Far Cry 6 and its standalone expansion, Lost Between Worlds, tell stories of revolution and emotional development, respectively. They also both presented new opportunities for what Far Cry could become, which pushed the narrative team at Ubisoft Toronto to reinvent the franchise’s classic narrative structure to meet those opportunities. Writing a compelling narrative of a revolution set in a nonlinear open world presented as many challenges as developing the emotional journey of Lost Between Worlds’ extraterrestrial being. How the team identified and tackled these challenges – and the hurdles of telling a story without a main character in Watch Dogs: Legion – was the topic of a recent game-narrative summit, AAA-TYPICAL: Character and Story Arcs in Open Gameplay Structures, presented by Lead Writer Heli Kennedy and Narrative Designer Brendan Hennessy at the 2023 Game Developers Conference.
Far Cry 6
In Far Cry 6 players take on the role of Dani, a former soldier trying to flee the authoritarian rule of dictator Antón Castillo. Along the way, Dani encounters the rebel group Libertad, and reluctantly joins their ranks before recruiting allies to their cause and eventually overthrowing Castillo. This presented the narrative team with a few challenges: First, Dani starts the game as a civilian, and needed to become a guerrilla hero. How is that evolution portrayed when the player can tackle missions in any order they like? Second, the world itself needed to tell a story, and the island nation of Yara needed to come across as a country in the middle of a revolution. Third, Antón and his son Diego needed to be present in the story, and Dani’s actions needed to impact them. However, since Dani begins the game as a civilian, it didn’t make sense that they would encounter the dictator frequently. So how could the narrative showcase the Castillos without making them cross paths with Dani?
To address these problems, the narrative team had to fundamentally change the cinematic language of Far Cry. Consider how Far Cry has historically portrayed its story: through the first-person perspective of the protagonist. Far Cry protagonists have never been the most loquacious characters – Far Cry 5’s deputy doesn’t speak at all. If Dani was going to evolve from civilian to revolutionary, players would need to get to know their opinions, beliefs, relationships, and more. Players didn’t just need to hear the hero speak; they needed to see Dani as well. “[The third-person cinematics] helped us establish Dani as a Yaran within the revolution,” said Kennedy.
The third-person camera also allowed the team to utilize another new narrative tool: Cutaways. “Because we weren’t locked into a first-person perspective, it didn’t feel so strange to occasionally cut away from Dani’s story entirely,” said Kennedy. This meant that the storyline could jump into Castillo’s life without needing Dani present, allowing players to be a fly on the wall in Castillo’s quarters and see how their actions affected him.
While the shift to third-person cinematics helped to establish both Dani and Castillo, they didn’t help when it came to navigating story cohesion and clarity in the massive open world of Yara. After a brief opening, all players begin their journey on Isla Santuario, a small island that serves as Far Cry 6’s tutorial. There, players are introduced to Clara Garcia, the leader of Libertad, and witness Dani’s “answering the call” moment – the part in the story where the hero puts aside their selfish wants and takes up the cause for the greater good. But from that point on, it’s up to players to choose how they want to proceed. Do they head the western region of Madrugada? To the east, and El Este? Or northeast to Valle De Oro? It’s ultimately up to the player to decide, but that meant that the narrative team had to prepare for the possibility that any one of these regions could be a player’s introduction to the game.
Each of the three regions has its own story arc, allies, and villains, all tied into overthrowing Castillo’s regime. Sending the player off into a huge open world and expecting them to keep track of all of those moving parts, as well as the main narrative, could be tricky, so the narrative team developed a narrative mission structure to ensure that the player was always reminded of what else was happening in Yara. To break down this mission flow, Kennedy used the storyline for the Valle De Oro region, where Dani meets an anti-Castillo rap group Maximas Mátanzas, as an example.
It was important to introduce these new characters slowly, giving players a chance to get to know them. When Dani first approaches Maximas Mátanzas, they meet one of their members, Paolo, who does not want to join Libertad. This kicks off a mission to help Paolo, and along the way the player meets Talia, the second member of the band, and can undertake a mission to help her.
