Interview: Kevin Shortt on Far Cry Primal

Lead writer on Far Cry Primal Kevin Shortt talks about dealing with bad guys and traditional storytelling in an open-world game.

Interview: Kevin Shortt on Far Cry Primal

I recently posted an interview with creative director at Ubisoft Toronto Max Beland, where we talked about his experience of working on Far Cry Primal (and a bit on Far Cry 4). My second interview at the hands-on event was with lead writer Kevin Shortt. What started off as a joke about the exclusive use of subtitles in Far Cry Primal became a chat about the main hero, the threats he’ll come up against, and how the writing team approaches embedded narrative in an emergent-narrative open-world.

Read on for the interview, and be sure to check out the next issue of PC PowerPlay magazine to read new and extended quotes from Shortt.

PCPP: I was just being briefed on how you’re creating The Passion of the Christ in terms of how Far Cry Primal has no spoken English and exclusively uses subtitles.

Kevin Shortt: Yeah, that’s right. The Passion of the Christ did that.

PCPP: Russell Crowe allegedly told Mel Gibson that he’s crazy because he didn’t want to have subtitles in The Passion of the Christ, and that’s the reason Gibson put them in. So the story goes.

Kevin Shortt: Didn’t they go without subtitles in Apocalypto?

PCPP: Now you’re making me think. No, they had subtitles in Apocalypto. Speaking of brutal movies, what kind of bad guys can we expect to come up against in Primal?

Kevin Shortt: There’s the Udon, the brute force that you saw. Those guys are… they’re a tribe from the north. Did you get to the north, at all?

PCPP: Is it really cold?

Kevin Shortt: Yes.

PCPP: Yes. I got there.

Kevin Shortt: So the Udom are from the north and that’s where… they lived through the Ice Age, and now we’re just at the tail end of the Ice Age and the ice has all receded. They were starving during the Ice Age, so now they’ve come into the land of Oros and they’re fighting for resources and they see anybody as a threat, particularly Takkar and the Wenja, because Takkar is part of the Wenja tribe. Did you see any of the guys with the little green dots over their heads?

PCPP: Yes.

Kevin Shortt: Those are Wenja and that’s part of your tribe. So they are trying to take out the Wenja and basically claim this region, and you are trying to secure a space for the Wenja and establish yourself, set yourself up there.

PCPP: That sounds like you’re exploring some grey areas with people not being clear-cut baddies. Like, if people are just looking to eat, that doesn’t make them the sort of moustache-twirling villains that we’ve dealt with in Far Cry in the past.

Kevin Shortt: No, we’ve certainly got some good, just plain evil villains, for sure. But the Udom, I think, that’s a tribe, they are fighting for their own survival. But, yeah, I would say that we have some others that you’ll see. I can’t say too much.

PCPP: That’s okay. Going back to Takkar, I think, at least in recent history with the Far Cry games, he’s the first protagonist to not be a fish out of water.

Kevin Shortt: Right.

PCPP: What opportunities does that present, and why was it you decided to go with someone who’s established versus someone who’s not?

Kevin Shortt: Okay, first of all he’s a Wenja. I’ll give you a little background of what his deal is. He’s a guy, he’s this seasoned hunter, as we’ve said before, he’s the last survivor of his hunting party, and his hunting party was in a region at the start of the game that we’re not playing yet. It’s a barren region and they’re trying to find Oros because they know the land of Oros is lush and it’s got lots of resources and it’s got more Wenja. Unfortunately, before he reaches there, the rest of his tribe is killed, so now Takkar is the last guy to get into Oros.

Now he’s trying to find more of his Wenja tribe and basically reunite with them, so it was a good opportunity to… We like the notion that he comes in and he ends up meeting more people from his own tribe. We just like this notion that he’s part of a tribe, you’ve got these other tribes… during that period, they were starting to become very tribal. That was a thing. You’d get these groups sticking together as a tribe, so we thought, ‘Well, we’ve got to stick with that. Let’s honour that and say he’s in this region with other Wenja.’

PCPP: You’ve worked on Watch Dogs for third-person games. Is there a difference between how you approach writing for a third-person game, versus how you write for a first-person game, given the intimacy of the perspective of first-person versus third?

Kevin Shortt: That’s an interesting question. There can be differences, for sure. I think with Takkar, we tried… we didn’t want to have him… he’s not a chatty guy. We didn’t want him to be super chatty because this is… he talks, and you’ll hear him every now and then, but we didn’t want him to be too chatty because it’s in your head. The player, I think, identifies more as, ‘This is me. This is who I am,’ so we tried not to get overly heavy on the voice. I think that’s probably the main difference that I would say when you’re writing those sorts of things.

PCPP: Do game mechanics come out of that initial narrative setup for you, or does it come more that you’re told that we’re going to have these mechanics and you kind of have to weave narrative around that?

Kevin Shortt: Certainly the game mechanics are a big thing. Thomas [Simon], our game director, he’s going to put that forward. He’s going to say these are the kind of game mechanics we want to work with, and so for me from my perspective, I usually just go, ‘Okay, that’s what we’re working with? Great. How will we turn that into… what’s the story around that?’ Like, there’s the Beast Master skill. We know we want to have that. Well, ‘Okay, How do we wrap that around… what is that?’ And what it is, is you get this Beast Master skill, you learn about it from this shaman that we have.

You might have seen clips of him, he’s called a guy we call Tensay, and he’s a spiritual… as the shaman of the Winja, he’s the one who holds the Wenja stories, he shares the Wenja stories, and he sort of oversees the spiritual aspect of the tribe. They’re like an animism tribe—they believe that everything has a spirit—and so he’s the one that recognises in the player, ‘Okay, you have this ability.’ He helps the player unlock this Beast Master ability. That’s where we end up going, ‘Okay, that’s the gameplay; how do we work it into our world and make it part of our world?’

PCPP: Do you ever get to put your foot down and draw a line when it comes to narrative? ‘We need to change this’, and you’re like, ‘No, that absolutely cannot change’?

Kevin Shortt: Yeah, sure. We have moments like that. I win some of those battles, and I lose some of those battles. Yes, we definitely have moments like that, that we all kind of… you see who rustles each other down to win it.

PCPP: So it’s not an absolute thing where this cannot change when it comes to story? Do you have to be more malleable to your approach to that, or pick your battles?

Kevin Shortt: It’s hard to say. There can be situations where it’s, like, ‘If we do this, we’re going to break some stuff seriously.’ If you merge well with your team, if you work well with your team, then everyone figures that out and it’s, like, ‘Okay. No problem. We’ll work around that.’ Yeah, it does happen: if you change that it has big repercussions. But that’s like anything. It’s the same with gameplay. The gameplay team is like, ‘We cannot change this. You guys have to adjust this,’ and that’s what, if you’re a good team, that’s what you do. You figure out how to make it work for everybody.

PCPP: No creative differences here, huh?

Kevin Shortt: Oh, there’s always creative differences. I’m not saying there aren’t a few fights, but it’s a good team, and I will say that we… I was really impressed. We worked really well together on this project.

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