What can we learn from Ubisoft's vacation simulator?
When freelancers Leigh Alexander and Quintin Smith strike up a correspondence, they aim to analyze a game in the context of their own lives. Which means talk of the game's main characters, issues of industry violence, and Vietnamese food.
Below, they take on Far Cry 3.
From: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Far Cry 3
We need to talk.
I don't know what's become of you. This thing you've been doing, it's gotten out of control. I don't even know you anymore.
I was with you in the beginning: You were a callow youth who quailed at the sight of blood, rich tropical vistas blurring to the rhythm of your panicked breath. Your security blanket — the militaristic elder brother who was going to make everything OK — died with a sanguine gurgle under your hands. You ran with the terror of a hunted animal through jewel-green foliage, the whip-sting of gunfire chasing your heels, and I sat on the edge of my seat. When you stumbled, I cried out. The merciless branches, the horrific, alien tropical landscape buffeted you carelessly, and I felt your pain. When you fell, my stomach turned.
And now, not even 10 minutes later:
You accepted a generic tribal tattoo — oh, sorry, tatau — without complaint. You have a radio, a fully-functioning tablet and generous access to vehicles, so you could try to contact your family; you could try to get a ride to the mainland, get to an embassy, call for help and let your family know your brother has died, that everyone you love is being held hostage by pirates. You could spare a tear, even.
Instead you are agreeably slaughtering tapirs for backpacks. You have draped yourself in weaponry, suddenly cogent and interested in leading an assault on some pirate base — wait, though, you'll assault the base after you have collected all the flowers at its outskirts. OK. This island is making a monster out of you, Quintin. A monster who wants to build wallets and collect cocaine baggies. What the hell's become of you?!
Sorry. Unbridled emotions misfiring everywhere, because video games. I'm talking about Far Cry 3.
Let me back up: The scene is my living room. You are putting on Far Cry 3, a game I hadn't planned on becoming interested in, and yet I begin a cheer (my single semester of high-school inadvisably spent as a basketball cheerleader is among my dark secrets): Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap, clap-clap-clap-CLAP! And you finish, after a pause, uncertain: "Far Cry?"
The cheer starts out enthused, ends up confused. Oh man. How appropriate for this game.
Are we going to have to start listening to Skrillex now?
Far Cry 3 concept art
From: Quintin Smith
Subject: Re: Far Cry 3
I'm sorry, but those tapirs were just the gateway mammal.
I've killed thousands. I've stood astride dingos, leopards, bears and humans (so many humans), hauling great handfuls of guts and glue into my backpack. My analog sticks lurched unsteadily like the scales of justice, nudging the murderous Jason Brody ever onward.
I like what you did paralleling me with Jason! That was pretty funny, with both me and Jason descending from nice guys into mindless killing machines. Ha ha! Ha.
Leigh, I'll level with you. I'm losing my fucking mind.
Remember three weeks ago, when we were on our way to that thrift store, and you had me buy all those ancient t-shirts that I suspected were cut for women? The ones that smelled like bread?
On the way there, gritting our teeth at the rain, I was talking darkly about Call of Duty. You remember? How we hate that it's a lightning rod at the centre of this hobby we've given our lives to, noisily illuminating everything about our society we don't want to look at.
Fast-forward two weeks. I'm writing to you slick with Far Cry 3's gore. I'm sat there, peering warily at my TV, beer and adrenaline pooling in my gut. Do you hate me for it? It's really, really cold outside.
Speaking of which, I still haven't worn any of those thrift store t-shirts out in public. Pretty sure they make my torso look like a bag full of smaller bags.
Write me back.
From: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: Re: Far Cry 3
Yeah. I remember you talking about Call of Duty as we winced through the rain on Thames Street — sorry you picked such a crap time of year to visit New York City, and sorry we pronounce "Thames" wrong here.
I often feel slightly guilty making CoD the single whipping post of this nebulous thing I'm so uncomfortable with. It's just become the icon for something, maybe many things, that so many of us have had enough of.
I mean, if there weren't some urge rising beneath the cash-lacquered veneer of our FPS-dominated commercial industry, then we wouldn't have heard so much this year about how Spec Ops: The Line is great because it tries to be intelligent about the experience of war, or so I read (full disclosure: Haven't played it).
Whatever else Spec Ops is said to do imperfectly, it's apparently tried to present the idea that gunning down hundreds of people is an act that actually can have moral implications, psychological impact. People find that worthy of admiration. And in The Atlantic, Far Cry 3 is billed as the potential "video game that critiques video games."
