First impressions are important – even in video games. From the attract modes of old arcade machines, through Half-Life’s train ride and Bioshock’s descent into Rapture – they all manage to set the scene in very memorable ways. The Far Cry series has had its fair share of iconic intros too:
Those first blinking steps out of the dark Japanese fort into Far Cry 1’s tropical world. The second game’s malaria-fueled taxi ride through a sun-scorched, fast-collapsing African state. The third’s happy holiday montage set to MIA’s Paper Planes, before the reveal that you’re in a prison cell watching a video on a mobile phone held by murderous psychopath Vaas. The fourth’s bus journey into Kyrat, rudely interrupted by the arrival of purple-suited charm-monster Pagan Minn (“Stop the bus, not shoot the bus – I’m very particular with my words – stop, shoot, stop, shoot – do those words sound the same?”)
Far Cry 5’s opening had a lot to live up to – but it’s a testament to the skill of the game’s development team and actors that it does – and then some. Since Far Cry 5 is now a few months old and spoilers are less of a concern (though please look away now if you haven’t played yet) – I thought it’d be nice to find out a bit more about the thinking behind the game’s intro, and how it was put together.
A game intro isn’t just there to look pretty – it has a job. I asked Drew Holmes, lead writer on the game, what the intro needed to achieve. “The opening sequence of Far Cry 5 had to do a lot of things in a very compressed amount of time. We had to establish the world, set the context for why the player was there, introduce the main antagonist, and kick off the central conflict – all while constantly ratcheting up the tension and stakes. So we knew there were a few pillars that we had to hit along the way.”
The intro begins, perhaps riffing on Far Cry 3, with the player watching a video on a mobile phone. This time the video is rather darker than Jason Brody’s holiday snaps – with the player witnessing footage of an unnamed person infiltrating a meeting of the Project at Eden’s Gate cult (the game’s antagonists) in order to record evidence of their illegal practices. Unfortunately, the cult’s leader, Joseph Seed, realises he’s being filmed – and the infiltrator meets a sticky end. The footage is filmed with the phone in portrait mode rather than landscape, so you may feel that guy had it coming.
The players looks up from the phone to see that he (or she – the game allows you to choose your gender) is strapped into the back seat of a helicopter en route to the cult compound. A US Marshal named Burke sits opposite the player, and it quickly becomes clear that he’s a no-nonsense by-the-book type with little interest in the delicate local situation – he’s there with a warrant to arrest Joseph Seed, and that’s what he’s going to do. Next to him is impressively moustached Hope County Sheriff, Earl Whitehorse. Painfully aware of the cult’s dangerous hold over the area, Whitehorse attempts to talk Burke down from charging into their compound. Up front sit the Sheriff’s deputies, Pratt and Hudson. The player has control over where to look – either gazing at the Sheriff and Marshal as they talk, or out over the Montana countryside stretching away in the gloom below.
|Marshal Burke:||How much longer?|
|Sheriff Whitehorse:||Just long enough for you to change your mind so we can turn this bird around.|
|Marshal Burke:||You want me to ignore a Federal Warrant, Sheriff?|
|Sheriff Whitehorse:||No sir. I want you to understand the reality of this situation. Joseph Seed, he’s not a man to be fucked with. We’ve had run-ins with him before, and they haven’t always gone our way. Just sometimes … sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone.|
|Marshal Burke:||Yeah, well, we have laws for a reason Sheriff, and Joseph Seed’s gonna learn that.|
“The helicopter ride had its own list of things to do in a short amount of time,” explains Holmes. “One, let the Player know they’re playing as a Rookie Deputy. Two, give them their mission: to arrest Joseph. Three, establish the stakes of said mission: Eden’s Gate is dangerous and looking for a fight. Four, introduce key characters. Five, kick off the central conflict of the game. And six, as mentioned before, continuously ramp up the tension and stakes.”
Holmes describes the helicopter ride as an exposition dump. “The challenge was to make it not feel like an exposition dump, because expositions dumps are boring as hell. What we did was hide everything in the conflict between the Sheriff and Marshal, and let amazing actors do what they do best.”
Award-winning Candian actor Christopher Heyerdahl plays Sheriff Whitehorse, while Doug Hutchison (who played slippery Eugene Tooms in The X-Files, fact fans) features as Marshal Burke.
I mention that in an earlier presentation, Dan Hay (the game’s Creative Director) talked through a version of the games’ opening in which the player arrived at the cult compound by road in the Marshal’s truck. “Pretty early on, we realized that wasn’t the best way to start the game,” explains Holmes. “You’re either sitting in the back of an SUV staring at a seat, or you’re in the front seat and can’t see any of the characters talking. The idea was thrown out to set the scene in a helicopter – it would allow us to show the environment a bit better, and we could get at least two characters in front of you so you could watch the conversation unfold as opposed to just hear it. It had the added benefit of making the destination feel more remote – another key aspect of making the game feel like a Far Cry.”
