Published on January 8th, 2013 | by David Chandler16
Gaming the savage: The colonial narrative origins of Far Cry 3
We often question why stories in games (and I speak very generally here) are so simple. The answer lies in game narrative’s relationship with formulaic genre archetypes. They owe a collective debt to the familiar and digestible stories of popular fiction so embedded in our culture. While the trappings of genre fiction (comedy, sci-fi, horror, mystery, adventure) may not be overly complex, they offer something familiar, something recognizable for the player to immediately understand the world in which he/she plays with established rules and stock characters.
Video game narratives draw deeply from the wells of genre fiction because they are an easy pull, and the latest game to delve into genre fiction is Ubisoft’s Far Cry 3. The game has gained no shortage of criticism in terms of its depiction of race, sex, exploitative plot. A review in The Atlantic called it the “first game for millenials,” seeing it as the fantasy of all 20-somethings in a saturated job market, creating a place for themselves in the world. Jim Sterling sees it as a fun game that often delved uncomfortably into “Mighty Whitey” territory. Polygon posits that the game’s plot devolves into a cliché about the “corrupting influence of the savage wild, and plays directly into the white savior trope.” And the game’s lead writer, Jeffrey Yohalem defends his team’s creative choices, saying that it is more of a satire about all things colonial and racist. At the heart of all these criticisms, though, is the unspoken acknowledgement of the game’s sources, and thus its bizarre politics and racial issues: adventure fiction.
Gaining popularity during the Victorian period, adventure novels chronicled the dangerous tales of civilized men in savage lands. Writers like Rudyard Kipling and Edgar Rice Burroughs transformed the fear of and desire for the ‘other’ into escapism. The elements are instantly recognizable: a foreign locale, natives that are inherently inferior to the white protagonist, an exoticized and dangerous female, and the protagonist’s quest to fulfill some sort of masculine script that reifies the values of civilized society as opposed to the savage “other.” The tales of H. Rider Haggard (She, King Solomon’s Mines) are littered with racism and gynophobia, as savage tribesmen and seductive women attempt to undo the trials of heroes like Alan Quartermain.
These novels, of course, are largely interesting now due to their historical place alongside the colonial project, as empires of the European stretched into Africa and Asia. They engage with a politics of subjugation and race relations in ways that are, to put it lightly, problematic, and games often employ these generic adventure elements with their antiquated political baggage.
Far Cry 3 has its similar issues, and, while I mention briefly in my review my initial concern with this game’s relation to its source materials, I think the connection necessitates deeper discussion of both narrative and mechanics. Far Cry 3 relishes the trappings of colonial adventure fiction to celebrate its ridiculousness without biting irony (which really makes the issue of satire here suspect). It’s a game about excess and orientalism, as narratively problematic as it is mechanically engrossing, offering one of the most complete experiences in the colonial adventure genre.
By “colonial,” I mean the game operates clearly in the bounds of a particular type of narrative. Far Cry 3’s plot focuses on a young white man who remakes his life among a band of native warrior, doing what they do better than they can, thus fulfilling that old colonial lie of the fundamentally superior white male. It’s textbook adventure in all its jingoisitic glory, but I’m uncertain it’s adventure for adventure’s sake. The game celebrates the adventure genre and its problems without really undoing its racial faults. It becomes an apotheosis of digital colonization, a self-gratifying simulation that stands as a metaphor for how any game operating in this particular genre is, essentially, a colonizing effort.
Filling in the map became one of the driving metaphors for the European colonial projects in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific, and Far Cry 3 attempts to transfer that concept to a digital environment explicitly. Far Cry 3 achieves this by putting the player in the role of the colonist. As Jason Brody, the player attempts to fashion an identity in the world of the savage while simultaneously altering the digital environment for the sake of “betterment” or “progress,” those ideals fundamental to the colonial project. Re-activating a radio tower uncovers areas of the world, and capturing an enemy causes pirates or mercenaries to appear less frequently. The player, then, becomes that hyper-masculine force so prominent in adventure fiction that saves the natives from themselves and their enemies and changes their world for the better.
