He's got a great job, but it might not be what you think.
Jeffrey Yohalem is the lead writer of the upcoming Far Cry 3. Prior to that, he wrote Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, for which he won the Writers Guild Award. He has also worked as a writer / designer on Assassin's Creed II, Assassin's Creed Revelations, a story designer on Rainbow Six Vegas 2, and directed a documentary film, Human Eaters.
An interesting guy with an interesting job, I was recently lucky enough to sit down with him and ask all sorts of questions about both his job and the upcoming Far Cry 3. Throughout the interview, I was struck by how incredibly enthusiastic he is about the game. Keep in mind he's coming off months of late nights on a years-long project, is a long jet-plane ride from his home, and on his umpteenth press tour for the title.
That he was so effusive and excited about the potential for the game really resonated with me and has dialed up my enthusiasm for the already hotly anticipated September release of Far Cry 3.
To find out why, read on...
How did you get your start in gaming? Surely your school's guidance counselor didn't put a "So, you want to write and design video games..." pamphlet in front of you?
No! [laughs] It was probably the other way around. Ever since 1st grade, I was the kid who, during recess or at lunch, was always installing games on the school computers (even though I wasn’t allowed to) and I would watch the other kids play them, to see how they would react. I would bring games from home, show them, and just watch them play.
That’s pretty much how it started for me, and by third grade I was writing scripts for my own games. My senior thesis at Yale University was actually a videogame script, which I think was a first and I do not think it has been done since; they had not seen this before.
Wow! OK, you were definitely born for this weren’t you?
Yeah, remembering back I was playing Prince of Persia (1989) at RadioShack, and I sat there all day long playing it, and it was such an amazing game for me, it changed my life from that day on.
I agree; it was an amazing game, I’m a fan of Jordan Mechner's work myself.
Yeah, I really felt like there was a living person in the computer, and this is what I seek to create with every game I write. I’m intimately involved in the design process, so I just don’t fly in as a writer, I’m a designer as well and part of the team. The goal for us is to create that ‘ghost in the machine’, so a player doesn’t feel alone when playing a game written by me.
Can you talk us through the high-level process of writing for videogames, based on your experience?
Well, there is a core team made of the lead level designer, lead designer, creative director, art director, myself as lead writer, and cinematics director... and a couple of other people like the producer.
We get together and come up with what it is we want to express and create, and we do this all together. I’m not the one coming up with it, I assist with this creation; I’m just a part of the process.
It’s a common misconception that the writer of the story is the writer of the game, that’s not the case. To me, writing is just a part of what makes the story, the rest is built with the soundtrack, the levels, the game design - these together all make the story and it's not owned by the writer.
I believe, to make a successful story (and a successful game), everyone on the team should own the story; if the writer just owns it, it won’t work, we’re not programming it! [laughs]
Did you manage to talk anyone into sending you to Florence to research Ezio Auditori's birthplace? Research must be a key aspect of your work; what sort of research would you typically do for a big title like that?
Of course, with Assassin's Creed we do extensive research, we visit each location. Actually I wrote the database in Assassin's Creed, and Brotherhood. There's a database in Far Cry  as well; it’s become my signature I guess, I enjoy it, writing these historical databases, for me it's a peice of performance art. You could say, for me it’s like writing a series of jokes for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.
Is there more / less / different emphasis on a strong story in today's market?
I think that games are starting to clue in to the fact that people are interested in storytelling. To me, there are two types of games: games in the past are just about winning and losing, you are presented the rules at the beginning and you know all the rules as you play through. I think now, games are providing experiences; the player doesn’t know all the rules and learning the rules is a part of the experience - it’s no longer about winning or losing, it's about what you live.
This is something we’ve really captured in Far Cry 3; we’ve taken a shooter and completely transformed it into a story driven experience, and I don’t think gamers have seen anything like this yet.
Tell us more about Far Cry 3's story; how in-depth is the narrative? Is it integral to the experience, with twists and intrigue, or is it simply there to provide context for the action?
Well, the idea behind the game is everything that happens in the game is centred around what the player's experiencing. The key to this is setting a central mechanic: in Assassin's Creed it was ‘freedom’, that you can move anywhere.
With Far Cry , the central mechanic is about ‘shooting’, so we decided to make a game about ‘shooting’. Now you may think "well yeah, OK, a game about shooting". But usual shooters don’t really talk about shooting, and they in fact run away from it a lot of times. Say there's a military soldier going and shooting a thousand people and we pretend he doesn’t kill a thousand people because he is the hero, or those people are aliens or monsters, you know it's “don’t pay attention to killing a thousand people because it's about freedom”.
That’s what I think is what you experience in most games. We have decided in Far Cry  to show what shooting in videogames means. We have an everyman protagonist in his 20s who is on vacation with his friends, and they all get kidnapped by pirates. The protagonist has to survive minute to minute, and has to save his friends; but to do this, he has to pick up a gun.
We wanted to create an experience for the player, where we wanted to ask the question "what would the player do in that situation?" You may be an athletic type, or have played shooters before and can get headshots, but we wanted to present everyone you’re shooting at like real people, and everyone you kill is a real person. That for me, is a brand new experience for a video game.
Is there any type of game / story you'd really love to do next, if you could choose anything?
Hmm, uhhh, ummm, that’s a hard question. There is a game about a coming of age love story I wrote several years ago, that I would like to make, but Far Cry 3 is actually what i’ve wanted to make as well. The creative director and I really push each other to make something very unique. I think maybe in the future, maybe making a game without any killing in it.
What would you consider to be, say, your top-three current-generation games based on their writing alone?
Braid, Journey and BioShock.
Do you like playing games in your own time? If yes, what sorts?
I really like, [laughs] Pac-Man Championship, [and] Geometry Wars 2 I really love. Sword and Sorcery is great. I really love games that delight in the joy of what they are doing, games which play with mechanics in new and interesting ways.
I actually try and spend a lot of my time watching movies, going to plays, reading books, and really, just experiencing life, I feel that’s where creativity comes from, and then there's the five or ten percent of games that try and do something new.