Thursday, December 18, 2008

Seeing Africa, Down the Barrel of a Gun

For all my talk of ludonarrative dissonance, I think that us gamers have a native tendency to let the gameplay, rather than the narrative, assess the moral aspects of our conduct for us. When we're rewarded with currency and powerups, this validates whatever we're doing in the world, regardless of the narrative scaffolding the designers decide throw up around our gradual empowerment. If you want to save the world, then you have to push a few old ladies down the stairs: so be it. We're not likely to raise a fuss about it if achievement points are in the offing. It's how the countless heroic exploits of our youth have trained us to approach these things.

I can think of no other explanation for the political and moral tone-deafness in the reviews of Far Cry 2. I've trawled metacritic for assessments of the game, and while these trained professionals have an excellent eye for lighting effects and improbable AI, the fact that the narrative revolves around setting Africa ablaze for fun and profit seems to have passed without notice. Maybe I have some unusual sensitivities when it comes to doing violence on African soil, because I spent a bunch of time in college reading Franz Fanon. But I had to turn to Mitch Krpata's review in the Phoenix to get a take that did justice to the game's comprehensive moral unease. Maybe the the adjective “gritty” is supposed to capture the edge of moral horror that tinges many of your actions in the game.

I think this tendency to associate gameplay-progress with moral rectitude is what blinds us to the ethical messiness of Far Cry 2. The game's buddy system is a good example: your fellow mercenaries will come and save you from dying, help you upgrade your safehouses, and give you missions. So they must be pretty good, right?

The thing is, your buddies are not good people. After spending a small amount of time with my best buddy Paul Ferenc, I came to the conclusion that the man was in line for a severe beating . He may have pulled me out of a scrape once or twice, but those facts doesn't paper over the fact that Paul is a callow douchebag, the feckless backpacker type satirized in The Beach. I'm supposed to help this man achieve his lifelong dream of kicking back in Thailand for six months and getting high every day.

My contempt for Paul led me to the next logical question the game poses: how is it that you're any different? Every game makes you feel like you're the moral center of its cosmos, and this is misleading. Seeing yourself in the other mercenaries (you can actually choose them as player-characters) just reveals what you would know if you weren't locked into seeing the world from the first-person: you're part of the problem. The player is just another well-heeled Western interloper looking to capitalize on the political chaos for his own ends. Nobody's welfare seems to factor into the equation.

To its credit, Far Cry 2 doesn't beat you over the head with this stuff. Everything is done with a subtle hand: a doctor in town almost calls you a “foreign mercenary”, before stopping himself and calling you an “altruist.” But early on, I held a knife to an aid worker's throat to get the location of some medical supplies, which I then destroyed in an effort to get some leverage. After threatening to slit another man's throat I heard him mutter “This life!” as I walked away. The moral tenor of the game doesn't come through elaborate speeches and grand gestures: it's all in his tone of voice as he utters the line. It's all there if you're paying attention.

Maybe you're a well-meaning imperialist: you're be looking to take down the man who's fueling the conflict by dealing arms to both sides. But in the meantime you're just another asshole with a gun playing the political mayhem to your advantage. And if, at the beginning of act 2, this involves some arms-proliferation to break a cease-fire between the factions, so be it. The game told me I had to do it, anyway.

And while we're talking about the game making you do things, it's important in closing not to overlook the most important point: it's incredibly fun to kill people. The gunplay is expertly tuned, and the armory offers you an absurdly diverse array of tools with which to discharge your animal strength; because the combat scenarios are so open-ended, the game encourages you to try a wide variety of those weapons and strategies. I have no idea what kind of alchemy is going on under the hood that creates this urge to murder downed enemies with a machete (I have this feeling it's a combination of the way the perspective mimics your head-movements and the prominence your hands in the visual frame.), but I find myself doing it at every opportunity. I shot a man in Pala, just to watch him die. And the fire, the fire is awful pretty when it ravages the plains. And so, I guess the real message is that killing people is its own reward. Does it matter why?


Ben Abraham said...

You've probably done so already, but just in case you missed it, Clint Hocking (caps) popped into a comment thread over at Tom Francis' personal website and made the same kinds of points you did - you buddies are MEANT to be assholes.

And you're right, it's quite easy to miss it because the pavlovian "push button, receive rewards" thing pops in and you just *assume* implicitly that defoliating a massive section of jungle is OK. No wait, it's not just OK, it's actually a good thing apparently...

That said, I think there is probably room for better communicating to the player some sense of the weight of your actions. It's a little bit too easy to just go along, playing the willing dope. I needed a kick-in-the-butt to remind me to switch my brain on, and when I did, the game fucking rocked!

Anonymous said...

Damnit, you beat me to the FC2 post - I'm hoping to finish the game this morning.

You're totally right about the you're no better angle; indeed, the thing that emphasises it most is that you know, as a player, that you could have been that guy.

There's also something really interesting in the repetition inherent in the game. Whilst even I think the respawn times are a little high, there's a really slow burn to both the narrative and the moral compass of the game. To begin with, it's a struggle for survival. By the end, you're so familiar with the terrain, so skilled, so powerful... the whole thing becomes habit. And that's the horrifying moment - when the slaughter, the constant acquisition of missions, guns, and diamonds, just becomes quotidien. It's what you do; you no longer self-examine.

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 from the likely 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, or I'd at least have tried to avoid it. But I didn't blink.

There are better examples to come, but that's the sense of progression, an inevitable journey downriver, that the game provides, and I think it can only do that at the scale it does - a slow decline, not a forced, cut-scene driven one.

The main plot beat that opens the second act is pretty shocking too. But, like I said, more to come, I hope within 24 hours. Great to see someone picking up on the really interesting stuff at the heart of the game.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, *thank you* for articulating exactly what it is that keeps me from playing this game. Call me a softie, but the realization that I would spend the entirely game willingly playing both sides in an arms race just sickened me, or at least made me uncomfortable in a way that I can't get past. roBurky wrote a great article on the same topic here.

Maybe I'm just getting more sensitive as I get older, but this is the first game where the motivation to keep going just stopped me flat in my tracks and made me uninstall the game. Perhaps some time in the future I will come back... maybe if there's the inevitable exploration mod... but until then, I think I'll have to pass for exactly the ethical messiness you address here.

[I do appreciate the comments form ben and tom, but on that same note, I don't know if I could read a book or watch a film that deals with this topic very easily either (though I understand the merits of leading your character into darkness).]

One last thing, Irquois: as a first time poster, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts - I think you bring a lot to the thinking video game culture community.

And once again: thank you for expressing what I couldn't about this game.

Mitch Krpata said...

Prof. Ruffleberg, it's precisely that discomfort that made Far Cry 2 so alluring to me. Games often go to extraordinary lengths to justify the violence they present as entertainment, and I was glad to play a game that seemed aware of the contradiction. There's always that old saw about it being impossible to make an anti-war movie, because movies make war seem exciting, and it's the same with video games. But Far Cry 2, at least, did better than most in communicating how devastating -- indeed, pointless -- this war was.

Iroquois, I think there's a really interesting contrast between this game and Fallout 3. In Fallout, you can choose to be good or bad, and, as some of us have mentioned, that can lead almost to choice paralysis. And it can also lead to some strange contradictions in gameplay and story. Far Cry doesn't have that problem: if you're willing to commit to playing it, then you're signing up to be a total bastard. I think that was a brave choice by Hocking and crew. A successful one, too. The discussion I've been seeing about FC2 makes it seem clear that this game has gotten under a lot of people's skin.

Sparky said...

It's interesting that you mention how much fun it is to kill in Far Cry 2. I thought that the slow-mo in V.A.T.S. was meant to accomplish the same thing in Fallout 3. In the latter case your reaction to V.A.T.S. may define how you choose your character to act. In the case of FC2, however, the character seems to be relatively immutable. In that light, do you think the enjoyability of combat (and burning things) serves as a mechanism of characterization? That is, does the fact that mayhem is so fun represent solely a tuning of these mechanisms to enhance player enjoyment, or is it also a way of explaining why the main character is who he is?

