Having played a large chunk of Far Cry 3 at a preview event recently, we sat down to talk to lead designer Jamie Keen about the game, and chatted about the difficulties that come with making such an ambitious open world game, the insane bunch of characters that inhabit Rook Island, and the dangers that face a wide-eyed twentysomething on holiday in the Tropics.
Matt Gardner (Dealspwn): First of all, why is Rook Island stuffed with insane people?
Jamie Keen: (Laughs) We wanted to create an experience on the edge of humanity. So we've got this island on the edge of the world, channelling the spirit of a lawless frontier where there aren't any rules. So we began to look into that, and what that would mean in terms of a setting and a story, and so we started thinking about the characters that might inhabit a place like that. We realised that the sort of people who'd do well, who'd get ahead in that kind of society, they're the sociopaths, the psychopaths, free to do what they want without anyone holding them back.
So we started thinking about that from a writing perspective and then looking into the performances of the actors, and letting them explore, look into the script and then interpret that. There's so much that you can do with a line: the way it's delivered, the way it's spoken, inflections, emphases, the way that the body language during recording helps.
The character of Vaas grew out of those recording sessions. So it got to the end of the day and everyone's tired and our realisation directors are saying “It's not quite right, let's go again” and everyone's getting a bit fraught, tired, hungry, and pissed off. And Michael Mando got tired, hungry, and pissed off, and then went back and did another take and they were like “That's it! That's exactly what we're after!”. So then you build upon that and develop it for there, and it forms the basis for a lot of the way that the character comes across.
Matt Gardner: Of course, then you have Jason – a fresh-faced innocent who you've thrown into this beautiful hell. Was it always the plan to have a lamb-to-the-slaughter protagonist?
Jamie Keen: Well we certainly wanted Jason to be a blank slate, and something that people recognise as well. So he's this 2-something West Coast American guy, out travelling with his friends, and really makes the Wrongest Turn Ever, and ends up in a world of pain. But also, coming off of the back of Far Cry 2 where you have this grand-scale narrative all about warring factions and conflict in Africa, we wanted something immediate, something feels a little more personal as if it's happening to you.
The first-person perspective is a very powerful tool in leveraging that, and we wanted to ensure that we drove that sense of immersion in the best possible way that we could. So the narrative is both very much Jason's story and your story as a player – the things that happen to him and how he processes what's going on around him was a very important part of that step. He sees his friends ad family members kidnapped and in some cases killed in front of him, and that's part of a very personal story, this is happening to people that he really cares about. So there's a strong immediacy thanks to Jason's connection with the world around him, and the things he faces. Then, ideally, you as a player have a connection to the world too, seeing through Jason's eyes, guiding his actions in response to those things.
So there's a journey for Jason to go on and hopefully for the player as well, and Jason getting seduced by the island. He starts off really screwed. He's not a soldier, not a combat veteran, he's just guy thrown into that combat situation. How would you or I react? We'd hope that we might do the right thing or find a way to survive, and maybe even take the fight to the guys doing this to you, but more than likely we'd be sat gibbering in the corner, wailing. But you don't have a game if that's the case, so we wanted Jason to be a decisive character in that respect – someone who does take action, and does take the fight to his aggressors, and does take back that power. And in doing so, you know, there's some alluring about that process, and a sense of corruption through action, he gets good at what he's doing, he gets good at killing people, and maybe he starts to like it a little. So we had to think about what that means in terms of the narrative, and the people around him will hold a mirror up to him and ask questions of him - “Why do you have all these tattoos? How come you're now going around killing people all of a sudden? What's with the tribal stuff?” - and hopefully that'll reflect some off the questions players are asking of their own experiences with the game.
Matt Gardner: Well that was going to form part of my next question I suppose. If Vaas is a personification of insanity, would you say that Jason encapsulates the human condition to a certain extent, with regard to violence anyway and much does the game reflect the player's/Jason's gameplay choices violent or otherwise? Is there much judgement, for example?
Jamie Keen: Well we try not to judge the players actions at all, at least not in-game. We do hope that some players might have a little step back, that this game might cause them to think a little, and maybe draw their own conclusions. There are a lot of parallels between Jason and Vaas, but so too between Jason and the player. Jason starts off as this fish out of water, and the player starts in a similar position. So just as Jason has to learn how to survive in this new environment, so too does the player, and it's a very measured and balanced progression that you explore the world as Jason, so the two things happen hand in hand.
But then you run back into Jason's friends again, who haven't had that experience. They been kidnapped and tortured and had some pretty terrible stuff happen to them, and they look at Jason and what he's done...actually, at the end of one of the missions, and hopefully you'll have had fun doing, you take this outpost and Jason like” Wooo, yeah! We did it!” And Lisa literally turns around and says, “killing people's not fun”. So we have these moments in the narrative, little parts that will insert these question marks. By the end of the game it really becomes a choice between diving deeper into this moral rabbit hole, or perhaps trying to return to that starting point.You'll be led off in many different directions by various characters, and drawn down various paths further and further away from that starting point.
Matt Gardner: How do those various definitions of humanity and insanity play into the AI? Will the pirates act like normal soldiers? What sort of behavioural considerations needed to be undertaken when approaching this game?
