Critical Intel Himalayas

Ubisoft’s team was on a narrow cliff-side path when the attack came. It was a common setting for Nepal — a strip of road with a sheer slope on one side and a drop on the other. Their drone buzzed out into the abyss, capturing footage of a river in the valley below.

That’s when the eagle attacked the drone. Nepali eagles are used to people, and birds, and the occasional helicopter, but they’d never encountered drones before. The sudden assault became a moment familiar to anyone who’s played Far Cry 4.

“The most important thing we brought back from our trip to Nepal are not pictures, videos or notes,” said Phil Fournier, Far Cry 4‘s Production Manager. “It’s the anecdotes and experiences that we lived through while being there that helped us shape Kyrat into a believable place.”

Indeed, having recently returned from Nepal myself, I can attest that Ubisoft achieved a stunning level of fidelity with Far Cry 4‘s environments. The game’s landscape and architecture invoke the Himalayas with every crooked stone path and glacier-capped mountain. But it’s not an accurate representation so much as an impressionistic one, a theater that looks like the Himalayas but still accommodates the Far Cry model of play. It’s an effect that required monumental research and a personal visit, and produced one of the most impressive virtual environments ever.

The Himalayas are not a simple landscape to translate into a game. In lower altitudes like those South Kyrat depicts, the scenery’s more pastoral and jungle-clad than the snowy peaks we associate with the country. It’s a fertile region where trails wind past little hamlets and rice terraces cut into the steep slopes. The land’s a vibrant green like a St. Patrick’s Day streamer, the same green as on the prayer flags villagers string along the path. Clear rivers — the product of glacial melt — cut through the valley floors and waterfalls tumble from above, spill across the path, and then fall below you like a stepped fountain. The footpaths are “Nepali Flat,” meaning any angle up to 45 degrees and often steeper. Nepalis consider anything that isn’t stairs to be flat. Trekking the Himalayas means hugging the curves and undulations of the mountains. You’re forever hiking up to go down, and down to go up. Dirt paths give way to uneven stone as you approach villages.

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It’s a good example of how Far Cry 4 captures the region’s spirit, but also changes it to serve its own purposes. The game includes all of these visuals in its breathtaking landscapes, and to an extent replicates the feel of traveling by foot, but it’s also been altered to reflect Far Cry‘s game mechanics. This game has more verticality than any Far Cry to date, but the cliffs aren’t as steep, the terrain as rugged, nor the vegetation as thick as the real thing. It turns out that “Nepali Flat” doesn’t make for a very good player experience, and the team had to balance the alpine environment with gameplay concerns.

“Our first iteration [of] Kyrat had long inclined roads with few flat areas, which felt good visually,” Fournier said. “[But] after only a few minutes of driving around, the world felt contrived and didn’t give us the sense of freedom or scale we were looking for.”

Indeed, it’d be difficult to drive around the Himalayas at all. Most mountain villages like the ones in Far Cry 4 can’t be accessed by car. All the supplies come in via porters packing it in on their backs, or on horse or mule trains. Trek there and you’ll encounter these unwieldy caravans — one horse passed me so close, its haunches squeezed my face into a moss-covered cliff. The environment can’t support mountain bikes, much less cars.

The team settled on more moderate topography. Less “Nepali Flat” and more like the rice terraces that dot the region. “We decided to break it up into multiple gameplay areas where interesting locations could be approached in all sorts of ways,” Fournier said. This solution provided the best of both worlds — retaining the illusion of dizzying altitude while stabilizing the play area. In addition, the more gradual valleys allow players to directly ascend and descend using the grappling hook, something that would be impossible on realistic cliff faces. But despite scaling down and flattening the valleys, the world still maintains a sense of epic scale — in fact, wide valleys and stepped mountains create longer sightlines than Nepal normally allows. The other new transportation tool, the gyrocopter, also serves to show off the emerald vistas.

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Gyrocopters are a useful fiction, allowing players to traverse the map quickly while also keeping a foot in fact. In reality Nepal’s narrow, switchback roads make medical evacuation via ambulance impossible, and helicopters fill the gap. Every day as my wife and I walked on the trail, we saw rescue choppers scream overhead, banking toward Annapurna Base Camp. Our Sherpa guide would touch his head and chest in a protective blessing every time one passed. While gyrocopters weren’t, in my experience, a tool on the Annapurna Circuit, tourists can charter ultralight flights in nearby Pokhara. It’s also, Fournier points out, a tool for team play. “Nothing beats the rush of hitching a ride from your coop partner’s gyrocopter before letting go and flying over Himalayan peaks and valleys.”

Despite the game-structured landscape, you can still find mountain trails that seem ripped from a trekker’s photo album. They wind and climb, hiding secrets around the next corner. While hidden locations and discoverable areas are a gameplay staple, here they’re true to life. Mountain roads will snake through forests and between boulders, and it’s common to turn a bend and find yourself face-to-face with a village or temple you’d never know was there. And to the game’s credit, those villages look like they should. The shoebox-shaped stone homes, the rice terraces downhill, the stores stuffed with a mix of western goods and unidentifiable delights — all these were recognizable to me.

