Playlist: Far Cry 2’s Abuses of Body and Story

farcryhedJustin Keever | Jul 26, 2017

My Summer Playlist Project: Every time I finish a game, I write at least 500 words about it. Enjoy!

To write about Far Cry 2 is to fall into a pernicious trap, insofar as it’s very difficult to honestly address what the game does well without overselling its achievements, and equally difficult to address what the game does poorly without sounding dismissive of the entire canon of popular videogame criticism. I’ve had a difficult relationship with Far Cry 2 – over the course of the 5-6 years in which I’ve attempted to play the game completion. I’ve gone from earnest interest, to boredom born out of frustration with the ways the game is unlike other open world games, to seething hatred, to genuine appreciation, to boredom born out of frustration with the ways the game is exactly like other open world games, and finally landed on an unremarkable conclusion: Far Cry 2 is okay. It inspires little more than detached appreciation. It is, however, an interesting failure. It is an ambitious game whose core fault is a lack of ambition, a deeply subversive game in all the ways except for the ones that truly matter.

To my mind, there are three projects at the heart of Far Cry 2. They will be addressed individually until it is inconvenient to do so, in descending order of importance – an importance not decided by me, but by the hierarchy that the game establishes itself.

Its first, and most vital goal, is that of Ludonarrative Coherence. Despite the fact that Far Cry 2 was several years into development when the term ludonarrative dissonance was brought into the world, it’s difficult not to see Far Cry 2 as an attempt by Clint Hocking to develop a videogame where there is consonance “between what it is about as a game, and what it is about as a story.” Let’s put aside the basic caveats that should always be brought up when addressing ludonarrative dissonance as a concept – that the term itself is largely useless as it is based on a reductive understanding of games and narratives existing in opposition to one another, symptomatic of the ludology/narratology debate that continues to haunt game studies to this day and has already been addressed in more nuanced ways by better critics – and take it at face value that the basic project of Far Cry 2 is to tell a story that is thematically aligned with its play. Far Cry 2 achieves this coherence primarily by excising story almost entirely, leaving us with little more than a scenario:

There is a civil war going on in an unnamed African Country, and a group of Western mercenaries are interfering and perpetuating the war for personal gain. The conclusion to that scenario is anarchy. Almost every named character is dead at the end of Far Cry 2, and the one that survives is ultimately a professional and moral failure. Between points A and B are the events of the actual game, which are incomprehensible. Unmemorable characters assign you missions wherein you are almost never entirely sure which faction’s members you are killing. Far Cry 2’s story is an esoteric swirl of pointless violence, and the game’s chief success is giving its violence that same essence of nihilistic incomprehensibility.

Despite combat being the raison d’être of nearly every single character, playable or otherwise in the game, Far Cry 2 does well to make combat seem awkward and unnatural. The firefights seem less like an engagement of disciplined professionals and more like unreliable and unprepared machinery being smashed together. In Far Cry 2, everything breaks, everything seems to insist that it should be elsewhere. Engines leak and vehicles sputter to a halt when they are shot, wood buckles and collapses, failing to provide adequate cover, and guns jam to the point of being inoperable with extended use. Explosions ignite the arid terrain, and the fire spreads indiscriminately, consuming everything. Bullets and shrapnel must be pulled from human bodies so those bodies can continue to fight. The player character’s body, specifically, must be medicated – morphine for physical injury, unnamed pills for malaria symptoms. I’m hesitant to claim, in the manner of other critics, that these systems make Far Cry 2 “unfun” in that particular anti-shooter way. On the contrary, once you become accustomed to Far Cry 2’s slower rhythms, its shootouts can be immensely enjoyable; the improvisation that these systems encourage leads to harrowing, fast paced firefights, wherein tactical advantages are gained and lost several times over within minutes.

What these systems actually do is add an additional layer of abuse to first person shooting. We are not simply killing other characters, as we do in countless action games. Rather, all parties involved undergo trauma. The springs and small moving parts of a gun are audible in the weak clinking of its cocking mechanism, and we feel the duress that mechanism is placed under every time the gun is fired. We are made to feel the strain that stray bullets place on vehicles, their hissing engines reminding us that these things are not blocks of metal but complex machines whose engineering can be easily disrupted. Metal is ripped from flesh more violently than it entered. Nature otherwise untouched by war machines burns because the wind blew in its direction. Violence shatters everything.

