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E3 2012: AusGamers Far Cry 3 Developer Interview
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 05:16am 08/06/12 | Comments
AusGamers caught up with Far Cry 3 level director, Mark Thompson, at this year's E3 to talk about insanity. Read on for what he had to say...

AusGamers: So Mark -- insanity... (laughs). I guess, I spoke with Jeff when he out in Australia recently and he was talking about the ebb and flow of action versus the more inner emotional content -- what’s the level of insanity that players will be facing because that (referring to E3 demo) seemed like quite a lot?

Mark Thompson: (Laughs) Yeah, well we wanted to explore... well the core mechanic of the game is obviously shooting, you know, we’re an FPS, and what’s really interesting about the game and how we went about developing it is we’re not embarrassed about that, about the fact it’s a game about shooting; a game about killing. So we wanted the story to be about that -- the story had to be about killing. And so the protagonist we chose, Jason, we wanted to be a blank slate -- not in the Half-Life Gordon Freeman sense -- but someone who hadn’t killed before.

It’s interesting because as a gamer, when you pick up the controller and kill, what we [developers] do is reward you, we say “good job”, and we wanted to explore a little bit about what that means. What it means to kill, what it means to shoot with a gun. So with a character like Jason it’s perfect; when you [he] comes to the island for the first time, and you pick up the controller and pick up a gun and shoot it for the first time in Far Cry 3, it’s the first time Jason is ever doing that. Jason isn’t Black Ops, he doesn’t have some kind of secret history; he’s not some kind of ex-Navy Seal chef aboard a frigate somewhere. He’s just a regular guy. And he has the sort of skills and abilities you’d expect of that (being normal).

So everything we do psychologically, is really Jason trying to reconcile these two different worlds -- the world that he came from: he’s a 20-something, he came from California, he’s college educated, he’s wealthy, you know, and then he smashes into this world of Vaas and island; these islands that are a little bit too far away from everything else. So he has these moments of reflection where he goes inside to something hallucinatory, it’s almost like his subconscious is saying “hey, what are you doing here?”.

So in the E3 demo you see a lot of Jason reflecting, and his subconscious almost challenging him for some of the things he’s doing, because what we wanted to do in the story is make sure that we didn’t say “hey players, we’re smarter than you, why are you killing people?”, that’s insulting, and so we embrace the fact that when you kill you win, so at one point Jason starts to enjoy it -- that’s what’s interesting, it shows how he becomes a killer and how he starts to enjoy it. And I think because we’re in first-person, it’s a powerful device - you don’t see the avatar, you can’t really... we never have this dissonance between Jason and his emotions and the player’s emotions, because you’re always Jason, you’re always in first-person. So with our mo-cap, you don’t see Jason’s emotions but you see other people’s emotions, how other characters react to Jason. So when you start to rescue some of the friends, which is the main thread of the story, you’ll see how they react to the way Jason changes -- you’ll see it in how his friends react, they’re used to Californian Jason, but now they see AK-wielding tribal-tattooed Jason with blood on his hands. And he’s starting to enjoy it.

AG: In terms of that, in terms of who Jason was, what’s the conveyance before that first kill, before that initial jarring moment? Because it seems almost ambitious to assume that a player is going to pick up a controller and... I don’t know what the time-frame is before Jason’s first kill, but in terms of that weight the player is supposed to feel from that first kill, in terms of the differentiation between a pick-up-and-kill Call of Duty experience and what you’re trying to achieve, what’s the process there?

Mark: It was obviously important, it’s important with every game to have a reasonable time to action, it’s called the “time to a core fantasy”. So if the game is about X, you don’t want to wait two hours before you do X because you betray the core fantasy of the game. So for an FPS we need to be understanding of the time to the core fantasy which is obviously killing with a gun. But at the same time we wanted to make sure people had a smooth transition from being Jason the victim, to being Jason the killer. Honestly I can’t talk too much about it because it’s the first thing that happens, but it’s something we worked a lot on and it’s one of the most important parts of the story.

So we spent a lot of time making sure that people would be satisfied and they wouldn’t be frustrated with a decision we made either way, like, too late, too soon, the wrong kind of action... really it’s a pivotal moment.

AG: Jeff was telling me, which was something of a revelation, that Vaas is only one of a number of psychopaths on the island, and you’ve focused on him for a bit now, a year in fact, and you’re talking about the open-world component to the game, but then you’ve got this heavy-handed narrative coming at the player as well, and this is probably more specifically a question directed at you as a level-designer, but how do you tie all of that together to give the player the freedom to make the choices that they want to make, while delivering this story, while maintaining these characters and just keeping a regular pacing or cadence that isn’t going to make anyone bored or feel like they’re being handheld?

