[2 April 2009]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
Innovative game design is often a concept that people only observe mechanically without appreciating the final product. You can see the immediate components of it, the way the design makes you get killed or the way it makes you avoid certain kinds of conduct but the final product of all those details is the experience of the game. Ubisoft’s Far Cry 2 is a game that is made up of numerous design quirks and concepts. A nominee for the Game Developer’s Choice Award for Best Game Design, it created a system that coerced the player into adopting steadily more violent and morally conflicted behavior to progress. The narrative, inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, reflects this descent. By adding interchangeable characters that enable real death and consequences for combat choices, the game merges the narrative and design to create its own trip into the darkness. For the purposes of this essay, I played Far Cry 2 on the Xbox 360 with the additional downloadable content.
The design is hard to summarize, but the best explanation is that it’s an enormous sandbox first-person shooter. Using cars, dune buggies, four wheelers, or boats scattered throughout the map, the player navigates a war-torn African country. Scattered around the map are guard posts, safe houses, and various locations that come up during missions. What is interesting about this landscape is the decision to make the soldiers, all of whom are hostile, re-spawn. Clear out a guard post, raid the supplies, and the next time you pass through it will be restocked with both goods and soldiers. The effect, to many people’s frustration, is that this is a landscape that is incessantly hostile. It is constantly pushing the player to become more efficient at killing and traveling. The first time you head towards a mission objective, you might take the roads and brave the guard posts. When that doesn’t work, you take a boat and head downriver. Waiting until nighttime means you’ll be harder to see, though depending on where the sun is you can blind the guards. For every mission there are countless ways to travel to your destination and relatively equal dangers with each route.
Added to this hostility are a variety of finite resources that are always draining your abilities. The player catches malaria and will randomly need to take a pill when symptoms fire up. If you aren’t careful about restocking your supply, you can find yourself in the middle of the jungle without any medication right when you’re about to collapse. The guns are constantly degrading with use, so that even a brand new rifle will begin to jam after using it for too long. Enemy weapons can be picked up, but they are always in terrible condition. Ammunition and health items are also rare in the higher difficulties. One of the boldest decisions of the game is the safe house system, in which safe houses are the only places you can save other than the completion of missions. The consequence of all these depleting resources is that once you set off on a mission, there are literally dozens of things threatening your survival at every turn. It is very easy to find yourself in the middle of the desert low on health, using a broken gun, low on ammo, and not being anywhere near a save point. Coupled with the hostile landscape, Far Cry 2 steadily coerces the player into changing their behavior because of the constant stress it creates.
This change is most prolific in the repetition of certain missions. Although the plot missions are fairly diverse, ranging from taking out a steamer to finding missing gold, there are three other types that repeat. Deliver papers to the Underground, assassinate for extra diamonds, or remove a weapons convoy. The locations are typically random and the situation is always the same. What’s surprising about these missions is the way that their static design mixes with the hostile landscape to encourage change in the player. The first time you take down a weapon convoy, it’s quite an ordeal. You have to block the road with a car, shoot your way through the escorts, throw a grenade, and make sure you do all this near some cover. As you unlock weapons, your approach to these missions will become more efficient and more brutal. By the time I reached the final convoy mission, I just climbed to the top of a mountain and waited for about five minutes. When the escorts were at half a mile I tore through them with a sniper rifle, watched as the escort truck swerved off the road, and fired a rocket straight into it. Compare this to a game like Call of Duty 4 where each weapon and tactic is carefully picked for you. It’s time to play with sniper rifles, now it’s time for fun with the rocket launcher. By making these missions play out the same way, it allows the player to be able to predict what they’re getting into and plan accordingly. Knowing what to expect means that players can naturally improve their tactics, something that the landscape encourages as travel continues to wear at their supplies.
What this hostile game design is working towards is to create a similar environment to the one that Conrad was describing in Heart of Darkness. When Marlow is puzzling over Kurtz’s descent into darkness, he attributes it to what the dangers of the wilderness brought out in him. Kurtz’s European education and refinement are cast aside in the Congo, leading him to discover that he was capable of things he didn’t know beforehand. Marlow explains, “I tried to break the spell—the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness—that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passion.” D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke, in his foreword to the second edition of Heart of Darkness, comments that one of the common misinterpretations of the book is that the natives corrupted Kurtz or that he was copying them. He points out that it was the landscape that brought out in Kurtz, “the thing about himself that he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude.” In other words, by making the game design so brutally hostile, the game is putting you through the same experience as Kurtz.
Portions of the narrative reflect this transformation as well. Many of our encounters with The Jackal, the man we’re sent to kill at the start of the game, involve him taking care of us while we’re sick. It’s an echo of Kurtz, who is also portrayed as diseased when Marlow meets him. The Jackal’s belief that violence is a disease, a plague that infests people, plays out literally with the player’s malaria but also the constant destruction we are causing throughout the game. The Jackal is also a Kurtz figure, which he comments on when he exclaims in one encounter, “Kill me? I used to be you!” When we first meet The Jackal he quotes Nietzsche, “A living being seeks above all else to discharge its strength. Life itself is will to power. Nothing else matters.” This is the act that the players themselves are exercising in the hostile landscape, to exert their presence and survive, that they also share with The Jackal.