Once the helicopter touches down in the cult compound, the player is in charge of where they walk. As a rookie Sheriff’s Marshal (known as “Rook” for short), they need to cross the compound and arrest Joseph.
|Sheriff Whitehorse:||Now listen up, three rules: stick close, keep your guns in your holsters, and let me do the talking – got it?
He’ll be in the church. Stick close – eyes open – these folk can spook easily.
|Unnamed cultist:||What are they doing here?|
|Sheriff Whitehorse:||Be calm. Stay calm everyone – just go about your business – this doesn’t concern you.|
|Deputy Hudson:||Sheriff, I don’t like this|
|Sheriff Whitehorse:||Everything’s fine Hudson, everything’s just fine.|
|Marshal Burke:||Jesus Christ, you’re wearing badges aren’t you?|
|Deputy Hudson:||Yeah, but they don’t respect badges much out here.|
|Marshal Burke:||They’ll respect a nine millimetre.|
|Sheriff Whitehorse:||Not every problem can be solved with a bullet, Marshal.|
Marshal Burke confidently leads the wary team across the compound. As they walk, they’re watched, yelled at and generally intimidated by angry cultists upset by their presence. The scene is lit only by the moon and a few fires burning around the camp. Dogs bark ferociously, and the muffled strains of “Amazing Grace” echo from the church, getting louder as you approach. With Burke’s team heavily outnumbered, it’s an oppressive sequence.
“We wanted to give control to the player as soon as possible – if you’re just sitting back and watching the entire intro you lose interest quickly. Allowing the player to walk up to the church with the squad – and allowing them to go up to the cultists – helped increase the tension. You become the Rook in that moment. You’re not quite sure what to do or where to go, and you’re not sure what will set people off. You have to rely on your partners.”
As Marshal Burke reaches to open the church door, the Sheriff stops him short.
|Sheriff Whitehorse:||Woah Marshal.
When we do this, we do it my way: quietly, calmly, you got it?
|Sheriff Whitehorse:||Hudson: on the door watching our backs; don’t let any of these people get in. Rookie: on me. And you [gesturing to Burke] … try not to do anything stupid.|
|Marshal Burke:||Relax Sheriff, you’re about to get your name in the paper.|
As the team enter the church, they get their first sight of Joseph Seed, The Father – played with genuine menace by Greg Bryk. He’s initially nothing more than a blurred silhouette at the end of the hall, back-lit by a bright cult symbol. As the team advance along the aisle, The Father continues his steady sermon – slowing coming into full view. His congregation turn to glare at the interlopers – their anger increasing with each word The Father speaks. In turn, the Marshal becomes less patient and more on edge as they draw nearer, the sheriff trying to hold him back. They cultists move to come between the team and their target.
|Joseph Seed:||Something is coming. You can feel it, can’t you? We are creeping toward the edge … and there will be a reckoning. That is why we started The Project. Because we know what happens next. They will come. They will try to take from us. Take our guns. Take our freedom … Take our faith! But we will not let them.|
|Marshal Burke:||Sheriff, c’mon —|
|Sheriff Whitehorse:||Just hold on Marshal …|
|Joseph Seed:||We will not let their greed, or their immorality, or their depravity hurt us any more! There will be no more suffering!|
|Marshal Burke:||Sheriff …|
|Sheriff Whitehorse:||Do not pull that trigger. Remain calm.|
|Marshal Burke:||No, fuck this! Joseph Seed, I have a warrant issued for your arrest on suspicion of kidnapping with the intent to harm! Now I want you to step forward and keep your hands where I can see them.|
|Joseph Seed:||Here they are … the Locusts in our garden … You see, they’ve come for me. They’ve come to take me away from you. They’ve come to destroy all that we’ve built.|
|Marshal Burke:||Now hold on! Do not touch that service weapon! Hold on and stand down! Stand down! Everyone calm down!|
|Joseph Seed:||[calmly to his followers] We knew this moment would come. We’ve prepared for it. Go. Go … God will not let them take me.|
The congregation disperse, leaving just The Father and his ‘family’. As the father continues to speak, he stares straight into the players eyes, offering his wrists for cuffing.
|Joseph Seed:||I saw when the Lamb opened the First Seal, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the first beasts say … come and see.|
|Marshal Burke:||Step. Forward.|
|Joseph Seed:||… and I saw, and behold, it was a white horse … and Hell followed with him.|
|Marshal Burke:||Rookie — cuff this son of a bitch.|
|Joseph Seed:||[directly to the player] God will not let you take me.|
The player is now given a prompt to arrest The Father. Ignoring the prompt leads to a secret ending, in which the Sheriff follows The Father’s whispered advice: “Sometimes the best thing to do, is to walk away.” and leaving the church empty handed.
