Far Cry 4 is a game in which players can ride an elephant into a rhinoceros and then respawn to do it all again. It is, in other words, a cartoon where the conventional laws of physics do not apply.
However, problems arise when that cartoon is supposed to resemble something closer to reality.
Far Cry 4 is set in the fictional nation of Kyrat, based loosely on the mountainous regions of Nepal. The people, culture and vistas are supposed to read as authentic even while the narrative struggle does not. So while the gameplay – as well as the game’s primary selling point – is animated lunacy, the imagery will inevitably have more tangible resonance for many in the audience.
That divide proved combustible when the game’s cover was revealed. While fans of the franchise looked forward to exploring the game’s mountain terrain, critics were quick to identify the cover’s problematic use of racially charged imagery.
So is Far Cry 4 a harmless sandbox that merely provides players with a pretty playground in which to cause chaos? Or does the game trivialize the experiences of people who actually do live in that part of the world, mining their lives for cheap colonial tourism for primarily North American audiences?
As is so often the case, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Far Cry 4 is intended first and foremost as escapist entertainment.
“We chose to build Kyrat,” said Far Cry 4 Executive Producer Dan Hay. “It’s ours. It’s not logical, but there’s continuity.”
For the most part, that continuity is based on tone rather than consistency.
“The game is built to give you freedom, opportunity, and surprise. You have a clear idea of what you want to do, right up until a herd of deer runs in front of you and you find yourself doing something crazy,” said Hay. “The characters have to be like that. They have to be able to provide you an opportunity without saying that you have to follow it.”
“Don’t write a story for a character. Write the world and the people that are in it, and allow the player to choose.”
The approach is reflected in the game’s antagonist, Pagan Min, the despotic ruler of Kyrat. According to Hay, Min is like the emperor without clothes, a caricature so powerful that no one has dared to tell him ‘no’ for roughly twenty years. In order for Far Cry 4 to function as a sandbox – to exist as a place in which extreme violence is permissible – Kyrat has to be a world where someone like Pagan Min makes sense, as well as a world in which that same megalomaniac would allow the player character to run free just for a bit of sport. That internal logic – the idea that the player can do anything – is precisely what makes the game fun. That’s what gets people talking about the water cooler.
But there are always differing interpretations, and the fact that surface trappings such as the landscape and the religious iconography sometimes look real makes it easier to read other messages in the material. Ubisoft may wish to emphasize gameplay as entertainment, but it cannot control the reaction once the game goes public and critics – as well as those who may not regard the setting as fiction – may not be so forgiving.
“We owe it to ourselves to do our homework,” said Hay, admitting that the studio hadn’t done that homework at the start of development. “We started building the world and we had a cliché understanding of what it was.”
That changed after Ubisoft sent a team of developers to do research in Nepal.
“They called us back on the second day and went, ‘We got a problem,’” said Hay. “We built this world and they’re classical and traditional. We get over there and everybody’s wearing Angry Birds t-shirts and North Face jackets. We weren’t expecting that. It has evolved at the regular pace of life, and things from western culture come over and live there.”
In a way, the admission is telling. Ubisoft started making the game before doing the research, which would indicate that Ubisoft cared more about gameplay than it did about representation. That’s not to say that Ubisoft doesn’t care – the company sent out a field team and worked to correct its early misconceptions – but detractors will pick up on those priorities. The cover controversy is an extension of that self-made problem.
Then again, that controversy might have been inevitable because there’s an inherent tension between Far Cry’s gameplay goals and the aesthetic. As Hay’s response demonstrates, culture is not static. It is always shifting in response to external and internal influences.
The same is not true of Kyrat, where things have stayed the same during Pagan Min’s twenty years in office and where they will always stay the same because Far Cry 4 only chronicles one specific moment in time. That stasis is what makes the gameplay memorable. Kyrat is a canvas that the player is able to decorate. Every single anecdote represents something that the player has done to alter the game world in particularly spectacular fashion. The canvas cannot have any agency of its own in order for that to remain possible.
“We think about the game as a moment in time,” said Hay, explaining that linear objectives and narratives often don’t work within the exploration-driven sandbox of Far Cry 4. “There’s a map, and there are characters that live in little fiefdoms all over the place. You meet them and you can choose to engage them or you can choose to not.
“It’s not about saying this is the story that you must do in this order. It’s about laying out breadcrumbs, and making sure there are rabbit holes that you can go down.”
Since Kyrat is confined to a game disc and cut off from the rest of the world, Far Cry 4 will never be able to capture all the cultural nuance of the region because culture does not exist absent of time. Representation is similarly in flux, and the snapshot will always miss some of the detail.
The controversy surrounding Far Cry 4 simply demonstrates how difficult that negotiation can be. The same product will resonate differently with different groups of people, and game publishers would do well to be aware of those concerns at all stages of development.