OK, so firstly: Far Cry 3 spoilers ahead. Like, game-ruining spoilers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
You’ve changed, man
Character development is a weird thing. Watching a character change and grow over the course of a story can be a fundamental to a satisfying narrative arc; the immature rich kid becomes a principled man, the girl from the streets flowers into a strong, confident woman who doesn’t need to smoke, and so on.
There are plenty of books and films that gift/curse their characters with interesting (and sometimes even profound) changes, but far fewer games that do it with any success. I think that this is partly due to a lower standard of writing in games in general, but I think it’s also much harder to write believable character development into a story when the character is controlled by a player, ie you. Unless the story and characters are written well enough for the player to relate to them, the player herself experiences nothing of the change portrayed on screen.
And so to Far Cry 3 as an example. You play as Jason, a rich white kid on holiday with his friends on a tropical island. Jason is, to be fair, a bit of a dick. The holiday starts with some drinking, some parachuting and then some getting kidnapped by a gang of thugs. By the end of the game, Jason’s leading a bunch of tattooed natives in a civil war against an army of drug-dealing, slave-trading privateers.
The first half of the game is about rescuing your friends who are scattered around the island. As you brave gunfire and actual hot fire to save them you’re rewarded with cutscenes (in-game they’re presented as hallucinogen-induced freak-outs) which let you explore the relationship between Jason and his buddies. There’s Liza, Jason’s girlfriend – she’s concerned about what the hell Jason’s doing running around a jungle getting tattoos. There’s some blond guy who’s stoned all the time – he doesn’t really seem to mind what’s going on. And a girl called Daisy who fixes a boat. While none of them are really attention-grabbing, they’re certainly not hateful. They seem worried about Jason, and worried for their other friends and themselves; they generally just want to get off this pirate-infested island and go home.
Then the first half ends, and the story switches to being about “taking down” Hoyt Volker, psychotic head of the aforementioned privateers. Your friends don’t really appear again until right at the end (just after an unsatisfying QTE boss battle) when you’re suddenly asked whether you want to save your friends and escape the island… or kill them all and stay on the island forever.
These are the friends that you’ve been shooting up an entire island to save, that you’ve jumped off mountains and wrestled tigers for. Why the hell would I (and more to the point, why would Jason) want to slit their throats as part of a ritual sacrifice? The storyline in Far Cry is of Jason’s descent into madness, Lord of the Flies style, but it just doesn’t come across. There are one or two moments of introspection, but they’re quickly followed by Jason wahooing his way through a car chase, blowing people up with a grenade launcher and shouting “I gotta get me one of these!” as you torch a field of weed with a flamethrower.
It’s a shame, because that story sounds interesting: the idea of the rich white kid caught up in his own fantasies of power and heroism, charging in to save the locals and losing his mind in the process. If anything, Vaas – the big bad of part one – has a much more interesting story. First of all, he’s an excellent character. The animation, script and voice-acting work together really, really well and Vaas comes across as a believable, scary and completely bonkers bad guy. Then you learn that he’s not even in the meanest guy on the island; he’s kept on a leash by Hoyt, who “stole Vaas’ mind” according to Dennis, the local shaman. When you learn that Vaas, too, is a victim of Hoyt then you start to see him as more than just a bad dude with a good haircut – there’s a story there.
“Did I ever tell you the definition of insanity?”
I want to know more about Vaas, his history and his relationship with his equally bonkers sister Citra, whereas I don’t really care that much about Jason’s clubbing cutscenes where he starts a fight in some toilets. Jason’s descent into “madness” and submission to the island’s tribal mysteries is represented to the player with powerups: the deeper you go, the more cool stuff you can do. Purely on the level of play, it’s a good mechanic, but in storytelling terms it doesn’t work.
I’d love to make a game that the player can learn something from – and be able to recognise the changes in the character they play as changes in themselves too, so they can really get involved with the story rather than just observing it. Here’s a cool game as a slightly sideways example: Asphyx. It’s a cute little platform game with a twist: when your avatar is underwater, you have to hold your breath in real life. The player’s empathy and feelings of panic are real at running out of breath are real, not just something in the game. I wonder if there’s any way to do the same with character development and storytelling?