Far Cry 2 is a difficult game to write about; difficult because it’s an experience that doesn’t coalesce in individual moments or fragments. Whilst there are many memorable moments I can point to – the dynamic, emergent gunfights that characterise the gameplay, the starkness of the major plot beats – it is the player’s overall experience of the game that is its greatest strength.
And isn’t that how things should be? For a game that revels in the open world that it’s set in – a fictitious African country that covers desert and mountain, swamps and savannah – it only seems appropriate that it be a game about the impact of a world on a character, rather than that character’s interactions with the world. Far Cry 2 takes the mechanics of its open-world shooting experience, and works out how to wrap them into a much larger narrative without losing the coherence of the player’s actions.
Far Cry’s references to Conrad (and, in particular, Heart of Darkness) are well-documented already, but I think to focus on the words used, the plot the game follows and the references within the game so explicitly isn’t necessarily useful. What struck me was not the game’s similarity to Conrad; it its much broader, deeper appropriation of literary techniques – whilst using them in an inherently gamelike manner – as a way to tell stories.
(Before we go on: there are likely to be what you might call “spoilers” ahead, so there’s a break in the text for those of you viewing on the web. I don’t see how we can talk meaningfully about this game without talking about specifics, so if you’ve not finished it and really care about this kind of thing, look away now.)
One of Far Cry 2’s most notable storytelling devices is its dynamic narrative engine (explained in detail in this fantastic Gamasutra interview with Patrick Redding). At the beginning, it asks the player which of nine characters they wish to play as. Having chosen, the other eight become NPCs in the player character’s world, fulfilling key roles in the plot in both acts of gameplay. As such, even though the overall narrative and missions play out in the same direction, the story engine ensures that no two players will necessarily have identical experiences.
That reminds me of nothing so much as oral epic poetry; vast, long tales of heroism wrapped around convention, stock epithet, and archetypal characters. Homer’s stories varied every time he told them, not because he couldn’t remember all the words, but because the bits that varied just didn’t matter. What’s important in the Iliad is the arc of the war, Achilles fighting Hector; the names of all the bystanders really don’t matter, and so in the telling, they’re always up for grabs.
Far Cry 2 takes that approach to the player’s character, and the minutiae of events in the world. And so its story is retold by the gamer-bards of NeoGAF, Rllmuk, and thousands of other bulletin boards, each time different in specifics but same in summation – we were wrong, war is hell, Africa wins again.
I don’t think Far Cry 2 is oral epic, though.
I think it’s a novel.
Really. For all its referencing of Conrad and Nietzsche, it’s the form they wrote in, rather than the specifics of their books, that it’s learned from the most. The dialogue in the game is solid, but hardly inspiring; it’s rushed and perfunctory. The story being told is a solid, powerful one, but the plot alone isn’t going to win any awards.
The real magic of novels is in the way they tell stories, and that’s the same of Far Cry 2. Whilst its plot emerges through a series of key beats, and a traditional three-act structure, it’s the richness of the tales told inbetween the plot beats that helps fill out the emotional core of the game.
To begin with, the game plays on the joy of exploring new terrain. It’s exciting to travel to new locations and to see the world, which is nothing if not beautiful. The journey is fraught with danger, though, in the form of checkpoints. To begin with, the checkpoints are intimidating, as the player is outnumbered and outgunned. As the game goes on, the player becomes much more adept at navigating both the map and the world itself; checkpoints are opportunities to restock on ammo and supplies, and few but the largest present a significant challenge. Whilst the total hostility of every NPC outside certain safe areas is perhaps frustrating, the checkpoints serve an important role: next to the (supposedly) purposeful actions of the player’s primary mission, they serve as a reminder of the more futile aspects of the war – constant, senseless, violence, conducted not by the indigenous people but by foreign mercenaries in search of money. As the player becomes more adept at navigating the landscape, it becomes less of an adventure, and something more perfunctory; it symbolizes both the growth of his character, but also his desensitisation. The landscape is no longer a wonder; it is an obstacle.
You can’t tell that story in a single level. You need to expose the player to the world, make them feel part of it, and make them grow along with their character, in order to understand the way the country is changing them. This isn’t an important part of the plot, but it’s important to the narrative – to understand that the player’s character really is on a journey.
Games aren’t just about funneling a player down a linear corridor, though. To tell a story in a truly game-native way requires that the nature of games be merged into that story. And Far Cry 2 takes its open-world, its tale of warring mercenaries, and uses it to tell a story about one of the most powerful of all mechanics in games: choice.