Anonymous said...

Nels - to avoid spoilers on somebody else's page, all I'll say is you've got mail.

Nels Anderson said...

(EDIT: Thanks Tom! I removed the big spoiler-y bits)

I'm so glad that you (and others) are making this point about FarCry 2. Everyone in the game is a monster. Perhaps the moment that sticks out most in my mind was when the leader of the APR paid me to destroy a truckload of medical supplies. He wanted UFLL soldiers to die of their infected wounds instead of, "... getting better in hospitals surrounded by pretty nurses." Of course, these were supplies for the APR too, but he didn't care.

I helped a buddy blow up the auto repair shop she worked at, killing at least a half-dozen people, just because she didn't like the owner. I set a lynch mob upon a UN health agent for no reason other than making his escort look bad. And this is all in addition to murdering dozens of impoverished, poorly trained, ill-equipped local militia, who likely were pressed into the factions under threat to their own lives and their family's (the foreign mercs I felt less bad about).

The Jackal's tapes were *very* interested and I wish I had the time to find them all (are they online somewhere?). The Jackal is a really complicated character, but you don't see that unless you find all of his tape interview and your predecessors.

I agree that it was a very bold move for Hocking, et al. to say what they did about violence and conflict in FC2. I just wish more people would say something about it. Honestly, it's really disturbing, both in the context of this game and all the other games we don't think about like this, but probably should.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@ben: As I said, I really appreciate that everything is done real subtly; if you're paying attention, you really do notice the moral undertones, I think it's quite intentional.

@tom: nice post on Paul, who I detested. I have to say I was pretty crushed, though, when Josip went down and I was unable to heal him. Josip was good people.

@prof. Ruffleberg: I have to say that like mitch, I felt that the moral uneasiness is one of the things that made the game compelling to me. Like, there are limits to what sort of things I'm willing to simulate (I'm not up for mowing down a townfull of unarmed refugees, regardless of the feel of the gunplay, right?); I felt the game skirted the edges of morality in an interesting way. Since all shooter games commit you to being a mass-murderer,I was glad that Far Cry 2 chose to construct the story in such a way that it took this constant violence in a serious direction.

@mitch: like I said in the last post, I think that sometime the most interesting moral moments in games come when they railroad you into doing abominable things (blowing up medical supplies, threatening to kill aid workers, smuggling arms, etc.), rather than offering you moral choices. As much as I liked Fallout 3 I found it ethically uninteresting. Maybe this is just because I unflaggingly try to do the right thing when given the choice, and this makes things boring.

@sparky: this is a great point. the visceral thrill of the combat creates your character: a man who likes to kill. A game has to be fun in the first place, so I liked the way that the narrative bits worked together with the gameplay to create your sense of the character.

Ben Abraham said...

For anyone interested (especially Nels) Reuben Oluwagembi, the in-game reporter you talk with at several points in the game, has a blog.

On it he posted recordings of all the Jackal tapes. Hocking said that it was a little bit of pre-release promotion they were trying to do with him and there's some very cool stuff on the blog (sadly it's dormant now).

Some level of SPOILERS are assumed:

Kirk Battle said...

I'm one of those 'Heart of Darkness' freaks so I'm finding the game incredibly engaging as it twists and turns my psyche. Even the narrative is a perfect format for a video game: a guy recounting Marlow's story about Kurtz, the player dealing with their character's story about The Jackal. I'm just in the initial phases but I love the game design. Create an incredibly hostile world that takes hours upon hours to master, ask the player to do progressively more awful things to continue to exist, and watch the wilderness cast its spell over the player.

That great moment where Marlow keeps telling Kurtz that he's a success in Europe, that he can leave the wilderness. But he can't, he's in love with this world that he has mastered. Sometimes I think that's why I keep playing it.

Enjoying the write-ups and can't wait for more!

Anonymous said...

