Just Cause 4’s Designers Chat About Red Dead Redemption 2, Giving Players a Ton of Tools, and More [Interview]

Just Cause 4 is almost out, marking one of the last big releases of the year. But just because it is hitting at the tail end of the holiday rush doesn’t mean there is nothing to say about it. We recently sat down during a preview event with developer Avalanche Studios’ Narrative Designer Benjamin Jaekle and Lead Mechanics Designer Hamish Young to chat about Just Cause 4 and how the series keeps improving, Red Dead Redemption 2, and the game’s expansive, wacky toolset.

Game Revolution: I noticed that Just Cause 4 was immediately more focused on its story than the other ones. Was that something you went in wanting to do?

Benjamin Jaekle: Yeah, it was a conscious choice to go back and do story right. In JC3, we had a story. It was a fairly linear series of missions that you worked through. But we wanted to make the story more pervasive this time around. The whole game is built about who Rico is and what his skillset is and the antagonists you meet are built around challenging that skillset. Hamish can talk more about the way the extreme weather changes the dynamics of who Rico interacts with the world [from a gameplay perspective]. But from a story perspective, it changes how he approaches the problem he’s presented with.

You’ll see Rico mature a little bit in this game. He’s not a young guy but he’s always had this bombastic approach. In JC3, he gets presented with a problem and he’ll go “So we’ll blow it up!” He still like to blow things up but he does it in a more strategic way.

We also focused on making sure the story stayed out of the player’s way. We didn’t want you to feel like you had to grind over here in order to do this thing over there so you could do the next thing and the next thing. The whole world is open to you and you can explore different story bits here and there and it’s all designed nonlinearly. It’s not about working your way from beat to beat. It’s about working your way through the world and picking up more pieces as you go so by the time you’re reaching the endgame, you have a clear picture of what the story is, whereas when you start out, you have a lot of questions.

GR: So since one of you works on story and the other works on gameplay, how do you two not get in each other’s way?

Hamish Young: I think there are a couple of things you need to acknowledge. The first thing is knowing what kind of game Just Cause is and embracing that; embracing that from how we do narrative structure and embracing that through how we do mechanics. And the other element comes from who Rico is. The things we add to the game have to be things that you feel are very Rico.

I mentioned it with the extreme weather but we wanted elements in the game that are bigger forces of nature than Rico is himself. So it gave us something that you could see in the world that could change the gameplay but was also a thing that Rico really had to deal with on a really big level. Narratively, that meant the world was bigger than Rico. That is a nice way of evolving both the narrative and the mechanics.

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GR: Speaking of the extreme weather, Rico’s dad has a connection to the weather, right? And how does that weather connect to Rico himself?

BJ: Yes, and that’s what draws him to Solís. A lot of the challenges we set up for Rico in the game are designed to test Rico who is. And you can see that reflected in the mechanics. It’s a different experience to wingsuit through plain open air than it is a tornado. Similarly, it’s a different experience for Rico to go against these piece of extreme weather which are kind of like characters in their own right who challenge Rico in different ways.

And also our main antagonist, Gabriela Morales, is also designed as a perfect counterpoint to Rico. Where Rico is chaotic, she is very orderly. Where Rico is intuitive, she is very strategic. And that forces Rico to do things a little bit differently than he did in the past. He approaches problems with a more measured look and you’ll see that reflected in the game, the structure, and in Rico’s character.

GR: The tornado has been widely promoted. What are the other extreme weather conditions and what do they do?

HY: We have a sandstorm in the desert and it affects visibility and is a very strong wind. It changes the dynamics of combat. Just Cause have never been a stealth game but if the visibility is low and if Rico’s eyesight is better than the enemies, then you can have that kind of gameplay of enemies not quite knowing where you are. And that’s fun that we haven’t seen [in Just Cause].

We’ve got a tropical storm, which is lightning focused. We’ve also got a blizzard, which is the apex and sort of a combination of all the three. There is visibility gameplay, some lightning, and some wind. It’s the culmination of all the weather.

GR: That sounds like the blizzard is going to be at the end of the game.

HY: Yes. [laughs]

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GR: Just Cause has generally gotten better over each iteration, which a lot of series don’t usually do. Why do you think that is the case for Just Cause?

HY: I think that the best thing with Just Cause is that there is so much creativity both that we can put into the game and what players have with the game. And the more tools that we put in the game for players to play with, the more open and fun those things are. So we kind of tried to expand the toolset in interesting and innovative ways. And we add new elements like the extreme weather or the airlifters but we also try to enhance what people have experienced before. And the ideal thing is that players who come in from JC3 can take up JC4 and get it straight away but they realize how much it has changed and improved. That’s when we know when we got it right.

A good example is the wingsuit. It was a big addition for JC3. But there has been a lot of work put into it so that it interacts with wind and it feels so much better. You may not instantaneously say “Oh this is a different wingsuit” but once you go back to JC3, you see that it is a much more refined version of that experience [in Just Cause 4].

GR: The menu for the grappling hook is incredibly dense. How are you balancing giving players enough options but making sure they don’t drown in them?

HY: We erred on the side of giving people the tools. We took a bit of complexity so that the players can do all sorts of different things. We don’t want to dumb it down in that sense because we have very sophisticated players and we want to respect them. It’s better to give them the tools than to sacrifice the ability to do crazy shit.

There are going to be some crazy YouTube videos like there were in Just Cause 3. We saw some players do some stuff [at this preview event] that we hadn’t thought of and our sample size was only 20 people. There’s a lot of opportunity there and that means that not everyone is going to do everything but that’s OK. That’s depth.

Red Dead Online Horse Insurance

GR: There have been a ton of open-world games this year and it culminated with Red Dead Redemption 2, which is probably the biggest of them. This game is coming out near that game but it feels like the anti-Red Dead in a lot of ways. How do you feel about your role in open-world games in a year full of them?

Young: I feel like Just Cause is its own thing. While it is an open-world game, we don’t feel like we are in the same genre as Red Dead. We are the polar opposite. We try to excel in the types of games that we make: very physically emergent gameplay, lot of sandbox toys, things that are very immediate and fast. Red Dead is much more grounded and slower. It’s brilliant—I love Red Dead—but it’s very different from Just Cause.

So you can come out with a game that is very different that may also serve the same people. But in a different way, you’re kind of not competing. You are to some extent but you’re kind of not. We look forward to getting it out in December but Red Dead was always going to be a big dog in this season. And that’s fine. But we are not trying to compete with them. We’re doing our own thing over here and hopefully people engage with that.