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El33tonline Interview: Far Cry 3′s Robert Purdy on pleasing the fans, interesting choices and the magic of freedom

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The next entry to the outstanding Far Cry series of first-person action shooters is due for launch in November and December around the world, so there’s not long to wait until we get to experience Ubisoft’s latest vision for the publisher’s jaw-dropping open-world franchise.

To get some further insight into the development of Far Cry 3 and learn about some of the game’s key features and focus points, as well as changes and improvements over Far Cry 2, El33tonline’s Oliver and Tom recently spoke with Far Cry 3’s cinematic director, Robert Purdy, for what turned out to be an incredibly fun, entertaining and eye-opening discussion.

Robert Purdy Interview Photo

Robert Purdy with El33tonline’s Tom

El33tonline:

Can you talk a bit about yourself and your history in game development.

Purdy:

My history is somewhat coloured. I didn’t start in games ‒ I trained as an animator and started in television. I worked on a children’s Saturday morning television show for a Canadian broadcaster and then I worked on a sci-fi series for a few years. And then I made the jump into games, I moved to Montreal and I worked for a smaller independent developer there for many years, until I went into film as an animator again.

Then I moved to Australia to get back into games ‒ I worked for Pandemic Studios.

El33tonline:

You did? Aw.

Purdy:

Yeah, I know. Pandemic was a great studio to work at and it was tough when it went down. But it was really disheartening with the whole games industry in Australia really taking a hit, but because of that I did a year at THQ after Pandemic, and that’s when I started to talk to Ubisoft about Far Cry 3.

So in total I’ve been in the entertainment industry for: uh, we’re almost going on fourteen, fifteen years, and I’ve had various roles. It’s been predominantly character animation and character development that I’ve done. I’ve done compositing and effects and things like that, and modelling, but I’ve always been really passionate about character development and acting, and I’m a big cinema fan watching lots of movies.

The next biggest title I’ve worked on, after Far Cry 3, I worked on the cinematics of Halo 3 which was a pleasure. That was a fun project.

Halo 3 Master Chief

Halo 3 (2007)

El33tonline:

During the development of Far Cry 3, the lessons learned from Far Cry 2 must have been discussed. The game director for Far Cry 2, Clint Hocking, is seen as a game development hero in game journalism circles because of his attempts to push boundaries in big budget games, but Far Cry 3 seems to take a different direction to Far Cry 2.

With a new setting and direction, what did you want to bring into Far Cry 3 thanks to these lessons from the development of the franchise?

Purdy:

At the core of it, when we’re trying to learn lessons, we do listen to the fans. I know it’s probably something that many developers say, but it really is true. Far Cry 1 was a pretty successful game and many people liked it, and Far Cry 2 I think was a great game, but it polarised some of the market. So we wanted to see how we could remain true to both fans of the first and second games, and maybe take a chance to address some of the things that maybe weren’t as well received.

I can’t speak to Clint’s vision, but when I came on to Far Cry I saw the franchise ‒ I remember when Far Cry 2 was released I thought “Wow, this is amazing,” because I remembered the first Far Cry with the lush tropical setting, and then the first images we saw of Far Cry 2 in the savannah I just thought, “Wow!” I got really excited because [Ubisoft] was really taking a creative chance, and it really made me think.

Far Cry 2 Screenshot 2

Far Cry 2 (2008)

When Far Cry 1 came out, I wasn’t at Ubisoft but I was a fan of it, I just thought “It’s a cool game, I like it,” and before Far Cry 2 I hadn’t really given the franchise a lot of thought, but when they made this big creative departure, it piqued my interest in Far Cry in general.

So when I was talking to Ubisoft about coming on for Far Cry 3, the thing that Far Cry held for me, and this a personal thing, is that it really is a franchise to explore not just one person’s journey from point to point, but rather exploring what happens when you take somebody and you put them (for lack of a better term) ‘a far cry’ away from what they know, or from civilisation. So you can go almost anywhere with that, you can tell almost any story, and anybody’s story.

I think this is what is at the core of the franchise, for me, and that means we’re not tied to one protagonist. That’s the way I see it, the Far Cry franchise is really exciting to me because we can do that.

