I’m not a fan of the first-person shooter.
That wasn’t always the case. A short time after the death of the LAN party, back in the early days of Xbox Live, I was promised connection--that my Xbox and I could almost magically play with the rest of humanity in a world of science fiction. Not since the day the comet known as Sega Channel entered and burned up in our atmosphere had we connected through play on our televisions. Instead, there I was playing games largely by myself or splitscreen with the neighborhood gang for most of my formative years.
With the introduction of Xbox Live, I entered a world of pricks. I hated it. I went from cream of the crap--the No. 1 best boy, the videogame-captain-genius, the big fish in our small town--to crap of the crap, the worst and most bumbly backward loser in a cruel, cruel onslaught of baby-voiced douchebags, drowning at spawn points and on fewer occasions than I previously gave credit to the slowest of slow cable internet KBps of the early 'oughts.
The world has changed a lot since then. While a select few shooters have managed to push the genre forward in terms of storytelling and world building (see: Valve and Irrational), we seem to have homogenized the shooter, with Call of Duty and similar offerings being slowly transformed into yearly offerings that only sports game publishers had previously gotten away with.
The "shooter"--the first-person shooter (FPS), in particular--has come to represent the abhorrent videogame “lowest common denominator”; the genre that makes the most money by inviting many, many new souls to Pleasure Island while the hardcore gaming incumbent, already transformed into donkeys, twiddle their thumb-hooves or move on to the masochistic “gamer’s game” of Dark Souls and other no-man’s lands of high fantasy dragon shit that just wasn’t cool until HBO picked up Game of Thrones for a second season.
Who wouldn't want to take sambuca shots with these prize tools?
Enter Far Cry 3, the dark horse of 2012--and quite possibly of 2013, too.
I could not be more disdainful of a game’s premise. You play as Jason Brody, a privileged, snot-nosed frat-grad hailing from Santa Monica or some other place where you can still wear cargo shorts and where white people keep the tags on their hats. Brody has apparently internalized the death of his father in his post-undergrad year into a post-colonial romp through south Asia, exploits in a bizarro world of extreme sports with his bros, which apparently includes both his college friends and actual brothers.
Now, the magic of videogames is being able to transport you into another world. Oftentimes that is a world of fantasy--we become the cowboys or space marine or mythical hero or gangster villain that appeals to us, that somehow represents our super-ego or some such bullshit. Far Cry 3’s magic is in its ability to transport the player to a world where grown men go to Singapore and exclusively order shots of sambuca. Needless to say, videogames typically require a steep suspension of disbelief.
Anyway, everyone gets kidnapped by white slave traffickers on some fictional island. It's a cacophonous, politically-incorrect caricature of various Pacific cultures, and it's up to Jason Brody to ditch his emotional baggage and become the man that fate and circumstance require him to be. Of course, this requires fulfilling ancient tribal prophecies, recovering jungle artifacts, abundantly using hallucinogens, acquiring magical skill-imbuing tribal tattoos, healing the souls of twenty dead Japanese WWII soldiers clutching letters to their long since dead kin or lovers, and skinning endangered animals to make wallets and ammo pouches. Oh, and killing hundreds and hundreds of people.
If PETA is going after Pokémon, I shudder to think what they'll do when they see the ammo pouch I could only make with tiger fur
This is a game I would have every intention of never playing. If you had told me any of this premise ahead of time, I would have gotten on my indie high horse and sneered safely in the arms of my anti-Ebertian, post-gamer ideals.
And yet it moves. After reading Tom Bissell’s excellent account of Far Cry 2 in Extra Lives, I was kind of intrigued to see what Ubisoft had done with the former Crytek property. What I did not expect was that Far Cry 3 would become my favorite game of 2012.
Let me repeat: In principle I hate everything about this game. I hate the idea of Jason Brody. I hate his friends. I hate that there are only two character models for the NPC (non-playable character) native women, who are either young and sexualized, or old and wizened. I hate that I have to believe that leopards, tigers, cassowaries, bears, and komodo dragons would all live on an island with Galapagos tortoises. I hate that I was compelled to search and loot every enemy I killed. I hate that I was encouraged to kill and skin endangered animals to make fashion accessories. I hate the abundant allusions to Alice in Wonderland and the distressed sans-serif typeface used to communicate with them. I hate that I can disintegrate laptops with the swipe of a machete. I hate that I can hit crocodiles with rocks over and over again from just a few feet away to no visible effect on the creature, but that I am viciously taken underwater if I step within a certain radius of one.
