Here is something that actually happened to me in Far Cry 4 yesterday.
The latest title in Ubisoft’s open-world shooter series is set in a fictitious region named Kyrat, tucked up in the Himalayan mountains. Although stunningly beautiful, the country is ruled over by a psychopathic tyrant, Pagan Min, who has enslaved the population; when the game starts, the player arrives to usurp him – like Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter. But with automatic assault rifles and a bag of C4 explosives.
You don’t have to bother with all that narrative nonsense, though. Instead, you can simply drive around Kyrat’s sprawling countryside, raiding enemy bases and discovering the wildlife. And by discovering I usually mean shooting.
In the Far Cry titles, hunting is an important gameplay element. If you kill an animal you can skin it and use its hide to craft a variety of useful items, such as weapon holsters (so you can carry more guns) and wallets (for your cash, obviously). Of course, this will all be shocking to animal lovers, particularly those who cannot bear any portrayal of wildlife distress. To those people I would just say, stay away from Far Cry 4 – because, among many other things, this is a game that weaponises elephants.
The beauty of Far Cry 4 though is that the animal kingdom is a truly anarchic system, and these are very rare in video gaming. There are dozens of different types of creature roaming the landscape, all exhibiting their own needs and behaviours, and they do what they want, regardless of your plans as a player. This has always been the case with the Far Cry series, which is much more about the player vs the environment, than shooting at enemies, but Ubisoft has really cranked up the anarchy this time. These animals are vicious.
Yesterday, I was hunting pigs because I needed a bigger wallet. The game’s map shows you where you can expect to find certain types of animal, so you just head into the area and scout quietly through the bushes, or along valley pathways, hoping to sight your pray. I caught the pigs quite quickly, and managed to snag one with a single sniper shot from some considerable distance. I was pretty pleased, but as I traipsed gingerly over to my prize, something unexpected happened. An eagle swooped out of the sky, grasped the pig in its claws, and took off again. Its flight was laboured and slow, of course, because it was carrying a pig. But it got away. I watched it soar over the tree tops before dropping the pig into a cluster of bushes in the far distance. I just stood there in the clearing, thinking something that I have never before thought while playing a computer game. An eagle just stole my pig.
This is just one of the many ridiculous things that animals have done in Far Cry 4 while I have been watching. I’ve seen a herd of rhinos smash up an entire enemy base. Another time, I was at the mercy of an enemy soldier brandishing a molotov cocktail and thought my number was up until a honey badger leaped down onto his head from a small cliff, inspiring the man to effectively throw the bottle of burning alcohol at himself. I once spent 15 minutes locating a truly brilliant sniping position near a large enemy encampment only to be devoured by Tibetan wolves. And I fell off a radio tower because a snake surprised me.
Most open world games are effectively based around two agencies: the player and the enemy. Enemies are allowed to be unpredictable and intelligent because that is what gameplay demands. But very often, other agents placed in the world are just there for decoration. If you look at the pedestrians and other drivers in Grand Theft Auto for example, they are effectively walking scenery – it’s very rare that they react positively to player activities, and it’s even rarer when they respond to each other creating emergent moments of pointless drama.
This is a shame because when it does happen, it’s amazing and hilarious. Witness this video of a fracas between a group of firemen and a car driver.
There’s a reason this video has almost 750,000 views: watching an entirely emergent non-narrative fight breakout between computer controlled avatars is astonishing and compelling. It’s not just slapstick violence, it actually enhances our understanding of the environment. It tells us that the world of Los Santos is truly batshit crazy, that the player characters are effectively products of a broken society. Also, I mean, they run over the guy’s head in their fire truck. WTF, Rockstar?!
There are reasons why designers shy away from this sort of nihilism. First, gamers often react badly to having their plans ruined by a misfiring computer system. This is why EA Sports will never purposefully introduce dodgy refereeing decisions into the Fifa series: it would just feel infuriatingly unfair. Secondly, truly emergent, physics-based behavioural systems are unpredictable and can break things. While that could be an exciting and interesting feature of an indie game, it is bloody terrifying to publishers sending $50-100m on Triple A titles.
However, as we enter into the next generation of truly adaptive and persistent open world games, I think more developers are going to have to introduce anarchic systems. Cities filled with weird repetitive automatons, soullessly re-enacting the same smartphone conversations over and over again, are going to seem really weird when the visual acuity of the environment, and the human/animal models themselves, are so rich and detailed.
For years, the term Uncanny Valley was used in games to describe the eerie feeling you get when you see a digital representation of a human face that isn’t quite right. But actually, digital faces are quite convincing now. The next stage is an uncanny valley of behaviour: the world looks real, the people look real, the animals look real – but why are they all behaving so oddly? Why are they seemingly on rails?
Far Cry 4, then, hints at a game design era in which every video game ecosystem is a living entity that co-exists with, and sometimes reacts against, the player. The future of all games is the eagle taking the pig.
This article was written by Keith Stuart, for theguardian.com on Friday 6th February 2015 13.04 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010