Far Cry 3 Screenshot 3

Far Cry 3 (2012)

El33tonline:

You mentioned trying to please both Far Cry and Far Cry 2 fans ‒ there’s been this thing with Resident Evil 6 now, where they’ve tried a similar route and the developers have taken flack for it because they’ve watered down the franchise to the point where it doesn’t appeal to horror fans or action fans, it’s kind of a middle of the road game. It’s a difficult line to walk.

Purdy:

It is a difficult line to walk, because in any creative industry be it games, television, movies or whatever, if you find a visionary director or creative director, that’s usually when you get your best results. It’s when you try to aim for middle of the road that things tend to fall flat.

What we’ve tried to do with Far Cry 3 is, we’ve definitely wanted to listen to the fans, but it could never be the only thing that dictated what we wanted to do, because to me that’s a very, very slippery slope to go on. We knew we wanted to take a very strong stance and the narrative that we wanted to tell, for example, is one of those strong stances. We’ve really rallied behind it and you get flack for that sometimes. You get fans who want a ‘Gordon Freeman’ ‒ “I don’t want him to talk because it’s me, the player.”

You may never please everybody, but I think personally that if you take a decision and stick by it, you won’t please everybody but at least you made a decision because there’s nothing more debilitating if you won’t decide anything, and then you get this grey area of being less entertaining.

El33tonline:

So you do believe in developer authorship, then? Of course you listen to the fans but sometimes the fans are wrong. “Give me an open world: but this is too open. Give me hundreds of weapons: there are too many weapons.” They don’t really know what they want:

Purdy:

Yeah, or “Give me hundreds of weapons” and then you find the one you like and play with it the whole time!

There’s a great saying: “Too much choice is debilitating.” I truly believe in that. If you walked into a supermarket and there were thirty types of peanut butter: I don’t know if peanut butter is something you guys have?

El33tonline:

Of course!

Purdy:

OK good! Australia doesn’t really know it. I lived in Australia for many years and it’s not a big thing.

El33tonline:

Weird.

Purdy:

So if I go to the supermarket and there are thirty choices of peanut butter, I think “Oh, which one should I take?” But if I went there and had two choices, I’ll just say “Ah, I’ll just take that one.” I’m not saying that’s what you should do, but you have to balance that. I always equate it to something like film. Film and videogames are so different in that the player has an active role in participating in the overall narrative and the overall experience, whereas in cinema you’re kind of removed, but still certain things apply.

For the experience you want to get, you still need somebody else to make a decision and say that they’re going to do their best work to get you to feel ‘this.’ Or make you ask questions about ‘this.’ I would never go to Steven Spielberg and say, “You know Steven, listen, I think you were way off on Jurassic Park, in the next one can you put space ships in it?” Well, that’s George Lucas’ job.

El33tonline:

Yeah, “Saving Private Ryan: what about space? Take them to space.”

Purdy:

Yeah, it would have been much better. [laughs]

Far Cry 3 Screenshot 4

Far Cry 3 (2012)

El33tonline:

What was the decision to go back to a tropical setting for Far Cry 3? In Far Cry 2, the setting of Africa acted as an isolated environment and worked well, and while ‘the tundra’ wouldn’t really make an interesting setting for a game like this, there are other areas that would work well. Why go back to an island?

Purdy:

I guess it was borne out of the story that we wanted to tell and because it fit with the story that we wanted to tell. Our protagonist is not like a ‘Spec Ops’ or a trained military soldier or anything like that, but we knew early on that our core mechanic is shooting. You’re going to spend a lot of time in this game with a gun in your hand, shooting people. We didn’t want to gloss over that.

What we wanted to do was explore the toll that it takes on a person’s mind if they were not a killer. They’re familiar with guns, [protagonist] Jason is familiar with guns in the same way I’m familiar with guns. I grew up in a hunting culture so I’ve held rifles, I’ve reloaded them, I’ve shot them: I’ve never killed anybody, I’ve never pointed it at a human.

El33tonline:

So you say:

Purdy:

Yeah, so I say! Big scoop for you guys “You killed someone!” [laughs]

So basically we wanted to explore the idea of, what if you took a person who was not a killer and you forced him to be a killer so he could save himself and his friends? When we knew we wanted to do that, and make the first-person shooting part of the narrative, we then thought that we didn’t really want ‘the Spec Ops guy’ because they’re trained to not really think about the killing, just to make it automatic ‒ rightly so because that’s what they do for a living.