Once these first two missions are complete, players meet Bicho, the band’s third wheel. Bicho’s mission introduces the region’s main villain, Maria Marquessa. At this point, a couple different things happen in the story: First, another set of missions for Paolo, Talia, and Bicho open, and players can complete them in any order they want. Second, a Primo mission opens up. Primo missions are progression triggered missions that tie Dani back in with Clara Garcia, Libertad, and Castillo. They act as regular checkpoints to remind the player of the overall conflict on Yara. Players aren’t required to drop everything and complete them; they’ll remain and even stack up until completed.
This mission structure ensures that characters and storylines are delivered to the player over time to avoid confusion. Players can be fully present in the conflict that Maximas Mátanzas faces, but thanks to Primo missions and cinematic cutaways, Castillo and Libertad are never far from mind. While Kennedy and team could never know which region players would tackle first, they could make sure that regardless of how players progressed, they would never be far from the game’s central conflict.
Lost Between Worlds
While Far Cry 6 presented the challenge of designing an open-world narrative, the game’s standalone expansion, Lost Between Worlds, required an entirely new strategy. In the expansion, Dani is trapped in a crystalline version of Yara with an extraterrestrial intelligence named FAI, and the only way to escape is for Dani to travel into levels called Rifts to retrieve the broken shards of FAI’s space vessel.
Lost Between Worlds is a roguelite-inspired game with branching, level-based gameplay that needed to be repeatable. Going in, the team knew they were telling a sci-fi story with a character arc, and that levels would need to be replayed at least five times in any order. Knowing the scope of the expansion and the time constraints, the team needed a creative approach to storytelling, and took inspiration from an unlikely source: children’s picture books.
“Why a kid’s picture book?” said Kennedy. “They’re defined by constant plot movement, and they use page turns to push the story forward. We treated our cinematics as these page turns. We structured the story in five acts, and each time the player came out of a level, a cinematic would move the story forward.”
As with many children’s books, a larger theme was at play in the story of Lost Between Worlds. Each time Dani retrieves a shard for FAI, the bodyless extraterrestrial intelligence transforms into a new creature – first a pig, then a wolf, then a human. Each of these forms inform FAI’s behavior and emotions. As a pig, FAI is like a toddler discovering the world for the first time in physical form; as a wolf, FAI feels anger and aggression; and as a human, FAI experiences guilt and empathy. All of these transformations and conversations with Dani allow FAI to grow, fulfilling the storybook-esque themes of being human and learning from experience.
To pull off this journey of emotional growth, the narrative design team needed to sandwich missions between moments of dynamic narrative. “The gameplay and the narrative were separated,” said Hennessy. “As much as possible, the dependencies between those two things were split. Most of the dialogue we wrote was designed to be experienced in multiple gameplay contexts.”
This split is the result of the roguelite structure that means levels are replayable not only between acts of the story, but within acts as well. FAI and Dani have more than 100 voice-over interactions in each act, and figuring out when and how to trigger those required prototyping.
“The prototyping was one big advantage of removing our gameplay dependency,” said Hennessy. “We could start testing way earlier.” In this case, prototyping meant using Twine, an open-source platform for creating nonlinear interactive stories. The Twine prototype took all the conversations the team had brainstormed and strung them together into a text-based summary of the game narrative. Each Twine node presented a scenario and then the possible outcomes of that scenario. For example, Dani entering the first trial – a floating fortress in the sky – has two possible outcomes: complete the trial or die. Choosing one of those options would take the team to the next possible scenario.
“We playtested this Twine game as if we were doing a build review,” said Hennessy. “Playing through this interactive prototype let us double check our flow, it helped us internalize the rules of the narrative system, and gave us a sense of how this big story arc we developed would actually feel like when we played it.”
This form of prototyping meant that gameplay and level design weren’t stopping the narrative team from progressing, and likewise, the narrative team wasn’t impeding the development from those other teams.
When it comes to narrative structure and content, Far Cry 6 and Lost Between Worlds have little in common – but both experiences rely on authored anchored moments that tie together story and open gameplay, and both develop character and story in a way that doesn’t rely on a linear plot. “Make sure your approach matches the scale and scope of the game you’re making,” said Kennedy. “Know when you want to give – and can give – the player an intimate storybook narrative, or when you want to sweep them along on an epic.”