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 Far Cry 3  wants to turn players into performers
Far Cry 3 wants to turn players into performers
November 15, 2012 | By Mathew Kumar

November 15, 2012 | By Mathew Kumar
More: Console/PC, Design

The writer behind one of this year's biggest games wants players to do more than just go through the motions of a "being" a video game character: He wants players to perform as the character.

Heavily inspired by the rules of method acting, Ubisoft Montreal's Jeffrey Yohalem -- lead writer on the upcoming Far Cry 3 -- delivered a striking and likely controversial polemic at the Montreal International Game Summit this week, asking designers to "treat players like performers," and to throw out claims such as "simulation is not art."

In Yohalem's opinion, "Authorship in games is not antithetical to play. In fact, [authorship and play] can build on each other and this will forward the medium."

He described his vision of Far Cry 3's hero, Jason Brody: "Jason Brody is 25 years old, he lives in L.A., he's jobless, likes to have fun and party; he doesn't want to commit to his girlfriend, his father's dead and his older brother's the responsible one," he said.

Yohalem then turned to the bullet points that are being used by Ubisoft's marketing and the internet to describe the game, with quotes on the Amazon website pitching the player's ability to "Use an arsenal of weapons and explosives ... take down nearby adversaries with your blade."

"So who does the game say Jason Brody is?" Yohalem asked.

He answered, "Rambo."

"Cliche represents a diminishing stimulus," Yohalem continued. "Is it possible to generate fresh emotion if you keep visiting the same thing over and over?"

Players as method actors

To avoid the "Rambo" problem, Yohalem said the Far Cry 3 team's solution was Jason Brody, a character that would "allow [players] to explore meaning."

"Copying something that already exists is not art. Life is too short to waste player's time. Everything we should do should have a purpose, as developers it's important we create things that don't waste player's time on earth," he argued.

To avoid wasting the player's time, Yohalem said designers must "treat the player as an actor" and themselves as "strong directors, working within the tools of expression."

From this point he began to reference heavily the works of the "gurus of method acting" Constantin Stanislavski, Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler.

"The key requirements of method acting are understanding your character's psychological motives, having a personal identification with your character, and to see the character's emotions as your own," posited Yohalem. "If you imagine this in games, then method acting becomes much, much easier."

The highest aim of method acting, Yohalem claimed, was the same as games: to leave the actor/player completely carried away with their performance. As a result, the "direction" must work towards this meaning: to guide the player to make choices.

"This is the opposite of simulation," Yohalem said. "Simulation leads only to brief moments of contradictory understanding in a sea of mundanity. That isn't art. That is life. The purpose of art is to give the viewer a distilled, purposeful experience."

That purpose, he said, must be rooted in the game's play.

"The player can't be forced towards meaning," he said, quoting Stanislavski's expression that an actor cannot be "fattened like a cow" by being forcibly fed an experience.

Bridging the gap with empathy

So, in the case of Far Cry 3, the player must 'buy in' to the protagonist. It's here that the Far Cry 3 team used some metrics -- because while a director can encourage a single actor to understand a character by directly relating experiences, every player is "unknown."

"But they're not completely unknown," Yohalem said. "For Far Cry, our audience is 25-35, primarily male FPS fans who like guns and see games as an escape.

"You are allowed to look at your audience," he continued. "That's what genres are: that people agree to follow a particular set of rules or that they are going to like a particular thing."

While portraying an jobless party-animal commitment-phobe as a 'relatable protagonist' for Far Cry's gamer audience might seem harsh, Yohalem said the decisions do not have to be so specific.

"In [Tale of Tales'] The Graveyard you play an old lady. But you buy into her because her animations are so good, so real, that you feel it. She's relatable.

"All you have to do is bridge the gap with empathy once," he continued, referencing key moments from games such as Assassin's Creed II featuring Ezio's relationship with his family.

"The player will live the ritual started by the creators," Yohalem said, arguing that in general this is motivated -- within the tools of expression available to game developers --via external objectives such as 'save the princess' or even in a game as lauded as Journey which asks the player 'get to the mountain.'

"I propose that we can also have an internal objective, where the journey takes the player to who they really are," he said. "In Far Cry 3 we are experimenting with this. We give the player an external objective, but they are also given an unspoken internal objective: to become the ultimate warrior, which is naturally what the player wishes to do."

He continued, "This will turn out to be what Jason really wants too. We're taking it in kind of a meta direction... this is actually complicating what I just said."

Play is subtext

However, the reason for Jason's internal objective being mastery of weapons is that the "grammar of games is play," Yohalem said.

"In Sands of Time, the story and the play is about the manipulation of time. In Journey it's about co-operating to 'journey' to the top of a mountain. Far Cry is about guns," he said, to a smattering of laughter.

"Play is subtext," Yohalem said in one of the most compelling moments in his session. "Adler said, 'The play is not in the words, it's in you,' because the words don't matter. Subtext is how the actor is compelling. You can be watching a scene where a guy is trying to show a girl how to fix her car, but really what's going on is he wants to have sex with her. He's explaining how to change a wheel, but really he's saying 'I want to have sex with you.' Acting is what happens between the lines."

