Random Notes from Far Cry 3: Part 3

By Chris Posted Monday Dec 17, 2012

Filed under: Game Reviews 40 comments

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 ‘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 ‘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 ‘artsy' and ‘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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40 thoughts on “Random Notes from Far Cry 3: Part 3

  1. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Damn it Chris,now I have to read AND listen to rpg stuff at the same time.Which would be easy if you didnt decide to write something meaningful.Ugh,here goes nothing…

  2. thebigJ_A says:

    Someone want to explain that Lim thing to me? You get like three rooms in, then get blocked in a hallway by a blue block, regardless of whether you use ‘z’. That’s not mechanics as metaphor, that’s just blocking me in a hallway so I can’t continue.

    Unless the metaphor is “broken games”.

    On the tenth-ish attempt, the blue block didn’t block the path, it pushed me out of the game-space entirely. I thought maybe that was the pretentious metaphor bit, but no, you’re just stuck out there, also unable to continue.

    1. Nawyria says:

      I managed to get through that by bleding in, but once I stopped blending in a little too early in the next room one of the blue blocks knocked me through the level aswell.

      If you do manage to make it through the sequence ends with another block filling the one-square hallway some rooms further on and then both you and the blocks just of flash colours for a while. Afterwards the screen turns black and nothing more happened for me.

    2. AbruptDemise says:

      Yeah, I think the Lim example is going to need some explaining. It might have something to do with individuality or something, but I wouldn’t really know, since I got knocked out of the level as well.

      1. Deadpool says:

        Lim is about fitting in. You play as a transgender trying to fit into a world of male and female.

        1. Fang says:

          That feels like a long stretch to me. It more felt like “Oh I press Z… and still get attacked and pushed around.” then “Oh I press Z and I “fit” in with the male(blue) blocks or the women(brown) blocks”. Dys4ia actually does use game-feel/mechanics to convey a sense of that.

          1. Deadpool says:


            Whether it conveys the feeling or not is up for you to decide. I was just explaining what it was about.

            1. thebigJ_A says:

              It definitely doesn’t.

            2. Aristabulus says:

              I didn’t take Lim to be specifically about transgender issues. Fitting in, certainly… but it could also be framed as jock vs. geek, with neither camp really highlighting more than one facet of your multi-colored self image.

              I have no idea if transgender issues are explicitly what Lim’s creator is trying to convey; I did not seek out that data. Chris presented it as an example of mechanic-as-metaphor, I went to experience it as such.

  3. Thomas says:

    This seems to be the year of games whose ultimate message is that you shouldn’t be playing them =D

    EDIT: It might be signalling a breakout time in the industry then. Because if three different games have questioned why we play these games (albeit slightly differently) and found many current games lacking, then people are going to start coming to the answer of trying to make games that say something important, and the point of playing games can be to take in those messages and provoke thought

    EDIT EDIT: Also this theme gives Yahtzees decision to stay on the island because the character is no longer fit for society a worrying implication =D

    1. Paul Spooner says:

      Don’t forget the ending story to Minecraft, which was last year IIRC. Seems like games are going through a self-hate phase or something.

      1. Thomas says:

        Minecraft? Wow, thanks I’ll have to look that up. I think we’re getting to a point where a lot of people are very consciously thinking about what playing a game does and tells you, and because we’ve be content to not do this before, they’ve found there’s not much to look at and most of it is nasty.

        Maybe this will continue and deepen and in 10-20 years games will be completely unrecognisable and our games will be considered practically unplayable

    2. Galad says:

      what are the other two games?

  4. Deadpool says:

    Btw, on the subject of fitting music… Am I the only one who LOVES when games get theme music right?

    Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (which, btw, is pretty lackluster even if it had some great ideas) probably had one of the best uses of that with “Always on my Mind.”

    Doesn’t hurt that I’m a Pet Shop Boys kinda guy… And yes, I know, they only did a cover of it, but it’s the one I remember most. So hush!

  5. Vipermagi says:

    “the comparably subtle vacation allegory”
    Subtle? The juxtaposition of tropical vacation versus Hell on wheels was extremely obvious. It’s the first thing you see (the intro transitioning to Vaas holding your phone), and it’s hammered on constantly because you’re forever trying to get your friends and family back because, you know, your holiday turned into a nightmare. The grenade launcher is more subtle than that (best weapon to get Undetected with, but explosions are not subtle regardless).