And yet I squeal with delight at the way in which I am snatched by the croc
Some of these problems can be attributed to the technological smoke and mirrors that are needed to make videogames. I accept them with a grain of salt. Others are creative decisions that I would never have made in my own work. And somehow, Ubisoft Montreal was able to literally install me into Jason Brody; to make him my avatar despite his unlikeable persona as he transformed from a shallow, selfish coward into a war-hardened badass. Not in the same sense of Stallone-style machismo, with a white knight nod-and-wink, but in the fact that Brody's backdrop, his character, his entire personhood, all must be transcended to survive the trials that await him on this hellish island.
The most risky, impressive creative decision that any game from a big publisher has taken on recently may lie in that you are thoroughly rooted into Brody’s eyeballs. Every action Brody takes, you follow. Brody is driving on a bumpy road? You might feel nauseous. Brody is setting a field of marijuana on fire with Molotov’s and Flamenwerfer’s? You can’t aim straight. Brody didn’t notice the shark in the shallows? You will be shocked and terrified by the rush of the blood and the teeth. Brody has a platform collapse on him ala Uncharted? You roll and see your feet above you. Brody gets dumped in a mass grave prematurely? You crawl through corpses in a dizzying, horrific scene.
I’ve never seen this done so well before, not to mention with such dedication to an admittedly difficult form of cinematography. Take, for instance, the emergent style of narrative ushered in by Half Life 2, and remove the “freedom” that comes with jumping up and down like an idiot or spinning in the corner through an entire pivotal scene. As Gordon Freeman, we were allowed to experience the story ourselves however we wanted, even if we chose to experience the story literally head against the wall, waiting for the other characters to stop talking.
This is not the case in Far Cry 3. Brody talks, moves, and interacts with the story with such authorial finesse that it makes me question why I thought Valve had it right in the first place.
Additionally, the performances by the motion capture cast and crew are superb. The cinematography that comes with such an experience is conceptually bound to Brody’s eyeballs, and for that dedication, that thoroughness, I applaud the creators with a tear in my eye because I can imagine how horrible it must have been to produce. It works so well. The voiceovers and the more villainous characters are well written and performed tactfully.
Vaas, a brilliantly performed psychopath and main antagonist of the game
What I’m getting at is this: Videogames are a medium that are at their best when they create empathy, when we feel for the characters or the world so much so that we become invested in the events that transpire because we’ve been put into that world. And while I had every intention of hating Jason Brody, I, too, lost my person to the overwhelming circumstance of his journey.
I lost my disdain for Jason as I watched him crumble, as his unlikeable person gave way to the monster that is as capable of the atrocities he faced to begin with. And as such, I read Far Cry 3 as a first-person shooter parody of first-person shooters. It somehow represents the contradictions we claim as a medium--that games can be art or sport or that they aren't pornographic murder simulators. Far Cry 3 sits there under the bo tree, at one with its dual nature.
It is a technical achievement for cinematic storytelling as far as videogames are concerned. Yet it is the ultimate in bullet porn, a violent step backwards in the midst of more socially acceptable videogames coming into mainstream popularity. It is a parody of the genre it represents--a crass, idiot savant that perfectly captures what I hate and what I love about videogames today. At a time when industry leaders are all too giddily accepting the post-Sandy Hook vice presidential violent media Inquisition, I will stand hand in hand with this beautiful monster, fool-heartedly shielding it from the steady drum of the approaching torches and pitchforks, if only because I see through its hideousness. It is violent because it comes from us. It is only a crystal chalice filled with the thick brooding liquid of our society's violent cultural discharge.
Put another way, Far Cry 3 is the Toxic Avenger of videogames. It is sophmoric and atrocious, and yet it is the best representation of this young medium for the entirety of 2012, and potentially long-tailing into 2013, perhaps because it also represents us. It is worthy of cult status, if not as a technical achievement then as the only videogame to master such a dark form of empathy. That I could hate something so strongly and be so completely absorbed into it only wets my appetite for the coming realization of videogame’s storytelling potential as the most immersive artform of this century.
Follow Colin at @scallopdelion.