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.

DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

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