But I can count tons of games that have been interpreted, at least in part, as "critiques" of games: Portal and BioShock are about subverting the player's expectation of the systems that give them instructions; before them, Shadow of the Colossus did that, too. When I get drunk you know I'm wont to go on about how even Metal Gear Solid 4 is an industry critique. It's not that examining the nature of games is new this year — it's that people actually care about it now, particularly as concerns gun violence.
And oh, look, what's one of the most divisive issues in America right now, right?
Back to "you," Jason Brody, suddenly neck-deep in a mad world, hacking up flowers and stuffing your pockets with dingo meat. You can't really remember what you're supposed to be doing because every crucial plot point is unveiled by someone blowing magical mushroom spores into your face, or whatever.
Nah. I can't. Apocalypse Now this isn't. I've not had this much fun all year drunk-tweeting about anything besides the Spike VGAs, that Tinseltown celebration of, according to Samuel L., getting to "shoot people in the face."
Far Cry 3 is supposed to be a story about a man who loses himself as this island, its rituals and its blood hunger quite literally get under his ever-more-inked skin. Will he remember the people that are important to him, or will he become a remorseless killing machine?
I mean. I think that's what it's supposed to be. Just, none of it feels important. The people don't feel real, and if they were real, I'd want to cap 'em, not rescue them.
As a "statement," Far Cry 3 feels like a well-intentioned term paper on class issues by a white 12-year-old from suburbia. Or like a song about foreign gangsters by a woman who actually doesn't seem to understand foreign politics and likes truffle fries (that'd be M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes," which fittingly opens this game).
PS: Those shirts don't smell like bread; they smell like thrift store. And you look great in women's t-shirts. I mean, this is Brooklyn, and you should try to fit in.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2
Spec Ops: The Line
From: Quintin Smith
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Far Cry 3
So here's the weird part. We can all agree that Jason Brody: Pro Bro makes for a ridiculous protagonist, right? And that the degree of ethical insensitivity exhibited by his friends is nothing more than poor writing.
About that. You've reminded me of something.
2009. I'm backpacking in Vietnam, and, on the advice of awesome games writer Ellie Gibson, visiting the Cu Chi tunnel network: 75 miles of hand-dug crawl spaces outside of what was once Saigon.
Words are inadequate. Imagine an endless, pitch-black, coffin-wide passage where male and female soldiers lived together among ants and poison scorpions. Emerging only at night. Listening to the bombs of American planes trying to bury them alive. These are the same tunnels where American soldiers would draw lots to see who had to go down there, armed with a knife and a flashlight, tugging a piece of string.
I remember our chipper guide. "OK, super-happy tunnel time!" he joked, when we reached the part of the tour where we'd actually enter a tunnel that had been "widened for tourists." He was grinning because he had our Western, liberal guilt wrapped around his finger like a piece of string. Tugging us down into an opening too narrow for my shoulders.
Some of us went down. Some of us didn't.
But after the tour, and I mean directly after it, was a gun range. First we hear this rainfall of gunfire, then we see a laughably unsafe shack where you can hand over damp handfuls of jungle dollar to fire authentic Vietnam-war era pistols, assault rifles, even machine guns. Imagine — you witness this monument to the horror of war on a par with Auschwitz, and then they want to put a gun in your hand.
Some of us signed up. Some of us didn't.
As you'd imagine, I didn't, and was practically dry heaving at the callousness of anyone who would.
A few days after I'd gone home, I went to this seedy London bowling alley for my friend's birthday. And we were drinking upstairs, and someone asked me how Vietnam was, and I got halfway into how upsetting it was before I had to excuse myself.
I didn't know why I was excusing myself at the time. I was drunk. I got to the bathroom, locked myself in a cubicle and there I found myself sobbing. Proper sobs, like bubbles floating to the surface of still water. I haven't cried like that since I was a child.
So, yeah. I've met Far Cry 3's bros in real life, from the white skin, to the appropriate mix of genders, to the large haircuts, to the shark's tooth jewelry and lurid-coloured clothes.
They were the ones handing over their parents' money to fire guns in that fucking jungle.
I swear to god, Leigh — they were younger. Like, 20 instead of 25, but the resemblance is uncanny. They were posing with assault rifles in front of hot pink Flip camcorders. We might not like it, but Far Cry 3's characters are chillingly plausible.
