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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Has this physicist found the key to reality?

Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. So what to make of Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli?

Albert Einstein knew the truth. “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” However good we are at maths – or theoretical physics – our efforts to apply it to the real world are always going to mislead. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that reality is not what it seems – even when, like the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli, you’ve done the maths.

It is a lesson we could certainly learn from the history of science. Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. With the invention of the telescope, for instance, we found new structures in space; Jupiter’s moons and sunspots were just the beginning. The microscope took us the other way and showed us the fine structure of the biological world – creatures that looked uninteresting to the naked eye turned out to be intricate and delicate, with scales and hooks and other minute features. We also once thought that the atom lacked structure; today’s technology, such as the particle colliders at the Cern research centre in Geneva and Fermilab in the United States, have allowed us to prove just how wrong that idea was. At every technological turn, we have redefined the nature of reality.

Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the technology to take the next step. The present challenge to physicists seeking to discover how things really are is to investigate our environment on a scale known as the “Planck length”. Rovelli tries to convey just how small this is. Imagine, he says, a walnut magnified until it is the size of the universe. If we were to magnify the Planck length by that much, we still couldn’t see it. “Even after having been enormously magnified thus, it would still be a million times smaller than the actual walnut shell was before magnification,” he tells us.

We simply cannot probe the universe at these scales using current methods, because it would require a particle accelerator the size of a small galaxy. So – for now, at least – our search for the nature of reality is in the hands of the mathematicians and theorists. And, as Einstein would tell us, that is far from ideal.

That is also doubly true when theoretical physicists are working with two highly successful, but entirely incompatible, theories of how the universe works. The first is general relativity, developed by Einstein over 100 years ago. This describes the universe on cosmic scales, and utterly undermines our intuition. Rovelli describes Einstein’s work as providing “a phantasmagorical succession of predictions that resemble the delirious ravings of a madman but which have all turned out to be true”.

In relativity, time is a mischievous sprite: there is no such thing as a universe-wide “now”, and movement through space makes once-reliable measures such as length and time intervals stretch and squeeze like putty in Einstein’s hands. Space and time are no longer the plain stage on which our lives play out: they are curved, with a geometry that depends on the mass and energy in any particular region. Worse, this curvature determines our movements. Falling because of gravity is in fact falling because of curves in space and time. Gravity is not so much a force as a geometric state of the universe.

The other troublesome theory is quantum mechanics, which describes the subatomic world. It, too, is a century old, and it has proved just as disorienting as relativity. As Rovelli puts it, quantum mechanics “reveals to us that, the more we look at the detail of the world, the less constant it is. The world is not made up of tiny pebbles, it is a world of vibrations, a continuous fluctuation, a microscopic swarming of fleeting micro-events.”

But here is the most disturbing point. Both of these theories are right, in the sense that their predictions have been borne out in countless experiments. And both must be wrong, too. We know that because they contradict one another, and because each fails to take the other into account when trying to explain how the universe works. “The two pillars of 20th-century physics – general relativity and quantum mechanics – could not be more different from each other,” Rovelli writes. “A university student attending lectures on general relativity in the morning, and others on quantum mechanics in the afternoon, might be forgiven for concluding that his professors are fools, or that they haven’t talked to each other for at least a century.”

Physicists are aware of the embarrassment here. Hence the effort to unite relativity and quantum mechanics in a theory of “quantum gravity” that describes reality at the Planck scale. It is a daunting task that was the undoing of both Einstein and his quantum counterpart Erwin Schrödinger. The two men spent the last years of their working lives trying to solve this problem, but failed to make any headway. Today’s physicists have some new ideas and mathematical intuitions, but they may also be heading towards a dead end. Not that we’ll find out for sure any time soon. If the history of science offers us a second lesson, it is that scientific progress is unbearably slow.

In the first third of his book, Rovelli presents a fascinating dissection of the history of our search for reality. The mathematical cosmology of Ptolemy, in which the Earth stood at the centre of the universe and the other heavenly bodies revolved around it, ruled for a thousand years. It was unfairly deposed: the calculations based on Copernicus’s sun-centred model “did not work much better than those of Ptolemy; in fact, in the end, they turned out to work less well”, the author observes.

It was the telescope that pushed us forward. Johannes Kepler’s painstaking obser­vations opened the door to the novel laws that accurately and succinctly described the planets’ orbits around the sun. “We are now in 1600,” Rovelli tells his readers, “and for the first time, humanity finds out how to do something better than what was done in Alexandria more than a thousand years earlier.”

Not that his version of history is perfect. “Experimental science begins with Galileo,” Rovelli declares – but there are any number of Renaissance and pre-Renaissance figures who would baulk at that claim. In the 12th century the Islamic scholar al-Khazini published a book full of experiments that he had used to test the theories of mechanics. The man who helped Galileo achieve his first academic position, Guidobaldo del Monte, also carried out many experiments, and possibly taught Galileo the craft.

It’s a small misjudgement. More ­irritating is Rovelli’s dismissal of any path towards quantum gravity but his own, a theory known as “loop quantum gravity”. He spends the last third of the book on explaining this idea, which he considers the “most promising” of all the assaults on the true ­nature of reality. He does not mention that he is in a minority here.

Most physicists pursuing quantum gravity give a different approach – string theory – greater chance of success, or at least of bearing useful fruit. String theory suggests that all the forces and particles in nature are the result of strings of energy vibrating in different ways. It is an unproven (and perhaps unprovable) hypothesis, but its mathematical innovations are nonetheless seeding interesting developments in many different areas of physics.

However, Rovelli is not impressed. He summarily dismisses the whole idea, characterising its objectives as “premature, given
current knowledge”. It’s a somewhat unbecoming attitude, especially when we have just spent so many pages celebrating millennia of ambitious attempts to make sense of the universe. He also strikes a jarring note when he seems to revel in the Large Hadron Collider at Cern having found no evidence for “supersymmetry”, an important scaffold for string theory.

As readers of his bestselling Seven Brief Lessons on Physics will know, Rovelli writes with elegance, clarity and charm. This new book, too, is a joy to read, as well as being an intellectual feast. For all its laudable ambition, however, you and I are unlikely ever to learn the truth about quantum gravity. Future generations of scientists and writers will have the privilege of writing the history of this particular subject. With theory ranging so far ahead of experimental support, neither strings nor loops, nor any of our other attempts to define quantum gravity, are likely to be correct. Reality is far more elusive than it seems.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Reality Is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli. Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre is published by Allen Lane (255pp, £16.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood