Far Cry 3: Subverting videogame storytelling

Far Cry 3: Subverting videogame storytelling

Movies and TV shows can acknowledge their tropes these days. We’ve gone past smirking at sly winks, and now enjoy watching entire genres get ripped apart and put back together before our eyes. 

We don’t expect much deconstruction from open-world shooters, however. Big-budget videogames usually don’t have the same confidence to openly undo themselves. Is it a lack of faith in the recurring themes of gaming being common enough to be used as a launchpad for subversion? Perhaps more likely, given that we’re still getting trailers in the vein of Hitman: Absolution’s ‘sexy’ nun-murdering spree, it’s a lack of confidence in the sophistication of the audience. So we were quietly thrilled when Valve poked gentle fun at jumping tutorials in Portal 2. We were chin-strokingly appreciative when BioShock took a pop at the illusion of choice in a linear FPS. And some people are still rebuilding their fourth walls from the time when Max Payne suggested he might be in a game.

Unexpectedly, Far Cry 3 might be the next game to be convincingly about games. Its setting is primed with insanity – always a great setup for a devastating pull back to reveal. As well as the raw psychotic menace of its cover-star villain, Vaas, and the increasing evidence of instability in its hero, Jason Brody, we’ve got the more polite Dr Earnhardt, whose erratic approach to prescriptions feels less like bedside manner and more like reckless endangerment. That these performances are so believable is in no small part down to the two full performance-capture studios in Ubisoft Montreal’s offices.

These suites allow for a more natural flow between storytellers, too. After casting Michael Mando as Vaas, lead writer Jeffrey Yohalem rewrote parts of the script to suit the actor, and they both met with the director to improve the script further.

Mando’s original performance, the one that made the first trailer so noteworthy, was drawn out through trickery. “We had the seed of what we wanted,” says producer Dan Hay. “But we thought it was too safe. We told him: ‘It’s cool, but it’s missing authenticity.’ And the more we told him, the more pissed off he got, until we told him we’d turned off the cameras.” Eventually Mando let rip, and of course, the cameras were still rolling.

Such full-body capture performances blur the line between movie and videogame acting. A basic capture session provides around 80 to 90 per cent of the final result, and unlike Team Bondi’s face-only tech, which captures a series of unconnected points, Ubisoft’s system delivers joined-up facial information that can be more easily manipulated by animators. But despite these steps towards filmic development, Yohalem is adamant that Far Cry 3 wouldn’t work as a movie. “It’s a game about interactivity. If you took that away, the story wouldn’t work any more.”

Hay nods in qualified agreement: “As a creative, I’m completely in agreement with Jeffrey.” There’s a pause. “As a producer, I’d really like to make a Far Cry movie.”

Towards the end of the playable E3 demo, Vaas becomes infuriated with you for following the obvious path. “You showed such promise!” he says, the script selective in which clichés it chooses to subvert and which to simply use. “You’re in a Skinner box!” Simple setups of stimulus, response and reward used to study animal behaviour, Skinner boxes are the pompous teenager’s analogy for life when they’re flirting with determinism and nihilism, and referencing them is an excellent way of sounding semi-intelligent while dismissing videogames.

Similar questions about the nature of Far Cry 3’s reality are raised when Yohalem explains the decision to set the game on a jungle island – a loaded decision, considering it was Ubisoft that took Far Cry off an island in the first place. “Islands are places that do and don’t exist; they’re inside and outside of the world. They’re on the edge of reality.” Likewise, at the end of the playable demo at E3, Vaas says: “I am you. You are me”.

Talking to Yohalem and Hay, it’s easy to feel like the spectres of Lost and Fight Club are being deliberately and misleadingly invoked. Of course the island exists. And, Hay says confidently, Jason and Vaas aren’t the same person. But gamers have been trained to spot easy and annoying twists, and it’s Yohalem’s role to stay one step ahead. “One of the biggest pleasures in narratives is when you get the rug pulled satisfyingly from under your feet,” he says. “And we’re putting down some big rugs in Far Cry 3.”

One section in the E3 demo begins with Brody lecturing a local tribe on their path to freedom. That path involves overthrowing Vaas, who has taken great pleasure in kidnapping, torturing and killing since he arrived on the island. There’s a slightly awkward feel of ‘the colonial white man knows best’ about it, the kind of thing that made Avatar uncomfortable to some. Yohalem is, thankfully, aware of this, and assures us that the natural expectations of an audience weaned on Hollywood-grade narrative will be preempted and confounded.

Yohalem is a fan of the previous games, too, so he’s been careful to ensure that the layered narrative never obscures Far Cry 3’s duties to entertain. Once we’ve broken into Vaas’s compound, which is possible from three locations on the perimeter, we reach an open arena that evokes the deadly playgrounds of previous Far Cry games.

You might like to use Brody’s melee moves to conquer it; lurching lethally from enemy to enemy with a flick of the thumbstick is a skill you unlock on your journey from victim to warrior. You can opt for a path across the roofs, through alleys or buildings. There’s a tiger in a cage, and he’s been given grudge-based AI; at the start, his primary beef is with his captors, but if you accidentally shoot him while trying to release him – easily done – then you might have another enemy to deal with. There’s a machine-gun emplacement in the middle of the map, a location that’s tough to get to and difficult to hold, but ideal for mopping up stragglers. A large fuel tank takes a convincing amount of pummelling before it finally explodes, but when it does the trademark Far Cry fire-spreading systems apply to the sparse tufts of dry grass. The bow and arrow is great for picking people off stealthily outside the compound, but it’s not tenable inside – the time required to draw back is an insurmountable, well, drawback.

Brody’s progress through the game, and in the tribe he has joined, is linked to the tattoos on his arms. Different missions reward different motifs, so your tattoos will reflect your unique path. There’s something unusual about the tattoos, though: they smoke and warp. Another clue to the nature of Brody’s disjointed reality? Or is he just tripping?

Yohalem is philosophical about players who simply won’t care about the subtext of the game, and just want to shoot men, monkeys and manta rays. “It’s up to the player what they get out of it,” he shrugs. It’s not a dismissive or grumpy shrug either – just the acceptance that people have different tastes. But you won’t be able to avoid the game’s themes altogether. “At times, the tension between the player and Jason Brody is part of the story,” we’re told. It’s unclear whether this comes via Brody’s increasing mental instability, the hallucinogenic mushrooms that litter the island, or a scenes such as the one in which Brody slips into thirdperson view, looks at the player, and says “perhaps you can help”. Even so it seems pretty clear that Yohalem is aiming higher than when Max Payne wondered if he was in a videogame.

Sometimes the claims overreach the evidence, however. When Yohalem says that “Brody is a new kind of protagonist, pushed by necessity to become the killer he is at the end,” it’s the only sentence that feels like it was written by a PR man, rather than a writer well-grounded in the lore of videogames. But nevertheless, Far Cry 3 is looking promising.