Choice is not something novels usually feature; it is hard to tell a tale where variables are all up for grabs. This is, of course, exactly what Far Cry 2’s story engine was designed to work around. What is remarkable about the game is a single ingenious decision: not the decision to build a story-engine that can dynamically adapt to however events played out, but the decision to use that engine to tell a story all about a world in which all choices lead to the same outcomes, and all are equally bad.
It is hard to talk about choice in games without bringing up Bioshock; after all, that title examined choice through a lens of objectivism and free will. In Bioshock, the most obvious expression of choice is how the player plays the game – whether you favour guns or plasmids, whether you save or harvest the Little Sisters – but the most crucial part of the plot comes in a scene in which (for narrative as well as stage management reasons) the player is powerless to interact. As some have pointed out, though, most of the choice in Bioshock is also irrelevant – harvesting or saving the Little Sisters makes little difference in terms of gameplay, even though it is apparently a huge part of the narrative, and this fact began the discussion online of what became termed ludonarrative dissonance.
Far Cry 2 offers the player greater choice than Bioshock thanks to its open world – there is a much greater choice of what role to play how to navigate the world, how to progress, which missions to take. But that choice is only an illusion, and it quickly becomes clear that this is no accident. The dissonance between acts and reality does not emerge between the player and the screen; it’s an integral part of the game.
At one point, the two factions were offering me missions; one wanted me to disrupt medical supplies for civilians, the other to disrupt anaesthetic supplies, ostensibly so that wounded soldiers would not be operated on. Both were clearly going to lead to suffering for innocent people, though. In the end, I went for the anaesthetic supplies, if only because it was presented as a more military objective.
But when it was over, it turned out that I wasn’t going to be able to procede without also disrupting the convoy of medical supplies. Civilians were going to suffer from both decisions, and I was going to have to make both anyway. What had looked like a choice turned out not to be one at all.
Throughout Far Cry 2, the only real choice you can make for good is to stop playing; eject the disc, and walk away. But that would leave the narrative unfinished, and the great power of narrative is to compel the participant – reader, audience, player – to conclude it. The greatest crime you can commit against narrative is to leave it unfinished.
And so Far Cry 2 hopes that, whilst it presents an unpleasant and dissatisfying world, the player will be compelled to complete the game in order to see what kind of resolution can be drawn. It acts like a see-saw: to begin with, you’re sucked into the world, enjoying the act of play, enjoying the world you’re presented with. Only later, as the true nature of your actions becomes ever-more obvious do you realise that there’s no way back up this slippery slope; the see-saw has flipped. The only options are to press on to the inevitable end and try to find some form of salvation, or to give up. But games are about reaching winning states, and the latter will never take you there; again, choice is an illusion. Again, that illusion forces the player to keep playing.
Games are an ideal place to tell stories about freedom, or the lack of it, and they have a remarkable ability to simulate a kind of compulsion that is rare in the real world: obsessive, single-minded focus.
Consider that other great take on Conrad, Apocalypse Now. In Coppola’s movie, Willard’s pursuit of Kurtz begins as a mission but turns into obsession; his progress “upriver” (and the imagined shadow that Kurtz casts over the jungle) is all-consuming.. What better representation of that obsession than the blinking blip on the minimap, indicating the only logical route to progress?
The player’s determination to progress in accordance with the mechanics of the game maps perfectly to his character’s obsession with the Jackal and his quest for salvation. Willard cannot give up on his mission because it is not in his nature; Far Cry 2’s mechanics take that obsession and map it to the act of playing a game. Again, the only real choice is choosing not to play.
And it’s hard to do that, because playing Far Cry 2 is at times so much fun. The firefights it creates are genuinely emergent, different every time, and full of weight and impact. When you disconnect from the narrative, it’s just too much fun to stop. When you reconnect with the narrative, it’s almost too horrific to continue. The game maps some of the horrors of conflict onto that dissonance within the player: the player is constantly torn between acting in- and out-of-character. We’ve chosen to play the game for entertainment, and we have all these wonderful toys – the physics engine, the toolset, the beautiful landscape, the realistic fire-simulation – to play with, and it’s just too much fun not to. That’s the game talking. But the reason we’re forced to use this tools, the outcomes they bring about, the horror at the heart of it all – that’s the narrative talking. The way the two wrestle each other reflects the character’s internal conflict neatly.
If there’s any part of the game that exemplifies the moral awkwardness of the player’s position, it’s the buddy system: the eight other characters that you chose not to be, who offer you side missions and, from time to time, save your life.
