GDC 09: Player expression through Far Cry 2's level design


Now a lead designer at UbiSoft montreal, Jonathan Morin was the lead level designer for Far Cry 2.

Considering how much damned fun I had with Far Cry 2 (as previously mentioned) and given Clint Hocking's suggestion near the end of his “Fault Tolerance” lecture, I ended my GDC 09 experience with Morin's lecture, “Player's Expression: The Level Design Structure Behind Far Cry 2 and Beyond?”

I'm trying to come up with some clever way of segueing into my summary of the talk which waits behind the jump, but hell with it – this is my last official GDC post. You know the drill by now. Hit the damned jump, already.

Morin opened with a music clip from Al Di Meloa, Paco De Lucia, and John McLaughlin playing guitars. People went to the Warfield theater and paid money just to listen to them play, and this made Morin wonder; are we respecting our player enough? As much as Ted McCarty, the inventor of the Gibson Les Pauls guitar respects his audience? By respect, Morin means the appreciation of every person who ever picks up a guitar for the first time, plays their first note, and feels happy from it. That first experience makes some kids wish to explore deeper, and sometimes they turn into masters. Suddenly, you've got “an entire generation of geniuses” borne out of the idea that through McCarty's invention, artists could express themselves in a way that transcended the original invention.

Morin cited philosophers like Robert C Solomon, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Aristotle. Aristotle said that you can't blame a person for being drunk or what he does while he's drunk, but you can blame him for getting drunk or for cultivating the character that would get drunk.

To explain this, Morin showed a picture of his second child who, at the time Far Cry 2 started, was of the age to play with little blocks and a box with holes shaped for the different shapes. He initially began banging the toys to one another to make music until he eventually had an epiphany by making different sounds with different blocks – Morin described his kid as having an exprssion of “I'm a fucking genius” on his face – until he eventually got furious with the blocks and never played it again.

Games like Street Fighter IV encourage creativity and expression in a slightly similar way with all the depth of its different attacks and the inherent strategies. These mechanics lead to emotional buildups which are influenced by your own background. “Anybody can become angry....but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time is fucking difficult,” Morin said, slightly misquoting Aristotle. The player tries to restrain their emotions while playing games like Street Fighter IV (you try not to scream as you reach a suspenseful moment), but you can't really succeed at this totally. Thus, Far Cry 2 was meant to push the player into freely expressing these emotions.

Far Cry 2 was meant to be structured around several different main mechanics in order to lead to this sort of personal expression.

World navigation balances risk with player needs and necessary missions for plot progression which forces the player to try to make “the best decision possible” when traversing the world.

You might plan to get a mission, join with your buddy, save your game, get some explosives from a guard tower, go kill the bad guys, go to a safehouse, sleep until night, because “I have a shotgun. And going into a junkyard in the dark with a shotgun is fucking cool.” And you've got all these things planned out and you think, “I'm gonna be a fucking genius!” But there's “so much uncertainty in there, you're gonna fuck up sometime.” So the player will get pushed back and get angry which forces improvisation, which leads into what Morin called the cause and effect loop.

Understanding the cause and effect loop requires identifying the player's character and how they approach the game. A few years ago, Morin played FEAR despite his crappy shooter skills. He tends to try and play stealthily, sneaking around corners and leaning. He saw soldiers sitting around waiting for him. Morin thought he was so smart by sniping the enemies from far away but after hitting an unsuspecting guy in the head, the soldier just twitched a little, looked at him, and started shooting. Morin stopped playing right there, because the game wasn't giving him any freedom whatsoever to express his own mode of play.

Far Cry 2 was thus meant to allow for strategist players, Rambo players, and what Morin called “fugitive players” who avoid confrontation at all cost and try to use hit and run strategies. Some people initially reacted against the ability to skip huge confrontations by acting like a fugitive, but, in the end, it's actually kind of satisfying to outsmart the game in your own way.

Levels were designed with cliffs areas that allow for stealth approaches, scouting, and planning for strategist players. Rambo players are catered to simply by the presence of the bad guys and guns. Fugitive players are accounted for by forcing the AI to chase down the player once he begins to run away in order to make the act of being a fugitive more interesting.

Your skill at combat, planning, and escaping all interact with one another and influence the difficulty of the other skills based on how you play – if you really suck at planning you'll have a harder time with combat, and so on. “We don't control anything as a level designer at this point – there's no pacing. The pacing is with the player.” And that pissed the developers up early on. How do you support emotional buildup when the player gets to decide when, where, and how to do what they wanna do?