Jamie Keen: Well there are a couple of main factions on the island. So you have the pirates, and the rebels, ad indeed later on you run into a faction where you have got trained military personnel, shown in the recent trailer. But the AI reacts to the things that you'll do. You essentially start out as an insect for Vaas – someone that he can play with. But gradually as the game progresses, he has to start taking you seriously. And you'll find that with common guards too. You sneak up behind a couple of guards in conversation and they'll be talking about this guy that's taking down all of the outposts or reprogramming towers. So there's this subtle sense of impact, and that's really important – that feeling of you affecting the world around you and what's really happening on a macro and micro scale. So you'll get a sense of the pirates gradually losing their grip on the island, through snippets of conversation, and them becoming a little more fearful.
But then, on a micro scale, the actions you take will determine immediate behaviour. If you're being stealthy, the soldiers will have their guard down, but as soon as violence breaks out, they'll react in a manner that provides a good combat experience. If you incorporate fire, you'll be able to manipulate that very basic fear, and they'll react to animals if you bring those along to the party, so it's really a series of systems that gives this real feeling of life.
Matt Gardner: It makes Rook Island itself one of the stars of the show, if not the main attraction, in a similar manner to games such as Skyrim – that feeling of being in a world that you don't really want to leave. Of course, with this game, there's a fine balance – on the one hand there's this lush jungle begging to be explored, on the other some seriously fucked up shit is going on! How difficult was it balancing the horror out with addictive natural beauty, in a world that really seems to come to life?
Jamie Keen: I'm so glad that you had that reaction, because that's exactly what we were hoping for! We actually just knocked it out in about four week... (Laughs)
No, it was phenomenally difficult. That thing about attraction and repulsion, that's exactly what we wanted, and that tied in to the choice for a location. We wanted it to feel like a picture postcard that suddenly tears your throat. Every so often you might stop in the game world just to admired the sun coming through the trees, but then you'll walk around the corner and find a pit full of bodies.
I think that one of the things that our design team enjoyed the most was creating a world shot through with insanity. It was tricky at first, because we knew insanity would be a central theme in the game, so it was a case of “Ok...let's go off and create insanity”. But the first round of ideas tht came back were all sort of insanity with the volume turned up to 11, very in your face, and obvious, and we didn't want that. We wanted to leave things more open, and provide lots of unanswered questions that the players then fill in themselves. So if you go exploring around the island, and you don't have to, but if you do you might come across little vignettes like an abandoned shack with a bunch of blood-splattered dolls inside. And we don't spell out what happened for you, we just let you fill in the gaps.
Matt Gardner: There are some quite “gamey” systems in there though too, with the Trials of the Rakyat...
Jamie Keen: Well we didn't want everything to be super-serious all of the time, we wanted that spread, but those little social challenges are there to provide a little bit of competition that leverage very specific gameplay elements.
Matt Gardner: It's a mark of confidence to in the systems of your game and the world you've created to encourage people to play with those systems...
Jamie Keen: Well, we feels so. But it was interesting, one of the biggest questions that came up in our focus testing, and I imagine that this is something all ambitious open world games come to terms with, was “What should I do now?” And our answer was “Well, do whatever you want to do!” There's a huge amount of freedom, and it taps into people's creativity. You can dive into missions or challenges or just go off and explore.
Take collectable threads for example, they might not suit some people, but we really try to reward explortion. My favourite involves this cleft in a rock face, hidden by a waterfall. But if you swim under the waterfall, you find up in this cavern that opens out into a huge area, and so you climb back up to the surface, and at the top there's this really beautiful temple with a collectable inside. That's just one of many hidden elements we've got for those prepared to go off from the beaten track.
And it leads to these emergent player-driven stories too, that are all different. Having that freedom means that you have all of these different tales of adventure, with players solving problems and navigating the island in different ways. It's makes it all incredibly worthwhile.
Matt Gardner: As you mentioned, the singleplayer is a deeply personal experience, with so much of it being player-led, and with a strong, rafted plot in there too. How does that differ when it comes to co-op?
Jamie Keen: Well we tailored each experience – the singleplayer, the co-op, the PvP – to maximise the various strengths of those different modes. So the singleplayer is a very intense, personal player-driven narrative experience. The PvP is lighter than that, it's very much about good combat gameplay, running around shooting your friends in the face. And the co-op sits somewhere in the middle – there is a narrative element to it, but it's slightly more accessible. If Jason's story is one of a young man being corrupted and potentially turning into a monster, the co-op sees you step into the shoes of two guys who are broken to begin with. They have no qualms about going in and shooting a place up, and there's something quite liberating in that too.
Matt Gardner: Ok...so one last question that we like to ask to everyone. What is, in your personal opinion, the most kickass, awesome, brilliant, fantastic thing, or maybe what you're most proud of, about Far Cry 3?
Jamie Keen: The thing that I'm most proud of is the feeling of life in the world; the way all of our systems come together – the human AI, the animals, the weather, the day and night cycle – to create a world that feels lived in and alive. The eureka moment that we had was when we finally got the human and animal AI working together. We were just freecam-ing around the world and you see a leopard chasing down deer like in a nature documentary. We went a little further on and came across this encounter where three rebels and three pirates were fighting, and then they manage to kill the pirates, but then as they're walking away, one of the rebels gets absolutely nailed by this wildcat. Ad all of that in unscripted; it's all just things that spawn in, with the systems working together. The fact that we're never sure what we're going to see when people start playing the game, that's what I most proud of.
Far Cry 3 is out November 30th for PC, PS3, and Xbox 360. Read our extensive Far Cry 3 hands-on preview here.