Interview: Far Cry 4 director on inclusivity and dealing with online backlash
Note: This story was first published in 2014 on Bullshit, a Sydney-based publication that was super ambitious but ultimately bit the dust. RIP.
The sphere of big budget or ‘AAA games’ tends to be typified by titles featuring brawny, hyper-masculine white guys shooting hordes of adversaries — a depiction nearly as patronising of its core audience as it is alienating to others. Within this same sphere, Far Cry 4 looks set on disrupting this pattern through the diversity of its cast and its depth of narrative. So considering these ambitions, it might come as a surprise to think that, in May of this year, the game’s creative director, Alex Hutchinson, was accused of creating a game that was racist.
“We were just disappointed that people jumped to conclusions so quickly without any real information,” says Hutchinson. The controversy arose after the first pieces of artwork from the game were released to the public, with many online commenters expressing offence at what they thought they were seeing: a European protagonist conquering and desecrating a South Asian nation.
In fact, the man in question is neither European nor the game’s protagonist — he’s the tyrannical villain. Hutchinson’s explanation for the confusion is simple: “people were hungry for information… once we revealed more, people were like, ‘Oh, I guess none of it was true.’”
Far Cry 4 is set within the fictional region of Kyrat, an area inspired by the nations skirting the Himalayas, such as Nepal, and the game features a fairly heterogeneous cast for blockbuster game. “There are virtually no white people in the game,” says Hutchinson. “The lead character isn’t white, none of the other antagonists are white… I think we’re pretty diverse.” Of course, this isn’t to suggest that creating games featuring white or western characters is wrong; rather, it’s merely a positive to sign to see a major developer present the perspectives of more than one demographic.
The cast of Far Cry 4 may not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the past work of Hutchinson, who, after starting out as a games journalist in Melbourne, moved abroad and went on to champion a few notable — and more importantly, inclusive — titles. “If we go through my back catalogue, my last game, Assassin’s Creed III, had a Native American lead and part of the game featured a Native American dialect which is virtually extinct,” notes Hutchinson, “and before that in The Sims 2, you could be whoever you wanted.”
While fostering diverse perspectives in games is an important pursuit, to incorporate different cultures, sexes, and sexualities into games for the sake of placating under-represented audiences is more offensive than not including them at all. But Hutchinson’s trend of inclusivity is both deliberate and well-intentioned, noting that he and his team at Ubisoft Montreal “try really hard to do interesting things, to stay fresh, to push the boundaries a bit.” He adds, “It’s part of my job to take risks and be progressive.”
While Hutchinson and his team have been taking steps towards making big budget games more inclusive, the past few weeks have seen what many might call a momentous step backwards for the medium: #GamerGate, a movement that stands for a number of things, but the most notorious of which is to maintain the status quo of under-representation in video games (and if you don’t know much about #GamerGate, Vox has written a great summary).
Though large-scale game development appears set to meet the film industry in terms of size, controversies such as #GamerGate look as though they might prevent games from achieving the mainstream acceptance of films. Hutchinson, however, expresses an unusual but optimistic view. “Maybe it’s an odd perspective, but I think it’s a sign that we’re finally in the mainstream,” he said. “I don’t think it’s revealing a seedy underbelly of games — I think it’s revealing that everyone plays games and that means we have the same percentage of misogynists and homophobes and racists as the rest of the world.”
As for the values of the video gaming community at large, Hutchinson remains positive. “I do believe [the anti-inclusive] audience is a very small group, and sometimes on the internet, things can seem very loud, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re made up of a lot of people,” he says. “We’re now mainstream, and that means sometimes you’re going to come across corners of the world that aren’t as forgiving or pleasant.”
To Hutchinson, games actually provide more potential to cultivate an inclusive environment than cinema. “I think we already do, to be honest, with a few notable exceptions,” he says. “Any game that lets you create your own character lets you be whoever you want, and you can define gender, race, or sexual preference in hundreds and hundreds of games, so I think we’re already doing a slightly better job. Now it’s just a matter of growing that.”
Hutchinson admits that, as a director, it’s easy for him to be progressive without being hassled by stakeholders because of his past successes — just think about how big The Simswas when you were growing up. But in his eyes, there’s no reason for a publisher to be afraid of backlash for better representing different audiences. “We’ve been fortunate to be successful and it shows you that, in the real world, there’s a big audience for all kinds of unusual ideas from big brands,” he says.
For him, the only risk is token inclusivity. “No matter what you do, there’s always something you didn’t do that someone will beat you up about,” he says. “You’d love to do everything all the time for everyone, but often it’s not realistic, so you just try to take a step forward with a project and do something unique.”