The answer, or an answer, came in the form of level density (density in this case refers to how much cover there is). How do the three different types of players feel in high, medium and low density areas? Planners feel very powerful while in high density, but feel totally powerless once the enemy is in high density and not immediately visible because this requires the planner to move around and possibly get out of cover just to find the enemy again. If you're in high density as a player and the enemies are in low density, however, you feel pretty much like a God.

As a fugitive player, you want to be in low density while the enemy is in high density so they'll have a hard time following. As a Rambo, you want both you and the enemy to be in high density because that typically means you'll be near the objective you're firing your way toward.

And this is the point – create a level that allows for all these different playstyles and modes of expression.

Next, Morin focused on the importance of micro-decisions in level design. They initially put explosives and fire areas in really boring places, but once they started placing them more frequently and strategically, they could lead to cool chain reactions and more improvisation techniques.

So basically, what we're trying to do is ask the player to fight their emotional habits and try to deal with it. The game is extremely tense and extremely heavy and we try to push them all the time.” Sometimes this can end up being “extremely exhausting,” which means you need to stop and breathe. Morin said this is just like when you have some coffee and then some Red Bull and you start hallucinating and feel like punching your friends because you think they're aliens. And designers don't want players to feel like that.

If you cry from some peace because it's too hardcore,” you can always just hunt for diamonds in the Far Cry 2 world which is not only a relatively stress-free activity in and of itself, but allows you to buy better stuff which will make your next confrontation less stressful because you'll be able to afford new weapons and stuff.

Morin admitted that there were some problems with the game, but he didn't really feel like talking about them – he knows about them all and he knows that he said it was super-peaceful to search for diamonds, but other level designers put diamonds in really un-peaceful locations. The reasons behind these mistakes are “always boring,” and Morin preferred that the audience decide for themselves what UbiSoft achieved in every aspect of the design rather than receiving a boring admittance of failure or success in every aspect of the design.

Morin still feels the game worked in general, because of the huge Far Cry 2 team telling him tons of stories about how cool their playtime was.

Still, Morin assured the audience that “we can go deeper with that.” If one were to hypothetically take a model we're all familiar with like GTA IV where you try to follow a guy and a red meter tells you if you're going to get noticed by the guy you're following and instead of just failing the mission when the red meter reaches its top, he decides to drive away which leads to a car chase. So he gets out of his car and you chase him, and then you run into a gun fight, and then you get pinned down, and you start running and you're the one being chased, and you get in a car and initiate another car chase, and then you realize you have to go find the guy again. It's an unusual web, but it allows the player to express themselves. Yet it has nothing to do with emotional habits or character, but “what if you were tailing this guy?”

A picture of Pee-Wee Herman appeared on the screen.

What if his character meant he would only run and never fight back? It makes the web smaller but it makes sense for his character.

What if you're chasing James Bond, though? He's not gonna run, he's going to pursue you.

But those are just character changes. That's not necessarily emotional.

But what would happen if you pushed Pee-Wee to the edge of his possibilities so that his personality began to change and he tried to shoot at you? What if you could push him so hard he totally changed the cause and effect network?

I don't really know, actually. That was just an idea. That was just a little something to tell you we could do more with this.” The idea of player expression is a very complicated problem and it's not 100% necessary, but why not tackle it anyway?

Morin opened the floor up for questions.

Why were there no civilians in the actual game environment? It'd bring up problematic moral issues if collateral damage suddenly becomes possible, and they didn't have time to add that design obstacle on top of all the other design conundrums they already had to deal with.

At Clint Hocking's lecture he suggested that Morin could explain why two of the three HMR factors were thrown away, and one audience member took Morin up on that. There are only too many channels with which you can convey such information to the player, and you couldn't put in thousands of AI barks that all had to do with each of the three HMR factors. The player needs clearly readable mechanics so they can understand how to tackle them and there was no immediately evident way to make all three factors totally readable.

How did you make sure that when the player got angry, he accepted a certain personal responsibility for things instead of just getting pissed at the design? “We're reaching a part where it's really hard to please everyone because there's [so many] players out there,” but Morin's wife will say one of two things when he plays his own game and starts screaming at it: either that he should stop playing it or, more frequently, “shut up – you like it.” If the frustration wasn't there, none of the fun would be. It's a difficult line to walk, but those players who liked Far Cry 2 really liked it.

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Anthony Burch
Anthony BurchContributor   gamer profile

Lead writer of Borderlands 2, curator of  more + disclosures



Filed under... #Far Cry #GDC #PS3 #Xbox 360



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