    “A collection of metaphors and a handful of literary references does not a meaningful game make.”
    This is probably because I’m a barbarian, but I don’t see why it has to be a ‘meaningful’ game in the first place, nor did it feel like they ultimately tried to make one. It feels like they *want* to make one, but didn’t. Perhaps because the last attempt made often failed to deliver its message due to unfortunate engine limitations and bad gameplay ideas, perhaps because they were trying to make a game that was still fun and didn’t figure out a way to combine the two.

    The reason I get this feeling is exactly because the gameplay is disconnected from the thematics presented elsewhere. You’re a stranded tourist who hasn’t shot anyone before and have basically nothing, but guns are easily acquired and they’re more stable than a boulder, there’s zero survival elements, the crafting is fairly basic, simple and rapid, money almost literally grows on trees. The gameplay is too ‘simple’ and fluid to fit with the idea of being a helpless tourist, and thus to fit with the premise of the game. They’ve already shown willingness to make gameplay more… involved, but have not at all done so.

    1. Olly says:

      “comparably subtle” … “comparably”

  6. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Vaas should really have a pygmy space moose named Shamus.

  7. Tony Kebell says:

    So, I’ve heard things about you Shamus, my sources tell me… you are of the Alces alces.

    ShaaAAaaAaaAmoose Young.

  8. Robyrt says:

    It seems to me like Far Cry 3 was the result of several teams which didn’t talk to each other enough. The UI guys have the Alice in Wonderland and gun butterfly thing, the single-player campaign guys have the frat boy vacation thing, and the multiplayer guys have the straightforward power fantasy with leaderboards and Kill Ten Boars side quests.

  9. Cybron says:

    Tangentially related: The lead writer for Far Cry 3 is upset that no one seems to want to interpret what he’s written (never mind that you’ve just done that and critiqued it to boot).


    Seems like your analysis (and criticism) are spot on.

    1. Lame Duck says:

      It’s interesting that Yohalem’s impression seems to be that people missed the depth of the story becuase they didn’t catch the subtlety, whereas what I’m getting from Chris is that the game is incredibly blunt and pretty shallow.

      1. Michael says:

        Yeah, there’s a fine line here… what the author intended and what they actually produced.

        Yohalem’s read of the game actually seems to be a pretty coherent analysis of the game and what’s going on, and, really, it should be. That said, it isn’t the immediately apparent read.

        When you look at FC3 and take it’s story at face value, you get a really blunt, shallow narrative, and even pealing pieces back doesn’t usually reveal any greater depths.

        The problem seems to stem from Yohalem’s choice of making Jason an unreliable narrator. You can do this in games, even in shooters, but, what you can’t do is the subtle unreliable narrator. The character who misunderstands what they’re seeing, but doesn’t actually lie to the player.

        Players see how clearing outposts results in safe areas with NPC quest givers waiting for the player to go do their little random mission. Players don’t see NPCs standing around, dealing with their own stuff, and then some random white guy coming up and asking if there’s anything they need done. Moreover, if Yohalem’s to be taken at face value players NEVER see that the NPC they just got a quest from doesn’t exist because the Rakyat aren’t real.

        And that’s what Yohalem seems to be arguing, that the Rakyat are part of Brody’s insanity, and aren’t even a real thing. It’s a great idea, but because the game never actually sanctions that, it’s permanently an alternate read, even if the game’s writer is the one presenting it.

      2. Deadfast says:

        The problem is the game tries to be subtle at the same time it is loud. For instance, throughout the story the player character has clearly distinguished instances where he’s hallucinating. You get transported to a realm completely different from what you perceive to be the reality. Moments later you are transported back.

        Now, Mr. Yohalem’s claim is that in fact nothing you ever saw was real and these trippy scenes are indications of that. I’m sorry, but that doesn’t just cut it for me. Spec Ops handles this much more gracefully using its fades to white, not to mention the fact that it is in third person that, at least for me, leaves more of a wiggle room to pull the unreliable narrator card.

        1. Michael says:

          Honestly, I was thinking about Spec Ops unreliable narrator last night, and what I’m left with is that it eventually turns around on the player and says, “this thing you saw? Did not happen.” That was Walker’s lizard brain breaking the world to save itself.