Mark: Well the main device that we have, which is super-useful to me as level-director, is that the story and the open-world have two different plots entirely. So we have the story of Jason trying recapture his friends, and that’s delivered to you as main story missions but at any time you want to, you can stop following that thread and you can go and explore what I call the story of the island and it’s delivered with two devices, the first is actually embedded in the world itself and the environments -- the island has a lot of history, thousands of years of it, there’re ruins and if you go and explore these places and you find things that tell you the story of those locations, and the island was also occupied by the Japanese in World War II and so you have all these remnants of the war effort and again, things you find that tell you the story of that time on the island. And then we have villages, which are non-hostile places you can go to and we have side-quests and activities and these tell the modern-day story of the island, so it’s about the people on the island today who have to deal with the kind of insanity that Vaas reeks on them. So if you want to go off and explore that it’s less directed, it’s at your own pace and you get to learn the different side of the world. And beyond that, if you just want to go off and explore, you know, collect plants and animals... it’s almost the player-driven narrative, the player’s story. I’ve played a lot of open-world games and I’ve had my own moments in those...

AG: Yeah, emergent gameplay built around your own choices...

Mark: Exactly. When you have a bunch of systems that can interact with each other in unpredictable ways, you know, we give the player tools, we give them a possibility space and how those things react, obviously we have to make sure the systems speak to each other intelligently and things react the way they should... so if I go into the jungle and I’m hunting for a tiger, if I do it with a bow I’m going to be able to do it quietly, I’m going to be able to skin the animal, take the resources back to a village and then I’m going to be able to craft something. But if I go out and I want to hunt the tiger with an RPG, then it’s going to scare other animals away or perhaps it might attract more predatory animals, or it might even get the attention of passing pirates in a jeep.

So the layers of systems that we have, you can play with them quite a lot -- that’s where the sandbox element comes in.

AG: You touched on two things there that were actually my next questions: the first one was about ecology and how that works and what place that plays in the in regards to just surviving on the island, like, is it necessary for you to kill to eat, to craft new materials, and the second one was obviously all of that is a lite RPG element, so is there a numerical value system involved at all? Or is it more an interaction-based thing where you’re just sinking the player more into the island’s world?

Mark: It’s a little bit of both, actually. We didn’t want to have any negative mechanics, we didn’t want to have any dependencies. One of the issues that a lot of people had with Far Cry 2 was obviously the malaria, it was that micro-management and the unpredictability of when that would happen, so that was one of the things we wanted to move away from. We also didn’t want to punish people and force them to use the open-world, we wanted to encourage them to explore it if they wanted to improve their own situation. So it’s not a need, it’s not a prerequisite to enjoy the game, but it will enhance the experience.

So for example, we have an economy of cash, and you can only carry a certain amount of money at any one point, but there are certain animals you can kill and then use the skin to craft an object to carry more money. It’s the same with things like plants and... I don’t remember if you saw the trailer of the Doctor, Dr Earnhardt, he’s the guy you go to to get potions and recipes for potions, because he kind of a herbologist. And you go out and explore the island and figure out where the different plants are and then you make the potions that can help you out. But again, it’s always a positive.

AG: It seems like you guys have married a core shooter with fantasy RPG almost...

Mark: I guess on a systems level, yes, but without the same story trokes. So we married those but with a much more sophisticated story.

AG: So with the info that there’s more than one psychopath on the island, are you able to talk about the time-frame for players... it’s a bit of a games journalist cliche to ask how long the campaign is, but even with the three demos of the game I’ve seen so far with Vaas alone, it feels like we’re only scratching the surface, then with all the open-world play, can you tell what sort of investment there’ll be overall from a player perspective?

Mark: We know that Vaas is an incredible antagonist, we... love to hate him. But yeah he is just one of many, many characters but not all of the crazy character you meet will be antagonistic. Some of them are there just to help you.

So the story is told in a number of vignettes, and Jason moves through world of other characters when he’s trying to find his friends, so he’ll have to go to places that he doesn’t want to, sometimes he’ll have to be friends with people that he doesn’t want to be friends with or do things for them that he really doesn’t want to, but in the end he knows that there’s a friend waiting for him so he goes through with it. So it’s interesting to play with, you know, sometimes a bad guy is really a good guy, just dressed as a bad guy. You hate it, but you need to work with it, and not everyone is crazy like Vaas, he is his own specific brand of crazy, almost like a textbook sociopath. I can imagine Vaas as a child tortured kittens and mutilated animals and then moved onto humans.

