Far Cry 3 and Levelling Down

The case for more wimps in video games

By: Aaron Matteson

Filed Under: Action Culture Editorial Story-driven

Much has been written of Far Cry 3, mostly on the subject of the game’s handling of the undertones that pop up when the plot of your game involves a young Westerner coming to a tropical island and, by using native technology, becoming a champion of the indigenous people.  The rest of what has been written about Far Cry 3 concerns how much fun it is.

The parts of the game I most compelling actually aren’t the bits where player character Jason Brody picks off pirates with a sniper rifle or blows up an outpost by shooting an explosive arrow into it.  Those are fun and all, but I’ve seen them in other places.

No, my favorite parts of Far Cry 3 are when Jason Brody fails.  Spectacularly, gruesomely, hilariously fails.

For instance, when Jason is riding a jet ski off the coast of the game’s island, he can bail out at a high speed. When I make him do that, what follows is the coolest sequence of disorientation I’ve ever seen in an FPS: the world blurs, I hear a crash – somehow distant and also deafening – and then Brody is underwater, slowly floating through the thick, gorgeous green-blue sea.  He is immediately eaten by a shark.

It gets better. While scaling a radio tower, Jason Brody is talking on his satellite phone to his late brother’s girlfriend.  He promises to do his best to find their kidnapped pals.  In the middle of the conversation, however, distracted by the phone call, he jumps a bit too far and tumbles eighty feet to his death.  He lies broken on the jungle ground as a black bear quizzically eyes him.  Then his world goes black.

And I laugh.  I feel more charmed by the game at these moments than during any of its “kill this guy with a knife” side-quests.

Since I definitely don’t get this feeling when I die in other games, I think there’s a reason unique to Far Cry 3 that I love seeing Jason Brody perish in outrageous, goofy ways.  It has to do with two things – first, that Far Cry 3 is more of an RPG than its predecessors, and in RPGs I want the character’s journey to make sense.  The second thing is something that Mark Thompson, one of the developers, said – that the game strives to move away from the “Little Boy Fantasies” of most video games, by making the game about a young man from a privileged upbringing who has to become something he never thought he’d become in order to save his friends.

With these two things in mind, I find it jarring that Jason Brody, who begins the game as a whimpering follower pleading that he can’t do what’s being asked of him, so quickly becomes a leopard-skinning, pirate-battling hardass.  His brief in-game bio states that he loves extreme sports – so that explains his ability to drive an ATV without immediately being thrown off.  But what about his ability to rapidly reload a shotgun while being rushed by a machete-wielding killer, or the myriad other skills he displays throughout the course of the game that should only belong to mercenaries or professional bushmen?

I admire Far Cry 3’s attempts to make the transition from innocent to murderer a bumpier one than it usually is in video games, but I think it actually needs to be much bumpier – and I’m not talking only in terms of psyche, but in terms of education.  And constant, crippling failure should be a part of that education.

Let’s start with shooting.  Even at the beginning of the game, when Brody protests that he’s never shot anyone before in his life, he’s got a pretty respectable accuracy when he fires from the hip.  Why not make this the story of someone who’s borderline terrified of guns, but has to use them to rescue the people he loves?  In this game, your initial accuracy is so poor that an early mission is to hit a barn door several times in succession, and even when you look down the iron sights, your hands shake so much that it’s questionable whether it’s better than closing your eyes and just shooting randomly.

Or how about the radio towers of Far Cry 3?  I realize that scouting radio towers to reveal portions of the map and unlock free guns at stores is a concession to gaming conventions, and that this isn’t supposed to be the most realistic portion of the game.  Fair enough.  But if you’re looking to make a game about how a person goes from innocent uselessness to powerful soullessness, why give the player character any freebies?  Unless there’s an “Electrician” tatau that I got early on, how does my average millennial bro Jason know how to operate machinery like this?  How about when I get to the top of the radio tower, if I don’t disable the scrambler correctly, I get shocked to death?  Anything to keep electrical engineering off the list of skills that Jason Brody knows how to do preternaturally.

This whole idea extends to the hunting and trapping portions of the game as well.  From essentially the very beginning of the game, Brody can craft weapon slings and bandoliers for himself that allow him to carry more guns and ammo.  His introduction to this is when he is commanded to go to an abandoned ranch in the middle of the jungle and “master the jungle” by “listen[ing] to [his] instincts.”  According to the quest markers, your instincts tell you to kill two boars and pick some flowers.  At this point you are almost instantly able to fashion accessories and potions from these materials.  Now, I like potions just as much as the next guy, but isn’t it a bit of a stretch that a dude who has never shot anyone in his life can skin a wild pig and fashion a holster out of it without training?

I know that a lot of these oversights are made by games in general.  It isn’t just Far Cry 3 that allows the player character to be good at everything.  But isn’t that part of the culture that has made wish fulfillment gaming’s go-to mode for so many years?  I believe that if you truly want to subvert that,  the player character has to be worse at everything.

He has to be as useless as I would be if dropped into a jungle and surrounded by pirates. In this scenario we have a hero who is tasked with liberating outposts manned by hardened killers, and he is so shitty at military stuff that he barfs every time he is fired at.  We have a guy who burns himself horribly when he tries to fix a car with a blowtorch.  We have a protagonist who, in his attempts to make effective pouches out of animal skins, fashions ammo packs that can fall apart halfway through missions, scattering bullets everywhere.

Now we are really leaving behind the “Little Boy Fantasies,” which hand power to the player without caveat or cost.  The game detailed above would be infuriating to play, but it would truly be about a progression from impotence to skillfulness.  It would require the skill of Dark Souls and the patience of chess.  And it would make a statement – both about the game’s main character, and the player controlling him.

[Photo Credit]

Filed Under: Action Culture Editorial Story-driven

About the Author:
Aaron Matteson is a stage actor in Brooklyn, a Seattle native, and an alum of Village Voice Media's Joystick Division.

34 Responses to “Far Cry 3 and Levelling Down”

  1. marlkarx

    Games have traditionally side-stepped this issue is by making their characters super-human to begin with. They were subversive to the point where they weren’t really trying to make any kind of attempt to make commentary but instead revel in their self-acknowledged silliness. This was their virtue. I find the attempts Far Cry 3 has made to seem serious quite ludicrous when all is said and done.

    I think it thinks video-games evolved to the point where they can successfully try to take on something meaningful without bothering to change certain aspects of themselves. It’s as if the popularity of video-games, and likely the artistic acknowledgement certain low-key games have been getting, has made them believe they are suddenly adept to take on more complex ideas whilst in-keeping with the accepted way they have functioned for a long time – the over-the-top silly and fun part of them.

    The dissonance that Far Cry 3 suffers from in its attempt to draw in conversation about over-privileged youth but still in-keep with the traditional super-human style of video-games is ridiculously stupid. Brody is just a super-human dressed up as a recognisible part of real culture. The game wants to go one way but dares not alienate the established audience.

    The upcoming Tomb Raider game looks like it’s going to be equally flawed in the same way.

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