Note: Up until this point I've tried to keep the discussion more or less spoiler free, but at this point I'm going to be talking about the whole game. Consider yourself Spoiler Warned.
Far Cry 3 is a game that wants to â€˜about' something very, very much – but it's not really sure how to go about doing that. Some games do so almost entirely through narrative, like Spec Ops: The Line. Other games use mechanics as a metaphor, like Lim. Far Cry 3 doesn't seem particularly interested in either – the narrative is a pretty straightforward revenge tale and the mechanics have largely moved away from having any inherent thematic content. Instead the game tries to use bits and pieces of every bit of itself to give a vague impression of what it wants to discuss – and in so doing is pretty ineffectual overall.
The game professes to have something to say on the nature of escapist entertainment. You can see this in a lot of places, most immediately in the “vacation gone awry” angle that results in the capture of Jason and friends. But it goes much further than that. The vehicle selection has a distinctly “resort getaway” feel to it. Hang gliders, ATVs, jet skis, off road jeeps, skydiving with a wingsuit – these aren't the vehicles you typically think of when picturing military action. They're what college kids on Spring Break would use in Cancun. Even the ziplines used to drop from the radio towers are decidedly more fun than utilitarian. You visit touristy spots like ancient ruins, gorgeous white-sand beaches, and World War 2 bunkers. You collect souvenirs in the form of letters, memory cards, and relics. You mingle with locals and observe local flora and fauna. There are activities and games like poker and races. As you level up you expand your rockin' tribal tattoo as a memory of your time on the island. Heck, your scouting gear is a DSLR camera that allows you to take pictures of your trip! The game is very much a frat boy vacation, even as it's filled with horrible events and unrelenting violence.
The juxtaposition of video game mechanics and revenge with what is in effect a tropical vacation is intentional, and is the crux of what subtext there is in the game. The island isn't just a horrifically twisted vacation for Jason, it's also an intentionally twisted escapist paradise for the player. The bright, super-saturated colors play into the idea that this is a lush island paradise, but also into the idea it's an artificial surreality the player escapes to. And this is why the mechanics in Far Cry 3 have removed the element of decay and randomness – they're about empowering the player, where Far Cry 2's mechanics were expressly disempowering. It's also why the game had to be open world – not just because of the franchise's history, but because it presents a â€˜do what you want, when you want' approach to gameplay. It's a relaxing sandbox that simulates a tropical vacation with murder.
In this light the game's opening song, M.I.A.'s Paper Planes, is actually a fairly brilliant soundtrack choice. Not only are most of the lyrics directly applicable to the game itself, but it presents the same dichotomy the game does. The song is about the thug life of killing and drug running and murder rudely punctuated by gunfire and the ringing of cash registers. The chorus in particular drives home the general play cycle: “All I want to do is (bam! bam! bam! bam!) and (Cock gun, cash register open) and take your money.” The fact that each verse is repeated reinforces the redundant nature of the game's violent activities. But the arrangement itself is a saccharine pop song with a catchy beat that invites you to sing along – hardly the sort of genuinely threatening gangster rap from years past. It's a safe, easy-to-listen-to, radio friendly melody about shooting people and taking their cash – and that makes it a wonderful companion piece to Far Cry 3 itself.
As if all of this wasn't quite on the nose enough, the game basically has Jason acting out a power fantasy. As he kills people and completes story missions he gains powers and confidence in himself, insisting that the island is where he belongs and that he's found his true purpose. The final choice of the game makes this pretty explicit – you can continue to engage in the delusions of easy power or you can reject it and save your friends. If you choose the former, Citra kills you. If you choose the latter Citra dies trying to save you. In this way Citra acts as sort of a clumsy metaphor for the empowerment fantasy itself – a lustful but dangerous siren that can be defeated by ignoring her call.
And as if that wasn't on the nose enough, we have the Alice in Wonderland quotes that are about as subtle as the pirates' bright red dress code. We're going “down the rabbit hole!” Like Alice, Jason is no longer sure who he is! The ethical dilemma of the Walrus and the Carpenter! They even have a “follow the white rabbit/man in white” reference. This is the game at its most pretentious. There are sporadic points throughout it decides to get â€˜artsy' and â€˜meaningful', and these segments manage to actively detract from the comparably subtle vacation allegory. Whether it's killing every boss in the game in a glorified, trippy quick time event or ripping off scenes from Apocalypse Now and framing the thing as a clever homage to like minded material, there are points in the game where it insists you recognize how smart it thinks it is.
The problem is that it doesn't add up to a cohesive whole. Okay, we've got the nice-if-blunt comparison of a video game about shooting dudes and a frathouse Spring Break in TJ. An even blunter use of the video game's power fantasy overlapping with Jason's power fantasy. And a series of references and artsy scenes that struggle to justify themselves. How do they come together? Where's the glue that takes these disparate concepts and makes a unified work that stands on its own? A collection of metaphors and a handful of literary references does not a meaningful game make. The game doesn’t manage to seem to have any thing to say about the lofty ideas it tries to bring up. Escapism is ‘bad’ because it’s being equated with killing people and going insane, but what alternative does the game provide? Where is the lesson really learned that game violence is obscene or that escapist entertainment is dangerous? How does the game – through its story or mechanics – reach any meaningful commentary on the ideas it brings up?
Put bluntly: it doesn’t. Far Cry 3 conjures ideas with theoretically potent metaphors as if that were enough, and once they’re in play it doesn’t properly know how to address or discuss them. It wants to be Little Inferno, begging you to ditch blind escapism in favor of something more substantive. But that vision is compromised by a 20 hour game that unironically engages in several mechanics to keep players coming back. And it wants to be a criticism of those very same mechanics; of reward structures and extrinsic motivators that string you along in the game. But the criticism for those mechanics never materializes – or is marginalized in favor of talking about power fantasies and escapism. The game never quite seems to settle on which of these two targets to attack – empty feedback loops with extrinsic rewards that keep players hooked or escapist entertainment that does nothing but make players feel powerful – and ends up discussing neither.
The result is a game that simultaneously wants you to go outside and to keep playing it; a game that thinks there's something messed up about constantly handing out gold stars while constantly handing out gold stars; a game that wants badly (so badly) to make a strong statement or two that it can't decide which one to stick to. A game can definitely be about more than one thing, but it can't vaguely be about several things. Far Cry 3 has some creative attempts to bring up lofty ideas and it's incredibly enjoyable to play – but the ultimate experience isn’t an indictment of empty, vapid escapist entertainment. It’s just a really good example of it.
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