So we thought that we wanted a young person [as our protagonist] so we can set it up as a ‘coming of age’ story. We had a young guy and thought about what it was like when we were that age, where back-packing was a big thing. So it kind of snowballed into: It’s Jason and a group of his friends who were back-packing. And then we looked at some typical back-packing places in the world ‒ something somebody can relate to. South-East Asia, Thailand, all of these places. I went through Central America, which is still similar, it’s all lush. That’s where it all started.

Far Cry 3 Screenshot 1

Far Cry 3 (2012)

Then when we looked into it, we thought that an island works, narratively, really well because it can be secluded and cut off from society. As I know from living in Australia, although it’s amazing and a modern society and they have everything they really need, you feel the seclusion there. It’s a long way to everything.

So [for Far Cry 3] the island worked narratively and visually ‒ you can get to the end of the island and then look out and realise that you’re trapped. So this is really what motivated us to go with the island setting.

El33tonline:

As you mentioned, the main character isn’t really familiar with military tactics ‒ how is that borne out in the story and the gameplay? Is he a bit shaky to begin with? I know that’s frustrating for the player, but:

Purdy:

That’s another fine line, when you don’t want to start messing with your core mechanic. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of exploring different areas, exploring different mechanics or feelings, but it’s a fine line.

What we really tried to do is, especially through Jason’s dialogue and confidence, is reflect how he feels, but we do take the stand that: it’s not like he’s never held a gun. He’s not necessarily unfamiliar with guns mechanically, it’s just that pointing them at people and shooting them is a really big issue.

[In the story of Far Cry 3] luckily Jason escapes from [antagonist] Vaas and is taken in by a warrior tribe that’s lead by Citra. And they see something, a strength in Jason because he’s managed to escape what many other people haven’t been able to escape, so they see this as a turning of the tide and they teach him how to become a warrior of the tribe ‒ this is his progression to becoming a man.

El33tonline:

There’s a very strong theme in Far Cry 3 where, you’re in this beautiful setting, but then there’s an underlying ugliness and madness and insanity creeping through ‒ what literature or movies did you use as inspiration for this, or was it simply borne out of the setting and your narrative goals?

Purdy:

Things that I draw off of are things like Lord of the Flies ‒ this is an amazing story because you have, basically, some very privileged kids who get into a situation where there are no rules and quite quickly their society begins to deteriorate. I think as humans we all want to see the good in the world, but sadly there are a lot of beautiful things where there is a very dark undercurrent. We all carry demons, we’ve all had experiences that affect us in different ways.

Far Cry 3 Screenshot 2

Far Cry 3 (2012)

I think another reason why the island was a nice setting is because, as a Canadian living in the north where it’s not all snow, we do get Summers, but when you look at a tropical island you think “Oh my, that’s the most beautiful thing in the world!” But I remember the first time I went down south to what was pretty much a third world country, and it was beautiful, but when you got closer you saw some of the decay. From a high level, it all looks pristine, but when you really delve into it, there’s dirt and there’s grit.

I think humans are like that. For good or for bad, not everybody’s evil but if you sit and talk with somebody for a while you’ll find out that even an extremely happy person can have dark parts to them, and I think that’s interesting, socially.

El33tonline:

The very first video we ever saw of Far Cry 3, with Vaas talking about insanity ‒ that voice acting, even back then, was a step above the rest. What kind of focus have you put on the characters and the voice acting of the game – lip-syncing, facial expression, that kind of thing ‒ to really drive the characters forward?

Purdy:

As the cinematics director this is what my main role was, I guess, and we put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into it. Early on with the creative director, at one point we had thrown around the idea of telling the story in more of a traditional cinema style with third-person cameras, where I could give you a close-up, I can go wide and I can edit ‒ edit is a huge tool to a director because you can set the pace of the scene and make people feel a certain way just because of the way you edit shots together.

But then, because we wanted to go inside the mind of Jason and ‘see’ through him, we decided to stay first person point of view, which took a huge bag of tools out of digital story-telling. But what it did was that it meant that we had to focus on the people that Jason interacts with. I knew that we had to go really, really deep into making them credible, interesting. A two minute scene can quickly feel like a five minute scene, simply because I can’t cut away.

It was daunting, it was a tough thing. This was probably one of the toughest things we did, story-telling-wise, because it’s really tough to keep people engaged.

