Review: Far Cry 3 – the writing
Previously I reviewed Far Cry 3 on the surface level and deemed it to be a pretty good game. In this post I’ll examine the writing and explain why I think Far Cry 3 is a great game.
Beware, there are countless spoilers. If you want to experience the game yourself without my biases, play it first.
What’s it about?
Even before you start the game proper, the game designers give you massive hints as to what the game is about. The game is meant to be a Rorschach test for the player. This is seen with the loading screens being:
- Crossed over silhouettes of guns. What do you see here? Two guns, or a butterfly?
- Horizontally-mirrored blurry pictures of the protagonist and main antagonists. Not only is this like a Rorschach inkblot test, but the way it’s presented, you might mistake some of the villains as yourself and vice-versa.
- Horizontally-mirrored random words like: knife, gun, kill, lick, girlfriend, family. The mirroring gives you a Rorschach effect, but it’s also meant to evoke word association.
The game is about giving you a straight open-world game, but asking the player, “What are you doing?” The protagonist (and quite often, the player) will answer: “I don’t know. I need to go kill this guy.”
Morality vs entertainment
For a long time, I’ve had a nagging feeling about playing certain video games. I think it first game up playing some of the earlier Call of Duties, on and off with the Max Payne series, and finally, in personal form with Left 4 Dead and in explicit form in Hotline Miami. These games are fun, yet violent. We can be entranced by the action, by what Max Payne famously noted as “[the] endless repetition of the act of shooting, time slowing down to show off my moves”. In the Left 4 Dead series you need to get from point A to point B, where there are a lot of zombies in the way. I’m pretty good at the game, and I’ve realized that the best way to get through is not to wait for zombies to attack you, but shoot first and shoot-to-kill. The way we stalk from scene to scene, killing hundreds and thousands of zombies who were only people not long ago. I lined up a shot, center mass, on a zombie just standing around. I had a moment of clarity. This is not heroism. It’s not survival. It’s genocide.
By the end of Far Cry 3 I had killed 1700 odd people. A full third of them I stabbed in the throat or through the heart. Initially I did it to save my friends. Later I was doing it to make my exploration safer. Later still I was doing it for the fun and challenge.
This is the behaviour that Far Cry 3 wants to challenge. It wants to challenge the reign of Call of Duty, with its bombastic violence and cold-eyed acceptance of atrocity as gameplay. It wants to bring into question the current attempt to frame surviving rape as empowering (a la Tomb Raider). It wants to be the stern voice against enjoying Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row too much.
And in a controversial and risky way, it challenges all this by allowing you to revel in it.
It’s tough when you want to make this point, and want – nay need – the player to experience it first hand. The way they’ve done it in Far Cry 3 is dovetail it with the hero-villain divide. The player is Jason Brody and represents the gamer and gaming industry. The primary villains are Vaas Montenegro and Hoyt Volker, who represent the game designers’ dissenting and slightly apologetic voices. Other NPCs like Citra and Dennis, Buck and Hurk, they are the middle ground of both siren call to the nastiness and occasional rude reminder of what you’re actually doing.
Let’s look at the protagonist and his friends first. They are introduced via a holiday video compilation to the theme of MIA’s “Paper planes”. This is a useful shorthand in two ways. At a base level, gamers really only want that repetition of bang, bang, bang of a gun and loot a body. This is Jason Brody in a nutshell. Shooting dudes and looting their bodies. The song is also a good way to accentuate the excesses and thoughtlessness of Brody, his brothers, girlfriend and friends. They are spoilt, rich kids. They celebrate visiting countries they don’t care about, get drugged up, cause trouble and think it’s all a laugh because they stubbornly refuse to grow up. They parachute into Rook Island, which from the air is a shimmering jewel, but when they crash down, there is something else waiting for them.
This is what the game designers warn us of in the very next scene. What was initially thought of as a intro video apropos of nothing is Vaas showing playing you a video on your phone, while you are tied up and being readied to ransom or sell to slave traders. Vaas reinforces this with his insane speech:
You must think you’re crazy, huh? Jumping out of airplanes… Flying… like birds. That is crazy. I like this phone. It’s a nice fucking phone. So, what do we have here? Grant… *whistles* and Jason. From California? Huh? Huh? I hope your mama and papa really really love you because as white boys you look very expensive. And that’s good because I like expensive things.
I’m sorry? What did you say? What did you say? DO YOU WANT ME TO SLICE YOU OPEN LIKE I DID TO YOUR FRIEND? SHUT THE FUCK UP! Okay? I’m the one with the fucking dick. Look at me. Look me in the fucking eye. EYE! You fuck! Look me in the eye! You’re my bitch. I rule this fucking kingdom. Shut the fuck up or you die.
What is it, Jason? Jason, what is it? Why aren’t you laughing now, like you did up there? Is this not fun any more? Have I failed to entertain you? You see, the thing is, up there, you thought you had a chance. Waaaay up in the fucking skies you thought that you had your finger on the pussy trigger. But hermano… down here… down here… you hit the ground.
They hit you with a scene that starts to scare you, and when you start to think, “Wait, this isn’t fun…” Vaas reads your mind and tells you that this isn’t going to be a straight game. You probably have trouble sympathising with your douchey friends, but from the get-go you want Vaas dead.
The definition of insanity
The primary villains are extremely savvy to being in a game. Every single time you think you have tricked them and gotten the upper hand, they flip it on you. They chide you on it but are understanding. They want to teach you to rebel against your gamer ways. They want to rebel against the industry. Yet the gamer, player, Jason Brody just keep coming back for more. Here is Vaas, ranting about it in a way that you might think he’s just crazy and sick of the the drug trade, but really is angry about modern games.
The games industry is the definition of insanity. Most big games are about the exact same thing, over and over again, expecting things to change. Your WoW character levels up. Your Battlefield 3 soldier gets more weapons. You expect the game to change but it’s the exact goddamn thing. And the game industry brings out sequel after sequel, knockoff after knockoff. Saying nothing new, jumping through the same hoops and resolving problems in the same way, but hoping that video games will become an artform, or at least taken seriously. That is the definition of insanity.
Jason Brody is oblivious to this. The game designers manage to use the “Would you kindly?” conceit from Bioshock in several layered ways. As you escape Vaas’ camp, suddenly your brother Grant is shot in the neck and bleeds out. Vaas watches and mocks you. You stand dumb-founded and when he yells, “RUN FORREST RUN” you do so. You are rescued eventually by Dennis who initially arms you and sends you out on what are basically suicide missions under the pretence of becoming “a mighty Rakyat warrior”. You accept this unquestioningly, despite the fact that you don’t know their customs and are basically the whitest guy alive. Dennis sells you the lies, but the animation is so good, you can get a hint that he doesn’t take you entirely seriously, and is playing to your gullibility.
When Dennis finds out that you are surviving mission after mission, he begins to see your efficacy and you are brought to their leader, Citra, who uses you to retrieve a sacred knife which is probably only of cultural value (given all Citra’s troops carry machineguns). This leads you to an over-the-top CIA agent Willis who sends you to do his errands, even though a dream is the only verification you have that he isn’t just some paranoid guy who has seen too many movies. This leads you to the Australian Buck, who leads you on a merry goose chase through abandoned temples to get both the ceremonial knife and your friend Keith who he has prisoner. By the end of this, you realize that Buck had no intention of letting you have the knife, nor your friend. All his jokes about raping Keith are actually true and you’ve been treated like a fool. You snap and kill him in a psychotic day-dream of a knife-fight.
The remainder of the game is much like this, although it is difficult to say what is just gameplay (“do this mission”) and what is you just following the bouncing ball. One set of missions that nailed this was the DLC “Monkey see, Monkey boom!” A crazy explosives expert Hurk is trying to help the rebels by strapping C4 to monkeys that he loves and names. The monkeys aren’t working out too well, so Hurk asks you to step up. As the missions progress, you discover Hurk’s has increasingly vague reasons for helping the rebels and really just likes the explosions. He reveals that before a mission, he straps the C4 to the monkeys, gives them a hug and then sends them on their way. He then tells you about a submarine base that Hoyt is storing weapons in. He hands you some C4 and then tries to hug you. You have become the monkey. Monkey see, Monkey boom.
The first-person perspective
Like its predecessor, Far Cry 3 consistently stays in first-person perspective for everything except menus and the map. This is quite immersive and effective, especially when doing combat healing on yourself, digging out bullets from arms, patting down your burning arms or pulling your dislocated thumb or wrist into place with a meaty click! The purpose of this in this game however is to make the player/player-character divide as thin as possible. You are Jason Brody and both of you need to consider what you’re doing.
Oftentimes in missions, Jason makes comments that the player should be thinking (cringing from atrocities), or even comments that a gamer might think. He frames things in terms of pop culture. When your friend Riley freaks out about flying a helicopter for the first time, Jason’s advice is “Use the force!” When you hear about Buck, Jason quotes the line from Kill Bill: “His name is Buck and likes to f…” When you realize that that is exactly what he’s doing to your buddy Keith, the reference isn’t funny any more. Jason even quotes the “Would you kindly?” line from Bioshock whilst blindly following a mission, not thinking about the insane reflexivity of that statement.
The nature of violence
Further to this, Far Cry 3 comments frequently on the violence you are engaging in. The first folk you kill make your hands shake. Later you are stabbing and opening throats without a comment. You might hunt rare tigers or thylacine, but your only comment while skinning them is “Ew”.
In the first Act, you try to rescue your girlfriend Liza Snow. Vaas catches you and leaves you both in a burning building. You both escape and jump into a jeep. She drives and you wield a grenade launcher, taking out your pursuers. These two missions are the bread-and-butter of Call of Duty-style games. But while you’re having the time of your life, she is freaking out. When you finally escape, Jason shouts, “We won!” as if it were a game. Liza catches this and berates you for enjoying the violence. You’ve avoided burning alive and killed maybe 50 guys, and you find it fun.
The bad guys, of course, do horrific things like making people run across a rice paddy minefield whilst under fire, burn people alive, or joke about people they’ve just stabbed in the neck. I saw this as a necessary evil (pun intended) but also an admission from the designers that while they’re trying to make a statement about all this violence and insanity, they admit that they enjoy it too. They are savvy to their place in the game, but will openly berate the player for the countless murders that they have committed.
Part of the problem with Far Cry 3 (and a good bit of the controversy), is that in making an open-world first-person shooter to criticise open-world first-person shooters, they are having their cake and eating it too. It’s hard to tell if the way that the natives are sometimes Maori, sometimes Malay, sometimes Indonesian, is that Rook Island is just multicultural, the unreliable narrator Jason Brody has no understanding of the differences and so just flits between them, or if the designers didn’t know the difference. I think it’s a bit of the first two, given the care they have for a bunch of other details. For example, the Australian and African accents and affects are spot on.
But yeah, can the designers actively rail against something by providing an example of it? What are they to do when a player doesn’t get the subtlety? Rock Paper Shotgun had a fascinating interview with the lead writer where this point was argued at length. I tend to side with the writer, although making such a game was balancing on a knife edge. A triple A game with a small army of people involved, published by Ubisoft, all making a violent, pretty game that makes subtle points about games and the games industry? Risky business.
Alice in Wonderland
Before I close, I’d like to mention the excellent way they weaved in Alice in Wonderland (and Through the Looking Glass) references as a way to signpost their intentions. The very first thing in the game proper that you see is the quote:
“In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.”
It’s a hopeful statement to the player that “If you understand this game, you might have difficulty playing these games again.” I know I do.
Later on, after a comment on how you’re becoming a murderous monster – but for good, empathetic reasons – they give you another quote:
“‘I like the Walrus best,’ said Alice: ‘because you see he was a LITTLE sorry for the poor oysters.’
‘He ate more than the Carpenter, though,’ said Tweedledee.”
The drugged-up Dr Earnhardt provides a bunch more of these. He more-or-less pushes Jason Brody into drug-induced hallucinations, which start to make you worry about your sanity. You feel a bit like Alice. You’re playing along with everyone in the kingdom, but if you’re paying attention, there’s something not right at all. Not only that, but Earnhardt provides the player a window to Jason Brody’s history with a bowl of beans labelled “EAT ME”, a la Alice in Wonderland. This takes you away from your tattooed hero persona and back to when you were a happy-go-lucky douche. Citra provides the counterpoint by getting you to drink something, which brings you closer to feeling like the Rakyat warrior king.
Other pop references are pretty spot on. I’ve already talked about MIA’s “Paper planes”, but the one that stuck out for me was in one of the last missions. It’s signalled earlier by Hoyt (perhaps implanted, like inception), but when you rescue Riley from a jail on an airstrip, you escape in a helicopter. Riley flies and you man the machine gun. As the helicopter takes off, “Ride of the Vakyries” starts in your head. As you swing by the base, shooting countless men and exploding everything, you have your Apocalypse Now moment. You’ve gone insane. And you’re loving it.
While Far Cry 3 is a gorgeous and fun game, the most I got out of it was the writing. There’s great ideas in there, presented well (if a little subtly). It’s a game that needs to be played, recognized for what it is, and discussed. Don’t take it as a normal man-shooter. It’s an important game to think about and use to frame the game industry in the 2010s.
If you’d like to hear the writer’s intentions on the game, check out these links:
- RockPaperShotgun interview with Jeffrey Yohalem, the writer
- Penny Arcade interview with the writer
- Eurogamer summary on how the writer thought the critics mostly missed the point