“…meaning does not come from playing a game… it comes from playing WITH a game. It is the manipulation not only of the actors in the game that is meaningful, but the manipulation of the game itself.”
Ben Abraham over at SLRC started an experiment with Far Cry 2 that has since been picked up and repeated by other bloggers. The experiment: Play Far Cry 2 on normal difficulty and stop when you die. You only have one life. Death is permanent.
Ben’s posts, and those by others who have taken up the experiment, read like a normal game of Far Cry 2. The introduction and the tutorial always play out the same, and while everyone’s first mission is different, what happens to them isn’t all that different than what happened to me when I played the game: They get in a shootout and kill a lot of people. That’s essentially every mission in Far Cry 2. So what makes this experiment so interesting? Why am I compelled to read each post, and why are others compelled to take up the challenge of Permanent Death? Clint Hocking, in his post about the experiment, suggests that people don’t actually care about the individual narratives being related to them, they don’t really care what happens to Ben Abraham or his avatar, they care about what can happen. “The reason I think people are paying attention is because Ben is playing with the game. He is manipulating the game itself…It is not the combination of Far Cry 2 + authored narrative irreversibility that is making the permadeath experiment meaningful to Ben and to others, it is the fact that he is able to manipulate the game to create this experiment that is bringing meaning.”
The result of the experiment is a new experience, one similar to what it would be otherwise, but given a deeper meaning due to the player’s own conscious manipulation of the game. By adding his own rules to the game, Ben ceases to be just a player. He’s now a director of his experience in addition to being an actor in it, and yet he’s still subservient to the whims of the emergent gameplay. His role as player is changed, but he’s still very much a player. He is, as Clint Hocking said, not just playing the game but playing with the game.
Adding a self-imposed permanent death to the game also gives us a unique look at the game’s themes of violence. Far Cry 2 stacks a lot of odds against the player: We’re up against respawning enemies at nearly every intersection of roads, a sickness that can incapacitate us in the middle of a fight, guns that jam, a limited amount of “health packs,” sparse save points, and a landscape filled with people whose only purpose is to kill us. Death is easy, yet because this is a video game death is also easy to ignore. The sparse save points may force us to replay certain sections of the game, but in the end, no matter what happens, we can always just reload a save. I’d wager that most gamers have come to see death in game as more of an annoyance than as something to be feared. So by making death permanent, it suddenly has relevance.
Ben’s thoughts during his first fight are telling, “I was still stepping out of the car when the first bullets started pinging off the bonnet. I remember thinking ‘this is it – my first firefight’ and the feeling of danger threatened to overwhelm me. Certainly, the mixture of exhilaration and jitters proved to pose more of a threat to my survival than did the enemy soldiers.” The encounters that were once annoying are now frightening. The level of violence in the game (which is actually quite normal for a FPS game) is more apparent than it was before, when we took our infinite live for granted.
But what’s more important thematically than the new found fear of death is that it doesn’t last. In Ben’s fourth post he writes, “I must admit that the fear of dying has more or less completely disappeared by this point. The worry and hesitancy with which I approached the earlier missions has atrophied to the point where I am confident enough to take out an assassination target head on, using explosives. I’m regularly flirting with danger now, and it remains to be seen whether I will get burnt.”
L.B. Jeffries, in an essay on Far Cry 2, explores how the player’s journey is similar to Kurtz’s experience in Africa in Joseph Conrad’s 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…In other words, by making the game design so brutally hostile, the game is putting you through the same experience as Kurtz.”
What I find so fascinating about the Permanent Death experiment is that it changes how this transformation occurs for anyone who takes up the challenge. Any fan of first-person shooters who starts a game of Far Cry 2 begins the game as The Jackal, the antagonist of the story. Not literally, but The Jackal, as an arms dealer, embodies a cavalier attitude towards death and violence, the same cavalier attitude all gamers feel for death and violence in games. Our journey through Africa is then meant to expose us for who we really are, that we are just as much the enemy as The Jackal is. But for those who take up the experiment, they begin from a different place. The permanence of death snaps them out of that cavalier attitude, and they begin the game as frightened people just struggling to stay alive. Their journey is then meant to change them, to turn them into merciless killers and then expose them for what they’ve become. By changing the rules of the game Ben Abraham hasn’t actually changed the game or its meaning, but how the two are experienced. The journey is different but the end is always the same. We all become The Jackal.