While the game tasks the player with the mechanical tasks of colonization, the game facilitates this project through a device known as the “male gaze,” an aesthetic critical concept from a heterosexual masculine perspective that seeks to control through sight (it’s most commonly used in analysis of advertisements, film, and other visual art). The player never leaves Jason Brody’s perspective, whether he’s knifing a pirate in the throat or having sex with a native woman in front of a tribe of onlookers. It’s exploitative scopophilia at its most obvious, linking sight with sex. Even when Brody first wakes up, his friend, Dennis, tells him that everything Jason (and by extension the player) sees is his for the taking.
Jason’s point of view, though, is where the concept of digital colonization loses its footing. Given the player’s limited perspective, we can only see what Jason sees as Jason sees it, and Jason sees many, many things. Jason hallucinates. Jason imagines fighting a slave-trafficking rapist in a quick time event on a nightclub dance floor. Jason has sex with an exotic woman in front of a legion of natives he’s supposed to lead to war. Jason stabs throats and unleashes tigers in enemy camps. Jason drinks poison and fights a giant with explosive arrows. Jason, in other words, is an unreliable narrator.
The game further undercuts Jason’s narrative authority with glances towards Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a book written at the same adventure fiction became all the popular rage. The juxtaposition of colonial adventure archetypes with Carroll’s fantasy novel draws parallels between absurd childlike imagination and hyper-violent colonialism. Rook Island, then, is an escapist, surreal wonderland–viewed from the perspective of an unhinged maniac–rather than a place to be civilized. As Jason loses himself, he relinquishes the desire to return to the civilized world. The metaphor posed by Far Cry 3‘s design becomes a bit clearer. By playing games within the parameters of the adventure fiction genre, we consent to a limited perspective obsessed with violent excess and problematic archetypes–and we admit that they’re fun to play.
This perspective becomes abundantly clear in the game’s final moments. It ends with that nadir of game narrative designs: the binary choice. Jason can choose to stay on the island with Citra (which leads to a gratuitous sex scene and a knife to the chest) or to return home with his friends (which is even more stupid than the other option because it assumes this sociopath can return to “normal” society). Each ending is unsatisfying because the overall narrative is conceptually shallow and the game knows this. The endings lack substance because they both uphold the masculine script of the adventure novel, either through a deceptive native woman or through a white man’s inherent civility, both of which are just cop-out, tired devices.
The kicker here is that that what should be treated with suspect to our postmodern, satire-loving eyes is presented without a drop of narrative irony. Of course Jason Brody dies this way or returns a stronger man. He’s a stock character in a recycled plot acting in a system that perpetuates myths of colonial worth and primitive savagery. The game does not judge Jason Brody, nor does it asks us to. He’s not a person. He’s a narrative and mechanical function operating in a system that’s been in play since the world was being carved up by groups of white people claiming to rule these things called empires. Far Cry 3 is not a piece of deep political satire, nor is it a colonial manifesto about the inferiority of the “other.” It is a reconstitution of the tropes of adventure fiction manifest as a digital playground–tonally dissonant, uncomfortably exoticized, narratively shallow, and brutally entertaining.
I find the heart of Far Cry 3‘s relationship with adventure fiction and stock scripts lies in Vaas’ lecture to a captive Jason on the meaning of insanity. “Insanity,” he preaches, “is doing the exact same fucking thing over and over again expecting shit to change. That. Is. Crazy.” Games recycle scenarios from genre fiction time and time again, and we play them hoping to find something new in the familiar. In the case of Far Cry 3, we find the familiar tools of colonial adventure (exoticized female, primitive people in need of a white savior, hyper-masculinity, limited point of view) and we expect something new. Instead, we get a shot of genre concentrate, a game that dares us to have fun being the colonizer in an exotic world, and we are exhilarated by the allure of the unknown as we simultaneously close the savage frontier, just as we always do. What other choice do we have? After all, we’re all mad here.