The disruptive quality of the violence bleeds over into the game’s second project, which is frustrating the typical pleasures of the open world. Brendan Keogh has already written at length about how the game’s perpetually-repopulated checkpoints subvert the typical colonial pleasures of steadily removing opposing forces from an open world, so rather than repeating how the game fails to respond to the player, I want to focus on the way it does.

The player character receives most of their missions by visiting a cease-fire zone, where the bases of both factions in the civil war are based. While this zone only takes up a small portion of the map, the sense that the war is an uneasy stalemate is pervasive, likely because the two factions never actually engage one another directly. The player character acts as a proxy soldier for both sides of the conflict, which ensures that the motivations of the player character are never tied to morals, ideology, or survival. The game prescribes an alternative motivation onto the player character by paraphrasing Nietzsche: “a living being seeks above all else to discharge its strength.” Far Cry 2 tasks the player with upsetting the stasis of the open world in the same manner as any other open world game, but reveals the inherently ignoble nature of the endeavour by removing any kind of motivation other than payment.

Far Cry 2 also alters the typical open world experience by removing non-diegetic fast travel, only allowing the player to warp between bus stops, which are few and are far between. That limitation, in addition to the lack of in-world non-diegetic waypoints, slow movement speed, and the aforementioned checkpoints, intends to force the player to move deliberately and find off-road paths to objectives in order to circumvent checkpoints. However, for the first half of the game, I found myself circumventing the entire map; fast traveling from the central cease-fire zone to the closest bus stop, and moving deeper only when I absolutely needed to. This was not out of a desire to avoid the game’s larger, compellingly difficult combat encounters, but rather to avoid the throwaway enemies who patrolled the streets, who amount to nothing more than brief, tedious interruptions.

There is an impulse when evaluating anti-shooters to celebrate all of their tedium as deliberate, thematically-rich tedium. This is an erroneous stance, in part because most anti-shooters aren’t actually tedious. Spec Ops: The Line is a good shooter. Kane and Lynch 2 is a good shooter. These games are grueling, unpleasant, generic, and sometimes frustratingly difficult, but they are never straightforwardly dull. I don’t mean to be prescriptive here and say that tedium is never meaningful or valuable; I ask only that we dispel the notion that tedium is somehow intrinsic to the anti-shooter.

Moreover, there is a distinct difference between productive and unproductive (or, meaningful and unmeaningful) tedium, and Far Cry 2’s first failure is that it enthusiastically disrupts the former with dashes of the latter. Tegiminis characterizes Far Cry 2’s “long periods of downtime as you drive from spot to spot, gathering diamonds and fending off patrols” as negative narrative space, moments of thoughtful solitude between the positive narrative space of the hyperviolent main missions. If Far Cry 2 actually lived up to that duality, it would be a much better game.

The patrols which Tegiminis insists are part of that negative narrative space fracture the game’s otherwise solemn periods of travel with trivial combat encounters. The patrols, and any other vehicle bound enemy, behave suicidally and robotically, and are easily outwitted by sidestepping their initial, inevitable attempt to run you over. The naturalistic behavior of the enemies bleeds away when they set foot in a car – no longer will they attempt to retreat, to outflank you, cry out to their friends or double over in pain when they are shot. Stock-still as mannequins and quiet as the graves they’re about to fill, they will drive straight at you. Once they have either missed or crashed their car into yours, the driver casually step out of his seat while the gunner fires wildly in your direction. These firefights are completely uniform and almost never threatening. Patrols are met not with fear but with a sigh and an eyeroll, contributing not to the sublimity of the gamespace but to its artificiality. They feel like a corporate compromise, an intrusion introduced out of the desire to fill the gameworld with something to shoot, out of a lack of trust in the audience, or a lack of trust in the strengths of the game itself. I understand that these random encounters only take up a fraction of the overall runtime; however, when a single system is so dull as to encourage disengagement with the rest of the game, there is a problem. Worse, when the entirety of a game’s ambition is ludic coherence, any anomalous behavior threatens the integrity of the entire enterprise.

