Patrick Redding on Far Cry 2

The narrative designer tells us a story...

With Far Cry 2 now taking a giant leap into the limelight ahead of a glittering release in time for Christmas, we headed over to Ubisoft Montreal for some hands-on time with the new FPS. Having spoken with producer 'LP' Pharant, we also thought it best to have a few words with narrative designer Patrick Redding. Read on for his thoughts.

Thanks for talking to us Pat. How long have you been working on Far Cry 2?

I think in total I've been working on it for just over three years. The team as a whole was first assembled three and a half years ago, and I wrapped up some work on Far Cry Instincts and then joined the team as the narrative designer.

What does a narrative designer do?

Right. Well, in fact, you can give a different answer to this question depending on which developer you talk to. In some companies narrative designer is another way of saying script writer; the person designing the overall fiction of the game. On some titles this is probably all the narrative designer gets to do. On this game, because its an open-world, because its systemic; the AI is autonomous, the gameplay ingredients are unscripted... my role is in fact that of another game designer, but one focussing on narrative systems. This, for example, means I work with the lead level designer to find how the mission system will work. You know, if the player goes and takes a mission from one faction, how do we track that, what are the consequences of it. How do we keep track of these factors - the players health, his history, his relationships. That's sort of a real nuts-and-bolts game designer.

The other aspect is working with the creative director to make sure some of the core themes of the game; the meaning if you will; is present in all the different game mechanics. Because its a shooter - let's not kid ourselves, its not a RPG or an adventure - its a shooter. There's a low-level game loop, to line-up the bad guys in the middle of the screen and pull the trigger. That is the player's input. Just as in GTA your input is to run around damaging things, occasionally killing people. For us we have a really simple input for the player, and we have to work out what we can do with that in order to move the story forward. To make it feel like the player's actions matter, to make it feel like things have consequences. That's kind of what I do... on paper its not so different to what other game designers do, I just happen to be focussing on the narrative part.

When did you come up with the narrative that runs through Far Cry 2?

Actually, I think, to give credit where credit's due, Clint and the team including Alex and John had already worked out some of the broad strokes of the story. Like, they knew it was going to be set in Africa, they knew the basic story... the plot... a kind of Heart of Darkness / Apocalypse Now-type storyline. The player is sent into a warzone, not to get to get involved in the war effort but to get a guy who's insinuated himself in the conflict. You've got to take him out. That core plot was in place. The two factions dynamic, that had also been discussed, as had the buddy characters - characters you can promote or demote in your story - that was also in the works. So really when I started, my job was to work out how we realise this dream.

So... who is the Jackal?

The Jackal. Who is he. He is an arms dealer. The player gets to meet him very very early on in the game, he's there just after you start the game. You meet him, and you meet him under dire circumstances. You start the game sick with malaria, you saw that in the opening sequence, you wake up in your hotel room and there's a guy ransacking your stuff and very quickly it becomes clear that he knows who you are and that you're there to kill him. This is the Jackal. He basically tells you that you're in no state to be killing anybody, you've already failed, you'll be fired, and that as far as he's concerned you're no longer his problem. Good luck - you're dead. At that moment you realise you're not up against a mustache-twirling villain. Maybe he's some kind of psychopath because he thinks its funny that you're there to kill him, he finds it amusing that you've already failed and you didn't even get a shot, and as far as he's concerned the only thing that makes him mad is that somebody thought they could send a guy like you to kill him. He's insulted. That's the starting point for his story arc in the game. That gets under the Jackal's skin and he starts to look at the two factions he's given the guns to and he realises the kind of people he's dealing with. It makes him pissed off. As the game unfolds, he starts to get his fingers into the pies, not as part of a masterplan, but more out of a desire to show people that they don't have control over the situation. This makes him a more urgent antagonist for the player to have to go after, because the player may have inadvertently set this guy off, and now he has to deal with the consequences of that.

I gather that like the letters from Kurtz in Heart of Darkness you'll have recordings from The Jackal. How will this be woven into the game experience as you play?