The Vaas monologue speech ‒ I hold it really dear to my heart because it was our first test.

Far Cry 3 Screenshot 3

Far Cry 3 (2012)

El33tonline:

It’s very powerful. “The definition of insanity” ‒ I’ve heard that phrase all over the place since the video.

Purdy:

I can give you a little story on that. I love it, I could talk about it all the time. When we were developing the pipeline for our cinematics, Ubisoft had this technology for full performance capture, and this was the first time I had seen that technology in a studio – the previous studio I was at didn’t have it ‒ so I started to look into it and I thought, as an animator, this could be a great pipeline for animation.

So what happened was, we were casting for another character, and this character was, like, a six foot four, 300 pound brute.

El33tonline:

A traditional kind of enemy.

Purdy:

Right. So we cast, and we got the casting videos back and we were looking, and pretty much everybody felt: “OK, this guy’s pretty good, this guy’s pretty good.”

And then we got to this one guy, where we just thought “Whoa, man! That’s amazing!” But he wasn’t the character ‒ he didn’t fit at all, no way! And that was Michael Mando, the guy who now plays Vaas. So what happened was, we responded so well to it that we met with Michael and said, “Look, you are not right for this part at all, but, we really like your audition and we want to develop a character with you.”

So then we got concept involved and so on, and I basically wanted to test the [animation] pipeline, so I sat with our writer, Lucien [Soulban], and I asked him if he could write a small monologue piece so we could test this scene. So, again, I think Lucien was a bit frustrated for some reason, I don’t know, if it was life related or job related, whatever, but I came in the next day and he handed me this script, and I read it, and thought “Oh wow, this is really solid material!” And I went to him and said “Lucien, it sounds like you wrote from your soul here,” and just said “Yeah, it kind of poured out of me.”

Far Cry 3 Screenshot 1

Far Cry 3 (2012)

So then we booked a time in the motion capture studio and went through it. We rehearsed it a few times and: basically my approach as a director is, I have a very clear idea of what I want when I read it, but I’m looking for the right intent and emotion. As long as the main story points are getting hit, I’m happy. What I’m not looking for is, I don’t need the actor to say the exact words that are on the page. I’m sorry writers everywhere: I let Michael have a bit of freedom, which is amazing.

If people are invested and you give them a window to express their own creativity, I would say that 100 percent of the time, you will get a way better result [from the actor]. So when we had done this and we had shot the ‘insanity’ thing, I had done the polish on the animation, because I’m an animator ‒ now it’s changed, I’ve put someone else on that for the final game ‒ but we sent it out, we said “Look, this is what we did.”

And people in the studio started to respond to it and it gained momentum: and it was exciting because we were really trying to engage everybody, and we took that model as the benchmark to go forward. We always wanted our script writers to be:

El33tonline:

Depressed.

Purdy:

[Laughs]. Yeah, yeah!

El33tonline:

Just to be very depressed.

Purdy:

[Laughs] Yeah, we just started torturing them and: [laughs]

No, no. We tried to as much as we could ‒ and this goes into the animation side of it, I tried to let my animators have as much freedom as I can too, because everybody’s going to give you better work when they’re able to put a bit of themselves in it. The actors love that freedom, too. It’s amazing. So we just took that model

Me as a director, I’m just there to, hopefully, push certain things, and don’t worry I’ll make a decision, I’ll say “No, can we do it this way?” But when I can, it’s amazing to sit there, and when Michael did the first few takes I was amazed, I was like a kid! There was some stuff there that I couldn’t have envisioned! And if you don’t let an actor or a writer invest in it, you’re never going to get that magic. I have a hundred other stories of casting things I wish we had the time to talk about.

Far Cry 3 Screenshot 1

Far Cry 3 (2012)

El33tonline:

Again, back to Far Cry 2, there was a vaccine that you had to use regularly, and that reminded you of your surroundings and situation, and it acted as a mechanic to drive you forward.

Is there anything like that in Far Cry 3, where it’s always reminding you? Obviously the setting itself, and the people shooting at you, and the wildlife, but is there anything that reminds you that, yes, you’re in this really intense situation?