Because it is Far Cry 2’s third project, its critique of Western Intervention in developing nations, where the game really falls apart. For much of its run time, the entirety of its commentary is located within its setup and its portrayal of violence. That is, a group of unaffiliated mercenaries (including the player character) have entered an unnamed African country in order to exploit its state of civil strife for material gain. The game condemns the violence perpetrated in the name of that material game through its dour representation of violence (though the gameworld’s lack of civilians means that the game’s eternally respawning enemies undermine the sensation that the war has any human cost). The way in which the player receives missions from both sides of the conflict is coherent with the idea that the player-character has no ideological conviction other than to capital. This mission structure also furthers the game’s other argument that those who profit off of war are invested in eternally perpetuating the conflict they participate in; an argument which is made more explicitly in an unfortunately small number of story missions that involve delivering weapons and detonating explosives in otherwise peaceful cease-fire zones, which are always completed at the behest of other mercenaries with a vested financial interest in prolonging the war.

However, these little nuances do little to remedy the main issue with Far Cry 2’s political critique: for most of its runtime, it is broad to the point of uselessness. The game is unwilling to locate its narrative in any specific, meaningful historical context, despite the long history of Mercenary/PMC activity in Africa, (such as in the Congo Crisis in the 60s, or the presence of the PMC Executive Outcomes in Angola and Sierra Leone).

In the final hours of the game, one APR leader speaks of unification, of the potential benefits of uniting as “One Africa.” Perhaps this is a reference to the United States of Africa, a concept championed by Muammar al-Gadaffi. But in the absence of any citation of African politics or the identification of a specific African region, one cannot help but suspect that this line is indicates that the game views its playspace as a simulacrum of Africa in its totality. It should not be beyond the pale to suggest that eight square kilometers of arid wilderness standing in for an entire continent is an extremely problematic act of erasure.

That Far Cry 2 does not have a rigidly defined main character, and instead lets the player choose from a relatively diverse cast of mercenaries further broadens the game’s critique. These mercs have nothing in common save for the fact that they are ex-military, and all find themselves in this unnamed African country. The game never even specifies who exactly hired the player character to kill the Jackal in the first place. These choices demonstrate Far Cry 2’s unwillingness to implicate any state power in the violent exploitation of developing nations. So we are only left with a condemnation of the greed of roughly twenty individuals, who have no meaningful ties to hegemonic powers that a better game would identify and denounce.

There is one trick the game has that defies my critique here – the trick comes in the game’s second half, after roughly 7-10 hours of play, and it hits like a revelation. It is these billboards:

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These placards, advertising various corporations and consumer goods, suggest that the mercenaries and other foreign agents intervening in the war are doing so within the context of global capitalism encroaching on and taking advantage of the developing world; possibly exploiting the unstable political conditions we see in order to extract the nation’s resources, utilize an unregulated labor force, or to pave the way for neoliberal consumerism. The problem is, that previous sentence captures the full depth of Far Cry 2’s exploration of global capitalism’s role in perpetuating violence. It is a suggestion, nothing more, which would not be that big an issue were it not for the fact that these billboards are the most – and perhaps the only – thematically cogent image in the entire game.

In an essay entitled “Far Cry 2 and the Dirty Mirror”, Patrick Lindsey writes that “what sets Far Cry 2 aside from other post-Bioshock shooters is that its narrative is far less obvious and its genre criticism far less heavy-handed than its contemporaries.” Lindsey’s argument here is representative of the grand misunderstanding of Far Cry 2, wherein people see narrative subtlety in what is actually a far simpler and far less valuable quality – a narrative lack.

Far Cry 2 does not have a subtle narrative – one character outright says that it is in the interest of the mercs to extend the conflict, another yells that the locals blame the foreign agents for the civil war. But these open declarations of the game’s themes are buried in its utterly inert storytelling. NPCs uniformly speak with the gruff, hurried tone of a chainsmoking con man, sprinting through unintelligible dialogue that almost always serves a utilitarian purpose of telling you where to go and what to destroy.

There is no drama to latch onto in Far Cry 2 – even the game’s lone semi-memorable character, the Jackal, undergoes wild changes in motivation from scene to scene. His character becomes so incomprehensible by the game’s conclusion that he devolves from an elusive, mythical figure to little more than a displaced accent.

Neither is there any interesting imagery to latch onto in Far Cry 2. It’s sometimes eerily beautiful jungles, deserts, and rivers contribute to a consistent mood but, save for those billboards, the gamespace isn’t utilized in any rhetorical fashion. When it comes to political critique, Far Cry 2 is not subtle: it is damn near empty.

