In the third of four Far Cry 3 interviews from a recent trip to Ubisoft Montreal, the rather funny level design director, Mark Thompson, offers some in-depth responses to questions about how Ubisoft Montreal is approaching mission design in an open-world game. It’s clear that he has a lot of passion and understanding for the sometimes left-field direction in which Far Cry 3 is heading. We pick his brain about music, grounded insanity and managing meaningful moments in a gameplay system designed to encourage players to do it their own way. If you haven't read them already, be sure to check out the interviews with Jamie Keen and Andrea Zanini.
Atomic: What do you specifically do?
Mark: I’m the level design director, so that implies story, missions, characters, the world, open-world… basically, Far Cry 3.
Atomic: So you’re the guy who got to say yes to the drug idea?
Mark: I had a painful kidney experience… no, no. I’ve never woken up in a bath tub full of ice sans some kind of important organ.
Atomic: You haven’t been on a crazy press trip then. How do you go about designing a mission like that drug trip mission? Where do you start?
Mark: We all start with the character, ‘cause that’s something that we wanted to do for Far Cry 3, we wanted it to be about… well, we started with the line, we want a cast of insane characters. So then we had Vaas at E3 and he was a certain kind of crazy: he was very loud, very bombastic, very kind of in-your-face crazy. And then, we wanted to do something more than just that, ‘cause if the island was just that kind of crazy, at a certain point it would get boring, right? If everyone was just total screw loose, psychopathic insane, then it would get boring. So we wanted to do something a little more nuanced. There are lots of shades of insanity, and the doctor was another one. So the doctor is kind of… he’s a little bit… we wanted to see the kind of distrust; you don’t know if you can really trust the guy. He’s obviously a little bit creepy, he’s obviously not quite right. I mean, in the first instance, he is a guy who lives on this island, and the first question you have to ask yourself about anyone that you meet on the island is, ‘Why the hell do you choose to be there?’ Of all the places in the world, there are lots of beautiful islands in the world, but this island is… wrong. It’s a little bit too far from everywhere. So the people who live there, it’s either a prison and they’re trapped there, or it’s a refuge. They got there because they’re trying to escape something or they want to go to a world that doesn’t really have laws and rules, somewhere they can be who they really want to be, where they can be that darkness inside themselves.
And the doctor, he’s that kind of character. He went to the island to escape from himself and so he could live out this kind of psychotropic kind of living within himself kind of lifestyle. He has this house on the hill, he paints it once a week to give himself some kind of schedule, otherwise the drugs… he grounds himself by painting that house. But really, he just wants to get high and escape from the world, so the mission, that mission trip, it was like, ‘What do we do for a mission with this guy?’ Obviously, a mission with Vaas or against Vaas, it’s going to be about combat, it’s going to be whether it’s about stealth or explosions and gunfire like you see at the Medusa. That’s a Vaas kind of touched mission. But the mushroom cave is very much a… that’s what we thought would best represent the first experience you have with Earnhardt, with that crazy doctor. It seems, on the surface, like it’s just a fetch quest; the formula isn’t new, but what we do that is new. It’s like every RPG ever, you go to a village and the first person you see, ‘Oh, hark young sir. You look like a brave adventurer. Go yonder and fetch me a petal of the finest rose.’ And then you go out into the fields, you come back with the petal of the finest rose and the things you do on the way, it’s just systemic. You might kill some level 1 rats, you might chase off a level 2 vagabond, but you come back and it’s all very… you go through the motions. So what we wanted to do was almost play around with people, because gamers expect… they see certain patterns and formulas. So we thought, ‘Yeah, let’s set it up. Let’s make it a fetch quest.’ But, on the way, we just explode what people think could happen. And nobody expects that when you go down in the cave, you will have that experience. The first time the hands come up, it always catches people. They’re always like, ‘Whoa,’ just when Jason does. ‘Whoa, this is new.’
Atomic: You showed the Vaas reveal at E3: the very gritty, realistic… it looked scary as hell. And now you’ve got this bat-shit crazy tripping balls thing. How do you balance that in the world and say, ‘Gamers, this is believable’?
Mark: But it comes down to the things that the characters do and little details about them. We make sure all of the characters have something about them that you can connect with. Things like the way that the doctor paints his house; it’s something normal that he does for him to try and ground himself, because he feels like he’s on the edge of reality, so he brings himself back to reality by painting this house. And you can see it, when you see his house, it has the scaffolding around it, you will see the cans of paint, he even has parts of it on himself. But its part of the story is on him, and it’s the little things about people that sometimes you would miss; you wouldn’t quite think it was worth noting. But we make sure that all of the characters have something real about them. Like the way that Vaas has those scars on his head. He does that because he shaves his Mohawk with his machete. This is something that the art directors… they always look for that little thing in a character that makes them feel real. They don’t just put a scar on a guy because it looks cool. Yes, it looks cool, but there’s always a story behind it, and that story makes that character realistic and credible and you believe it.