Through a series of tapes scattered around the map The Jackal’s views are slowly explained. Modern society is no longer able to solve the problems of third world countries. When the journalist asks him how he can justify killing people he explains, “I’m a humanist, I don’t judge.” Morality, to The Jackal, is a luxury that the people in this country no longer have. Nor does he see any difference between the two warring factions in the game, as the player himself witnesses after working for both sides. Either faction will have you commit atrocities for its own purposes. Members of these groups buy into their own propaganda and blindly consume, rape, and destroy without any purpose. He asks, “If you have to kill someone…what if in doing it you save a thousand? Yourself? What is the measure of murder?” His ultimate plan is to isolate the disease of violence and let it destroy itself. He sells arms at dirt cheap prices, encourages war to develop, and lets each group destroy itself. As one of the people who have liberated themselves from morality, from the confines of the world itself, he recruits you in this endeavor.
The narrative of the game uses a series of interchangeable characters, one of whom you yourself pick to play, that can potentially die during missions. These characters all offer side missions that will make the primary mission a little bit easier and upgrade your safe house with supplies. The potential for death in these characters creates a unique relationship for the player. One can bond with their buddy or let them die. They have a choice in how much they care about them. Equally intense are the potential moments with them: if a buddy is shot we can try to save them with health syringes. Sometimes this will work, sometimes we’ve used them all, and sometimes we’re saving our last one for ourselves. The finite resources of the game make the decision to kill a buddy, loved or hated, a heavy one. Part of the mixed emotions that these nine characters generate is that all of them are generally awful people. Iroqouis Pliskin noted on his blog, “Seeing yourself in the other mercenaries 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.” In this way the buddies act as foils for the player: a constant reminder of the player’s own actions.
One side mission has the player killing the king of the country and recovering his royal ring. The buddy recruited us to do this because his own son wants to inherit the throne. Another has us intercepting a Special Forces team sent to kill someone selling civilian medical supplies. After receiving a phone call from our Buddy asking for help, we find out they were the one selling the supplies. Equally tenuous is our relationship with the rewards they offer for helping them. Doing the side missions for buddies will upgrade the supplies available at a safe house. Only the first three to four upgrades are truly necessary, afterwards upgrades to the car turret or extra ammo don’t really have a purpose. As a consequence, the game design supports us using these people and then letting them die just as much as the narrative does.
Overall the game’s plot can be divided into our relationship with the two large world maps whose mission structures mirror one another. For the first world, we switch sides continually destroying medical supplies and troops. This eventually culminates in assassinating the leader of one faction, allowing the other to take over the country. Their first act is to order you killed along with all the foreigners and missionaries. This is one of the first distinct choices of the game: save your mercenary friends or save the missionaries. One group upgrades your safe houses, the other provides you with medicine for your malaria. Whoever you let die, the player will eventually go on to assassinate the opposing faction leader and let the country descend into chaos.
Moving south to the lower map, they discover that the two groups have entered into a cease fire. The player then delivers a load of weapons into the capital to break the truce. What’s interesting about this second map is that much like the static side missions, it is mostly repeating the process of the last map. War does not change, the player does. Guards are far more hostile in the southern map, using mortars and sniper rifles much more frequently. Personally, my tactics continued to evolve until about the 70% marker of the game. I’d unlocked the weapons and I reached a static state of efficiency in dealing with combat in the game. For me, this was where the game became a grind as the evolution element of the game design ran out and I just used the same tactics over and over. The final missions are the player once again killing the leaders of the two factions, choosing which ones to kill until they’re all dead. As the country tears itself apart, just like the last time, a subplot involving an enormous cache of diamonds comes into play. You, the Jackal, and your buddies all make an attempt at taking the diamonds, leading to confrontations with each.
The ending of the game is broken, but only half of it. Other bloggers have noted this problem but I would argue that it doesn’t damage much of the overall game except for the lack of closure it offers. The Jackal explains that his plan is to evacuate 2 million refugees from the country and let the disease of violence destroy itself in privacy. One of you will use the cache of diamonds to bribe the guards to open their borders, the other will set off dynamite at the only mountain pass and die in the process. The one who delivers the diamonds will commit suicide to ensure the violence does not spread.
The dynamite option is a valid one. Your character fends off a few guards before finding the explosives. You cut the wires, cast aside the machete that the Jackal gave you at the beginning, and then set off the dynamite. You’ve acknowledged your own monstrous state, your past awful crimes, and redeemed yourself. The problem is that the other ending plays the exact same way. Your character just delivers the diamonds and then presumably commits suicide. The player should have been given the choice to have a truly dark ending. If you pick the diamond suitcase, you pull out a gun and kill the Jackal. You kill the guards at the border crossing station. You walk out of the country while the number of diamonds on you sky rockets. Your kill count climbs to 2 million. And the screen fades and tells you about the carnage. When the Station Manager asked Marlow what he thought of Kurtz’s methods in Heart of Darkness he replied, “No method at all.” That’s the ending we should be able to pick if we have truly completed our descent into darkness.