Far Cry 3 wants to be a lot of things. Mostly, it wants to be a subversion of Alice in Wonderland, asking you questions about the sort of person who becomes the invulnerable badass Hero™ of a AAA action game in a setting based around exploitation and human misery. Sometimes, it is wildly successful, and sometimes it is laughable, but mostly it feels cobbled together in a way that lays the foundation for Far Cry 4. A lot of the game highlights how Ubisoft games can both be a way of creating an effective vehicle for mechanical storytelling, yet also be extremely fucking tedious. So, awkwardly, I am going to start with the story and work my way into the mechanics before creating an ouroboros between story and mechanics that, weirdly, explains why I cannot determine if I like or hate this game.
Far Cry 2 was the first game after Ubisoft acquired the Far Cry series from Crytek and moved the series from being a tech demo (IMMERSIVE ENVIRONMENTS AND SOLID GUNPLAY) into being more of a ‘real’ game, and having more of a focused story.* Far Cry 2 drops you in a Central African nation as a mercenary set on assassinating an arms dealer named the Jackal. You contract malaria (making you reliant on doing missions for anti-malarial pills—and I think this is also an attempt to point out how rare and valuable medicines most players probably take for granted are) and work for the two warring factions as a deniable asset to get closer to the Jackal. In a total fucking plot twist, the Jackal feels horrible about his life as an arms dealer and wants to evacuate refugees and kill the warring factions cleansing the area of war; also he quotes Nietzsche, is more interesting than the protagonist, and provides a streamlined 3rd act. Uniquely, the game featured weapon degradation (every weapon will slowly become a useless piece of junk or break or start jamming; guns picked up from fallen enemies are almost completely degraded to start with), the ability to use fire to change the terrain of conflict, large herbivores that wandered about as living cover/distractions, and non-story missions that gave you access to better firearms.
*The original Far Cry also featured a really bland protagonist, which is a recurring problem in the series, although 2 allowed the player to select from several playable characters.
Far Cry 3 changed settings (Rook Island is rather similar to the archipelago setting of the first game) and innovated some features while removing others for a more accessible release. Weapons no longer degrade, but a wider cache of purchasable weapons and better holsters, wallets and other accoutrements are available by side missions that consist of fiddling around. At a bare minimum, every single side mission or activity provides you with experience points (for purchasing tribal tattoos that make you better at things) and money (which lets you become a mall ninja’s wet dream, mounting eotech optics, extended magazines, suppressors or customized paint jobs on your arsenal). All of which necessitate: CONTEXT!
You play as
CHAD Jason, a white man with the innate dynamic excitement of a cold baked potato dropped into an exotic climate. While partying in Bangkok, Jason and his friends are told about an island where anything goes as long as they skydive onto it. Without asking why a DJ would volunteer such specific information, or bothering to consult any references to the island whatsoever, Jason and company skydive in and are promptly enslaved by gun-running, drug-dealing, human-trafficking pirates (so they bat 3/3 on unequivocally evil). Incidentally, the pirates are busy fucking things up for the Rakyat, an indigenous tribe based on the Maori who are native to the archipelago.
Jason and his older brother (whose name isn’t worth remembering) launch a daring escape from pirate captivity. This escape does not go very well: Jason’s older brother is fatally shot by Vaas, the king of the slaver pirates, his friends remain in captivity, and Jason gets embroiled with the tribal resistance against the pirates. After a few force-fed linear missions, Jason is given pretty much complete freedom to pursue becoming a terrifying, snake-eating one man army, converting piles of wildlife into better holsters, wallets, grenade pouches, etc. The crafting system is really well implemented: you are required to find and kill animals and then skin them to get better stuff. To get the top tier gear, you have to complete Path of the Hunter quests, killing unique animals, and to unlock those you have to clear out outposts that serve as fast travel points,which require you to liberate towers via a tedious and awful jump puzzle which makes it feel like all of the fun is being sucked out of the room,** which gives you a better selection of guns to customize. Jason’s transformation is pretty well handled*—he goes from being a simpering, terrified white boy who is completely out of his depth to a grim murderer who shows flashes of genuine enjoyment at snuffing out human life. Built into this is Jason’s growing collection of pseudo-tribal tattoos, which are the product of him being inducted into Rakyat as a warrior.
*I cannot stress how much I loathe the fucking tower climbing in Ubisoft games. It is boring and pointless and terribly unfair when you try the wrong path, fall to your death and have to start over after trudging back to the tower in an enemy-occupied section of the map.
**Your initial escape illustrates that Jason is easily startled, prone to freezing up and entirely reliant on his reservist brother for any advice on how to move from point A to point B. After falling into a ravine and washing up on the beach, Jason gets his newfound tribal tat courtesy of the only other non-Rakyat warrior, is handed money for his first gun, is given instructions on freeing his first radio tower, hunting, harvesting herbs, and crafting, and is told that his Hunter’s Path will teach him. After that, you can spend a lot of time not advancing the plot while methodically depopulating animals for higher-tier swag, hardpointing or stealthing bases, being devoured by komodo dragons and, incidentally, being a white savior/chosen one, at least theoretically (see below).
The Rakyat angle is where things start getting pretty uncomfortable. The Rakyat are tribal purists and warriors (or at least the cult Jason ends up in is) who excel at knife fighting, and prior to a triad of colonizers (Chinese, Japanese, British) and pirates, ruled the island. And this is where things start to break down (the writers insist the full game is necessary for understanding their deployment of the white savior trope so SPOILERS AHEAD). Everyone on the Island has an agenda: Willis, (the CIA handler who updates your notes), Citra (head of the Rakyat resistance), Vaas (the leader of the pirates) and Hoyt (the actual head of the slaving/drug-dealing/gun-running empire). Willis and Citra want to bring down Hoyt and Vaas (for different reasons) and the dastardly parts of this binary mostly want to keep being in charge. Unlike in Far Cry 4, you don’t choose factions, so you may be wondering where the twist is.
Jason is, at least initially, concerned with figuring out where his friends are held and getting himself to the level of competence at freelance murder with which he could realistically free them. The first off-rails mission (Mushrooms in the Deep) introduces the bit characters Dr. Alec Earnhardt and Daisy (the only other escapee and your dead brother’s girlfriend). This mission provides the space where all of your friends are gathered as you sequentially rescue them, and as you complete story missions and meet with them there, the interactions showcase Jason’s increasingly erratic behavior. On a straight reading: Jason evolves from simpering, reluctant hero into unstoppable murder machine (and incidentally the anointed hero of the Rakyat*), becoming increasingly cold to the idea of rescuing his friends and warm on the idea of being second-in-command to Citra and slaughtering countless identical pirates to place her on top of the heap when the dust settles. This is, uncharitably, the plot of Avatar: a white savior rides into town, becomes the chosen one and rescues everyone who needs rescuing.** However, the writers stringently deny this reading, arguing that players were not paying attention, so let’s get into that.
*Mechanically, as your tattoos grow, combat becomes easier and easier—you gain better stealth takedowns and greater gunplay, along with other enhancements. Jason, in terms of dialogue, spends less time whimpering and more time quietly picking enemies off before gratuitously stabbing them from cover and dragging their corpses into the bushes. The thing I wish they had changed is that Jason, even at the highest levels, gets marginally nauseated when skinning animals, which seems a little out of place when you’re tearing your prize from the 50th bear you hunted down with an automatic shotgun.
**This reading is somewhat subverted by the ending—more on that later.
The whole game has chapter bookends of quotes from Alice in Wonderland, and some characters neatly map onto characters from the book [Vaas: the Cheshire Cat, Dr. Earnhardt: the Mad Hatter; the rest is pretty much up for debate]. It is stated that Jason’s tattoo makes him a better combatant, and none of the abilities that they grant are things that he, theoretically, shouldn’t have been able to do before. For a really clean example: you need to unlock the ability to perform the most basic execution on heavy enemies,* and mechanically all Jason does is trip them and stab them repeatedly in the back. While it would require some nerve to do so, there is nothing mechanically preventing Jason from doing this. Outside of the impossible things Jason can do at high enough levels (harvesting double herbs from plants and double skins from downed animals; admittedly, he could just be more efficient at recovering useable items from these sources, but it seems weird that this efficiency magically comes alongside more elaborate tattoo on his forearm rather than experience), Jason seems more ruthless and less risk-averse as his tattoos expand, which is, thematically, tied to his greater distance from his friends as they become more an ancillary goal to his growing obsession with killing Vaas (later Hoyt) and becoming the savior of the island. Jason also doses himself with herbal injections that grant him impossible amounts of damage absorption, the ability to see enemies through walls like some sort of white, non-dreadlocked Predator, absurdly rapid healing, and immunity to fire damage. While the gunplay is fairly realistic, including the limitations on how many modular pieces you can put on firearms, the image of a SoCal brodude covered in grenade pouches and holsters made from recently skinned (and occasionally endangered) animals like a weird Damien Hirst exhibit walking unaffected through fire while wielding a flamethrower and only stopping to inject himself with more liquified red herbs simply boggles the imagination.
