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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.

A still from Far Cry 3.
A still from Far Cry 3.

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.