Like most modern blockbuster video games, Ubisoft Montreal’s Far Cry 3 begins with a short movie.
Using the same 3D graphics and animation found in the game, the opening scene introduces players to the main character, carefree ecotourist Jason, the scenic-yet-deadly islands he, his brother and their friends find themselves marooned on, and Vaas, their sadistic, facially scarred captor.
Once the stage is set, without warning players are thrust from static cinematic cutscene to live gameplay; within Far Cry 3′s 30 or so hours of play time is over two hours of cinematic footage, or 169 individual vignettes, also created at Ubisoft Montreal’s Mile End studio.
Cutscenes remain gaming’s primary storytelling tool, even though Far Cry 3′s associate producer for cinematics, Anne Gibeault, admits cutscenes can annoy impatient gamers, many of whom will be itching to rumble in Far Cry 3′s vast jungle, and have no use for preamble. (The game hit Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony PlayStation 3 and PC’s on Tuesday),
“You want to give control to the player as fast as you can, they’re anxious to play,” says Gibeault. “At the same time, there’s a story to the game and you have to give the player some context. They need to understand why they’re there.”
The solution for the cinematics team was to make the transition from cutscenes to gameplay, like the opening scene where players orchestrate Jason’s prison escape, as seamless as possible. “You suddenly have control, but it still has the ambience of a movie,” she explains.
Gibeault and her team were brought in a year ago, about halfway through the game’s development. Upon her arrival, the vacation-gone-awry storyline had essentially been written, so the cinematics team was responsible for hiring the actors and setting up the shoots based on the details given to them by the level designers.
The cinematics team also felt getting players more invested in Jason’s plight required improving the motion capture process. Over the 20 days of shooting, the actors wore the customary black leotards with reflective markers (that look like light bulbs) at every articulation to have their movements recorded, but in a first for Ubisoft Montreal, the actors also wore helmets affixed with cameras and microphones that recorded their dialogue and facial expressions. The studio calls it “performance capture.”
“In the past it was all done separately. We used to record the audio first, then in the motion capture we’d play back the audio on loudspeakers and the actors would have to time their expressions,” says Gibeault. “Performance capture gave the actors the chance to act out the scenes together in the same room and improvise more.”
The new technology meant putting more trust in the actors to shape their characters. In the case of Vaas, played by Quebec City-born actor Michael Mando, Far Cry 3′s villain was created with Mando based on his failed audition for another role. “They even took the way I looked,” recalls Mando. “I had a faux-hawk at the time, and I had my fingers taped as a way to bring more attention to my hand gestures.”
Ubisoft Montreal has put considerable emphasis on Mando’s Vaas: not only is he on the game’s box art, a speech given by Vass, called “Definition of Insanity,” was used to introduce gamers to Far Cry 3 in 2011 at gaming’s biggest expo, E3.
“I recited that monologue to a tennis ball, because the player sees the game through Jason’s eyes,” says Mando. “For the other scenes there was an actor who held the camera pretending to be Jason. It gave filming a more visceral, human feel.”