The end of the world isn't exactly untrodden ground in the realm of video games (or, indeed, any form of fiction).
Last week alone saw the launch of Far Cry: New Dawn and Metro Exodus. Look back a few months further, and we've had Fallout 76, Mutant Year Zero and Overkill's The Walking Dead. Cast your eyes on the horizon and you'll see Days Gone, Generation Zero and Rage 2 approaching.
In addition to the general 'end of the world' theme, it's a safe bet they all share other similarities. Resources will be low, tensions will be high, the landscape will be devastated, but there will still be hope for humanity -- primarily thanks to the player and their ability to murder all the baddies.
In light of such competition, you might think the Far Cry series -- famed for its exotic and unusual settings, ranging from the Mesolithic Age of Primal back to Far Cry 2's war-torn Africa -- would avoid the end of the world. But associate narrative director James Nadiger tells us the franchise has always been gearing towards this, and work on Far Cry 5 offered a prime opportunity.
"The apocalypse is a place we've wanted to take Far Cry for a long time - I think it suits our crazy gameplay"
"As we were working up to the end of Far Cry 5 and we decided one of the endings should actually be a doomsday scenario, we all got super excited," he tells GamesIndustry.biz. "Partly because the apocalypse is a place we've wanted to take Far Cry for a long time -- I think it suits our crazy gameplay -- but also it gave us an opportunity to come back to Hope County. We wanted to revisit some of these characters we were falling in love with, but we wanted to make sure the circumstances were really different. We wanted to see what the world would look like 17 years later, and what the pressure did to some old friends and old enemies."
Nadiger insists that Ubisoft Montreal, the lead studio behind both Far Cry 5 and New Dawn, did not pay any particular attention to the wealth of post-civilisation games coming out in the months around its latest project. Instead, it just concentrated on ways to tell a fresh story around an increasingly common premise.
"The cool thing about apocalypse fiction -- not just in games, but across all media -- is everyone gets to put their own spin on it," he says. "Some of them go very far into sci-fi, fantasy land, while some keep it more realistic. For New Dawn, what sets us apart almost immediately is what we've done with our environment."
This becomes instantly apparent in the videos and screenshots, which are considerably less bleak that those of other post-apocalyptic titles. It helps that Hope County is a largely rural setting, and the vibrant wildflowers spreading across the plains and covering the ruined locales of the previous game give New Dawn a unique look.
Ubisoft actually consulted with meteorologists, ones whose job is to work governments on projections of different nuclear scenarios -- "from one bomb to every bomb," as Nadiger puts it. From this, the developers worked out how much devastation would wipe away the world we know but still allow for nature to "bounce back in a big way". The result is this colourful landscape, depicting what's known as the 'super bloom' -- a real-world effect where after a long, dry period, the subsequent rains bring forth oceans of brightly coloured flowers.
"So we've leveraged a bunch of real world things to create an apocalypse that's clearly an after the end of the world scenario but with an environment that's lush and inviting," says Nadiger. "When plants come back, animals come back, predators come back, and that sets up a classic Far Cry open world.
"When plants come back, animals come back, predators come back, and that sets up a classic Far Cry open world"
"I don't remember the exact number [of bombs we based on] but if there's too many bombs, there's no chance for anyone to survive or for plants and animals to recover. You can recover from radiation or nuclear disasters fairly quickly -- if you look at things Chernobyl, or at Hiroshima or Nagasaki, where bombs went off, radiation came out, but life continued to soldier on."
The use of colour helps to convey a lighter tone than you would expect from a post-apocalyptic story -- and, as Nadiger observes, certainly one more optimistic than that of Far Cry 5. Rather than being about a world on the brink of collapse, it explores how civilisation can rebuild and move forward.
And, as he says, while it can be easy to label this (and similar tales) as set at end of the world, "the truth is the world didn't end". The population of Hope County is still present in some form, with many characters returning from Far Cry 5. For example, Nick and Kim Rye are both present and the baby players helped deliver in last year's game has grown up. This enabled Nadiger and his fellow writers to explore "a generational theme" in New Dawn -- something rarely delved into by post-apocalyptic games, since few are direct sequels to titles set before the devastation.