Right within the opening tutorial part of the game you meet a journalist, named Ruben. Now Ruben is actually a character we introduced to the world several months ago, we started his blog, and the URL is in all our trailers. Ruben is an African journalist originally from Nigeria, who has been covering the story of this country. He's been trying to track down The Jackal and do an expose on him, now, he actually managed to catch up with him and interview him prior to the player's arrival. So, The Jackal had arrived and settled in with a big deal, and he was spending his money in the hotel bar. Ruben convinced him to open up on tape, and then all hell broke lose. The Jackal got angry and re-ignited the conflict between the factions, he's now pissed off some of the wrong guys. The warlords who he helped before are now angry that he's nosing around. They're just short of killing him (Ruben) outright, they've stolen his laptop and scattered his tapes. So the player has the ability to find the tapes by exploration of the game world, and he can find these tapes and for a minute or so listen to the Jackal's invoice - how he came to become an arms dealer, what his philosophy is - his thoughts on the war, people, nature and reality. Not every player will care of course, some will treat it like the PDAs in System Shock 2, or the recordings in BioShock, some people will really want to find that, others will just want to shoot guys. We reward the player for collecting tapes, by getting to interact with the journalist a little more, and the player will find that pretty quickly. Ruben will show up at the bar... and you can speak with him. Stuff like that.

And, like Heart of Darkness, will the player start to have some troubling sympathies for the Jackal as the game progresses?

Well, I certainly hope that's possible. That's the important thing for us, though. Freedom and openness are the pillars of the game. We don't want to tell the player 'you like this guy now', or 'now he's your friend', we don't want to force the player to do anything. We want the player to look at every character in the game and realise there's some ambiguity there. Your buddies... who are happy to help you... are maybe not all good guys. Are they there for good reasons? Can you put up with that? Similarly the mercenaries that work with different factions and hire you to do missions... some of them are total scumbags... but maybe you think they're like you after a conversation. We want the player to feel like there's no black and white; good and evil dichotomy here. This is about different shades of grey. Different moral circumstances and having to make different ethical choices.

Looking at the open-world gameplay approach. How difficult is it telling a compelling story in just such an environment?

I think the trick is that we can't tell the story. We can establish a premise, and a reason for the player to be there, and we can establish a pre-existing conflict that is dynamic and has the ability to unfold in different ways depending upon the player's input. We can also create constraints, stop them leaving the country! But beyond that I really feel as though my job isn't to tell story, but rather to help the player play out his own story. And there shouldn't really be a boundary between the parts of the game that feel like narrative, and the parts that see the player having these crazy adventures. I want there to be continuity. Sometimes, in the past, I've described what I really am is a continuity designer. To ensure continuity between the parts that are gameplay and the parts that are maybe a little more directed. I think that's still true. If I do my job properly, the player might not even notice what I did, he might not notice it until he re-plays, or until he talks to another player. If that's how it goes down, and as long as he enjoyed himself, then I've accomplished my mission. We learned a lot of valuable stuff while doing this game... also, how I would do stuff differently, and I think I noted that the biggest challenge when creating an open-world game with some kind of coherent story is making sure its readable. The player must always have a sense of what their choices are. Where to go, meanings, we want players to be able to parse the world around them and derive some kind of meaningful impact from their involvement. That's the tough part!

So... what would you have done differently?

I don't have all day to show you! This is the bittersweet part of being a designer on a project of this complexity, a triple-A title. You are doomed to never be able to look at the game and be 100% satisfied. The funny thing is I thought I'd be way way way more upset than I am... on previous games that's how it went. You'd work on the game, and by the end of the year you're disgusted with it, you think your work sucks, you hate everything you've done, its a piece of garbage, and you can't believe anyone would pay money for it. And then it turns around, it gets good scores, people like it, you sell some units, there's people saying it was fun! You think 'No you didn't! Oh okay.' Now, on this game, weirdly enough its been so ambitious, so sweeping, that I thought I'd never want to play it once it was done. Honestly, every time I pick it up something surprises me - something amazes me - that's after a year and half of play. You know, we have testers, who have literally played this game for 800 hours. And they still send us emails saying "dude, you'll never believe what happened," and I'm like you've played this for 800 hours... what's wrong with you!

But, you know, these are guys who analyse the games and know all the elements, and they're experiencing new cool stuff all the time. The vehicles, the story, the vegetation, the combat... this game keeps on surprising. I think the reason why is because we really knew right from the start that we had to make it a systemic game, we couldn't script it, we couldn't craft a singular experience that everyone would have. We basically had to let go, relinquish control.. of the gameplay, the story, kind of just know that we couldn't predict how the game would play. During some of the demos, people get killed after 10 seconds, or other times when crazy crazy things happen. You should be dead right now! For us that's a consequence of the systematic design. Especially if I get to go away for a week or two, I don't play the gamer for a while, and I come back and fire up the game it feels like I'm playing it for the first time. Its really really good.