The important word here is “buddy”. They’re not your friends. You don’t have any friends. Whilst it looks like they fulfill that function, in fact, they’re just as much out for themselves as you are. They will save your life, they will help you in your missions, and you will end up caring for them but you shouldn’t because, in the end, they are as functional as people as they are as NPCs. Their only agenda is greed and self-promotion, like any good NPC. They’ll plead for their life when they’re shot, they drag you up when you are, but don’t blink, because they’ll sell you out in an instance. You will grow to care for them, and the narrative will ultimately punish your for that. And yet: you could have been any one of them; you could have picked to be them from that list at the beginning. Whether you like it or not, they hold the mirror up to your actions.
Until, that is, you diverge from their path, which is an inevitable function of playing the game. As the game progresses, your attitude towards them – and their skewed morals – will change. I mourned the passing of Paul Ferenc, if only because he was my first friend in a foreign country. My second buddy died in combat, either from his wounds or, more likely, from the morphine overdose I gave him. When my third buddy went down, I’d barely known the guy; with only one syrette left, I went straight for the gun. “You’re right, it’s the only way,” he said – and as I shot him, I realised that I probably couldn’t have done that for Paul. I’d changed; I just wanted things over with.
By the end of the game, when forced to choose which of my former employers should survive, I couldn’t take the choices any more. They didn’t amount to anything. I saved the bosses I loathed and murdered the ones I liked simply to avoid the strain of extra transport. And, as it matters, it came to nothing: the others died as well, all at my hands. Did that justify my earlier lack of morals, or did it only throw them into greater relief? Who knows.
The important point about all of this: this wasn’t something the game made me feel in a single cutscene, or as a result of a single mission. This took twenty hours of playtime to claw its way into me until there was no way you could view the game other than through this lens. And again, that’s why it reminds me of a novel: as the narrative gives way to reveal the structure underneath, it becomes clearer and clearer that the structure is the narrative as much as the characters, the actions, the dialogue. Whilst there are points, notably in the second act, where the pacing slips – the game could probably do with an “I get it now” button, it has to tell its story at a particular scale – that of the open world – if it’s to have any relevance.
But that scale is restrained, kept very tight, and this is also an important aspect of the game’s novel-like structure: it is a tightly controlled and highly stylised experience.
It might not look “stylised” at first glance; after all, the graphics exude a particular kind of realism, as does the scale of the game. But stylised it is: everything present is solely focused on building the narrative the game wishes to convey, driving the player’s journey forward. The open-world should not be confused with total freedom. No matter what the game-world suggests, Far Cry 2 is very much a narratively-driven game, and that narrative has a certain degree of linearity. Is that ludonarrative dissnonace? I don’t think so, necessarily; after all, most open-world games have even less adaptive narratives than Far Cry 2 does. Perhaps this confusion just stems from miscommunication about the game’s nature.
This stylised approach is is why there are no civilians in the game, no non-combatants (a common complaint on the forums). The game simply isn’t about them; the civilians have long since been forced out or helped to safety by the Underground. It’s important to the game that the only people left in the country are the foreign mercenaries and the warlords; the absurdity of a civil war with no indigenous population is important to the game.
If anything comes to represent a “civilian” aspect, it’s the wildlife in the game. The moments of tranquility when you see gazelles running along the plains, or a zebra stock-still in the middle of the road jar you out of the gung-ho action game you’re in and into something very different. For a second, things are beautiful, peaceful; for a second, you realise what the country was like before you, and your kind, turned up. The animals are genuinely innocent, genuinely blameless, and they – as well as the landscape around them – come to stand for the real victim in the game: Africa.
And this tight focus is why the landscape is not as large as it might initially seem. Unlike Fallout 3 or Oblivion, it’s almost impossible to complete the game without having seen every grid square. You might see a few of them several times, but that’s got to be better than a vast world that’s comparatively empty. Hocking and his team have really squeezed the landscape down to only what is necessary to tell the story; it feels bigger than most linear games, but still smaller than even a GTA game. It’s big enough to hold in your head all at once, and so by the end of the story, the player is very intimate with the country. You can’t “go native” in a land you don’t know backwards, after all. By keeping the scope tight and focused, the player comes to understand the country as well as the Jackal does, and edge towards that character’s understanding of the situation.
It’s hard to talk about the game without talking about the Jackal.
He is, after all, the antagonist of the plot, and the player’s goal; he is Kurtz. And he presents himself to you, teasingly, throughout the game; like Kurtz, he casts a fascinating shadow over the country. He is far more self-aware than you or your buddies, a step ahead in his understanding of the situation. And he is an enigma: he has clearly done awful things in his time, and awful things to make this war occur, but he seems more interested in stopping it, extricating himself from it, warning you off further involvement, than in directly engaging with it. More importantly, as the game progress, he reveals that he knows how to fix things: to make real choices, to acknowledge the consequences of the things he’s done, and to work out what the choices that have lasting repercussions will be.