"Where Nick and Kim have an idea of the world they've lost forever, Carmina has only ever known the world to be like this -- this is the life she's fighting for," says Nadiger. "It's kinda fun to explore a younger generation stepping up and taking control of their world from arguably the generation that screwed it up."
However, Ubisoft is keen to stress New Dawn is very much a standalone game. While the Far Cry 5 was among the best-selling games of 2018, this spin-off is arriving less than a year later -- and that was a year filled with massive games like Ubisoft's own Assassin's Creed Odyssey or Red Dead Redemption 2. The chances, then, of every New Dawn player knowing their Chad Wolanskis from their Cheeseburgers are minimal.
As such, New Dawn puts players in the role of a new character arriving in Hope Country for the first time, part of the rescue effort helping to fight back against the Highwaymen -- the enemy faction of the game. Every location they reach, every character they meet will be a first for the protagonist, with Nadiger adding: "You get told about everything you need to know when you need to know it". And naturally, there's be more depth for those who have finished the previous title.
"It's kinda fun to explore a younger generation stepping up and taking control of their world from arguably the generation that screwed it up"
"If you come from 5, you'll have a bit of extra knowledge -- you'll have seen some of these characters before and you'll be able to see some of the difference," says Nadiger. "But if you've never played 5, or you've never played Far Cry, it's a new story, new villains, new mechanics, everything is a new experience."
Nadiger even argues that, at a lower price point that the main Far Cry games, New Dawn could even prove to be an entry point for those who have yet to experience the series and its open-ended gameplay before.
It's impossible to discuss anything related to Far Cry 5 without touching on the sensitive nature of its story. Given the political shifts seen in the US over the past few years, it's easy to see why a game set in America about an extremist cult could be seen a political commentary. But as various Ubisoft people have said -- including creative director Dan Hay, when we spoke to him ahead of launch -- this isn't necessarily the case. Nadiger, a scriptwriter on the previous game, argues it would be almost impossible to make a clear statement in a blockbuster action game.
"Whenever we make any game, we set out to make the experience that we want to make," he says. "Far Cry 5 sold millions of copies, and you're not going to get millions of people to agree on anything.
"That people wanted [us to say] something is great, but we were always going to make 5 to be 5. We wanted to tell a story about a world on the brink, a world teetering on the edge of collapse, and we always knew we were going to follow it up with New Dawn, to have a different perspective on certain themes about survival and human nature."
Naturally, New Dawn is under less expectation to be a commentary on our times given the far more speculative setting. Different players will have different takeaways, Nadiger tells us, just as they will be looking for different things in the game. For some, it will be the mechanics, while others will want the story.
But this hints at perhaps Nadiger's greatest challenge: telling a story that justifies the setting, yet can ultimately be ignored. Far Cry 5 shook the series' formula up somewhat by focusing less on scripted missions and setpieces and allowing players to progress the story in their own way. They could instead indulge in the sandbox nature of it, taking down outposts and attacking cult convoys and silos to trigger the next encounter with each villain.
The same is true in New Dawn, but Nadiger says Ubisoft Montreal has learned a lot from feedback in the last ten months. And yes, while that does mean, some players may miss some of the story content he has developed, it's more important that they experience a Far Cry apocalypse however they see fit.
"It's always an interesting challenge, particularly in a big systemic sandbox like Far Cry," he says. "Far Cry is very much about player choice so we have to do everything we can to make sure you can approach the world in your way. Sometimes that's simple game mechanics... like whether you want to stealth the outposts or go in all guns blazing. In a lot of our games, there are narrative choices you can make.
"Depending on your own playstyle and preferences, I don't know that our solutions will appease everybody but we do our best to let everybody off the leash and then do what we can to move focus when we need you to do a story mission to move things one step forward. We try to do that in an elegant way. The takeaway from 5 was that people didn't like the forced captures, so we definitely took that into consideration -- there's no forced captures in New Dawn. When you're ready to move the story forward, you buy into it on your own turns. We never take you away from an activity, we'll just let you know you're ready to move on and you can proceed at your own pace."