*This is one way the game marginally forces you to complete some missions, because it is a locked ability, and hard pointing vs. stealthing bullet sponges armed with LMGs and flamethrowers is a very steep difficulty curve.
Which gets to the core of the hallucinations: starting with “Mushrooms in the Deep,” Jason is canonically dosing himself with high-grade hallucinogens frequently, calling into doubt his reliability as a narrator, and the veracity of events such as him effortlessly and without any training or experience with military-grade hardware utilizing it to kill thousands of people and an epic number of exotic animals. He is, with no military experience or canonical interest in religion, disturbingly blasé about being anointed the savior of a culture which he was unaware of until being tattooed while unconscious. Finally, everything about the Rakyat is a trope. The tribe members seem unconcerned with their freshly-anointed savior walking among them, and occasionally being devoured by Komodo dragons; they speak Malay and look Maori and have a convenient set of problems and myths that are Occam’s Razor-ed by a lost and scared bro who liberates them from an oppressive ruler (also their leader’s brother) who coincidentally speaks English with a distinctly Latino style (and has the last name Montenegro).* The whole thing reeks of the sort of white-savior empowerment fantasy of Call of Duty, right up until (after dispatching both primary antagonists), Citra re-kidnaps all your friends and asks you to kill them and stay there with her. You can choose to cut your girlfriend’s throat and be executed by your new paramour mid-coitus, or you can leave with your friends, hoping that the efficient murder machine you have become is something you can leave behind.
*Hoyt is a white South African, and while super ruthless, is honestly severely less interesting than Vaas.
Colonial adventure aside, almost every reviewer caught on that at its core, Far Cry 3 features some semblance of a good story—Jason going from freaking out and crying over a guard being killed by his brother to an unstoppable badass. Most of them also hated the white-savior narrative—which the writers insist they are deconstructing.* And this is where personal taste really comes into the fray: can you deconstruct white savior myths by showing how overblown and ridiculous they are by doing them up to 11 in a medium already marked by excess and a glaring lack of subtlety? Can you deconstruct “noble savage” myths by showing that the people you are allowing to return to their traditional way of life view you as a disposable pawn? Is this game tweaking the nose of Call of Duty by making me light up an enemy encampment with a helicopter mounted machine gun while “Ride of the Valkyries” plays, shortly after a boss mentions that Americans love Wagner because he is so over the top? Does it matter that you are presented with no choice in the matter? A few years later this would be done better, from most reviewers standpoints, by Spec Ops: The Line (which coincidentally also had problems with how it framed its critique of sanitized violence and American Military Adventurism). It’s a tonal problem that plagued Grand Theft Auto 4: how do I make sense of a game where, on one hand, I’m a remorse-wracked war criminal, and on the other I occasionally go into an alternate-ish reality and shoot passersby with a rocket launcher? In this case the question is: how can I square a game that wants to be about big topics like the chains of human misery (evidenced by the copious amounts of notes on how weapons and drugs got to this island in the first place which are provided by a CIA handler who is explicit about Americans’ lack of concern with the island’s human misery and violence, provided it isn’t a challenge to power)** with a game where I burn marijuana fields with a flamethrower as Skrillex blares obnoxiously, and my player character loses the ability to aim in fits of giggles (although you can still perfectly execute stealth kills)? How ironic are we willing to be, and is irony a good way of dealing with these issues?
*The article about this phenomenon is on the defunct Penny Arcade newswire, but scraps of it are available in reblog response pieces.
**Characters, guns and drug formula travel across the world to get to this island, like some sort of fucked up version of Lost, which I think is supposed to be about how commodity chains mask violence, although I may be being too charitable.
