The lead writer of Far Cry 3 talks about creating a first-person shooter inspired by Lena Dunam, Jonathan Franzen, and Apocalypse Now.
Every year, a spate of blockbuster first-person shooters released throughout November and December fan the holiday shopping flame. This inevitably gives new oxygen to the debate about the nature of violence in video games and the pleasure we draw from performing unspeakable acts, and the shooting in Newtown only raise the stakes of that debate.
Jeffrey Yohalem, the lead writer for Ubisoft's Far Cry 3, is less interested in using video games to explore real-world conflict than he is in telling the story of our current lost generation that has escaped behind its screens. I caught up with Yohalem shortly before the North American launch of Far Cry 3 to talk about his inspirations for his latest work, and the merits of using video games to question our relationship with video games.
So you used to work on The Daily Show, which seems theoretically like such a different experience than working on Far Cry 3.
The heart is in the same place actually. The Daily Show tackles issues that they felt weren't being tackled in the news at the time. They did it by being a "fake news organization," but more real than The Onion, say, which is a satire. The Daily Show walked the line between satire and real news.
Yeah, it's able to ask questions in a way that quote-unquote "proper journalists" wouldn't deem appropriate.
Exactly. And Far Cry 3 walks the line between satire and a real game in the same way.
Is it a satire of the shooter genre?
It's not a satire, because for me satire is ironically keeping yourself distant from immersion. But I think it walks the line between those; it's a meta-commentary of video-games. So it's talking about not just shooters, but video games as a whole, and what we've turned a blind eye to in video-games. Video games have all these tropes that they use again and again because they're easy to design for. I tried to do something where we take those tropes and we subvert them so that they become revealed. We're revealing what's weird about these tropes, and also we're trying to explore them from a fresh perspective.
A concept that comes up a lot for military-ish shooters is realism. But did you not have in mind a realistic experience with Far Cry 3?
Not at all, and I'm trying to use the unsettlement of it not being realistic. It's walking the line between realism and something more fantastical like Bioshock. I don't know if you've seen the film A History of Violence?
Cronenberg for me is commenting on violence in film. There are a lot of elements in the plot that are fantastical and don't really work if you treat the film as a realistic drama. But the minute you see that the point of the elements is to call attention to the silliness of other plots, then you feel like: Why is he doing that?
So the same thing is true of Far Cry 3. If you approach it as a realistic shooter, there's a lot in there that will end up disturbing you and that's intentional.
So what's a particular instance where you're trying to do that?
Well for instance there's a torture scene in Far Cry 3 that is trying to call to attention to how strange and unsettling torture scenes in video games are. The context of that torture scene in Far Cry is meant to really shock the player in a way that other torture scenes in games try to make the player feel comfortable with torture. We're trying to do the opposite. The use of sex and violence in the game is similarly calling attention to appropriate and inappropriate uses of those things.
What games are you referencing when you say that video games make you feel comfortable with torture? Is it that kind of Black Ops moment where you're shoving glass into a man's face, something like that?
Usually it's on a less extreme level, because they want you to feel comfortable. Any game that involves interrogation techniques, or beating someone up so you can get information, those games are all about the excitement of forcing someone else through violence to tell you something. In Far Cry we try to change that experience because the person that you're trying to get information from is someone that you actually feel very uncomfortable doing it with.
I hadn't even thought about that. Have you played the new XCOM at all?
One of the things you can do is capture aliens alive—which is very difficult to pull off—but then there's just an "interrogate the alien" button, which is a routine gesture in your base management.
It sounds like you're saying that they gloss over this idea because it's a gameplay tool. And so the whole thing that we try to do with Far Cry 3 is: There are all these mechanics that have been created in video games and they give the meaning of what the story should be about. I'm turning the lens back on the mechanics themselves and saying, "What do these mechanics make you feel?" The point of the story is to utilize that mechanic to convey a meaning. The game is about what the player is doing, the acting that the player performs in the game through all the mechanics. It's not about the player just doing a bunch of things like killing.
At the beginning of the game, your character is very shocked by the violence he is performing. But then at a certain point—I don't know if I'd say you have to become more comfortable with it, but you have to at least get accustomed to the behaviors that you're going to be doing to complete the game. I saw that as a way to try to get around that issue of likable human protagonists also being mass murderers. Was that how you tried to situate the origin story for this character?
I wanted that to be a positive thing rather than a negative thing. Creativity is about operating within constraints, and so gameplay is the constraint that the story should operate in. A lot of writers don't actually take that constraint. They just say, "Oh I'm going to tell whatever story I want and not pay attention to the gameplay." That's where ludonarrative dissonance comes from. In this case, I know what this game is about. So that moment of Jason being an ordinary person who then has to do this stuff, if he gets good at it quickly it's because the player is already good at it. If the player is bad at it, then he becomes good at it slowly. So it's really about how good the player is, and that's the point. If the player is a really seasoned first-person shooter player, then I hope that players who feel like Jason becomes good really quickly say, "That's interesting because maybe I'm pretty good at killing in video-games. And what does that say about me?"