This was my favorite next-gen (or whatever the hell we call this stuff now) game of the year, and I have to say that I thought it was leaps and bounds better'n either GTA IV or Fallout 3. (the latter game I'll admit I played for about ten hours and have now abandoned almost completely for Persona 4 and Afrika. I just never feel like putting it in the PS3 at all.) Totally agree on the moral quavering that Far Cry 2 brings on, and I think that the sort of organic way everything grows out of your interaction with the characters and the environment is really an interesting way forward. It was most fascinating to me when it came to the choice I made at the end of Part 1 of the game, a choice that I never hesitated about but that really made me think about just why I had done what I did. That doesn't happen all that often in the killing-is-fun world of videogames, and the fact that this was clearly thought about by the designers is just so welcome.

The game is certainly not without its flaws, but the good parts were so good and so compelling and so narratively daring that I think that I would say that in many ways it was the single most interesting game I played all year. Good stuff.

Kylie said...

Is it ever possible to create a "reason" within a (single-player) gameworld for acting morally without some kind of gameplay reward? Depending on one's normative leanings for the most part moral behavior is justified by a respect for persons and one's "reward" comes from that. I get a warm, fuzzy feeling when I help a brother out. Unless a narrative attachment to a character is so overwhelmingly strong and well constructed as to make the player "forget" that they're dealing with a fictional person or a complex AI then they aren't likely to want to act morally for their sake - particularly if there are gameplay rewards for behaving badly.

Of course there could be rewards for behaving morally as well, but I worry about the lesson this teaches (if meta-game lessons are our concern here - it sounds like they are). There aren't always palpable rewards for good behavior - outside of prison at least.

If we reject the thought of trying to inspire moral behavior for its own sake within games then the moral dimension, when it occurs, seems limited to this sort of Conrad-esque moral degradation that Iriquois and many of the commenters describe (I haven't played FC2 but I can think of examples in other games). I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing and in fact can be a good thing - sometimes we need to learn that it's easy to demonize "bad guys" without trying to understand the circumstances that influence their behavior. However the meta-game question that arises now is whether games as a field are really at a point where, morally, the emphasis can be on understanding the "bad guy" rather than on making oneself the "good guy". Surely the two go hand-in-hand, but if games are only capable of the former without serious consideration of how it is important to the latter then the message seems to be of Kumbaya-like acceptance of all moral positions. Is this bad? Not at a certain level of moral critique, but perhaps not at the level that current games are capable of.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the engaging critique and examination. I have to admit, the general lashback against the game has been disheartening and overwhealming. It is a breath of fresh air to read posts from folks like yourself, Ben, Tom, many others who can simultaneously point to what they dislike, but at the same time identify what they find refreshing and important about the game. There are a lot of haterz out there (and perhaps rightly so), and without you guys sticking up for us it would be terribly disheartening indeed.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

Holy Smokes! It's Clint Hocking!

Thanks much for coming by and checking out the post! I really enjoyed your game. You had a tough design challenge with getting the pacing right for a shooter set in an open-world, and you took your hits for it. But for me it didn't diminish the really unique things you accomplished in the game, in terms of the setting and immersion and the narrative. Keep up the good work.

Alan Jack said...

I think if I could liken Far Cry 2 to anything, it would be Frank Darabont's version of Stephen King's The Mist.

For those of you who haven't seen the film already, and would like the ending to be a surprise, look away now:

The main protagonist gives up hope, and - with one fewer bullet left in his gun than the number of people in his car - kills his fellow survivors and HIS OWN SON, before turning the empty gun on himself, sobbing and wishing for death ...

... only to have the army roll up seconds later, with scores of other survivors and plenty supplies.

Far Cry 2 is immoral and painful, but it has its point to make. In Clint's case, I don't think he should even be looking on it as "haters", I think he should be accepting that he made a harsh, difficult-to-swallow game that some people won't get.

Think of it like the scene in Jarhead, when soldiers are whooping and cheering Apocalypse Now's scenes of carnage and destruction. Just as the nameless employers of Far Cry 2's protagonist didn't understand The Jackal's intentions, not everyone will see the game the way you intended it to be seen.

It is an amazing thing, though, that so many have.