At one point I was looting an outpost when my wife looked over my shoulder and shouted, “Our teahouse!” I looked again at the old ceiling fan, the battered beds and dining hall and realized, yes, we’d stayed in a place almost like this one. Even before I’d seen the Vice featurettes that show Ubisoft teams walking around with cameras and color palates, it was obvious that they’d been obsessive about documenting details. The meal Pagan Min serves Ajay, for example, appears to be Dhal Baht, a local staple any traveler will recognize. Some characters and experiences stemmed directly from the team observing life in the Himalayas — like when the team’s bus got stopped at a security checkpoint.

“After a few exchanges between our driver and the guard, another guard came out of a building with a mirror wand to look under our bus,” remembers Fournier. “Our crew looked at each other suspiciously, not knowing if this was standard procedure.”

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They cleared the checkpoint successfully, but the event inspired Far Cry 4‘s opening scene — where Ajay isn’t so lucky.

Military checkpoints like this one can happen in Nepal. Security apparatus there is tight and low-tech. Airports screen your carry-on bags twice, and in addition to metal detectors, guards separate men and women for mandatory full hand pat-downs. Armed soldiers stand guard at cultural sites in Kathmandu, sometimes in wooden towers much like those in the game. It’s tame compared to other countries in the region (I saw heavier troop presence in India and Cambodia, for instance) but it was worse before the civil war ended in 2006. Far Cry 4 drew inspiration from that time – the team even interviewed former Maoist rebels.

While the villages feel authentic, the temples have a more checkered scorecard. The small shrines — little roadside statues smeared with pastel tikka powder — look acceptably genuine. The most successful cultural location are the ghats, or cremation platforms, where NPCs mourn for dead relatives. The emotional displays give these sites a reverence that’s lacking in the game’s temples.

While they’re visually impressive, the temples in Far Cry 4 don’t have the faithful ring much of the game does, even though they contain accouterments of Nepal’s Hindu and Buddhist temples. That’s because Kyrat’s religion, a fictionalized system based on Nepali beliefs, never feels quite real. Example: the mission that introduces these beliefs involves filling a “karma bar” by lighting incense, a return of the maligned “Press X To” interaction. As a result, the temples lack any sacred feeling. That’s a shame, since the team certainly tried to get this aspect right, even going so far as to attend an animal sacrifice. But notwithstanding the spiritual emptiness in the larger temples, many sites still achieve great aesthetic beauty. One of the best locations is a near-reproduction of Tal Bahari Temple, an island pagoda complex in Pokhara’s Phewa Lake. Much like the actual temple, the island in Far Cry 4 retains its spiritual feeling due to its clear separation from everything around it. Here the team achieved its aim to not only reproduce a place, but give a sense of its importance and meaning.

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“During the planning phase of our trip to Nepal we selected some locations we absolutely wanted to visit since they served as inspiration,” Fournier said. “It was great to set foot in those places and get a behind the scenes look at the traditions surrounding it.”

But in Nepal, the greatest temples are not made by man, but by the gods. The great Himal, the mountains themselves, are the country’s most sacred monuments. The Sherpa people revere mountain peaks and associate them with protective deities. Nepalis associate Mount Machhapuchchhre with Shiva, for example, and it’s so sacrosanct that the government closed it to climbers. But while man cannot summit the infamous “Fish Tail” mountain, our actions are melting it.

Nepali terrain does not stand still. Dynamic shifts occur on a regular basis. Rivers swell and block your route. Avalanches and landslides have always been a danger, but they’re getting worse as climate change warms the region. Sherpa guides have noted that Everest’s glaciers retreat farther every year, and that the climb to base camp has eased, since there are fewer snow fields to cross. Animals are moving out of their natural range. One night at a Tadapani teahouse, I met a leopard researcher who told me the lowland leopards are encroaching on snow leopard territory. Increased glacial melt and its repercussions have triggered landslides in the green foothills — ugly brown cascades that tear away trees and rocks, making the lush slopes look like a construction yard. Unseasonable snowfalls endanger trekkers who swarm the trail in what should be the dry season. Barely a week after my wife and I left the Annapurna, a freak blizzard rolled into the range. It dropped nearly six feet of snow in 12 hours, stranding hundreds of trekkers, guides and locals. Search and rescue operations pulled 400 people out of Thorong La Pass, Manang and Mustang. Forty-three people were killed, with 50 still missing. It was the worst trekking disaster in Nepali history.

This shifting terrain comes through in several Far Cry 4 missions. Early in the game, a fortuitous avalanche saves Ajay from a Royal Army assault. A later section has him drive a truck up switchback roads, with small landslides clouding his vision. And of course, there are missions in the Himalayas, where difficult weather and fragile ground is part of the environment.

“Weather conditions play a big role in this experience,” says Fournier, pointing out how the gameplay differs in the Himalayas. “Constant wind and snow makes it harder to be detected and fragile snow caps make for the best natural traps.”

In these missions, players can shoot ice formations to send enemies into the caverns below. It’s a brilliant use of the environment, but it also hammers home that the land in the Himalayas isn’t static, but in a constant state of change — and often violent change. When a mountain moves, it does not move gently.

Far Cry 4‘s Kyrat isn’t a documentary, it’s an impressionist’s painting. Ubisoft painted the landscape with a broad brush then added details with a finer one, with their aim being authenticity rather than accuracy. It’s a fantasy environment to be sure, but one that at least appears genuine in its sights and sounds. Kyrat doesn’t depict the region so much as it evokes it, and overall the game does an extraordinary job creating the physical space. It’s clear the team’s research trips are what ultimately established that.

And if the game convinces its audience to see the Himalayas with their own eyes, I can think of no better legacy.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in the Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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