Where does that leave me? I just spent 40 hours playing Far Cry 3. I have become bro, destroyer of worlds. I'm feeling like the game's Heart of Darkness analogy did work, in that, in facing down an evil, I became something similarly evil. A callow youth who doesn't see anything wrong with this kind of thing.
I remember you telling me that when you play Metal Gear Solid, you don't kill anyone at all. That you got a "Pigeon" rank in MGS3, and that you swear it has to be a mistranslation of "dove."
How does all this look to you?
From: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Far Cry 3
I want to say "thank you for sharing that with me," because you've not actually told me this story before, and I'm moved. But "thanks for sharing" has been culturally adapted as a trite-ism for an ironic age, where we're afraid to be sincere, so we adopt Twitter-ready idioms that make light of our anxiety about connecting with others. If we look cool, no one will know we have feelings.
Far Cry 3 does look cool — high cliffs, radiant grasslands, vivid seas. It's a place I'd desperately want to go; it makes me want to be naive enough to presume that land would welcome me. It occasionally looks smart, understated. We loved the detail in that old doctor's house — a neglected shell of a place where a children's room remains, undisturbed and unexplained, the man cripplingly high, rattling about among the ghosts and memories.
It's also occasionally gross, all that stabbing and mauling. And it's often dumb — the logic gaps, the caricature of a "tribal belief system," the predictable B-movie dialogue. I can't tell the one tight-tee Buffy doll from the other, can't muster anything but annoyance at these obnoxious stoner clichés. These spoiled brats are in over their heads and I don't love them. Whether or not their being unsympathetic is intentional, ultimately there's no stake in whether Jason gives himself over to the island or not.
But you didn't ask how Far Cry 3 looks. You asked how you looked, playing it. Honestly, Quinns? You looked like you were just playing another bro-shooter. You shot things, you occasionally died, you listened to dubstep.
You muttered, bored. You frequently paused it to smoke cigarettes and look at Gmail.
I don't think you're unsettled because Far Cry 3 was effective. I think you're unsettled — I think we both are — by this yawning gap between what a game says it wants to do and what it then goes and does. It's as troubling as the cheerful gawping tourists you met in that war zone. The game mines superficial rituals of meaning and then it puts a gun in your hand.
Thanks for sharing, Far Cry 3.
Pirate skulls and bones, sticks and stones and weed and bombs,
PS: How was the food in Vietnam? I assume you did not need to hunt it yourself.
From: Quintin Smith
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Far Cry 3
The food? Man. Steaming bowls of noodles, hot handfuls of chopped chili and (weirdly) baguettes everywhere, remnants of Vietnam's past as a French colony.
I remember in Ho Chi Minh there was this woman who did laps of our hostel on a bicycle with a stereo lashed to the back. It was forever howling what I assumed was uncompromising political rhetoric. Turned out it was the Vietnamese for "boiled eggs."
So I flag this woman down and buy a couple of eggs. I go back to the hostel, and just as I'm about to slip this thing into my mouth, I feel a tingling on my hands, and look down to find my hands black with ants. Crawling between my fingers, down my sleeve, falling like water across the bed sheets.
I guess what I'm saying is, holidays are hard. And here's the analogy in Far Cry 3 that I do think is brilliant. It's a game about Jason Brody trying to have a holiday. About all of us trying to have a holiday.
You've got these American tourists snapped out of their sporty reverie by pirates, and the game's story is of a man who decides to keep having fun, no matter the cost. They want to sell his friends?! No way! Jason Brody is a man who will CONTINUE to ride jet skis, who now will not only ride a ZIPLINE, but will fire SUBMACHINE GUNS DOING IT, because he is on VACATION (and is probably the only person on the island with EXCELLENT INSURANCE).
"What are you becoming, Jason?" ask his friends, as Jason secures grenades in his sharkskin waistcoat, seduces the bloodthirsty island queen, and pops open the heads of a hundred pirates with high-calibre ammunition like so many boiled eggs.
We don't know what he's becoming, but we know he's having too much fun to stop, and so are we
I don't think Far Cry 3 is a game that critiques video games. But I do think it's interesting that, after plying you with weaponry, quests, drugs, blood, jewels and furs, it asks if you'd like to absolve yourself in the closing cutscene. Interesting, and equally damning that it's an absolution it can't offer.
I always liked Kieron Gillen's take on BioShock. As gamers across the world took offence that sacrificing one Little Sister gets you the bad ending, Kieron says, "Well, how many dead children did you think were necessary for you to be evil?" How many furtive knifings until Brody is beyond reproach?
