When you’re let out into Far Cry 5‘s Hope County for the first time, it’s hard not to be mesmerized by the breathtaking vistas and seemingly infinite landscapes of Montana.
The rural setting seems absolutely beautiful, but is it really? What do we mean when we call an environment “beautiful?” What description do level designers aspire to when they create their landscapes? Is there a more suitable way to capture the feeling of a setting? After sitting down with Associate Level Design Directors Alain Greco and Andrejs Verlis, it became clear that their intention was never to build a “beautiful” world; rather, they wanted to create something that would more accurately be referred to as “sublime and picturesque.”
In “An Essay on the Picturesque, As Compared With the Sublime and Beautiful,” Uvedale Price outlines a clear distinction between the beautiful, the sublime, and the picturesque. The beautiful represents man-made order and harmony. The picturesque is characterized by roughness and intricacy, it can be man-made, but must look natural. The sublime signifies the openness, mystery, and infinite nature of landscape and is nearly impossible to recreate in the real-world. After getting some hands-on time running around Hope County, Montana in Far Cry 5, I was struck by how much of Price’s theory, particularly on the sublime and picturesque, comes through in the natural landscape. The enigmatic Montanan countryside feels endless and constantly begs you to explore it. There is a continuous desire to see what’s just beyond that hill or through that forest and it is here, in that sense of mystery, that Hope County embodies the sublime and the picturesque qualities of the landscape.
How exactly do you foster sublimity and encourage curiosity? “We actually imagined the world as if there was no conflict, no story, just as it is,” says Greco. “How would players play that game? Where would they go, why would they go there? We wanted the exploration to feel organic based on the landscape itself, not necessarily because of a mission or objective marker. So we looked at what locations naturally inspired curiosity, and modified our locations to tap into the inherent mystery of the land.”
By creating and exploring an environment devoid of enemies, landmarks, or buildings, Greco and his team enabled the landscape itself to supply the motivation and mystery required for exploration. And while it makes perfect sense to build objectives and locations to suit the environment, why and how we navigate a space relies on an understanding of real-world curiosity and exploration.
“We wanted to rely on real-world experiences so that players explore the landscape how they would in real life,” says Greco. “If you see a small path leading into a clearing, you’ll probably follow that. If you see smoke billowing from just over a hill, you’ll probably try to find it. We wanted to invite that sense of curiosity and exploration. We hope that the same language we use to direct the player is the same language they already know from real life.”
Perhaps this is why Hope County feels so real. As soon as I was let out into the open world, I was free to explore in any direction I wanted, and yet my eyes were drawn down natural pathways. A sign post encouraged me to travel in one direction, a campfire another, a water tower in another. I was able to identify multiple objectives and points of interest without having to rely on the HUD at all.
This level of organic wayfinding has bled into other aspects of exploration in Far Cry 5. No longer will your map automatically reveal locations of wild animals; you’ll have to find signposts peppered throughout the world that signify which animals are indigenous to which regions. Being explicitly told where to go and where things are belongs in the realm of the beautiful; Far Cry 5 fully embraces the mystery of the sublime. Suddenly, I understood Price’s notion that “the passion caused by the great and sublime in nature…is astonishment.”
Considering the sheer scope and level of detail within Hope County, It’s easy to look at the massive map in Far Cry 5 and assume that much, if not all of it, was procedurally generated. While procedural generation was used for the placement of many of the natural assets, like foliage and boulders, by and large the map is handcrafted.
“You have to design the world within the context of game progression and player progression,” says Verlis. “We need to have full control of the navigation and the flow.” Procedural generation can yield highly disordered results with little to no identifiable logic, and while this may emulate the chaos of nature, it does little to help guide the player through the world. “You want the landscape to be natural, but you don’t want it to be chaotic. You want to be able to carve out the logic and the routes through the world. You can see things in nature that seem to be ordered; that appeals to us as humans,” says Verlis.
What becomes clear is that Far Cry 5’s Montana not only abides by the rules of the sublime, but by those of the picturesque as well. If procedural generation is as close as it gets to recreating the randomness of nature, then handcrafted environments are akin to a man-made park. It may look organic, but there is an underlying logic that helps encourage players to explore in one direction or another. The handcrafted world feels anything but, and that is where the appeal in the picturesque lies. It’s an appeal Verlis understands and takes advantage of.
“By utilizing natural aspects of the landscape, you can help to guide players and lead them in one direction or the other;” he says. “That’s where the picturesque comes in. Valleys can act as natural funnels for players. Roads and rivers can help guide them down an intended path. There’s a bread-crumbing notion; once you get into an appealing space, how do we then bring you into the next space? Even if you can’t see a destination, you feel like there will be one there.”
Price concludes his essay with the thought that “the effect of the picturesque is curiosity.” By constructing a landscape that embodies qualities of the sublime and the picturesque, the level-design team has ensured that nearly every corner of Hope County will stoke the flames of curiosity among players.
Far Cry 5 is available now on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. For more, check out our previous Far Cry 5 coverage.