          If FC3 actually turns around and does that, then great, but I’m most of the way through the game, and Yohalem’s claim of “unreliable narrator” comes as a somewhat weak justification for “hey, it’s not as racist as you think.”

  10. stratigo says:

    escapism isn’t bad and I wish video games would stop telling me it is. Christ on a crutch.

    1. Mechakisc says:

      Agreed. Escapism CAN be bad, but that’s an individual’s issue, not something wrong with gaming itself. I’ve stayed up for 24+ hours because I was reading many more times than I’ve done so playing a game. And those were bad times for me otherwise (like when my brother died), nothing to do with the subject matter or even the existence of escapism itself.

    2. Daemian Lucifer says:

      Like everything in the world,its only bad in excess.Its a shame that people dont realize that often.

  11. Mechakisc says:

    @Chris – Not having played the game, I’d be pretty interested for you to let us know if you’ve addressed directly the themes that the writer has expressed are buried in this game. That is, did you miss any of what he is saying “everyone” has missed? or were those the exact things you were talking about?

    1. Chris says:

      I think I’ve addressed it as best I can with what the game’s given me to work with. If there’s some secret hard-to-get-to “answer” that justifies the rest of the game I’d be willing to look into it, but I haven’t seen anything like that.

      Part of the problem of addressing all of the themes Yohalem brings up is that there are so many – he claims the game intentionally lampoons the Noble Savage trope, he states that the game is about ‘feedback loops’ that make the player feel good, there are intonations that the game meditates on the nature of your actions (aka videogame violence), he’s pretty open about the game condemning escapism, he’s stated it’s got influences that range from A History of Violence to Alice in Wonderland to Deer Hunter to Apocalypse Now…

      In short, the author believes the game is supposed to be about all of these things and I think the result is a game that just mentions them. I can point to one or two scenes that describe just about every subject he’s brought up in his interviews, but again I have to ask: What does the game do with the idea once it’s introduced? What does the game do with the Apocalypse Now helicopter scene, and how is it contextualized to either make use of that reference or subvert it? When the game paints Jason as the white savior of the native Rakyat tribe, how is the concept being subverted to point out the absurdity of Avatar? I’ve yet to hear a satisfactory answer to that question – just variations on “game journalists don’t get the game / it’s a puzzle to solve and no one’s got it yet / it really is an artsy game, though.”

      1. Michael says:

        Honestly, all I could get from the game as being “about” something, was polishing down everything people didn’t like in FC2…

        I’m not sure if I need to really enumerate on that, or can without partially plagiarizing your own arguments.

        But, basically, Far Cry 2 is Apocalypse Now, the further into the game the narrower the player’s options become. In the beginning you can approach it like a normal FPS and have a generally good time. By mid to late game, everything is falling apart, leading to more occasions where you’re really having to scramble to survive.

        I’m not sure, but my off hand recollection is that the late game heavy firearms actually degraded MUCH faster than early game .45s, AKs, and SVDs.

        On top of that, like Spec Ops, FC2 is literally supposed to be an adaptation of Heart of Darkness.

        FC3’s theme feels to me like a “well, you didn’t like this design choice from 2, let’s take it out, and see how the game works.” There’s an overall theme of “let’s make the most entertaining game” we can. Let’s fix all those things in FC2 that people didn’t like.

        Even from an artistic standpoint, I can’t really find much fault with that. On one hand we’ve got a piece of artistic work, that when the public got their hands on, they said “I don’t understand it”, and the artist’s response wasn’t a petulant “you don’t understand my genius, here watch Intolerance,” or “here, have this Extended Cut”, it was “let’s give you what you seem to want.”

        As an artist it’s easy to get into a loop, where you have an idea that strikes you as genius, but if no one gets it, then it’s really not. Far Cry 3 strikes me as a more professional response to criticism then we’ve been getting from the industry lately.

      2. Peter H. Coffin says:

        Well, there’s a pretty low limit to the number of things a work can be “about” before it’s not really “about” any of them. Most creators can make a work have one theme, a skilled one can manage two or three, but beyond that, you’re into homeopathic levels of issue treatment.

        I think I just made your point again. I’ll quit now.

