Q: It's early 2013 and Ubisoft has wrapped on Far Cry 3. You've also joined the team, and you have screeds feedback to parse. What did the internal debrief sound like? What did the team identify as successes and failures?

Alex Hutchinson: Yeah, it’s an interesting team. There’s a big chunk of people from Far Cry 3, and then there are people like myself. If you finish a game and you know you’re going to do the next one you have a ready-made list of things you know you want to do or improve.

Seeking Shangri-La: How Ubisoft will top 2012’s GOTY
Alex Hutchinson, creative director, Far Cry 4

They wanted the narrative to be more connected to what you’re doing. They didn’t want it to be, ‘My friends are trapped in a basement getting murdered but I’m off hunting pigs’. So our narrative is much more about taking the land back from Pagan Min, and that’s what the game is about. What you’re doing and what you’re hearing is very similar. We’ve integrated it much better.

Then there were much smaller things like getting shooting from vehicles working, having more uses for wingsuits, and we’ve always wanted a gyrocopter. In just about any corner of the game there was a list of things that the guys wanted to improve.

We took it as a starting point for some of the fixing jobs of Far Cry 4, and then of course there are all the totally new things we want to do like co-op in the main game, and choice in the main narrative – all these big picture items that are more on my side of things.

Q: You came to Far Cry after working on Assassin’s Creed 3. What do you think you were able to bring to this franchise?

Hutchinson: Part of it is what I think of as a version of Stockholm syndrome. You get about forty days – four or five weeks – where you have a clean set of eyes before you’re polluted by what the existing team understands to be possible and impossible.

What I try to do whenever I join a franchise is to play through it all and make my own list of things I hate, things I love, and things that annoy me. I do it so that six months later when I’m convincing myself, ‘you know what? I don’t think this feature is that bad, I think it actually does work’, I can look back and remember that with fresh eyes I really hated it.
Alex Hutchinson, Ubisoft

Also you get more energy working with new people. The Assassin’s Creed franchise has some amazing people on it, and the Far Cry franchise has some amazing people on it, and getting that energy of meeting someone new and discovering, ‘Fuck, you’re smart!’ That’s cool, you know? Then you can argue with them about things and not falling back into patterns you’ve had when you’ve worked with people for years and years. That can be too safe. It’s unsafe and challenging to work with new people.

Q: Pagan Min to me is a really interesting character. When you first see him in the game’s art he’s almost like a caricature, but in reality he’s actually a pretty cool piece of writing. Did you ever push that design too far? Did you find the line that you had to pull back from?

Seeking Shangri-La: How Ubisoft will top 2012’s GOTY
I really wanted a kind of Bollywood flavour. Not in the sense that it’s silly but in the sense that it’s a black comedy, a bit extreme but still earnest.
Alex Hutchinson, Ubisoft
Seeking Shangri-La: How Ubisoft will top 2012’s GOTY
We just thought it would be funny to have him say, ‘Everyone thinks I’m gay!’ It was directly in response to the dumb shit you read online. It made us laugh.
Alex Hutchinson, Ubisoft
Seeking Shangri-La: How Ubisoft will top 2012’s GOTY
Seeking Shangri-La: How Ubisoft will top 2012’s GOTY
Seeking Shangri-La: How Ubisoft will top 2012’s GOTY

Alex Hutchinson: Yeah, Jean-Alexis Doyon, our art director on Far Cry 4, he really wanted Pagan Min to be striking and unique. You can shoot him from any angle and know that it’s Pagan Min. We didn’t want another villain in a military outfit. So the visual was very much on his side of things.

For me, we had the parts but it came together much later. I really wanted a kind of Bollywood flavour. Not in the sense that it’s silly, but in the sense that it’s a black comedy, a bit extreme, but still earnest. That was the same tone we tried to get for Pagan Min. He’s accidentally funny all the time, a bit like The Office where he’s earnestly saying something that’s true in his world, but it’s funny so outlandish or so ridiculous or disconnected from reality.

Once we had that idea, you’re pretty safe. He can be way out there, but we didn’t want him to do anything that was fantastical or imaginary or not grounded.

Q: I think it’s interesting that in one of his radio transmissions Pagan Min expressly addresses the subject of his sexuality – that some people think he’s gay when in fact he’s not. Clearly you thought that was a necessary subject to address?

Alex Hutchinson: Nah, we wanted it to be a black comedy. We put in a lot of those radio calls late in the development process. It’s hard to pace open world games. If you follow the main plot he’s there quite a lot – twice as much as Vaas is in Far Cry 3. But maybe you’re hunting honey badgers for three hours and you’re feeling like you’re never interacting with him. So we asked ourselves, how could we make sure he’s still present a lot? What we came up with was voice calls that would be triggered by completing open world activities. He’s much more present.

While we were doing that, because we were adding it late, all this nonsense came up online about ‘Is he gay?’ So we just thought it would be funny to have him say, ‘Everyone thinks I’m gay!’ It was directly in response to the dumb shit you read online. It made us laugh.

At a certain point, you work so hard and you work so long, I’m a big believer in the teaming having fun and telling a joke to themselves. It’s really connected to that. It’s the same thing as when was everyone thinking he was a white guy. He’s not white. It was like, ‘what?’ I had to tweet it…

Q: While we’re on characters: Ajay—by the way, is it “AJ” or “Ah-jay”?

Alex Hutchinson: Yeah, a Hindi would say “Ah-jay”, but he was raised in America where they would definitely say “AJ”. We actually tried to work that joke in as well, but it got to a point where even the voice actors didn’t know what it was, so we couldn’t really get the joke to work. For a while he had him saying to everyone, ‘No it’s “AJ”’, but we got rid of it.

Q: Plenty of work seems to have gone into making him a bit more relatable and appropriate than Far Cry 3’s dudebro, Jason.

Alex Hutchinson: In games my preference is to play myself, you know? I like characters that get out of the way. We tried with Ajay to pull him back a notch. He’s not Nathan Drake, who’ll comment on the fact he’s walking down a road. Ajay is really silent. We want the player to react to seeing things, have the player to be the one reacting to characters instead of Ajay. He’s much more low key.

Q: In the game you have Shangri-La, which are these otherworldly, spiritual platforming levels. Can you speak a little more to the purpose they serve in the game?

Alex Hutchinson: Within Ubisoft everyone has been working really hard to make our worlds more believable and more detailed. You know, that level of immersion level of everything making sense, a house looking lived in with spaces for that person to work and everything like that. The thing is, if you do it right it kind of becomes invisible and you can feel like it’s wasted. The developers put in all this hard work in but the players run through in seconds: ‘Yeah this all makes sense, it’s a room’.

So we were writing up the myths and legends of Kyrat. What do they believe in, what statues would they have, where would they worship? We wrote all this stuff, and it was neat. And we thought, we can put it in books, and you can read it, Skyrim-style. But you know what, our game is all about interactivity so we thought, why don’t we make missions for this. We got really excited about the idea of making a version of a shooter that’s kind of extinct, like Hexen. These magical weird shooters that you could never get the budget to do now. So we put five hours of it inside the umbrella of Far Cry.

It hit a lot of different buttons for us.

Far Cry 4 is out November 20 on Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and Windows PC.