How to create compelling videogame characters, by Far Cry 3's lead writer

"How the world reacts to your character tells you who you are," says Jeffrey Yolahem.

The latest contender in the crowded autumn/winter release schedule is Far Cry 3, an open-world FPS from Ubisoft, which comes out next week. I played Far Cry 2 back in 2008, and it was notable as a sequel which discarded much of its heritage and tried to do something new. Far Cry 3 isn't that beholden to its predecessors, either, and one of the key messages from the developers was that they wanted this to be a game which was self-aware. 

The Guardian's preview described it this way:

Quite why Jason [the protagonist] is suddenly so good at killing people is often questioned, and the unspoken answer to that question is that he's the lead character in an action game. Before the player arrived and took control, he wasn't, and as he meets his friends after he's come under new management (as it were) they note the change, and they're a little disturbed. Jason isn't behaving normally at all. Jason is a violent protagonist because you've made him into one, and the game isn't shy about telling you that.

...

Jason is given a flamethrower by a man who claims to be from the CIA but might just be a conspiracy nut with a lot of professional-looking equipment in his basement. He's told to go and burn down drug plantations to attract the attention of bigger, more important warlords to the island, so he does. As well as burning crops, the flamethrower burns people – groups of soldiers that might have posed a problem beforehand are now easy pickings, as Jason leaps out from cover and immolates whole squads of them.

Combat, always a careful combination of recon and timing, becomes far too easy and there's a jolt of pleasure in that because it's been so difficult beforehand. And then Jason says "Man, I fucking love this gun!" to no one in particular, and you realise that Jason's enjoying this as much as you are and you're playing a game while Jason is burning men to death in a drug-field.

That raises inevitable comparisons with Spec Ops: The Line, which disrupted the gleeful fun of most military FPSs with its inclusion of post-traumatic stress disorder (read Tom Bissell's excellent piece on it here), and points to an interesting avenue for shooters: irony and postmodernity.

Anyway, I wanted to talk a little bit more about the writing of Far Cry 3, and spoke to its lead writer Jeffrey Yohalem, who previously worked on the Assassin's Creed series. Here's an edited version of our chat.

How do you approach writing your characters?

I try to take a different line of thought with each character. I think of Lewis Carroll, and tried to take a bunch of things in society I wanted to talk about. So with Dr Earnhardt, the line is drugs, and escape through drugs. What would drive someone to do that?

How much of games writing is dictated by technical challenges?

That's what this game is all about - it's a game about videogames. Each Far Cry game is about darkness - our references are Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now, the Deer Hunter. But we wanted to take extreme versions of the ideas and characters in those, rather than the opposite. Take the CIA agent you meet - and yes, there's a CIA agent, the cliche lines run so deep. But we wanted to subvert it, make it something the player doesn't expect. So you're asked to think about why a CIA agent would take the time to talk to you when the world is ending. In this, players are talking about videogames, but without breaking the fourth wall. 

You can work within the limitations as long as you acknowledge them.

With such dark reference points, were you worried, therefore, about making it fun? Doesn't that undermine the message?

The answer is not punishing people: I'm thinking of those movies that make themselves a painful experience to watch. We didn't want to do that. 

Do you think the protagonist in an FPS should be a character in themselves, or a blank slate on to which the player can project him or herself?

In this game, Jason gets tattoos - that's a big part of it. And you can definitely use the gameplay and the game system to create emotions about your lead - look at those old adventure games like Cyberia or The Longest Journey.

And there are ways to create character without dialogue. Take Half-Life 2: you see the lead character takes the tram, he works in a laboratory; you see how people treat him - they are respectful to him. How the world reacts to your character tells you who you are.

FPS games don't tend to have the best record in having interesting female characters. Does that bother you?

I hope our female characters are complex - and when those female characters are treated sexually, it's subverted.

Why did you choose to be a games writer?

When I was little, I would play games. And the ones that were really good felt like someone else was in the room. I was friends with those videogames. But 99 per cent of games create no warmth - yet the one per cent that do (like Beyond Good and Evil, or Prince of Persia), are like having someone there. 

And I love how you experience games: not passively, like a book; but not in one session, like a movie. I love that I sleep between sessions of playing, and I find that I'm dreaming about it. 

A still from Far Cry 3.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit