I picked up Far Cry 3 during the Winter Steam Sale and played it throughout the holiday break. I must admit it was a lot of fun. This was kinda surprising considering how hard I bounced off the previous installment in the franchise. If I was to grade it solely on how it improved on it’s predecessor I would be forced to give it a solid A. Unlike the Far Cry 2 sandbox, the open world mode was actually implemented very well and highly enjoyable. Mechanically, I think the designers hit the sweet spot: there was always something to do in between main story missions.
The map was riddled with quest markers, check-points you could liberate, towers you could climb for XP, hunting grounds and etc. It was literally impossible to go from point A to point B without doing about 6 other things on your way, all of which somehow improved things for you. Hunting gave you upgrades, climbing towers unlocked new weapons, liberating outposts opened up fast travel options. And your progress is visibly marked by the ever growing tattoo on your arm, which is actually a stylized skill tree of sorts.
But alas, video games are not just about mechanics. Especially ones that try to tell a story, which Far Cry 3 definitely does. And this is also where the game fails. I would love to say it is a game with a few good ideas, which are marred both by bad writing but that’s not even the point. The point is what is missing. It is what the game sets up, moves seven steps forward and then goes off chasing some shiny thing in the distance, trips over its legs and ends up with face in the mud, looking all kinds of silly. And then it actually tries to claim it did it on purpose, and that this was the master plan all along.
But, the core idea is good. You have to give them that at least. I mean, they did wholesale steal it from Spec Ops: The Line but it is an interesting topic to explore nevertheless. Considering the sheer amount of violence in modern video games, any exploration of said violence as a phenomenon is worth talking about. But I’ll circle back to this.
First interesting twist you will notice when you start the game is that even though it’s an FPS, the protagonist is not a Navy Seal, ex-marine or some sort of super spy. I guess this just goes to show the sad state of this medium when playing as a “regular bloke” rather than someone with special-ops combat training counts as unorthodox. But don’t worry, the protagonist is still a white dude with brown hair, because that would just be too much, wouldn’t it? I mean god forbid we have some diversity in our triple A releases.
Jason Brody is young, rich, white and spoiled kid with way too much disposable income. More or less he is the kind of guy who would be the target audience for this game. Or rather the kind of guy the target audience currently worships. The kind of guy who could probably have his dad buy him his own reality show if he really wanted one. Along with a group of his friends he travels the world (well, mostly just the exclusive, high end night clubs of the world) getting drunk, starting trouble and doing rich white dude things like skydiving. One night the group finds out about a really awesome sounding island: a tropical paradise where pretty much anything under the sun is legal, and you can do as you please as long as you have cash on hand. Which they of course do have.
So they decide to arrive in style, and sky-dive onto the island, and promptly get captured by local pirates who have a lucrative human trafficking racket going. Because that’s kinda what happens when you have no central government, police force or a legal system. Whoever has the most guns kinda gets to run the place. And here that guy is Vas Montenegro – a local, small time pirate warlord who immediately steals the spotlight with his quirky, deranged monologues. He informs Jason that he will be held for ransom, and then probably sold into slavery or killed. He then proceeds to shoot Jason’s brother and allows him to escape so that he can hunt him down like a dog.
The protagonist somehow makes it out of the jungle, and finds out some unlikely allies in the Rakyat tribe who are the rivals of Vas’ pirates. The game sets them up to be the default good guys, but at first it is kinda hard to tell a real difference between them an the pirates. Both groups seem to enjoy riding around the island in jeeps, toting their AK-47′s and bullying the natives. They do have a Crips and Bloods kind of a thing going in that one faction likes to wear blue and the other prefers red, which provides convenient color-coding that benefits the player. The other difference is that the Rakyat seem to have fallen on hard times lately, whereas the pirates actually have off-shore connections and are raking in a lot of money. Perhaps it has something to do with the kind of illicit enterprise they both were running. The Rakyat seem to be more of a protection racket oriented group that prefers to preserve and invest in the local infrastructure to better exploit it later. The pirates on the other hand are more opportunistic parasitic, self-serving outfit that prefers human trafficking and pillaging which at the moment happens to be more profitable.
Either way, Jason’s escape from the pirate camp made Vas loose face and the Rakyat appreciate that. In fact, having a pissed off rich white boy trying to exact vendetta on the local prince of pirates amuses them greatly, so they are more than willing to sell Jason weapons, let him use their safe-houses and reluctantly provide some basic combat training. Of course they won’t lift a finger to help him otherwise because Vas is pretty well entranced, and going directly against him is a fools errand.
That’s how the game starts: you are alone on a lawless island with no way out. Your friends are imprisoned by the local warlord, and you need to figure out a way to rescue them and avenge your brother. The Rakyat give you one of their tribal tattoos which kinda works like the scout badge system. You start with a shitty band thing, but as you learn to hunt or use new weapons the design gets filled out. Once your shitty tribal band becomes a bad-ass sleeve that covers your entire arm you will be ready to face Vas. And so you go out, hunt jungle animals and learn to fight. Later you start helping the Rakyat to “liberate” parts of the island by straight-up murdering pirates and handing over their outposts to the local gangsters.
What the game is really about is descent into life of senseless brutality and violence. The tattoo works as a nice visual metaphor of your journey. The more people you kill, the bigger it gets. The bigger it gets, the more proficient you get at killing people. At some point you max out on all the rewards you can get from hunting animals, but killing people always yields money and experience points. Especially killing them in new, ever-more elaborate ways. Jason is really on a very dark, downward spiral throughout the first half of the game. To have a chance at rescuing his friends and killing Vas, he is becoming someone who is very much like Vas: an indiscriminate, opportunistic murderer with no fear, no qualms and no conscience. In a way this journey is almost more powerful than Spec Ops for me, because Spec Ops actually made me feel bad about what I was doing. Far Cry 3 did the opposite: it made me feel good about the terrible violence I was commuting. I liberated every single outpost in the game, and did every single assassination mission because it was fun and I was getting a steady stream of rewards. In fact, I kinda even felt proud of how filled out my tattoo was.
Yes, game, I know my friends are in trouble, getting sold into slavery, but there is still red shit on the map, and I need at least two more shark skins to finish this belt, so the rescue will have to wait. That’s the kind of game this is. Nevertheless the rescue/revenge plot is actually where the game shines. When you rescue your friends you get to see them react to the “new you” – the strange, gun-totting, tattooed and unhinged new man you are becoming. It is very evident that the ceaseless violence is changing you. Your friends seem soft, squishy and fragile, and you start to wonder how you will ever come back from this? After killing bears with hand-grenades and shooting a guy in the face from a zip-line can you ever actually settle down for a desk job? Can you come back from a murder spree like this and go back to a regular life? Once your friends are safe, and your brother is avenged, what will you do next? How are you going to channel this adrenaline addiction, and this newly acquired thirst for violence once your nemesis is dead? This sort of becomes the chief question of the game.
And then Citra shows up, and you can’t stop cringing for the rest of the game. You see, Citra is a half-naked jungle priestess and a secret leader of the Rakyat who are actually, like holy warriors of the island and stuff. Suddenly all of them are shirtless, have knives and are chanting something melodically, because otherwise you probably wouldn’t know that we’re now doing the Noble and Wise Savage trope thing. And you, Jason Brody: you, the brown haired dude from California, are going to be their white savior. They had a prophecy that one day a great dude is going to come and liberate them from the evil grip of the drug cartel (it’s a modern prophecy, but it is also ancient and wise, ok). Oh, yeah – by the way, there is a drug cartel run by some German guy and he is the main bad guy now. Also Vas is working for that guy so he is going to be a sub bos. Now go and Toomb Rider this ritual dagger from these ancient ruins over there so that we can do a sacred warrior ritual that will make you a True Rakyat Warrior™.
Before all that shit went down, I was kinda willing to buy that Rook Islands were just this unfortunate third world nation state, that has been colonized, subdued, uprooted and terrorized so many times they sort of lost their native culture. They sort of became like the Tivoli from Dr. Who: they got so used to colonial oppression they learned to keep their heads low and make no waves, hoping that the next colonial oppressor that comes along will be less cruel. I figured Rakyat were simply angry, bitter young men who resented their subaltern status, took up arms and decided to seize power, building upon the last vestiges of their native culture they could remember. So older natives struggling with their learned helplessness and younger ones becoming angry, militant and violent, although without much direction nowadays could have been almost a commentary on colonialism… Almost, but not quite. But then it all goes to hell when the designers decide to lean heavily on the Noble Savage trope, imbue your tattoo with mystical Jungle Powers™ and set you up as the One True White Savior who masters the mystical ways of the locals without actually having to learn their culture. Which of course they don’t really have…
In effect it becomes a quintessential colonial story that hits all the familiar tropes. Rakyat themselves are people without identity, and more importantly without a voice. There isn’t a single named character in the game who belongs to the tribe or was even born on the island. What little do we learn of their culture is given to us by outsiders: Dennis is Lybian, and while we don’t know where Citra was born, the game lore states it was not on the island. Vas has a Spanish accent, Claus and Hoyt are German, Buck is Australian. Every character of importance is an outsider. We never actually hear from the island natives themselves. What do they want? What are their hopes and dreams? What are their daily lives like? Who the fuck cares – it is not their story. They are there to be a backdrop. They are there to be fetishized and romanticized but never understood. In the grand tradition of Dancing with Wolves and Avatar, the Mighty Whitey is going to swoop in from the sky, and become the better Rakyat warrior than any native ever was, and then fix all their problems.
It’s actually quite ironic, that when people set out to make a game in, say, Middle Earth they will literally spend months researching the source materials, learning the different cultures and dialects of all the different Elf people. But when Ubisoft decided to set their game on a small island in South Pacific – a potentially real place, in the real world, that could have been inhabited by real people with a real culture they did zero research. The Rakyat natives are not only inauthentic and made up, but they are virtually non-existent.
Their culture is a mixture of hodge-podge visual tropes from bins labeled “tropical”, “third world”, “war-torn” and “exotic”, a very minimalistic, mystical creation myth of sorts and a lot of vague talk about mystical powers of the jungle which could have been copy pasted from just about any colonialist story about a white man “going native” and swiftly becoming the local super-hero.
And then there is Citra… Like you, she is an outsider. She looks and sounds nothing like the natives but somehow their priestess cum goddess. She seems to be an authority on Rakyat traditions and rituals. Why? Because, colonialism. If she was a native Rakyat woman, then that would give the subaltern their own voice. And we definitely can’t have any of that. So we make her vaguely African and an odd, a matching hard to place accent (Niggerian maybe – I couldn’t really tell) and let her explain to you how to be a native warrior for the tribe. And she will do that while wearing as little as possible, swinging her hips and purring like a cat in heat half the time.
But no, see, she is an interesting character because, like, you don’t know where her allegiances are, and she manipulates you using sex and stuff. Because that has not been done in video games, ever! Sigh…
To give credit where credit is due, the two other named female characters (there are 3 in the entire game, which is actually more than in most FPS games) are actually not terrible. They are actually rather likable and reasonable and are actually wearing clothes. But of course they are white and American, so they get to be classy damsels in distress. Citra is brown and exotic and by extension ripe for both: top-shelf, vintage grade sexual objectification and being a wild-card, unhinged, capricious and untrustworthy vixen.
I was having so much fun descending into madness, becoming a one-man-army and trying to rescue my friends while at the same time blowing up tigers with a bazooka and now I have to deal with all this cultural appropriation, casual racism, colonialism, objectification and rape bullshit. And yes, there is rape. There is one character in the game and that’s pretty much his whole shtick. He has your buddy locked up in the basement, and he will continue raping him unless you do stupid fetch quests. Why? I don’t know. I can’t explain it. He is pretty much inconsequential to the story as a whole. But I guess the designers felt that what the game was missing was a really annoying gay villain who rapes people. It’s as if they were working off some sort of an offensive stereotype checklist when they were designing all these characters. Pretty much all of them are terrible, except Vas.
Vas is a psychopath of course, but an interesting one. He has things to say, which, while not always coherent, make him seem like a rather conflicted guy. There is an unexpected depth to him despite being designed around a stock stereotype. He functions as a mirror and a reminder: this is who you are going to become if you continue down this path…
Why the fuck is this game not all about him? Who wrote the lines for Vas? Why the fuck couldn’t the same person write dialogue for everyone else in the game? He is the sole character in the game with some degree of introspection and depth. How did this happen?
It turns out there is actually a very easy explanation for this. Are you ready? Vas was never part of the original script. When Michael Mando (the voice / mo-cap talent behind Vas) auditioned for the game, Ubisoft was so impressed with his performance they wrote the part just for him. And they wrote it around his performance. Pretty much everything about Vas, including his mannerism and delivery were Mando’s ideas. In fact, a lot of the incoherent, tangential rants were ad-libed.
The fact that he integrates into the game so well, and that his character helps to create such a good pivotal story arc for the protagonist is actually a small miracle. As far as I’m concerned, Michael Mando deserves most of the credit for giving the game a single compelling plot line. The rest of the writing staff who worked on the game can go fuck themselves for ruining the game.
I did finish it, but I think it was mostly due to the fact that you can still “liberate” outposts, hunt and do all the regular fun sandbox stuff in between the main story missions, which get worse as the game progresses. This allowed me to take breaks from the terribad plot, decompress and vent anger by hunting down pirates with a sniper gun, imagining I’m playing a different game. Without this, I don’t think I could have done it. If it was non-stop story missions, I would have quit like 30% into the game. Instead of awesome descent into madness, the game descends into crap. Not only in terms of contrived storytelling (lets throw some stale, vaguely racist tropes at the wall and see what sticks) but also bad mechanics that are almost excursive to the main plot thread and do not occur naturally in the sandbox.
Quick quiz: what are game mechanics that people hate the most?
- Escort missions
- Timed, insta-fail driving sequences with vehicles that handle like wheel barrels
- Long cut-scenes with rapid quick-time sequences at the end
How about we put all of these into main story missions? Good idea or greatest idea? It’s almost as if they didn’t want me to see the ending… In retrospect, it’s actually not surprising. If I was responsible for this disaster, I wouldn’t want people to finish the game either.
That ending, guys… Let me tell you about that ending:
Citra kidnaps your friends for some unfathomable reason, ties them up and then orders you to slit their throats. So the final choice you make in the game is:
- Push left mouse button to kill your friends for some reason
- Push right mouse button not to kill your friends
Why does she want you to do this? I don’t know. I honestly can’t tell. It makes absolutely no sense to me. It does not fit into the overall story. It does not computer. I honestly can’t tell who were they expecting to pick the first option. Citra insists that slaughtering your loved ones is the only way to become a true Rakyat warrior and stay on the island. She babbles something about cutting your ties to your old life. Why is such a terrible sacrifice required of you? You tell me, because the game couldn’t be bothered to explain.
If she wanted me to stay on the island, I would gladly do that. After all that Jason went through I really did not see him going back to America and resuming his old life. I’d just put the friends on a boat and go back to hunting bears with land mines or whatever. That would actually be a fitting ending: the protagonist chooses a life of perpetual violence because he is now an adrenaline junkie and a cold blooded murderer. Because there are some things that you can’t come back from.
But if you put me on the spot, and ask me to slit my girlfriend’s throat for “reasons”, then fuck you. I’m not going to do it. Especially not after spending 40+ hours trying to rescue these people. Jason’s story arc was supposed to lead him to a dark place. The game was about him becoming a bad person. But bad people are still people with feelings and attachments. Even deranged warlords often have families, and they get pretty upset (and homicidal) if someone messes with their loved ones. Does killing a few hundred people for fun and profit make you a bad person? Yes, it does. Does it mean you are going to murder your girlfriend and a brother in cold blood without even blinking an eye? No, it does not. This is not how it works. Besides, why would Citra even want that? Why would you even want a guy who can do such a thing on your team?
I sat there literally for five minutes staring at the screen, and alternating between sheer bafflement and impotent rage. Even though the story had veered off-target at around 30% mark and promptly fell off the rails and became incomprehensible mess, it still had some vestigial arc and logical progression to it. It actually had to take effort to come up with something this contrived and random. And for what? What possible reason could there be for such a terrible setup? Was this done just to piss me off? Is this their way of flipping me a bird for playing that far into the game, long after it became obvious the plot was beyond any hope of rescue?
Out of morbid curiosity I checked out the other ending on Youtube. It’s like five seconds of sex, and the Citra stabs you in the chest announcing that your son will lead the Rakyat people. Which only opens more questions… Like, for example: wouldn’t it make more sense to wait a few weeks and take a pregnancy test?
Perhaps this final choice was their cop-out, last minute attempt to give Jason a way to redeem himself. In the “good” ending he goes back to America and tries to hold on to the last vestiges of humanity he has and it is implied he succeeds putting all of this behind him. In the “bad” ending is basically “fuck you, what is wrong with you, rocks fall and everyone dies” type thing. It’s like they knew that picking the “join Citra” option means you are a massive tool, so they punish you for it. But what is the point of having an arbitrary binary choice that is this black and white? They might have as well labeled the choices “Redemption” and “Damnation”.
Wouldn’t it be more poignant to make the ending more nuanced? Let Jason go back home and deal with the fact he is irredeemable, and that he will have a really hard time adjusting to life in a society that has laws and codes of conduct again. Or let him give up a former life, family, wealth and comfort, stay on the island, live fast, play hard and die young. Both these endings would be vastly superior.
It has been a while since I played a game that I was this conflicted about. On one hand, the game play was definitely top notch. I could probably gripe a bit about the crappy save system, but save for a few unfortunate moments where I actually lost a good deal of progress, it worked as intended. The combat mechanics and reward system was like a well oiled machine always delivering and always making you want more. The vehicles handled like shit, but you didn’t actually have to drive them (save for main story missions) so I didn’t. I was able to skip nearly all of the “supply drop” missions that I did not enjoy and concentrate on the parts of the game that were more fun to me. That is a testament to good sandbox design: provide a varied experience, and let the player choose the activities he enjoys allowing him skip ones he does not without halting progression. With such good mechanics you could sell just about any story…
And they chose to tell a story about Mighty Whitey saving Noble Savages from themselves… Not only that, but they squandered the one good character arc and one compelling villain they had, just so they could put in some sex scenes and some patronizing jungle voodoo narrative. They inverted the sandbox mechanics and made the story missions linear fetch quests for infuriatingly smug NPC’s, escort missions, timed driving sequences and quick-time event driven boss fights that were annoying, repetitive and unsatisfying. And then they slapped on an ending that was so contrived and incomprehensibly random that I could not take it seriously.
Couldn’t this game be about a native of the island, whose friends and/or family get kidnapped by the pirates and he chooses to become a warrior to rescue them? Couldn’t it be about subaltern people rising up and fighting to be heard and recognized? Couldn’t they have actually researched South Pacific islander cultures and made the natives more authentic, believable and nuanced rather than generic and bland, except the parts that were fetishized? Couldn’t both allies and enemies be Rakyat, allowing the player to get immersed in their culture, their legends, their way of life? I’d play that game.
Or barring that, couldn’t the game just be about Jason trying to rescue his friends and loosing himself to endless violence? Jason would hate Vas, then come to understand him, identify with him and finally become him. And killing him would be a bitter pill that would bring him no joy. I’d play that game too.
Instead I played Far Cry 3 which left me angry and unsatisfied – but only because I enjoyed it so much. Some games are just so bad you can’t be bothered to finish them. This one was good enough to keep me playing, even as I was cringing, hating the story, and cursing the writers under my breath. It’s a decent game that could have been so much more, if only the writing wasn’t so atrocious and the writers weren’t so culturally sheltered. This is what happens when white dudes keep making games for white dudes, and zero fucks is given about anyone else. This is why this industry needs diversity, very, very badly. Without it, we are just going to continue telling bad, contrived and culturally insensitive stories full of stale old tropes and shitty stereotypes, that benefit and satisfy one.