of a linear game inside an open world. It’s like building a tunnel through a mountain without ever acknowledging that the mountain is there. All of these open world games have these linear stories that carve their way through the world and kind of compel people to drive through straight to the end.
In reality, it’s normally more interesting to get lost on the mountain and have fun on that journey. We tried to expand that as much as possible. That’s really why we offered that choice between Amita and Sabal. We knew we didn’t have the time to revolutionize that kind of formula, but we wanted to try and make that linear story feel as wide as possible and to give choices where we could. The other way we approached this is on a thematic level: Everything inside of Kyrat, all of the side-content and things you can do, are, content and theme-wise, related to the things that were happening main path, so that there wasn’t a complete divorce of having an urgent task to do on the main path but going away from it to collect objects or meet people and help them, because sometimes these things end up in opposition of what you need to do and you end up in these weird situations where people walk into a cutscene and suddenly the pace of the game turns up 75 notches, like you haven’t been off exploring the world for four hours. We knew we couldn’t break that linear structure, but in terms of content, we could make it seem like everything was steering back into each other.