But some of the kinds of crazy are different, like the doctor for example. He’s obviously a little bit crazy, but not like Vaas. He came to the island to escape from his past, and he’s just kind of removed from reality -- not in a way that’s going to hurt anyone else. He’s very welcoming of Jason and he helps Jason out a lot, and for a man in his situation on that island, becoming friends with Jason could have easily been the wrong decision to make, but he has this sort of naive innocence about him, he lives in his own psychotropic world most of the time. He’s definitely not like Vaas at all.

It was important for us that... if we’d filled the island with these bombastic sociopaths like Vaas, it would get very boring very, very quickly.

AG: In the demo you showed, after one of the melee kills there was an option to “Chain Takedown”, if you can perform combo takedowns on enemies, how many could you kill in a chain?

Mark: If you had all the enemies in the right spot, it would be limitless, which could be dangerous from a development point-of-view, but I mean it’s going to be hard to get in that sort of situation, and it’s all part of the skill-tree, so every time you successfully perform an action we reward you with XP, and then you can use that XP to buy skills. What’s cool about that from a story point-of-view is when you get XP, Jason gets XP and you reward Jason with skills. Because when Jason comes to the island, he has no skills, so you almost direct the kind of warrior Jason becomes. So if you’re a long-range guy, you’re going to choose the long-range skills.

AG: So there’s a skill-tree system in there?

Mark: Yeah, we have three branches and you can choose to go into one or be more of a generalist. And you saw Jason’s tattoo in the demo, well each new skill is a part of the tattoo, so basically at the end of the game, you and I would have different tattoos because we would [probably] choose different skills. What’s cool about first-person is we have lots of animations like climbing animations that show off the tattoo. So we try to really use that well.

We have those healing animations from Far Cry 2, you know, where you really had to dig the bullet out, and so with the tattoo and those animations you’re always reminded of your skills and it connects you to Jason.

AG: In Far Cry 2 one of the big things was the level editor, will we see a return to that? Mod-support for the PC community?

Mark: Yeah for sure. The map editor is back, and obviously we’ve improved it over the last three years, and it’s not just on PC it’s own other platforms, so if you want to do it on Xbox 360 or PS3, you can. What we’ve really focused on is, what a lot of other games with user-created content don’t do is manage it very well. They give this great tool to the community and then what they do is counter-intuitive, they give a 10-point Achievement for making the first map, and it’s cool that this system gets people into the editor, but then what they do is make their first map crappy, just to get that Achievement. And so the community is flooded with 100,000 maps that is just a flat piece of ground with a box in the middle. And you’ll go through a bunch of them and never find any of the good maps.

So what we’ve done is made a much more managed, tiered system. If you’re good at making maps, we’ll promote the maps. We have a Gold, Silver and Bronze rating system and a whole backend community of staff who will look after this stuff and make sure that the good maps get played by people and the bad maps get nowhere.

AG: Is there any difference between the map editor across all three platforms?

Mark: No, no, it’s just the user-input. We wanted to make it completely consistent across all three platforms. The tool itself is disappointingly good (laughs), sometimes I play with it and think that it’s better than the level editor we use internally, obviously it doesn’t have all the complexity of systems as our, but just in terms of usability on the controller, I can make a map in 10 minutes that it might take one of my guys half a day to do, I’m, like, “hey guys, you’re not making these maps very quickly” (laughs).

AG:So is the E3 demo running on Xbox 360 or PC?

Mark: So this year at E3 the single-player demo is running on PC, but on the show floor we have other content running on console as well.

AG: So with most first-person shooters, there’s always an aggressive amount of post-release content that’s touted, but I always feel they [developers] let themselves down because it’s usually multiplayer focused, and since you guys have such a heavy story-driven game, do you have plans to support it post-release with more single-player content, or when you actually get to the end of this game will it be a definitive end?

Mark: I really want to talk about the end of the game but...(sighs). Let me put it this way, it would be heartbreaking for me if we ended with Far Cry 3, because I think we’ve done something incredible with the brand, we’ve taken it in a very different direction and I hope we challenge what people’s expectations of what an FPS is and should be, and I would hate to leave that and not explore it more. Even if it’s not in the same place and the same characters, just that approach to the story; the core objective and the core narrative, embracing storytelling and not building a rigid dichotomy between open gameplay and directed narrative. Kind of bringing those two worlds together and telling people “yes it can work and it can be a lot of fun; you can still have an open world and powerful characters and directed experiences”.

So that at least for me is something we definitely need to continue.

AG: So is that a... (laughs) well will there be any post-release content?

Mark: We haven’t announced anything with post-launch content (smiles).

AG: Okay well we need to wrap it up there, but the game really does look great Mark and I can’t wait to play it.

Mark: You’re welcome.
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