Alex Hutchinson, creative director
Ubisoft Montreal’s Alex Hutchinson is in a fine mood. There’s been no post-launch holiday for him – he’s already moved onto his next project – but he’s spending his downtime watching videos of players visiting co-op havoc on Kyrat. Here, he discusses the world-building role of Far Cry 4’ s wildlife, subverting conventions, and the perpetual conflict between story and systems in open-world games. What was the overall philosophy for the role of the wildlife in this game, coming from Far Cry 3? We tried to make them more believable, and more part of the ecosystem. They’re doing things when you’re not there: attacking each other, or NPCs. They’re much more engaged in the world than in previous games. The elephants are vehicles, some animals are threats, some are ambient, some are part of the economy. We tried to fit them in everywhere, instead of just having them in the crafting. We were able to up the density as well, so they’re more noticeable. We went back through all of their behaviours, trying to make each one a unique challenge in the same way that we try to make each weapon or tool uniquely useful. How much work does something like that take? It’s one of the crazy things about modern game design. In years past, we’d have a couple of designers working on the game as a whole. Now you’ll have a couple of designers working on one subsection. They’re working in a cross-disciplinary team with artists, animators and AI engineers. It’s an entire project’s worth of tasks for those people. It’s two years of work, full time, for a dozen or more people. In a world of tigers, rhinos and bears, the eagles are the scariest animal in the game. Why is that? It’s funny, they’re no more threatening or aggressive than any other animal. It’s an illustration of a weird human trait that you see in architecture and interior design: humans suck at looking up. Because people look down a lot, and forward a lot, you get surprised from the air much more than you do from the ground. The eagles also riff off Assassin’s Creed’s lookouts. Did you go out of your way to be subversive? That was the most fun we had with the game, I think, trying to say, “We know you know; you know we know.” There’s a lot of nodding, winking and black humour in there. But it’s tricky. I think it’s probably because Clint [Hocking] worked on Far Cry 2, and he coined the term, but there’s always a lot of discussion of ludonarrative dissonance around Far Cry. We liked the idea of allowing people to be aware of the MacGuffins if they wanted to
“It’s the first time in a long while I’ve worked with a Brit on the narrative side. It made everything a bit bleaker”
pay attention. The entire ending speech – and I’ve seen it a couple of times online – people are saying, “No! Pagan Min tells you that you came here to bury your mom, but really you came here to blow stuff up.” We can create any story conceit you want, about people you’ve never met, or we can just say, “Go on – hunt the bears, dodge eagles, throw grenades, and see what happens.” Ajay tells one NPC, “I’m just here to scatter my mother’s ashes.” Five minutes earlier, he was shooting tigers with explosive arrows. Yeah, and it’s funny who’s picked up on it and who hasn’t, who’s appreciated it or found it confronting. It’s a combo of my sense of humour and [executive producer] Dan Hay’s, and our narrative director Mark Thompson, who’s a Brit. It’s the first time in a long while I’ve worked with a Brit on the narrative side. It made everything a bit bleaker. As soon as the game was announced, some people dismissed it as Far Cry 3.5. How much did that grate? It’s frustrating to see the arbitrary way in which it’s applied to games. Some games get this, but other games that rarely change don’t get tarred with that brush at all. It’s fascinating. Ubisoft at the moment is very much in the headlights of that, so we know we’re going to get it.
It’s a discussion of what the brand is. What are fans coming back to it expecting? What do we need to add to make sure it’s unique and distinct, and what needs improving? Yes, the core loop of towers and outposts is still there, and it’s still a shooter with animals, but I think we did a better job of pretty much everything… There’s a funny approach to franchises in games that I can’t quite get to the bottom of in my mind. I don’t turn on Game Of Thrones and get upset that it’s still the same world, with the same characters, season after season. Now we’re out, you see a lot of people saying, “Oh, yeah, it’s got a lot of the same things, but…” Perhaps that’s in part due to the way the tone has shifted across the series, but both this and Far Cry 3 explore similar themes. Where would you like to see the series go next? I think you’re right. Far Cry 2 was very serious. Far Cry 3 was too, but was over the top. I think that Far Cry 4 embraces black comedy, and that is something I’d want to keep, but I’d lean more into the systems. We’re rubbing up more and more against the uncomfortable relationship between semilinear story and true emergent narrative, and I think Far Cry 4 is the best expression of the latter, but we still have problems with the former. I would go even further in that direction – the story is your story.