It doesn't matter. We're all on vacation from our real lives, from morality and from responsibility.
Here's a thing. Do you know they have literal holiday simulators in Japan? It kills me that the Western market isn't ready for that yet, that any domesticity in our video games usually needs to be trussed up in killing. Far Cry 3 lets us hunt animals, but only as a means of holding more rockets. Skyrim's Hearthfire DLC lets you build a house and raise a family, though if it all gets too much, you'll find something to shank after a brief, terrified sprint from your house in any direction.
What would Far Cry 3 look like, do you think, if it had no pirates, and the developers invested all their time in simply creating an island paradise? What if Jason Brody and his friends could have had their holiday?
Urgh. I'll read this back tomorrow and never forgive myself. I'm going to spend the rest of this evening eating cold pizza and watching Sons of Anarchy, like the man that I technically am.
From: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Far Cry 3
A game about just having a holiday. About domesticity. I wonder if a really good game about war begins when you, exiting the tunnels, choose not to pick up that gun.
I hear the cry of a million bros: That doesn't sound like a lot of fun. No. But why do game developers build mansions and buy Ferraris off the back of efforts to neuter grotesque modern horrors, to make them fun? Kirk Hamilton's articulation of Medal of Honor's promo campaign as "mortifying" really resonated with me. I've heard my own gin-laced hiss — "war profiteers" — threading into the dark of some promo party, as regards certain kinds of industry people.
Maybe it's not entirely profiteering, but modern irony. People don't want to have feelings about the world, so they're playing with it instead, as a means of coping or desensitization.
On one hand, that's healthy. "It's only a game" makes us feel in control of experiences we can't possibly understand. Maybe those bros on your trip went for the guns to get a sense of power back after feeling shaken by what they saw.
On the other hand, I live in a country where, when I was a child in the 1980s, it was still normal to run around whooping and playing "Indians," being shot by "cowboys." Our history is so revisionist that I don't think it fully dawned on me that I had been gleefully playing ETHNIC CLEANSING until I was, like, 20 years old.
I didn't learn to play "cowboys and Indians" from people who were cautiously processing our history, afraid to be sincere. I didn't learn it from people who were seeking absolution from our nation's history. I learned it from people who were ignorant and didn't know better.
I don't like the idea that games with guns need to be conscienceless and absurd, divorced from any reality, to "work." Yet the violent games that work for me — early GTA, Hotline Miami — would seem to bear this out. My favorite part of Far Cry 3 was taking a flamethrower to those pot fields and running like hell, and Jason's silly commentary.
You see this game offering the fantasy of a vacation from conscience. I could maybe buy that its dissonance intends to make the player aware of how absurd, how reprehensible it is for a game mechanically rooted in violence to act as the player's "vacation."
That might be giving it a lot of credit, though. Most games are stuck in a weird adolescent valley where they're taking themselves too seriously to be fun, but not seriously enough to be smart. If you ask me, all we've got in Far Cry 3 is another one of those.
Medal of Honor: Warfighter
Linkin Park performing its Medal of Honor song "Castle of Glass"
From: Quintin Smith
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Far Cry 3
Yesss! That's it. You can enjoy violence when it's little more than a colour in the game's palette; I can enjoy violence when I'm made to suffer for it.
Tumbling my avatar across the doomsday plains of ARMA, sedating my dying buddies in Far Cry 2. Of course you like Jason burning the cannabis fields, and of course my favorite part was getting buried in a mass grave, digging out from beneath a dozen corpses with panicked strokes of the analog sticks.
Of course Far Cry 3 leaves us feeling like heavily pregnant women riding a roller coaster. The perceived maturity of the market has left it in ethical limbo. The game lurches from side to side, asking WHAT ARE YOU BECOMING as you UNLOCK KNIFE COMBOS. I am becoming someone who can ... perform knife combos? Fuck ... yeah!(?)
I enjoyed Far Cry 3. But that's a conclusion I draw doggedly, from the bottom of a well of the most translucent emotions. Hiking for hours across a quiet paradise to an interminable punctuation of gunfire.
Or maybe I'm just being harsh for personal reasons. Back at the Cu Chi tunnels, I felt so proud of myself for not picking up the gun. You and I are wondering what a game this would be, if Jason Brody chose not to pick up the gun.
But I've fucked it. I played Far Cry 3. I did pick up the gun. What am I becoming?
No, no. It's what we are already. That's the problem.