THE NEW RELIGION
The message on the sandwich board was plain enough: “The end is near.” Normally, Far Cry 5 creative director and executive producer Dan Hay wouldn’t have paid much attention to such a hyperbolic warning. But on that day, two-anda-half years ago in the centre of Toronto, something hit home unexpectedly. “I had two thoughts that day,” he tells us. “The first was: ‘Oh, maybe he knows something that we don’t?’ The second was, ‘That’s the first time I’ve looked at somebody like that and not thought they were crazy.’”
For Hay, the encounter was yet another contributor to a growing sense of malaise – a lingering feeling that something in the world had shifted around the time he joined the Far
Cry 5 project as creative director. Ultimately, that discomfort would help to shape the game. As a kid growing up in the ’80s, Hay was acutely aware of the threat posed by the Cold War tussle between the US and Soviet Union. Films such as Terminator and WarGames, and all manner of similarly themed TV shows, exacerbated in him the feeling that “this umbrella above us would break and doom would just drop on top of us”. It was a daunting time, especially for a child. But when the Berlin Wall fell there was a palpable sense of relief across the globe as the prospect of nuclear obliteration faded.
But as an adult, that feeling of impending doom began to creep back into Hay’s life again. “I really felt it with some of the things that were happening in the US, like with the subprime-mortgage collapse,” he tells us. “And also some of the things that were going on across the world. You started to hear the language of separation; of people wanting to separate from what was supposed to be a global village. Even Brexit gave me this feeling in the pit of my stomach like, ‘Wow, that is a big change for the world.’”
With all of this percolating in the background, seeing the man with the sandwich board triggered a thought in Hay: why not make Far Cry 5’ s antagonist like that preacher from Toronto? That idea, in turn, raised the prospect of setting that game in the US for the first time. “We actually had the concept of going to America as far back as when we finished Far Cry 3,” Hay says. “At the time it was just this idea that was out in the ether; we weren’t specifically talking about the
location beyond it being in America, and we weren’t specifically talking about the creative direction – we were just kicking around the idea of going to the States.
“But we weren’t completely content with some of the ideas we had – they just didn’t feel relevant. So that concept ended up getting pushed to the side, and we focused on something that was perhaps a little bit more classic Far Cry. We shipped Far Cry 4, and we were very happy with that, and then we did
Primal, and that was super cool. And then at the end of Far Cry 4, the team that was working on it resurrected the idea of going to the States.
“What dawned on me was: what if we made a character who knew, or at least believed very fervently, that we are all on the edge and we’re headed for a collapse? What if we took that person and we gave them the power to be in charge of a cult that’s basically trying to protect humanity from this coming collapse – at least, that’s their belief? And what would it mean if we put them in the United States?”
Joseph Seed is the result of that thinking. More subdued, less volatile, and less flamboyant than Vaas Montenegro or Pagan Min, Seed – also known as The Father – is the founder of a fanatical doomsday cult named The Project At Eden’s Gate. A self-styled prophet, Seed leads the cult alongside his devoted siblings. But despite some arguably old-fashioned methodologies and beliefs, Seed is very much a product of our times.
“We felt really good about what we did with Vaas and Pagan Min, but we also wanted to make sure that when we created The Father that he was born of now,” Hay says. “That the things that he believed, and the things that he espoused, were really relevant and made sense today. That way everybody could relate to him and ask the question, ‘Is he crazy?’”
Ubisoft Montreal had to find a location that would suit the siblings’ need to operate off the radar. Montana, with its historically isolationist populace and expansive landscape, was a perfect fit. The team set about creating Hope County – a wide-open, agricultural area in which Seed and his family have set up shop and begun to infiltrate locals’ lives.
“We started to think about where specifically would be a frontier in the States, where would match the spirit of being a little bit off-kilter, and strange, and wonderful, and wild,” explains Hay. “Somewhere we could have almost a Twilight-Zone-type experience, which is how I feel about Far Cry in general. We flew to Montana because we’d been hearing that it has a history of self-reliance, and was a place where people went to be left alone, away from the prying eyes of the government. We spent two weeks there, and the stories that we heard and the people that we met completely validated the possibility of Joseph Seed going to Montana and believing that the end of the world is coming, and then beginning to make plans to protect himself and his followers from it.”
