In Far Cry 3, you are the savior that fell from the sky. Unfortunately, you are also Jason Brody, the rich white kid diving out of an airplane joyride, and ultimately rescuing a tribe of Pacific islanders from vicious pirates. As fun as Far Cry 3 was in the midst of a gunfight, its story was rooted in problematic themes and hung around the necks of air-dropped outsiders.
That's set to change significantly once you tread the Himalayan footpaths of Far Cry 4, says narrative director Mark Thompson. The game's opening moments see new protagonist Ajay Ghale persecuted in his former home of Kyrat, barely escaping an encounter with a vile, sacrilegious despot named Pagan Min. Ghale is a returning native, while Min, an elite figure from Hong Kong's criminal underworld, is the outsider casting the shadow of monarchy. The story of Far Cry 4 clearly hinges on the history of Nepal and its bloody turn from monarchy to sovereign state, but it also reflects on Far Cry 3's sham of a hero.
Let's start with Pagan Min, the exceptionally terrible human who inspired heated debate after appearing on Far Cry 4's cover. Social media seethed after seeing an arrogant, blonde man clad in a royal purple. "I think what I didn't like about it was ... I felt like the team was kind of denigrated," Thompson says, hesitating a few times before putting his thoughts out. "We thought we were putting something out without context, but what we didn't think about was the context that Far Cry 3 left everyone with." Coming off Far Cry 3, some debated on how to read Min's position, thinking he was a fair European man exerting dominance over a kneeling, Asian subject. The game's fiction really casts him as a Chinese national pretending to be king in a place he doesn't belong.
"That's kind of the point, he doesn't belong there, and obviously he's the antagonist," Thompson tells me. "And our protagonist does belong in Kyrat, he was born there, his family are all from Kyrat. So, he's returning and obviously you want the protagonist and the antagonist in direct opposition." With that in mind, Thompson wants to alter Far Cry 3's pattern of player-turned-savior.
"I think it's important that Ajay doesn't ever become the savior of the game," Thompson says. He is positioned as an "agent of change," just like the player is within Far Cry's powder-keg explosions of violence, but his work will be "alongside the movement of other people" in a region-wide resistance. "It's not him leading them, it's him helping them."
Thompson tells me it's not just a matter of changing the cast and their motivations, but giving them appropriate activities in Far Cry 4's massive, mountainous region. And though there are obvious new thrills, such as ascending snow-tipped cliffs with a grappling hook, piloting helicopters and riding war elephants, even little tasks like collecting can say the wrong thing about the protagonist.
"We know we want collectables, because we have an open world and we know it's fun for people to go out and search for these things," Thompson says. "When you take a step back from Far Cry 3 and think - Jason Brody was an outsider, he came to the islands, and one of the tasks that he gave himself was to find all these collectables. But really what he did was he went into temples and places where collectables should have been, and stole them, and then ran away with them."
Not that Ajay Ghale is a saint. Far Cry 4 depicts a bloody revolution against Pagan Min and, unlike many of Ubisoft's recent games, doesn't even have non-lethal combat options. "I think the important difference is we don't want to be didactic, we're not trying to teach people," Thompson says. "I think a lot of Far Cry games have fallen into the trap - telling you that violence is bad, and that you're bad for playing the game. You don't want to play a game for 40, 50 hours to be rewarded by systems that have a narrative layer on top of that, telling you that you were bad for doing those things, that humans are terrible."
And while you're out and about doing terrible things as Ghale, you'll begin to notice the inversion of Far Cry 3's structure: invading forts, offing enemies in creative ways and dominating their territory. If there were a Far Cry set between the third and fourth games, Thompson says, it would be about Pagan Min doing just that – "the story of an outsider coming in with his army and taking over all of the outposts, capturing them from the Kyrati people, and installing himself as the leader."