As a result Yohalem argued that it was hugely important that key moments in the story be replicated in play, with particular disdain for Bioshock's "famous moment" taking away the player's control.

"It didn't need to be a cut scene. All it needed was for me to be required to press a button, any button, to kill Ryan. I had done everything he had asked to that point, and there would be nothing else I could do."

He was also particularly disdainful to current dialogue systems.

"Choosing what to say is not acting. When I choose 'pass me the eggs,' I don't know if I'm trying to say 'pass me the eggs, I love you' or 'pass me the eggs, I'm going to shoot you.' Because if the actor delivers the line the wrong way, I haven't got what I want."

He did, however, praise LA Noire's attempt to offer a more "analogue" way to interact with in game characters.

"Trying to read people's faces and guessing... there were lots of options that allowed me to express myself through that mechanic. We need new ways to talk to players that don't involve guns."

"The acting experience is a journey," he closed. "Healthy, meaningful; art."

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Allen Brooks
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This is great to hear. He definitely has the right idea.

Whether he can deliver will be another issue - there are too many games to count that use ambitious verbiage like this to increase pre-release marketing hype, then absolutely fail to deliver on any aspect of the promise. Hopefully Far Cry 3 can back up his talk.

Brandon Van Every
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Selecting dialogue may not be acting, but what *is* going to be acting in this game? The article doesn't say what the tools of expression are actually going to be.

Also, the problem may not be selecting dialogue, but selecting bad dialogue. If dialogue was given careful attention, such that each response was strongly differentiated in purpose and likely emotional tenor, then it might actually form a vehicle for effective expression. You'd still have the problem of "holes" in player intent, where the player wants to do something that's not available amongst the options, but game developers can only provide so much. If the writers have mostly done their job then the player will have mostly bought into the roles provided and will want to select from what's available.

Far too often, dialogue UIs offer only micro-summaries of whatever a fully voiced and animated character will actually say and intend. There's little basis for knowing what the performance will be, so players don't have much agency or buy-in to what happens. I believe the answer to this is longer dialogue selection, even if that crowds the screen, and strongly differentiating and intoning the dialogue as above. Dialogue in a screenplay should leave room for a professional actor to act. Dialogue for a *game* should cue an amateur actor / player as to what they're really gonna do.

Bart Stewart
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Why do some people persist in this either/or thinking?

When I play a Call of Duty or Portal, I'm getting a play experience very tightly controlled by the narrative designer. These are roller-coaster rides; you follow the story track laid out for you with no deviation permitted, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. It delivers incredibly engaging experiences -- it's why I just finished replaying Portal 2.

But you know what? I like Sim City and The Sims and Skyrim and Minecraft, too. And judging by the sales numbers for these kinds of games, which are designed to be opportunities for players to create their own stories, I am far from being alone in enjoying and wanting non-writer-dictated play experiences.

Why do some who like making highly-directed games insist that there's no value in other forms of play when the evidence directly contradicts such an opinion?

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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I couldnt find where he made such an assertion.

Brandon Van Every
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I didn't buy the "non-Art" nature of simulation either. Go look at an Alexander Calder mobile. But I think Yohalem's strongest bile is aimed at perpetuating the marketing trope of Rambo, not sandbox games.

Michael Joseph
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Indeed. When Yohalem says

"Simulation leads only to brief moments of contradictory understanding in a sea of mundanity. That isn't art. That is life. The purpose of art is to give the viewer a distilled, purposeful experience."

he seems to be defending their decision to make a highly-directed game by insulting sandbox simualations. But if simulations don't quite meet the definition of art, then who really cares, they still DO offer purposeful experiences.

And as you say, there's nothing wrong with roller coasters except that too many roller coasters are the same. Portal was a refreshing change from the standard gun toting roller coaster ride.

I think Far Cry 3 will have their work cut out for them though. Really expansive play spaces I think are better suited for sandbox games than for highly directed stories.

But I like that he's talking about improving dialogue systems. That's something else that someday some studio is going to really take to a whole nother level. We'll have AI driven behavioral animations like the Natural Motion folks are doing. In another article there's talk about increasing destructability (or can we just say deconstruction capabilities in games), there will be no more props in games - a pc on a desk in an office at city hall will "work" allowing them to access blue prints to various buildings, a cell phone that lets you dial an ingame 911 or 411 or your npc mom character, fm radio, cd player, etc will "work", an enemy 2 way radio will work and you can intercept their communications and use it to your advantage. So by "work" i dont mean in some scripted contextual way designed for a specific scene, I mean as a sub-system of the simulation. Any article of clothing, a watch, a hat, you'll be able to buy or pickup and wear and use it to desguise yourself or just to customize your appearance for aesthetic reasons and individual expression. The future is wide open for advancing the medium by advancing simulations.

