Far Cry 5 lead writer on villains, cults, and crafting story
The moment Ubisoft shared its first artwork from Far Cry 5, there was an immediate reaction from fans wondering what direction the franchise was going. Based on U.S. soil in the state of Montana, in Far Cry 5 you play as a U.S. Marshal sent to arrest a cult leader named Joseph Seed aka The Father.
Of course, things don’t go the way they’re planned and the game begins. We caught up with Far Cry 5’s lead writer, Drew Holmes, to talk about the storytelling choices they made in the game, the plausibility of this happening in real life, and how Far Cry 5’s story is told differently than previous Far Cry games.
What was the process like in choosing a cult leader as an antagonist for Far Cry 5?
Evolutionary. I interviewed with creative director Dan Hay in August 2015 so the game had been gestating for a while. When I talked with him about what they wanted to do with the game, it was set in Montana, they already knew they wanted to have a cult, and a cult leader as the villain. Maybe there was a family, we weren’t quite sure, and you were going to play as a cop. There was also another point on how the game ends, so we got into that. But beyond that, whatever the story was, we had to sit down and hash that out.
Specifically, when you’re talking about why a cult leader, Far Cry games are all about charismatic, compelling, engaging, enigmatic, charming villains. That’s sort of embodied in cult leaders. And when the team researched Montana, and then looked at the history of who is drawn to Montana to live there, you keep hearing about fringe cult groups. It’s so secluded and so remote, it’s a place where people can go to be left alone and do their own thing. So let’s explore that.
Having a villain be a cult leader, it’s not something that you’ve seen before. It’s mysterious and fits really well for the franchise itself. So we asked, what does this cult really believe? So we sat down with cult experts Rick Alan Ross and Mia Donovan. Here’s how cult are generally formed, here’s the touchstones the telltale signs and here’s how people are lured in, here’s how people are controlled, how why they generally don’t tend to leave of their own will.
Could a cult take over an entire county like this? Yes, here are some examples of small samples where it’s been done in the past. So we take all the research and say, how do we build it? How do we make it our own and how do we make it something that works for a video game? Or a Far Cry game that’s all about open world exploration and big bombastic action, a dark storyline and really start to merge all that. The writing process of me and Dan and Jean-Sébastien Decant, our narrative director, and crafting it all in this big non-linear experience, the player has so much more control compared to previous Far Cry games. It’s been a huge undertaking but I think the end product, which is now your hands… well, it’s nice to have the game speak for itself.
What storytelling avenues did you guys use in Far Cry 5 do you think sets it apart from previous Far Cry games?
I think that a lot of the linearity that unfolds in previous Far Cry games, we made a conscious effort to push back from that. We really wanted to make sure you didn’t feel locked in to a single path when it came to experiencing the story. The previous games, there was disconnect between the main story mission path and then the open world side of it, taking down outposts, exploring, hunting, and at the time it seemed like the game was competing against itself in terms of the player’s attention and just letting you do whatever you wanted. You could go off and explore, but it sort of felt like you were neglecting the main story of the game.
So for us, it was like, how do you merge all of that? How do you build a game where the player can go in any direction they want, engage with any character they choose, and if they’re not choosing to engage with those characters, doing outposts, hunting, all that, how does that still move the story forward? From the narrative side of it, it was making sure every activity that you’re asked to do in the world, any quest that you’re needing, any outpost that you’re seeing, had something contextually to do with what the cult is doing.
So if we’re telling you as a player that your only goal in the game, is to take down this cult and rescue your friends, and capture The Father, then no matter which avenue you’re going, it’s building up that resistance. The resistance meter tracking your progress as opposed to a checklist of story missions, means that your avenues into the main thread in each region were completely different.
So if you went into the White Tails region and you meet Hurk right away, you can blow up a bunch of stuff. That’s attacking the cult and getting the attention of the White Tail, and when you hit certain points in that resistance meter, that’s when the White Tails steps in and says we want you on our side, or Jacob Seed at the same time is watching you and saying I want that person taken off the board because they’re screwing up my operations.
That sort of push and pull between Jacob and what he’s doing and the White Tail and what they’re doing, the player is sort of caught in the middle of it which is a very different experience than what we showed off in Holland Valley, John Seed’s region. Making sure that each of these regions felt different in tone and story I don’t think could have been done in previous Far Cry games.
Far Cry 5’s story itself is pretty fantastical, so how much did you guys back and forth about if this kind of stuff could really happen on U.S. soil?
It’s always delicate balance when you have a bombastic action game like Far Cry. It’s about finding the right balance between plausibility, believability, and realism. So, does it feel believable in the opening moments of the game, and why no one is coming to help? There was a sticking point for me, as you’re writing stuff, the logic of the moments, you have to make sense in the moments, so what if they’re only contact to the outside world was actually in the cult?
Then maybe the people who they thought were on their side, Nancy at the dispatch, actually turns out that they’re in the cult. Then if someone asks what’s going on, Nancy says everything is fine, you’re cutting off all of your avenues of safety. You have to make the player feel as if they’re truly trapped and the intent to say that you have to rescue your friends. And if you don’t do this, they’re doomed.
Making sure those beats are covered and as you play through the game and listen to the radio, you’ll hear news reports from guys saying “yeah, we heard there was dust up in Hope County, someone was saying it was involving Eden’s Gate but we talked to a Hope County Sheriff’s spokeperson, Nancy, and she said everything was fine and it was just a misunderstanding.” So as you play through game, you’re like oh, I’m really screwed. There’s no help coming and I’m the only person that can take care of this situation.
The Eden’s gate cult is like a four-headed beast with The Father at the top and his siblings in control of other areas of Hope County. What went into the decision to come up with other bosses?
We knew going into Far Cry 5, when you see the previous villains like, Vaas and Pagan Min, they’re iconic and psychopathic, but for us we asked, can we do more? Can we do more than just one villain? That was the concept of this family. And when you say it’s a family, we all understand the different dynamics of older brothers, younger brothers, a half-sister not feeling necessarily belonging, and Joseph Seed as sort of the leader. He’s driving it forward, saying this is where we’re going. Then there’s the dynamic underneath where someone like John Seed, who is the youngest, sort of wants to be recognized by his older brothers as having value. But he continually screws up, so Joseph chides him saying he’s not doing the things he supposed to do.
Then Jacob Seed, who’s the older brother, maybe doesn’t necessarily believe in Joseph’s message that God told him the end of the world was coming, but he believes in his brother, doesn’t matter if he’s right or wrong, he going to march forward with him. Then you have someone like Faith Seed who, in terms of family dynamic came in a little bit later and is a bit more of an outsider, is probably the most fervent believer in Joseph. We think about what the conversation around the dinner table would be with them.
The regions don’t speak to each other but Joseph speaks to all of them, his story wraps through every single region. So understanding those dynamics between them helped create a much more of three-dimensional world, for us. Does this feel real, like real people I could meet? As crazy as they are, you empathize with them just a bit. You see their point of view, you see where they’ve gone wrong and it strengthens the believability of why people would follow these characters.
What were some of the biggest challenges of creating story around gameplay in the game?
I think it was about relinquishing so much control over what happened when. Because the nature of letting players go and experience what they want to experience and still allowing the story to move forward. We all understand tone and pacing in movies and film, we’ve been trained our whole lives to understand how that will go, and then to say, in this story, you’re actually in control of the cadence of this story and how the beats will go. The actions that you’re choosing to do is what actually is moving the story forward. So there’s a little bit a learning curve to how the story is unfolding but we’re enabling players to craft their own story.
Far Cry 5 launches on March 27 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.