Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Far Cry 2

I am only good for one thing: killing. Fortunately, I am in a place where killing is the only thing that matters. 

The fictional African country of Far Cry 2 has been destroyed by civil war, and that civil war continues. Why did it start? I don't know. Why does it continue? To keep mercenaries like me in business in the game, and gamers like me outside the game entertained. What does it mean? It means nothing. It is, simply, killing.

I never meet anyone who says otherwise. The representatives of the two factions in the civil war, the APR and UFLL, have no explanation for why all they do is kill. Their names might have meant something once. They don't now. Their leaders occasionally spout some Pan-African nonsense. They only care about power, and acquiring it by killing. Their second-in-commands, the ones who give me my missions? They're mercenaries just like me, and they know the score. If the war ends, no more work. Worse, an end to the war means a purge of mercenaries, so it's not just money they're motivated by, it's survival. Even when I'm working for one faction, its soldiers don't know it. 

Virtually everyone I meet tries to kill me, regardless of my loyalties. So I have to kill them back.
Such is true of my “friends” in Far Cry 2 as well. They will aid me, yes, so long as I aid them. But what do I help them with? Tasks of petty revenge or maintaining the war. All of my tasks are amoral. Sometimes I destroy medicine. Sometimes I assassinate villains. I shut down the national radio station. Someone told me it was all propaganda. It called itself the voice of truth. Maybe it was both. But it doesn't matter.

What does matter is that I'm extraordinarily good at killing, in a world where that can be difficult. At night, I take a silenced pistol and SMG, alongside a dart gun, and sneak to my objective. Or in the daylight, I pick up a small grenade launcher, a powerful sniper rifle, and a giant machine gun, subtlety be damned. And the things I do! A truck drives straight at me as I stand in the middle of the road. I hastily reload a rocket launcher just in time to fire on it, and barely, just barely, step out of the way of the flaming wreckage as it flies towards me. James Bond eat your heart out.

I should take one part of that back. There is one person in Far Cry 2 who talks to me about morality: The Jackal, the arms dealer whose death is the entirety of my motivation when I arrived in Far Cry 2. Everything I do, every alliance I make, every ally I betray, every blood diamond I find, every single thing is supposed to lead me to his death. But he's the only one who sees what I see, that this is a big, dumb, self-perpetuating war. That there is no room for anyone but killing machines like myself in Far Cry 2, but killing machines like myself are unwelcome anywhere else in the world.

Although I had nominal control over the choice of my character at the start of Far Cry 2, he remains entirely silent. Other than the occasional character calling me “China,” my character choice is totally irrelevant. The Jackal, my ostensible enemy, is a better “me” in Far Cry 2 than I am. He realizes that the country is a total disaster. He realizes that there's no solution in this brutal civil war between interchangeable factions. And he has a plan to end it. This doesn't explain why he sold the sides the weapons in the first place, but then, I don't know why I'm in this country to kill him in the first place, so we're even.

Morality has always played an integral part in open-world games. Back in 1985, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar solidified the concept of the open-world game, building on the burgeoning role-playing genre to create a game where the world existed outside of the hero and his or her quest. You were a part of that world, and could interact with it in myriad ways beyond following a linear path to its conclusion. Ultima IV may be the most ethical game ever made, demanding the player fulfill specific virtuous goals to be successful. So it is perhaps somewhat ironic that, as open-world games like Far Cry 2 have moved outside of the RPG genre, they've become known for their gleeful immorality.
Far Cry 2 initially seems to fall into that immoral category alongside Grand Theft Auto, but I don't feel like it's immoral – I kill no innocents in Far Cry 2 – I think it's amoral. I am amoral My actions are essentially meaningless in an ethical sense. Death and life are entirely utilitarian. But Far Cry 2 does more with that amorality – it uses it to make a statement. If it sounds repetitive and futile, it is. Far Cry 2 succeeds as a monument to the repetition and futility of war. 

There is a famous quote, attributed to Gillo Pontecorvo, director of The Battle of Algiers, that no film can depict war without glorifying it. This may be the case with film. Yet, while Far Cry 2 may revel in the glories of personal combat, it also frustrates my conventional gaming desires to heroically succeed through proper application of violence. I am not simply watching characters fight in this futile war. I am a participant – I am the most important participant in this idiotic war. And I cannot help but be unhappy at seeing what horrors my killing wreaks. My friends are all dead – many by my hand. My allies, who helped me out of many a jam and perhaps deserve my loyalty, are just as dead – many by my hand. Far Cry 2's glorification of war and violence becomes something more thanks to its commitment to amorality. It becomes tragic.


The Fool said...

I think the most thematically important section of the game is the mid-game transition. After 4-12 (if you're insanely slow) hours, you've "won", go through a transitionary sequence of events where you start the war back up again and...end right back where you started, doing deniable missions for both sides.

On the Jackal's purpose: I only played it in 2008, but I'm pretty sure The Jackal started the war in the first place, or fanned the flames of an ongoing one in order to end the entire mercenary system. The mere existence of the mercenary systems causes the wars to spiral out of control.

One of the audio tapes the Jackal leaves lying around in the game talks about how when he started out in the arms business, he sold surplus, weapons stolen from the former USSR, etc. After the first few years, though, he didn't even need to go through the hassle of all that. He just bought the weapons back from his original customers and resold them, over and over again. Presumably Voorhees and the rest of the mercs had been doing much the same thing. So he laid the ultimate honeypot.

I forget if he said that in one of his overlong pretentious monologues, though.

Don't know if you're aware, but the reporter character has a blog where he recounts his work in the country and time back in South Africa, as well as his full interview with the Jackal: http://reubenblog.typepad.com/

The tapes themselves: http://reubenblog.typepad.com/reubens_blog/2008/11/tapes-are-live.html

Unknown said...

Wow, that blog is a fascinating piece of of external meta-gaming that, I think, works well with my idea of intentionally blurring the lines between "player" and "character". It's like an interactive version of the journal that used to come in the boxes of PC games.

On an intellectual level, I think you're right about that first transition, but I will say that when I played it I got the impression that it moved a bit too quickly to be satisfying in a narrative sense. But that unsatisfyingness is important.