  12. So in simplified terms Chris (erm Campster, sorry, not used to calling you that) is that Far Cry 3 has nothing that actually sucks in it.
    Which is something I have to agree with. Far Cry 3 is a bunch of cool stuff bunched together, so nothing really stands out. Might be why Vaas character/performance is so popular, it’s about one of the things that was not really planned (of the bigger things that we know of).
    It’s like mixing all your favorite food in a blender, and have it surprisingly turn out “OK”.

    “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” is an old saying, but despite that Far Cry 3 just feels “OK” (in my opinion).
    A game like Mass Effect (entire trilogy) however, and I feel that saying to be true.

    If a “ideal game review average” ever existed, it would be Far Cry 3. Nothing wrong with it, a solid title, worth the money. But a title like GTA IV (or upcoming GTA V as well I’m sure) will still beat it, despite having more issues than Far Cry 3. Weird! (oh and anyone spelling “Weird” as “Wierd” or “Weird Al Yankovic” as “Wierd Al Yankovic” should be getting a nasty spanking – End rant)

  13. pneuma08 says:

    *sniff sniff* Games are slowly growing up as a medium! They’re reached the awkward teenager stage of development already. It wasn’t all that long ago it was little more than a small child struggling to walk, not knowing how to communicate much beyond bare “fun”…

    Seriously though, it seems like the current crop of games is finally starting to find its voice, even if it hasn’t mastered the art of subtlety quite yet. It’s not quite there yet, but the future sure looks promising!

    1. Cody says:

      And it seems like this teenager is going into the the very annoying “tortured/stuck up artist” clique. This is going to be a rough decade if they keep this course.

  14. Von Krieger says:


    I’m sorry, I tried to read the article, but you linked to a song, and all that’s going through my head is the Team Fortress 2-based parody of it linked above.

    You bomb lobbin’ simpleton!

    1. Chris says:

      I do love this song. I actually heard this before the M.I.A. one, so when I hear the intro all I can think of is the Sniper when it comes on.

      That and Mmph the Way You Mmph are just fantastic covers based on TF2.

  15. Daemian Lucifer says:

    I never got the feel that the game says these things are bad.Yes,it certainly does show a parallel between brodys tattoos being a power fantasy for him just like the game is for the player,and that this island is his escape from reality just how the game is escape for the player.

    But I never saw it painted like something bad.Well ok,there were a few times when brody is an asshole to his friends,but the thing is,you have to intentionally speak with them.They dont come to you,and you brush them off,you have to come to them,and then be an asshole.Its weird.

    Maybe its because I was constantly alt-tabbing the game to do other stuff,so I never got lost in the game.Maybe because all these characters made me laugh because of how over the top they are.Maybe because I laughed at how the alice quotes are an overkill in pounding the message with a sledgehammer.I just never could see the game as actually trying to say something serious,and certainly not something against escapism.

    1. Michael says:

      There was definitely a tone breakdown in FC3. The writing was going one way, which wasn’t terribly interesting, the gameplay was going another, which was much more interesting, and neither of them appeared to be saying anything.

      At least for me the Alice quotes combined with Vaas, the doctor, and some of the pre-release interviews solidly pegged the theme as “insanity” without really giving any indication that the claim was more nuanced beyond, “hey, this guy’s kinda crazy, ooh, look at this one. Look at this whackjob that keeps sending you email.”

  16. Chris: Every time I examine your stuff (love it by the way), you always comment on how mechanics contextualize narrative. But I’ve found that some of the most memorable stories have mechanics that only do so simply. I think that ludonarrative dissonance has to be explicitly contradictory rather than just sort of there to be a problem. One of my favorite roleplaying game stories of all time is Breath of Fire 2. It’s standard RPG fare, but the storytelling in terms of payoffs, twists and delivery is spot on. It used little mechanical tricks like an unwinnable fight against Tiga to demonstrate the point, but Final Fantasy has shown that you can have exciting narrative alongside similar mechanics and still have a feel which is quite distinct.

    1. Thomas says:

      Final Fantasy was always really good at understanding what RPG mechanics mean in terms of story. Progression, growth, new discovery, your experiences changing you. FFX even really utilised the feeling of checkpoints, long difficult journeys eager to reach a destination, worried about the grind and such that gets you there. Compare to ME1, ME2, ME3, where it isn’t really clear or part of the story the Shepard should be getting significantly better at fighting than she was already.

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