Friday, May 14, 2010

A move towards more significant games?

Far Cry 2 was one of the biggest games in 2008, and perhaps with good reason: it was the follow-up to a blockbuster PC hit that later spawned a successful console franchise, renowned for its freedom in gameplay and great visuals, and many were eager to see what sorts of gameplay benefits the next generation of technology could bring.  Its reception was a little bit murky overall; while some loved the game, a lot of people cited poor AI, repetitive missions, respawning enemies, and an empty world as buzzkills for what was otherwise a fairly competent shooter.  I reviewed the game myself around the time of its release, and noticed immediately that one of the things many reviews, in part my own, failed to touch on, were the wider implications of the game.  The fact is that, while Far Cry 2 as a game may have its issues, it is perhaps one of the most important mainstream titles in years, and I'd like to explore why.

A little background may be necessary.  Far Cry 2 is set in an unspecified country in "Africa", and revolves around a civil war between two factions, which has torn the land and people apart.  Amidst this, an arms dealer called the Jackal has been reaping the rewards by supplying both sides with arms, and has perpetuated the conflict for his own benefit.  The player takes the role of a mercenary, who serves not so much as a blank slate, but as a neutral party in the game, willing to do the dirty work of both sides.  The player has a little bit of wiggle-room in the decisions made, but for the most part, it's a linear slog through a number of vaguely-linked missions.  There are a few plot twists, but given the impersonal role the player has in the conflict, as well as the lack of real character-building for both the player and the NPCs in the story, it's hard to care about it for most of the game.

Far Cry 2 is both a success and a failure at what it attempts to do artistically, which makes it perhaps all the more interesting a game to examine.  On the one hand, the developer's intentions are quite clear: demonstrate both the specific sorts of problems that occur outside of the Western world, including the social and political turmoil produced by wars, as well as the exploitative involvement of the West.  On top of that, allusions to atrocities such as genocide and the blood diamond trade are made.  There's a fairly clear "why are we doing this?" question that runs throughout the game, hammered home by the fact that the player is called upon to do increasingly unsavoury things, like destroy medical supplies.

Upon closer inspection, however, things become muddled.  The non-specificity of the region the game takes place in is a major contributing factor.  "Africa" exists in the Western consciousness as an Orientalist stereotype (as defined by Edward Said), a vague amalgamation of desert, jungle, savanna.  Culturally, we tend to view it as a land caught between a tradition of what we might describe as "savagery", and the "civilised" West, existing in both a familiar but also somewhat hostile, unknown, and Other space.  It should not be surprising that Far Cry 2 presents its version of "Africa" in much the same way: an assortment of  images that resonate within us precisely because of their non-specificity.

The difficulty with taking such a stance is that the game is unable to make more specific commentary.  While doubtless this was done to avoid offending certain groups of people, and it allows for the developer to explore issues that may well be geographically distant in real life, the inability to link the in-game conflict to any real-life conflict means that the response in the player is emotional, but not necessarily rational, and as a result, the game risks undermining its own goal of producing positive social change, although it does not eliminate it.

One other major issue is that, while the game attempts to show the negative effects of war at the individual level, we see very little of this actually taking place.  The towns and villages in Far Cry 2 are populated with mercenaries for the player to slaughter without mercy, not families, workers, farmers, or children.  It's explained in the game briefly that the country is being "evacuated", but very few signs of this are ever seen, and the player is left to negotiate with a world full of English-speaking thugs who are there for the same reason the player is: profit.

Clearly a good deal of the developer's trepidation in showing the specific effects of war and exploitation comes down to the fact that Far Cry 2 is a mass-market product, a game which has to appease both the shooter fan who just wants to have a fun romp in the jungle, as well as the type who might want to pull some deeper meaning from the game.  I touched on this distinction yesterday, but suffice is to say that, as expensive products expected to return on an investment, games absolutely need to appeal to a large number of people.  You can shoot for the artsy crowd, but then you won't sell to the more casual fans.  Of course, the opposite exists as well.  A story full of vague emotional appeals might garner you lots of sales, but you'll also alienate the more cerebral of gamers.  Finding a good balance is key, and is one of the principal challenges in game design today.

In the case of Far Cry 2, the fear surrounding a negative public reaction to the game was responsible for neutering it, and robbing it of much of its emotional impact, as well as its significance to the ongoing political discourse.  Upon playing Far Cry 2, it's easy to become caught up in the belief that something interesting is being alluded to, but precisely what it is can become lost, especially as so much of the game revolves around gunning down the nondescript mercenary types that seem to populate nearly every contemporary shooter.  Even the uncomfortable themes of xenophobia and colonialism that might stem from killing Africans themselves are removed, as they seem to be a minority compared to the White men who dominate the game world.

Perhaps the disappointing part about Far Cry 2 is that, despite its problems, it is actually one of the most important games for the medium in a long while.  Far Cry 2 goes to places we almost never see in games, and it asks hard questions about the role of the West on a global stage, as well as broader questions about the nature and purpose of human conflict and suffering.  You often don't see these sorts of things in mainstream titles, especially shooters, and it's refreshing and inspiring to have them appear in such a big-budget game.  For once, we're reminded by a game that the West is not the only place that exists in the world, and that the things that allow for our convenient, comfortable lives cause damage elsewhere.

While it's understandable why sacrifices were made, one has to ask whether they were really needed.  Much like the dumbing down of gameplay in BioShock over its predecessor System Shock 2, some of the cuts made to Far Cry 2 were done to appease a mainstream audience, yet it may well have been totally unnecessary.  There is an implicit assumption that the mainstream fans of a game aren't able to understand, don't approve of, or otherwise can't tolerate being asked to think about difficult things in games.  That the average age of gamers these days is approximately 35, according to the Entertainment Software Association, shows that gamers are not only capable of, but also prepared to deal with important questions.  Here's hoping that Far Cry 2 is the beginning of a trend towards games that deal with truly mature subject matter.

1 comment:

  1. That's a whole lotta things I didn't know

    But how about all those other games out there - I'm staying tuned for tomorrows episode.