p.s. Now that I think about it, he's probably talking about the highly-directed story as the layer on top of the simulation. Obviously you can have bits of that type of "art" in a simulation but I don't think that means it has to be some over arching story with a beginning a middle and an end. You can have various unconnected or loosely connected vignettes for example. eg. In a GTA style game you are doing whatever it is you are doing and you walk into a convenience store and somebody is committing an armed robbery. You stop the robber, the sobbing, hysterical clerk falls to her knees and starts thanking you profusely. How does that experience affect the player from then on? You feed a stray dog, it starts following you around the rest of the game. The dog later saves your life. You rescue a kitten from a tree and hand it to a worried little girl. The girl asks you if you are an angel. You walk into a piano bar and start playing. You play well enough and people start dropping money into your tip jar, a lottery ticket, a phone number.

Bart Stewart
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To put it another way: is what a player does less of a performance if there's not a director constantly standing in front of them telling them exactly what they're expected to do?

Harlan Sumgui
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Some serious rationalization going on in that talk.

Wrt to shooters: seeing players as actors is an error in game design, imo. How much agency do actors have in scripted drama? Zero when it comes to the important things: story, action, dialog, etc. The pull of games is player agency and the physiological and emotion effects a person feels when they have a real effect on the outcome or progression.

Casting the player as an actor removes agency. Further, games that base design on story and rely on story to engage the player on an emotional level usually fail. The brain activity evident during story consumption and real game play are not complementary, they are antagonistic.

Finally, the market has spoken on this matter. Call of Duty and Halo rule supreme because they offer players real agency in the form of multiplayer, they are in essence, multiplayer games. I believe Cevat has taken the right decision in pursuing emergent f2p multiplayer fps gaming and turning his back on the scripted single player fps (unless someone else is paying the bills of course).

Ricardo Barnhill
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"I propose that we can also have an internal objective, where the journey takes the player to who they really are," he said.

I enjoyed this line in particular; it is at the essence of what art really is; however, I always assumed that developers were implicitly creating games on this premise. What is the purpose of fiction? What is the purpose of cinema? What is the purpose of video games if not based on this premise? A premise that video games are an escape into a virtual world which immerses players in an atmosphere that inevitably produces a construct of the human condition.

Philip Minchin
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I agree about the storytelling needing to come from game systems - in particular, it needs to come from using them in counterintuitive ways.

Two of my most memorable (and favourite) games which have such moments are:

Westwood's Blade Runner adventure game, where an entire major plot branch depends on how you use the combat mechanic. When attacked, you automatically draw your gun. Early in the game, you are administering the Voigt-Kampf empathy test to a replicant in a kitchen, and he freaks out and tips a giant vat of boiling soup at you, then grabs a knife and flees. If you dodge in time and don't die, you pull out your gun. You then have to chase him. One or two screens later, you corner him, and he sees your gun and charges you, making it either you or him, so you have to kill him. BUT if you think to holster your gun in those one or two screens before you corner him, you can talk to him somewhat, not enough to convince him to trust you, but enough that he can leave without dying, which enables his replicant friends to trust you later in the game. A whole other plot tree opens up at that point.

Another example is Star Control II (is there any form of awesomeness this game doesn't have?). You stumble across the (apparent) sole survivor of the humans' erstwhile allies, the Shofixti, a massively populous race with a kamikaze warrior culture. 20 years ago, they responded to the emerging threat which has since enslaved the galaxy (the Ur-Quan) by detonating their own sun in a nova that wiped out a massive chunk of the enemy fleet - and also almost the entire race. Now only one ancient Shofixti is left, "defending" their cinder of a system. When you encounter him, despite you trying to tell him otherwise, he assumes you're a slave of the Ur-Quan and attacks you, apparently forcing you to fight him or die - and him fighting you entails him blowing up his own ship... except there is a third, almost never-used option, which is to warp out of combat. It leaves you vulnerable for a few seconds while it warms up, and there's a chance he will close with you and explode before you escape, but if you successfully warp away and go back to talk to him enough times, eventually he listens long enough to realise you're not with the Ur-Quan and joins you. It's hard to pull off, but if you can manage it, eventually you earn access to the Shofixti ship design, and other in-game bonuses later. (Through somewhat disturbing developments in that subplot, but that's a separate topic.)

Two excellent moments, all from non-default but implicit decisions in game system terms, but entirely obvious and logical choices in character terms. I.e. to see them, you have to be "acting in character". Neither is heavily signposted - in both cases, the default outcome feels like just a random plot point. It's the narrative equivalent of a hidden area in a platformer. Strikingly, both involve making decisions to NOT be violent, i.e. to abstain from one of the primary mechanics of the game. And in both cases, after that point accepting the default framing for an interaction actually *feels* like a choice each time. The whole game becomes so much more meaningful as a result. And exactly the kind of moments that our artform excels at creating. Games may struggle to *depict* subjectivity, but they can *induce* it like no other form of art.