The argument that cutscenes are dead as a narrative form in games has been spread far and wide. The sense that we must push the medium toward a form of interactive narrative that is as strong and vital as the innovations in other areas of gameplay and technology has taken hold with many creators.
Here, Patrick Redding details for Gamasutra the work that he has been doing as narrative designer on Ubisoft Montreal's Far Cry 2, which is due out later this year for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC, describing how he and other members of the team have chosen to design the game for fully interactive, player-influenced narrative.
He discusses the bold change from the previous Far Cry games on console, which he was involved with, and a move which he believes will draw a line in the sand for the industry's movement toward fully interactive narrative.
[For more on the team-structure decisions and code-sharing ethos behind the title, which follows up the Crytek-designed original and is an open-ended action title set in an African landscape, see Gamasutra's recent interview with engineering director Dominic Guay.]
Chris Remo: With what you're doing as narrative designer, I was wondering if you could just start off with an overview, because the systems you're trying to work out are really interesting.
Patrick Redding: To kind of put it into context of Far Cry 2 - what does it mean to do narrative design? What is the function of a narrative designer on a large, open-world, highly-systemic game like Far Cry 2? I mean, really, my job is to kind of enforce the notion that the most important story in any game, honestly, is the story that the player can actually play, and can actually determine the course of through his low, mid, and high-level actions and choices.
And that in a highly open-world environment where one of the major pillars of the player experience is freedom, it becomes all the more difficult to sort of try to retain some kind of authorial control over the way the narrative progresses. And it's interesting, because even at his keynote at GDC, Ken Levine was talking a lot about the importance of shifting to more of a pull-based narrative structure, and BioShock is relatively linear, and it's still an important idea there.
Well, imagine in a game like Far Cry 2 where we don't know where the player is, we don't know what direction he's traveling in, he literally could have assassinated one of the main characters during the last mission. All of these elements end up making the way the story unfolds potentially extremely dynamic.
And if we had tried to not support that dynamic approach, what we would have ended up with is a story that really felt like it was kind of progressing along more or less independently of player action, as though the player couldn't really have any ability to affect its outcome. And we felt there was no point in doing that.
We felt like if we were going to bother to support - pretend like we were supporting - some kind of narrative component to the game, that we really needed to make sure it was a systemic narrative, what we call "dynamic story architecture", which takes large banks of content, chops it up into very, very small pieces, and then allows the systems to kind of deliver those pieces in a way that reflects the current state of the game's world.
And that sounds like a complicated thing, and sometimes it's insanely complicated, but there's kind of a simple underlying idea there, which is that rather than having an enormous tree of dialog, or a huge branching structure, where basically we can guarantee that a typical player only ever sees ten percent of what we've created, why don't we instead try to pick the right pieces?
Figure out the right way to break content down, for a dialogue, or for an animation, or for a scripted event, so that we can reuse as much of that content as possible and make sure that it can be used in lots of different locations with lots of different NPCs. And that's really the nuts and bolts of it. That's mechanically how we have to do it.
That means you need a game designer working at a dedicated role on the game design team, who's focusing just on that, who's really not principally concerned with whether the guns are balanced, or whether the vehicles are driving properly. And at the same time on the level design side isn't primarily there just to kind of help concoct missions, but is really there to try to make sure that every time the player feels like they ought to have a say in the way things are unfolding, that there's some system that supports it.
I was fortunate enough that [lead designer] Clint [Hocking] and the other leads and the technical director on the project decided that this was a priority. They were able to sell that internally at Ubisoft as being a priority in order to make an open world shooter work. And so I was brought in early enough that we were able to try to make that happen.
Ubisoft Montreal's Far Cry 2
CR: You've spoken about your game, about the underlying metaphor, the kind of journey-into-the-darkness, Heart of Darkness, Conrad-influenced narrative, and all that. Presumably you've at some level you've got something underneath that drives the player along a narrative arc, or toward some kind of climax.
PR: Yeah. And it's thematic. What I've often said, and you may have - I know you've heard my talk at GDC, I mentioned this a few times - it's like I feel as though it's important to differentiate between the premise of the game, and then the story which is ultimately the thing that unfolds as a result of player input.
And to me the story is an output. And what we can say is we have a target for that output. We want the story to be about certain themes, and so what we try to do is pick a premise that supports that, and then also pick mechanics that support that. So it's about both data and programming, basically, if you want to think of it in kind of computer science terms.
So when we say, yeah, we want to make a game that's about one man's journey down the proverbial river into the heart of darkness, into the mind of a madman, what are the things that we can put in the game, what are the ingredients we can put in the game that support that? What are the kinds of characters, the kinds of environments that we want to try to create that will help support that?
Ultimately at a certain point we have to be willing to let those things go and kind of give control over those things to the player. But I think one of the things we did is we said, "Well, one kind of overriding question we want the player to be asking themselves is, 'How far are you willing to go in order to do the right thing?'" In other words, how much bad stuff are you willing to do, how much of your soul are you willing to sacrifice, in the pursuit of a larger good?
And it's important to say that we're not trying to take a position on that. We're not trying to say, "Oh, the trouble with people today is they're not willing to do really terrible, evil, monstrous things in order to accomplish the greater good." This isn't like some neocon wet dream, right? The idea is that we don't pretend like we know the answer.
We just say, let's take the player as close as we can - or an analog of the player - put him into this really, really difficult position, a terrible situation that probably most of us would like to avoid if we could, and try to get him to make decisions in a way that will help him survive, that will help him pursue his larger goals, that will allow him to potentially change those larger goals if he decides that he doesn't believe in them anymore, and to be able to deal with characters and situations on a case by case basis. In other words, give him the freedom to fuck up, give him the freedom to have a moment of triumph, or a moment of weakness, or moments of regret.
These are all things that we try to let the player do, but since we can't know what's in the player's heart, we can't know what the player's thinking - and hell, maybe 80% of our players are just like, "Yes, this is great fun! I'm blowing stuff up and burning things." Maybe only a small piece of that message gets though. And if that's the case, that's fine. We've still built a really good shooter. But what we're saying is, for that percentage of gamers who are affected by these things, and who think about these things, we want it to be there.