In what way has the African setting empowered you?

Well, I think, first and foremost, at a basic marketing level, the tropical south Pacific island setting has gotten older, you know, everyone's seen Lost, and we thought are we really going to do anything different with that. It's not that its played out, but we just thought its about showing people something new, somewhere they haven't been before. Its time for something else. An iconic environment, it needed to be not just random wilderness, it needed a resonance to it. There isn't anywhere on Earth much more resonant than the African Savannah. That's where our ancestors came from. When we see that environment we sort of instinctively feel the heat, the wind, all this visceral stuff that's so important. All the things that make the game immersive are immediately present, and the environment gives us this. The Savannah, the shanty towns, the jungle, the desert, all these settings carry built in shorthand. Its almost hard-wired into our genetics, so that when you walk through it... you feel it. That was the most important thing it gave us. It also gives us a reason for a modern day shooter - this isn't a sci-fi warrior, armoured-thing - this is real. Its about broke-ass mercenaries, fighting over scraps, in a country completely hollowed-out. People are paying each other in diamonds because the currency is worthless. Its that kind of gritty environment. It gets under your finger nails and it adds to that sense of realism and immersion. The guns break down because they're rusty and dirty; the vehicles get dents and start smoking because of over-heating. I've got Malaria! The world is so much more tactile - the African setting lends itself well to that.

Are there any risks with the setting?

I understand why people might be concerned about it. But, you know, let's face facts. As a medium videogames have to stop making safe choices. We can't always be setting games games on asteroids being overrun with demons. Like, we always complain that people don't take us seriously as a medium... well, the way to be taken seriously is to create games with meaning or insight into the human condition. So... when people say why Africa, is it risky? I say its about damn time. Its about time we set it in a place in the real world, with real problems. People are suffering real issues. Our game won't offer any grandiose insights. This is still a first-person shooter. But I think it will still make people think about what they might do in that situation. Are there problems that can be solved through force of arms? Can anything be solved in this way? Is what we're doing making things worse? We're not claiming to have solutions, but we want people to ask these questions. If they're having fun at the same time then hopefully it just helps them think about it.

So, do you feel you could have been more risque and set this in an actual country?

I guess what I would say is that I think there's a trade-off that takes place. Where the more you're grounded and specific and intentional you draw the parallels between your setting and the conflict and the characters and the real world and real situations. The more you need to support that with more RPG-style gameplay. Honestly, I wouldn't make a game like your describing in a real world setting as a first-person shooter, then you really are saying: here's a real situation, with real people and real suffering and your going to deal with this by running around shooting people. I would however say you could set a real African conflict in an RPG, where you're dealing with NGOs, governments, etc. Its insanely complicated. I think that would be the responsible answer. I think we can totally make games that touch on these issues. I think the key issue here is what is the player's input? If its just pulling a trigger then maybe we're not offering any insight. What is our contribution to this? One more guy with a gun in a country full of guns. If you're set somewhere to make ethical choices - bribery, combat, persuasion - you're doing something interesting - for our game, we've got a symmetrical conflict, and an open-world setting, that works as an FPS. I think we're incredibly proud of that. The African setting is great - but a fictional setting allows us to do what we need to do.

Given Far Cry 2's lofty ambitions - where can games like this go in the future?

Well, I have my theories. I hope to see this proven to be right or wrong at some point. I don't know how much I want to get into it. I'd say that I believe very strongly that games are now on a path to becoming much more procedural and much more systemic. In the sense that rather than having a tightly scripted experience - I hit that trigger, that cinemetic happens, I fight guys etc... there's always a place for games like that. Look at Call of Duty 4, that was so popular and worked really well, but I think that avenue is open, but what we also want to do is harness the other power of computers - the ability to assemble things dynamically. At that point we need to do that... but elevate the level of quality and polish. Scripted events can be polished, but its difficult with something systemic. We need to bring the quality up so that it's every bit as good as those scripted games. That's my feeling. We can keep adding systems. Its very easy in fact, but I think games like Far Cry 2 - games that follow that style, that are very open and systems driven, they're going to need to find that sweet spot between being very polished and being systems driven.

Very interesting. Thanks for your time, Patrick!

My pleasure!

E3 Trailer