Here is another example: you rescue one friend by assassinating a hired gun named Buck who has purchased your friend as a sex slave. There are repeated innuendos and jokes about this, including a Kill Bill reference, before you dispatch Buck with a knife.* Am I to take this as a good joke about how lightly sexual violence is treated, or as a really horrible joke on the part of the writers, using shock value to pretend to be about something?** If we look at this as a progenitor of games about games (or at least about themes in games), it does efficiently highlight a serious problem—I stand inside a blank white man endlessly gunning down exoticised enemies—but by performing the same formula taken to a ludicrous extreme (that even highlights the exotic nature of your environment by making every single animal a hateful torpedo out to kill you) Far Cry 3 is either a criticism or simply a continuation of the same. And this is the problem with the recent spate of games talking about gaming culture—despite all the pretense about games being art, the newest Call of Duty is still the best-selling game in the United States every single year, no matter how many times reviewers, players or other games point out the racist, xenophobic empowerment fantasy underlying the entire enterprise.
*The Rakyat have an honor-killing system involving knives; every boss fight is a QTE that ends with you stabbing them to death.
**Ditto for the intro to Hotline Miami 2.
This isn’t to say that Far Cry 3 isn’t influential, fun or potentially the first of a slew of games that really brought up hard questions about gaming (and those games got a lot more credit, especially Spec Ops: The Line). I think there are two interwoven problems with talking about games as art, and that does nothing to detract from the fact that games very well are an artistic product, even if they are often treated as the artistic equivalent of kitsch. Gamers want the games that they enjoy to be considered both a valuable hobby and an artistic medium. The problem is that they most often care primarily if a game has good mechanics or provides them with adequate distraction, high-level voice acting and asset design, and secondarily care about whether or not the game makes an artistic point. The Kite Runner-like shallow attempt to introduce pathos in a number of AAA action games via the addition of death or sexual violence (real or implied) cheapens the pursuit of art in the medium and defensively proclaims that games are just “games,” and that discussions of underlying political ideologies or concepts of the acceptability of war are irrelevant to the question of whether I can shoot someone to death and force their camera into my character’s taint by squatting on their face while they use a startling array of racial, gendered and homophobic slurs through my headset. We also want the games that we enjoy to be meaningful, and to dismiss things that cheapen that experience—look at how people rage or pontificate in favor of the cross-dressing section of Final Fantasy 7. The implication that games which are nigh-universally well-regarded are beyond reproach because they are either perfectly executed examples of the medium or because they make a point that we want them to make has a chilling effect on our ability to discuss them meaningfully.
Many reviewers caught flak for their positive interpretation of Gone Home, a game which has no combat and boasts strong storytelling elements through found objects and interactions, because it “wasn’t a game.” Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had a pretty profound maxim that games aren’t bound together by any coherent set of rules, but rather by the trite fact that they are games. Solitaire has been part of the initial package on any PC since I was a child, yet no one thinks to review it (the card art selection makes THIS the freeware Solitaire that you must have!) while the Halo franchise churns out nigh-indistinguishable games (other than through the graphical fidelity of design elements) that receive nearly unanimously positive reviews for improving the graphics or multiplayer of what is, uncharitably, almost always a reskinned version of the previous iteration. The first Halo (for the original Xbox) solved the problem of how to map FPS controls to a console and deserved acclaim for it (the story was still junk), but what has the rest of the series done but rest on that particular set of laurels? To be clear, every incarnation is still fun—the shooting mechanics are top-notch and the graphics are impressive, but what does the art of the game say? In a similar vein, Far Cry 3 tried to do something (bring “game-critical games” into the mainstream while maintaining fidelity to a game design that already worked) and was mostly hit with criticism for being exploitative. And this is where a reviewer should have some agency: all of the mechanics are good and the game is extremely fun, but does the game actually pull off its strong ambition to ask you “what are are doing?” when it simultaneously gives you the absurd joy of watching a Cassowary kick a bunch of dudes to death while you silently headshot the survivors? Does the designer’s intent matter, or does the feeling of revulsion I harbor for the white-savior plot points count for more? Is this a sign of the game’s efficacy, that I feel revolted by the clear execution of colonial-era tropes (with which the game bludgeons me over the head) before reveling in the madness of expanding my half-sleeve by walking unscathed through fire, laying down round after round of LMG ammo into my panicked enemies’ hapless faces until I am unceremoniously insta-killed by a waiting cheetah (which is also on fire)? Does my media literacy with regards to deconstruction give me privileged access to the game’s content, or should I shut my stupid mouth and enjoy that Vaas is performing a stripper-pole dance on an island of televisions while asking me what sort of person I am?