Far Cry 4: the problem of narrative in a free world

Far Cry 4 Screen Elephants 1

The fictional land of Kyrat is ripe with storytelling potential. An amalgamation of Nepal, Thailand and Tibet, its culture and landscape mix ancient lore and the realities of the developing world into a wholly unique cocktail of violence, redemption and intrigue. It is the perfect place for a Far Cry adventure.

The fourth title in Ubisoft’s free-roaming adventure series tells the story of a prodigal son, Ajay Ghale, returning to his native land to find it torn apart by civil war. On the one side stands The Golden Path, a rebel movement that’s seen better days and whose loyalties are split down the middle. One of its leaders, Sabal, is a religious zealot who places a premium on the sanctity of human life. The other, Amrita, is a liberal pragmatist who sees nothing wrong with taking over Kyrat’s drug cartels if the profits allow for the construction of schools and hospitals.

Kyrat’s controlling voice is its flamboyant dictator, Pagan Min, a sharp-suited, silver-tongued psychopath who is as charming as he is lethal. Min and the leaders of The Golden Path are locked in a battle for Ajay’s soul. The outcome of Far Cry 4, we are told, will largely depend on how the player interacts with these conflicting forces and what choices they make.

The paradox of freedom

But who really cares about any of that when you can flip a jeep filled with enemies off the side of a mountain pass with an elephant? As important as narrative and plot have become in shooters over the last five or so years – and the jury on this importance is still out – the principle draw of games like Far Cry 4 is the ability of players to cause unparalleled mayhem.

Far Cry 4 offers more opportunities for anarchy than most; players can ram elephants with SUVs, detonate sticky explosives on the back of rhinos and fire bazookas at peacocks. The land of Kyrat is like mainlining ADD; players on their way to complete a mission are a likely to get purloined by myriad side-quests, firefights, map unlocks and dynamic events. How do you craft a narrative around a game structure that encourages players to hurtle off-piste at a moment’s notice?

It’s a problem Mark Thompson, the narrative director on Far Cry 4 is all too aware of. One of the principle draws of Far Cry 4 is how it places players in the boots of a protagonist who is a fish out of water. Even though Ajay is a native of Kyrat returning home after a long time, he’s still rediscovering himself – much like the player.

“You never really have an idea of yourself fully formed unless you experience something new,” says Thompson. “I left college and I didn’t go into the world knowing who I am. I’m fully aware that there’s this post-education identity crisis in this generation where we don’t leave uni and fall into a job where our future is mapped out.”

“So it’s interesting to take [Ajay] and throw him back into a culture he comes from but that he never knew.”

“It’s a good symbiosis with the player’s experience. When you pick up the controller you know nothing about Kyrat or its culture and you learn at the same pace as Ajay. To all intents and purposes you become Ajay and it’s all about discovery and a sense of identity that the player crafts for themselves.”

It’s that sense of discovery that provides the glue that holds Far Cry 4’s narrative together. Since the player is as invested in Kyrat as its protagonist, they can be as invested in its cultural, social and political problems as they care to. In this world, tormenting the local fauna makes about as much sense as digging into Pagan Min’s forces. Forward progression is always looming in the background, but it’s an option for as long as the player wants to put it off for.

“As Ajay discovers who he is, you discover who you are,” says Thompson. “We never put you in a position where you’ll disagree with what Ajay says or decides.”

“You make all the decisions.”

Far Cry 4 is released on PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One on 20 November.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Nick Cowen, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 4th November 2014 11.14 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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