The move to Montana represents a profound change for the series, which has always favoured exotic locations and sprawling, unbroken wilderness. But it’s not just the local flora and fauna that will feel different: Hay and his team have had to rethink what constitutes a Far Cry game in this new context. “Taking it to America is a big move for Far
Cry, and taking the game into an environment that’s semi-urban, or at least feels like civilisation is around every corner – that is absolutely a big shift,” Hay says. “So that affects the language of Far Cry, and the moment-to-moment experience that you have. What’s really interesting is to watch people play the game in an arena that they kind of already know, with rules they know.”
This time around, for example, rather than hurling a military 4x4 down rough-hewn tracks that cut through dense foliage, you might instead find yourself in a decidedly more domestic vehicle on a tarmac road and feel the urge to pay attention to stop signs. Fences in Hope County tend to pen in cattle – smashing through them will set the animals loose, potentially causing havoc (or at least a distraction). And while hired allies make a return, Far Cry 5 also introduces a ‘fangs-forhire’ system that means you can have a loyal pet dog alongside you.
Hay won’t be drawn on the mutt’s name yet, but it sounds like a useful blighter. Send it into a group of enemies, and it’ll tag their positions for you. Keep it by your side, and it’ll offer short shrift to anyone who tries to attack you, charging them in return and even stripping them of their weapon before returning it to you like a tossed stick.
“We were really trying to understand how we were going to use animals, and leverage the things we’d been doing in Primal, and Far Cry 3 and 4,” Hay says. “As part of that, we spent a day with a hunter while we were in Montana. It was towards the end of the day, and we were pretty tired, then all of sudden he just said, ‘Freeze; don’t move.’ We sat there for what felt like an eternity watching his dog, who was in this prone position looking at a bush. About 12 minutes passed and then the dog just barked, and this grouse took off. The guy just turned to us and said, ‘Always trust your dog.’ At that moment we knew we needed to have a dog in the game, and to make sure that it was something that you could trust. You have to be able to have a relationship with it, it has to have meaning, and it has to have gameplay value. Because that’s a tool that people here would employ, we did too.”
The trip also inspired the team to take advantage of the more densely populated nature of Montana compared to, say, a tropical island or Central African republic. “We want to put you in a world inhabited by real people,” Hay says. “When we were in Montana, we met real, interesting characters. They were honest, they were forthright, they were stoic – they had a really good bullshit detector. I really didn’t get the sense that I could lie to these folks. So in this new instalment of Far Cry, for the first time you’re able to go out and meet people and enlist them into your resistance against the cult.”
As you move about the county, then, you’ll encounter characters who are in a spot of bother. Help them, and they’ll join your cause, providing assistance in a number of ways. While most are just regular Joes with no particular skills, you’ll also encounter hero characters who, once enlisted, provide access to unique assets and toys that can support your efforts. These hero characters also gain experience alongside you, becoming more proficient and learning new skills as they go. Take Grace Armstrong, for example, a proficient sniper who can provide covering fire from a distance. Or Nick Rye, a ballsy pilot who can be called in to do bombing runs and who generously offers to share his plane.
“We really wanted players to be able to take to the skies, and although we had gyrocopters in the past, you couldn’t dogfight, you couldn’t call somebody in to do bombing
runs and you really didn’t feel like you had a person who was your partner in crime,” Hay says. “Nick was very much born from some of the people that we met in Montana, and when you meet him he’s going to be in some very specific trouble. If you can help him, and enlist him, he’s really useful.
“Just imagine: you’re looking down on Hope County [from a high vantage point] and the cult has now taken it over and civilians are being taken. You’re like, ‘How the hell am I going to manage this?’ Then you see this convoy of trucks driving through the space, and you go, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve got Nick in my back pocket.’ You call over the radio, you point at the convoy and he goes, ‘Yeah, I’m on it.’ He flies over the top and just decimates it with a bomb from above. Or, you could just go and get into the plane yourself and do a strafing run, or dogfight with the cult when they send their own planes out after you.”
Hope County might be populated with charismatic folk, but the studio is moving in the opposite direction when it comes to the game’s protagonist. A local junior deputy, who accidentally triggers a cult takeover of the area after an encounter with Seed, our hero is a little green but knows how to use a gun – a deliberate effort to avoid the usual trajectory of playable characters.