Choosing to make the arrest sees the player put in charge of walking the oddly calm, hand-cuffed Joseph Seed to the Marshal’s helicopter. As the Church doors open, we find the cultists crowding between the team and their escape route. The Marshal leads the Sheriff and his deputies through the threatening, shouting mass.
“Once the choice is given to arrest the Father or not, Dan Hay was adamant about letting the Player walk Joseph to the helicopter,” explains Holmes. “This was one of the most challenging sequences in the entire game, and was constantly under pressure to turn into a non-interactive cutscene. Getting the player movement to line up with the motion capture of the deputies and cultists, and getting enough character density on screen was a huge challenge. It was all about hitting this emotional peak where you’re feeling the tension rise and you’re realizing ‘oh shit … this was a bad idea.'”
The whispery, echoey, choral tones of Amazing Grace fill the air, giving the sequence an almost dream-like feel as the situation teeters on the edge of disaster. The team move in a more urgent, panicked way, with the Sheriff trying to hold the angry throng back by pointing his gun in all directions. Cultists wave weapons and throw rocks, hitting the increasingly agitated Marshal who responds by firing warning shots into the air.
“The music really puts the final touch on it. Originally we had lots of screaming, panicked cries, and back and forth yelling. Once the music went in we realized that everything else made the sequence feel much more haunting and ominous. We had looked at a few films and TV shows looking at the fundamentals of those tense openings. Music is always the number one driver of emotion. I had the Sicario soundtrack on a loop while writing the early scenes – having that pounding sense of dread helped create the pacing and mood of what I was writing.”
Reaching the helicopter, Hudson pulls Joseph and the player aboard as the Marshal orders the pilot to take off. As the engine spins up, cultists grab at the helicopter and its occupants. The Marshal punches one away, another grabs his gun-arm as the helicopter begins to climb. With a sharp crack and flash, the Marshal fires, hitting the cultist in the chest and dropping him to the ground below. The player pushes another away, but the horde seems unstoppable. Meanwhile, the Father leans back in a trance-like state, gently singing Amazing Grace. Suddenly a cultist clinging to the front of the helicopter pulls himself head-first into the blades, spattering the windscreen and sending the aircraft into a spin. Other cultists are thrown from the fuselage as the chopper hurtles ground-wards. Then there’s blackness and a long orchestral drone as the Father continues to sing. The Far Cry 5 logo appears.
“In order to make it all feel believable, we needed to ensure the actors all felt like they were in that moment – that it felt as real for them as possible. We built a massive helicopter rig on the mocap stage so they could all be in the same space (not easy with those facial rigs). The mocap shoots for Far Cry 5 were some of the most complex shoots Ubisoft has ever done. We were shooting a massive amount of actors all at once doing very complicated choreography. On top of that, the rig could be put on hydraulics so we could whip the stunt actors around during the crash to get the movement right.”
“It looks pretty goofy when you’re watching it on set,” says Holmes, “but once that data gets handed over to the artists the magic happens. Greg whispering to the camera and giving his performance is great, but when you add in the actual character, environment, lighting, animation, and music … the scene becomes absolutely terrifying.”
Following the Far Cry 5 logo, the player’s view fades up again – drifting in and out of focus. Now hanging upside down in the overturned, burning helicopter, the Marshal dangles opposite the player, unconscious. The voice of Hope County Sheriff’s department dispatcher Nancy echoes from a headset just out of reach. “Sheriff, are you there? Are you there?” The Father’s whispery rendition of Amazing Grace sounds from somewhere off-screen. As the player reaches for the headset, The Father’s hand reaches in and grabs his wrist. He pulls himself into view – just inches from the players face – with an intense, unblinking gaze.
|Joseph Seed:||“That saved … a wretch … like me.”|
|Dispatcher:||[panicked] Earl, come in. Over.|
|Joseph Seed:||[whispered to the player] I told you that God wouldn’t let you take me.|
|Dispatcher:||[tearful] Please. I need to know what’s going on.|
|Joseph Seed:||[speaking calmly into the headset] Dispatch.|
|Dispatcher:||Oh my God.|
|Joseph Seed:||[into the headset] Everything is just fine here. No need to call anyone.|
|Dispatcher:||Yes, Father. Praise be to you.|
|Joseph Seed:||[whispered to the player] No one is coming to save you.|
“For the final sequence, we actually flipped the helicopter rig and had the cameraman hang upside down while Greg climbed in and delivered his performance. You’re never quite sure how the scene is going to translate from the page onto the screen, but as soon as we saw Greg’s face come into frame we all went ‘oh shit … that’s terrifying.’ We knew we had something very special.”