Telling a great story is hard. Doing so within a video game is even harder, since the storyteller has to give up control to the player. Unless you force a player to stop moving with a forced cutscene, they may be too busy exploring the world or shooting bad guys to notice the work you've put into characterization or backstory.
In the case of the upcoming Ghost Recon: Wildlands, the problem is compounded because it's an open-world action game built heavily on player choice and online cooperative multiplayer. Ubisoft Paris developers Sam Strachman and Dominic Butler have thought about this issue a great deal, from almost opposing viewpoints. Strachman is the narrative director for Ghost Recon: Wildlands, while Butler is the game's lead designer.
How do you tell a story when the gameplay is about being free to do what you want?
"There's really a healthy push-and-pull between the narration and the design," says Strachman. "There's a natural conflict that happens between a writer and a designer that's where this creativity is birthed from."
"Sam will have a vision for how a thing will play out and then the designers will go and ruin a lot of that," begins Butler.
"Not ruin!" Strachman laughs. "Make it better!"
"You got this and this bit on the ground that set up this character, but what if I just parachute in? We back and forth, and work together to make sure that we don't artificially restrict the player. It's constant," says Butler.
"On the writing side, it's really putting the focus on characters over scripted missions and scenes. We want context and world logic. There's almost no mission where it's scripted," adds Strachman. "Here's your objective, here's the guy you're going after, and there's all these different ways to learn about him. Or you could just ignore that and go after him. We have what we call 'opt-in storytelling'. We have all the information and background for each character, but it's really depends on every player and how much they want to learn."
Adding To The Tom Clancy Cinematic Universe
Before deciding how they were going to tell their story, the developers at Ubisoft Paris had to decide what story to tell. They started with a simple question: What makes a Tom Clancy story?
"Every single book, movie, or anything related to Clancy is asking this question of 'What If?' What if in the near-future, this were to happen? As we started doing research into what's going on in the world, one interesting fact that we found is Bolivia is one of the largest producers of coca leaf in the world," explains Strachman.
The majority of people in Bolivia use coca leaf for everyday purposes. The leaf itself is a stimulant, so it's used in tea or chewed to overcome fatigue and hunger. It helps against altitude sickness, which is common in certain areas of Bolivia given the height above sea level. Coca leaf paste is also used as anesthetic and analgesic to alleviate pain and treat wounds. For Andean people of South America, it's heavily used for religious reasons.
Manufactured in a particular way though, and the coca leaf can be made into cocaine.
"Our thought on this is, 'What would happen if in this relatively peaceful country, a cartel moved in, took over a huge area, and turned it into a narco state?' What happens is they're able to produce more cocaine than any other cartel in history," says Strachman. "By our estimates in-game, that's 250 tons of cocaine a year, which is bringing in around $2 billion per week."
Ghost Recon: Wildlands' story is kicked off by the capture, torture, and murder of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Ricky Sandoval. As a follow-up to the act, the Santa Blanca cartel bombs the US embassy in the city of La Paz. In response to the flagrant attack, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer Karen Bowman forms a joint task force with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), DEA, military intelligence, and the Department of Defense's Group for Specialized Tactics. That last group, the GST, are the Ghosts. That's you.
"Specialized tactics" means that the Ghosts are making decisions on the ground, determining what's the best way to fulfill their ultimate objective: dismantling the Santa Blanca cartel and dethroning its leader, El Sueno.
"What that means for the game is we put that in the hands of the player. We'll give you your targets and you decide how you go about it," says Strachman.