As tempting as it might be, I won’t suggest that despite its complete and utter emptiness that Far Cry 2 is too long. Extended exposure to the game’s open world is necessary in order to feel the weight of the game’s somber mood and the circuitousness of its conflict. However, the game’s extended length eventually undoes its only success. It forces the player to engage with its systems, which in the absence of a coherent narrative are presented to the player as nakedly as possible. I’ve written before about the shortcomings of relying exclusively on procedural rhetoric to express an idea, and Far Cry 2 does not transcend these criticisms. Once you’ve experienced the totality of the game’s expressive systems (i.e. its combat) there is nothing else for the game to say to you because those systems don’t change in any substantial way. The commentary on violence that Far Cry 2 provides in its first hour is identical to that of its last hour, at least in terms of the procedural means by which it communicates it.

Lindsey implicitly justifies Far Cry 2’s bloated length by positing that the game “relies on the player engaging with the material they’re playing through and coming to their own conclusion about what they’re being shown.” Essentially, the game’s length provides the player with the meditative space necessary to understand what exactly its systems are trying to communicate. However, if you approach Far Cry with any kind of foreknowledge about the game’s core project – or just with a semblance of play literacy and an understanding that games communicate ideas – then it is fairly easy to grasp the nuances of the game’s representation of violence within just a few firefights. Absent a narrative hook, there’s very little compelling reason to see the game through to its conclusion. However, if you understand the game before it seemingly wants you to and decide to see it through to its conclusion regardless, it is easy to become accustomed to the game’s more subversive systems and ludic rhythms because they are static.

I found myself comforted by the familiarity of the gameplay during the final third of Far Cry 2, which dulled the violence’s abusive quality and allowed the game to fall into the same breed of mundane pleasure that so many open world action games seek to achieve. Because Far Cry 2’s resistance to the typical pleasures of videogame combat is based almost entirely in its systems, which are fixed in a way that allows the player to account for them when they become known quantities. The game’s length provides the player not only the time to understand the game’s procedural rhetoric, but also the time to become numb to that rhetoric.

The ultimate result is an empty game with one myopic idea that it fully commits to, to the absolute detriment of any its political commentary or character work. To insist that Far Cry 2’s broad, obvious subversion of videogame violence is worthwhile, one must subscribe to a videogame criticism dogma that suggests that systemic coherence is more valuable than aesthetic and/or narrative coherence, which just isn’t true.

In the conclusion of his piece, Lindsey suggests that “cutscenes and dialogue are useful for exposition, but are clumsy and fat-fingered when it comes to expressing complex ideas,” a mind-bogglingly arrogant rejection of things like “words” and “images” of which Far Cry 2 is equally guilty. Because after 25-hours of drama-free slaughter, it becomes evident that Clint Hocking’s solution to his imagined problem of Ludonarrative Dissonance is to simply remove the narrative. The end result is an intermittently interesting yet monotonous, thematically shallow game that rode into the canon on the coattails of ludological doctrine. Yet it still fails to provide a system that is intellectually engaging, or even tonally coherent, for the duration of the game’s runtime.

Far Cry 2 ends with a few slides of white text atop a black screen, informing us of the state of things after the player-character’s demise. The country remains in the midst of civil war. The Jackal’s body was never found. Reuben Oluwagembi’s coverage of the conflict has been ignored by the international press, so he publishes his report on his blog. In this last detail we see Far Cry 2 again gesture toward something interesting, something scathing, something political. But alas, the refusal of the press to bring international attention to wars in the developing world, the idea that there is a media class that is complicit in the atrocities that the player character enacted is nothing more than a footnote. I don’t remember how many times I met Reuben. Maybe twice? That white text is all he is – his face and his voice are a mystery to me. There is no tragedy in his failure, no sinking feeling that the violence of the developing world is a systemic evil that can’t be overcome by the will of a single reporter. It’s just a pessimistic phrase at the end of a game that is satisfied with presenting first-person shooting action through the lens of pointless nihilism. I read these final slides about the fates of the APR and the UFLL, the Jackal, and Reuben, and I’m not even disappointed that this information isn’t presented in an interesting way. I just don’t care about any of it. And neither did Far Cry 2.

Follow me on twitter @JustAKeever

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