Purdy:

There’s nothing like the malaria thing [from Far Cry 2]. For better or worse, I don’t know how people responded to it, but I thought the malaria aspect in Far Cry 2 was an interesting thing because it really was something that was a concern in that part of the world. Even when I travelled to Central America, hepatitis and malaria were things that I really had to be wary about. So for better or worse, I thought it was a really nice choice to put that in [Far Cry 2].

We don’t have anything as prominent as that [in Far Cry 3], but we’ve done a lot of work to hopefully make the animals, the wildlife make you feel that you’re in danger. And it filters back into the narrative because you’re going to see animals in Far Cry 3 that are not native to the island, which will make you think “Wait a minute:”

Far Cry 3 Screenshot 1

Far Cry 3 (2012)

But the thing is that, Vaas and the pirates are not only into prostitution and drugs and human trafficking, but also exotic animal trafficking. I think people in South Africa can relate to that with the rhino trade going on. It’s something that generates huge money and it’s ‘a thing.’ So that’s why those animals can exist on the island in a somewhat plausible way. When you go out into the world for the first time in Far Cry 3 ‒ it’s a dangerous place! You haven’t done anything to update your skills, you don’t have much, so if you run across a tiger at the beginning of the game: you might want to run, rather than take it on.

El33tonline:

Can you talk about some of the vehicles that players can look forward to in the game’s open world setting?

Purdy:

We have jet skis, hang gliders, a type of boat ‒ one of the boats has a mounted machinegun on it, which is handy ‒ but there are also 4x4s, cars. There’s quite a range of vehicles. There are bigger trucks, which are fun to take through if the pirates are trying to block the road, kind of like driving a tank. It’s really fun.

We’ve also put in a fast-travel system, because not everyone wants to drive from place to place. The island that we’re showing is only a fraction of the whole world. You can get lost in the world and it can take time to get around, so for the people we’ve put fast-travel in as a solution.

And we tied fast-travel into the narrative. If you take an outpost that’s occupied by pirates, your island warriors then occupy that post so it becomes a safe haven and fast-travel location for you.

Far Cry 3 Screenshot 1

Far Cry 3 (2012)

El33tonline:

And we can touch on that ‒ the outposts. Again, in Far Cry 2, lots of people had issues with the guards that just kept respawning at each of the outposts as you pass them. You take them out, off you go, but if you came back to the same outpost five minutes later, there are guards there again.

So you say the warriors will take that outpost and it’s then safe for you?

Purdy:

Yeah, we were very aware of the feedback on the outposts. [Laughs] So this is one of those things where we really paid attention to the fans. Gone is the respawning of those posts. We’ve also taken out the weapon-jamming, and stuff like that, which again I thought was a very interesting choice for Far Cry 2, because a huge part of military life is keeping your equipment clean ‒ if it jams when you need it most you’re in trouble.

Again, that was a polar thing in Far Cry 2, and we chose to remove it [for Far Cry 3] because it didn’t really have a benefit to our story. We tried to drive everything with story as much as we could, or with the lore of what the Rook Island life is like, which is not necessarily the singleplayer storyline.

El33tonline:

Do you have anything else you would like us to know about Far Cry 3, to take away with us?

Purdy:

Sure ‒ as a commercial artist, there are going to be lots of different projects that you work on just to pay the bills, that you’re not necessarily ‘proud of.’ You’re happy that you worked on it, of course, and you know people are going to enjoy it when it’s released, but it’s a slog.

But when a project comes along that you truly believe in, that’s a gift, and Far Cry 3 is that project for me, and Halo 3 was a bit of that as well. But with Far Cry 3, it’s a labour of love, we’ve had a lot of really talented people who have put a lot of hard work into it, and we’re very proud of it, so I hope people will enjoy it as much as we do.

In closing: Go hunting, the animals are great! I’m a creature animator at heart, I got into the business because of Jurassic Park. I said “I have to know how they did that,” so when I’m not doing what I’m doing here, if I work at home or do animations at home, it’s usually creature stuff, so the animals are dear to my heart in this game. They’re also fun to hunt and explore.

Far Cry 3 Screenshot 4

Far Cry 3 (2012)

Thanks to Robert Purdy for being so generous with his time and behind-the-scenes tales!

We’re greatly looking forward to the release of Far Cry 3 – it’s out across Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC on November 29th in European territories, November 30th in the UK and South Africa, and then on December 4th in the US.

Catch El33tonline’s previous coverage of Far Cry 3, and be sure to read our recent hands-on preview.


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