He is a chapter ahead of everybody. And I think his self-awareness represents something else, though. I think he might be the main character in the game.
You, after all, certainly aren’t. You’re just like the other buddies: a secondary NPC, unable to make meaningful choice, and constantly unaware of the meaning of your actions. Your character has a notch more agency than they do, but it’s less agency than the Jackal has, and that’s the real fascination – the real reason you need to get to him; not to kill him, but just to see the world how he sees it; to learn how to take the agency that’s necessary to becoming the central character, and to complete the game.
As such, the final choice he gives you places you both on equal footing: both endings lead to the same outcome (despite an irritating inconsistency I don’t wish to discuss here). Both endings place the burden of choice into the player. The slow overlapping of the player’s path with the antagonist’s is completed in the final moments of the game.
The ambiguity of the protagonist – and I genuinely think it is ambiguous – is yet another way that the plot feels more literary. Your character isn’t an unreliable narrator – his viewpoint is, largely, as objective as any first-person game can be – but his relationship with the world around him feels stunted, constrained by narrative rather than ability.
The Jackal probably is the antagonist, rather than protagonist of the narrative. That makes it hard to call him the “main character”
But I still don’t think the narrative protgaonist is the player.
I think it’s Reuben Oluwagembi, the journalist (whose blog is still available online).
I realised that in the final hour of the game. You save Reuben from attack at the airport, where he is planning to flee. Having dispatched his attackers, you confront him, and he explains that he is not going anywhere. “I have made my choice,” he says. “I am African. I have to stay in Africa”.
That dialogue knocked the wind out of me. For the first time, I saw somebody making a real choice in this game: he chose to stay because it was his country; he chose to stay because he felt his actions could make a difference. In that moment, it becomes obvious how little your actions have changed anything; instead, they’ve maintained the status quo, kept the fires burning.
And in that moment, I realised that the real story at the heart of the game might well be Reuben’s. He was innocent in this, a mere documentarian, and yet he had agency far beyond myself or the Jackal. It’s very similar to the relationship Watson has with Holmes – he’s smart enough to understand the deductions, but not smart enough to make them himself. Or, in a more gamelike medium, it’s the relationship Raiden has with Snake in Metal Gear Solid 2: that’s a game that’s entirely about Snake, but it can only explain that from another character’s eyes.
Unreliable narrators turn up a lot in literature, especially in modern and postmodern fiction. But an unreliable protagonist feels like an inherently game-ish narrative device, and I think that might be something at the heart of Far Cry 2. It is, after all, pretty stark relief to see how a computer-controlled NPC might have more agency over the narrative than a player with free will, no matter how much agency the player has over the gameplay.
And neither of those elements are in competition; there’s no dissonance, there. If anything, this is an assonant relationship: a game that, despite the gap between the story it tells and the actions the player takes, draws them together into a harmonious relationship. The actions the player take don’t just shape the narrative; they come to be an aspect of the narrative, just as much as the missions, the dialogue, and the world of the game. To borrow terms from Russian formalism, the emphasis in Far Cry 2 is very much on fabula rather than Syuzhet.
The relationship of games and stories – and, more specifically, narrative – is a complex one, one that is even not well understood or well diversified, and one that is as much maligned as it is implemented terribly. Far Cry 2 takes a very brave stance at trying to push that forward in the context of a game that is not experimental or overtly “artistic”, but is an entertaining, thrilling, and spectacular mainstream title.
I think it succeeds, by and large. At times, flaws in the mechanics or world are sometimes obvious, and whilst it’s not a difficult game to play, it’s a difficult game to immerse yourself in given the demands it makes on the player and the patience it demands. I was dubious of it for the first two hours, but as the pieces fell into place, its moments of brilliance slowly emerged. Its narrative questions the notion of choice not just in conflict but also in the act of playing games itself, and if that’s not brilliant then I don’t know what is. It forces the player to question their own actions and piece together the real narrative like few games have. It may not be the best game of the year outright, nor is it quite the most spectacular (but it is surely not far off on that regard). It is, however, the game I got the most out of; the game that made me think hardest; the game that I constantly had to return to no matter how much it punished me the day before; the game I had to see through to the end; the game that felt like it would be important in my understanding of the medium for years to come. For the twenty-or-so hours it covered – a long while for me to commit to a single title – it felt genuinely special, and I can’t ask for more than that.
And how did it all end? The game is completed; I’m exhausted, chewed up and spat out again by the narrative, especially the incredible final hour. Man struggled with man, but in the end, he hadn’t noticed his real enemy; he was fighting against another country, against the dank jungle, the arid heat, the inhospitability of foreign soil.
The Jackal had it right, all along: Africa wins again.