“I hate it when you play a game and you go from zero to hero in ten seconds, and there’s no conceivable reality about it,” Hay says. “By giving you a job that allows you to have a gun and a modicum of training, it makes sense that you’d at least know how to use a revolver. But typically in Far Cry, what we’ve done is build this very thin hero, and we’ve made the voice of the protagonist the voice of the player. This time we want you to be able to just be you. We want you to be able to customise yourself to look like you if you want. You have this shell of the deputy around you, but the person who’s got that job and who has that responsibility is you, if that’s who you really want to play as.”
This renewed commitment to player choice extends to your path through the game, too. Rather than follow a tightly authored story in which everyone traces more or less the same line through an open environment, this time you’re free to head in any direction you like from the outset, and meet characters in any order along the way.
“The game pays attention to what you do and responds to it,” Hay explains. “Depending on where you are in the game, it throws forth micro-stories and action bubbles that are relevant to the space that you’re in. I don’t want to give too much away, but let’s say that one player heads north, and another heads south – both would have a completely different experience, with different people, and there would be different stories there. If you played for ten hours, and then we were at work the next day chatting about it at the water cooler, you’d tell me what Far Cry 5 was about and I’d be like, ‘I played a completely different game and I have no clue what characters you’re talking about!’”
That’s all very well, but while the studio’s dedication to adding new mechanics and greater freedom is commendable, if the game still hits all of the usual Far Cry beats – irrespective of whether it does so in a different rhythm – it could quickly lose momentum. Indeed, one criticism levelled at the otherwise excellent Far Cry 4 was that it perhaps felt a little too similar to its predecessor. Hay is aware of those criticisms, and the potential pitfalls that they represent.
“We’re devs, yes, but we also play a ton of games, so we’re aware of that,” he says. “I think the very first discussion we had about where we’re going to go shows you where our head is at: I remember we kicked around some ideas and then we were like, ‘You know what? If we do that people are going to be like, ‘Of course, it’s a Far Cry game and that’s part of the template.’ Right from the very beginning we decided that if something feels familiar, or if it feels like anybody could see something coming, we’re doing it wrong. So when the idea first percolated about Montana, everyone was suddenly like, ‘Wait a minute – nobody would expect that!’ Think about what that means, think about this location and what it offers: this feeling of self-reliance and the people that we can put in it. It very quickly began to grow into something that is very powerful and different. If you track that reflex to do something different across the board, you can see the direction we went in.”
So does that mean that players won’t be clambering up towers to unlock portions of the map, then? “That’s a fair question,” Hay laughs. “How do I answer that…? We
understand the nature of people asking a question about the formula of climbing towers and looking at the world and unlocking the map. We wanted to do something different this time, that’s as much as I’ll say. But there’s tons more I want to tell you.”
Hay is unguarded in his enthusiasm and passion for the series (this is the fifth Far Cry game that he’s worked on, but only his first as creative director), and we emerge from our chat cautiously optimistic about Far Cry 5’ s potential to subvert expectations to the same degree that Far Cry 2 did with its jamming guns, malaria attacks and fire propagation. If the game lives up to the team’s ambitions, it could also represent a much-needed shake-up of Ubisoft’s open-world template. It’s an opportunity Hay and his team certainly intend to seize.
“When you build games, there are always those heartbreaking moments where you have to leave features on the cutting-room floor because you have to ship,” Hay says. “But this is a game where we want to test ourselves. This is a game where we want to try and move some things around and break some moulds. I think that games are really maturing to the point where you can tell great stories and, almost in the same vein as they do on television and in movies, put someone into an environment where you’re challenging them and telling them something unique – you’re giving them an experience that they can’t get anywhere else.
“Typically, when you’re making a game, you’re earnestly working on it and you’ve got your nose to the grindstone. When you get up to take a smoke break, or go outside and take in some fresh air, you walk out into a world that’s remarkably different to the game you’re making. That’s not necessarily the case on this game, and it’s a very strange feeling to go outside and have people around you talking about things that could take place in your game. But putting the player against somebody who really does believe that they’re doing right by humanity, at a moment in time where that seems to be a theme in the world… that just feels right.” Just how much truth there is in the message on that sandwich board remains open for debate, but given everything that’s happening in the world today, perhaps it really is time for us to consider the definition of insanity once again.
FarCry5 creative director and executive producer Dan Hay