Far Cry 3: Jason Brody and Bad Open World Narratives

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By the end of Far Cry 2, I had given up hope. There comes a point where you are paid to kill all of the newly appointed leaders of the two warring factions. These are men who you have had working relationships and for better or for worse gotten used to in some capacity. You killed their superiors and now these lieutenants have taken charge. For some reason, my favourite lieutenant was Nick Greaves. Perhaps because he seemed more humane than the others  or perhaps because he acts like he trusts me. Despite the fact that he doesn’t want to end the war, he came off as the least bad of a bunch of very, very evil men. In the final stages of Far Cry 2 I had to assassinate him. He begged for his life and offered to help me kill the person who paid me to kill him. I thought about it for a second or two before shooting him in the head.

Everyone dies and the world is shit. By the end of the game, I knew that there was no hope for anyone and there was no point in sparing someone’s life. I had taken money to blow up oil reserves, prevent sick families from getting medicine, and generally made innocent people suffer. I had done it all for money which I had used solely to buy better, bigger, guns. I wasn’t even helping myself with the diamond payments. I could have spent that money to get out of the country or used it to save the civilians suffering the fall out from a brutal civil war. I wasn’t even putting the money towards my savings and aiming for early retirement. The only option I had was to use it to kill people better.

Throughout the game, you meet and work with other foreign mercenaries, your buddies, and do jobs for and with them. They are a sordid lot but the only real allies you have in the country. Of course, they are mercenaries so it is easy for them to betray you at the end. I liked one in particular, Michelle Dachss, because her missions were about doing things to help people. For the most part anyway. At the end of the game, you need to go to an airstrip to retrieve some diamonds that you will use to pay for the evacuation of the remaining civilians. There, your buddies meet you and betray you so you have to kill them. I gunned down Michelle Dachss, who at this point I had thought was already dead, and the rest of my former allies. It was a moment that should have been shocking but it wasn’t. Maybe a little sad, but I had long given up for a happy ending.

Right after completing Far Cry 2 I started Far Cry 3. Both are enjoyable but the third instalment lacked any sort of emotional impact of the former. There were no moments in the game that came close to the two I described in the preceding paragraphs. This is despite the intention of the writer, Jeffrey Yohalem, of the game to critique everything of what makes a shooting game a shooting game.  Both games end up commenting on violence one nails it and one misses the mark.

According to its writer, Far Cry 3 was supposed to be an exaggerated  experience designed to make players feel uncomfortable. In short, Yohalem turned common videogame tropes up to 11 to say “How does this make you feel?” From the extermination of endangered species to the racist colonialist message and even how much the game holds your hand – these are all things that were supposed to make players think “Is this fun?” and “Why am I doing this?”

Instead, I want to focus on the story of Jason Brody and how the two games work as narrative experiences.

The Monster in Far Cry 2

Far Cry 2 works because its mission structure simple. Just killing the target. It happens over and over again. Sometimes you will need to blow something up or retrieve something. But almost always, you pull out your awesome map and go kill everyone in the marked area. No matter what you do, the only reason you are there is to keep the war going for your own profit. Which means killing for money – no questions asked.

The game doesn’t explicitly tell you that what you are doing is bad. The “character” you choose to play doesn’t comment on anything either. The missions just ask you to blow up this thing so people can’t get fresh water or kill this guy because he is giving medicine to the sick. Sometimes you have to kill bad guys too, but the game doesn’t tell you that you should feel bad. That’s left up to you.

The game seems minimalist, sure, but it is also really immersive because of it. There are side quests but none of them are filler and completely optional. You are free to approach your missions in any way you want. This simple yet effective gameplay, coupled with the immersiveness of the world, makes it much easier for a player to embody the silent protagonist of the game.

Far Cry 2 isn’t about a person, it is about a place. More specifically, what it means to be a gun for hire in a war-torn country. You are there to find an arms dealer named The Jackal and kill him but that’s not really what happens. We don’t know who hired you to do that or why and it doesn’t matter. The game is open world with a lot of freedom and the narrative fits that. The focus is not on a specific character but rather what happens around them and how the player reacts to it.  My reaction was that I am a big part of the problem here, and this country is never going to recover as long as people like me are in it. That’s the story of Far Cry 2.

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The Monster in Far Cry 3

Far Cry 3 is about the brotastic rich kid Jason Brody. On a wild adventure with his brothers and rich friends, they end up skydiving onto an island controlled by a drug lord and slaver. They all get taken prisoner to be ransomed and later sold into slavery but Jason manages to escape. With the  help of the natives, he becomes a fearsome warrior and saves his friends. To do so, he has to become a violence loving psychopath and the story is about Jason’s descent into madness. Or at least it is supposed to be.

Far Cry 3 doesn’t pull this off at all.  The classic problem of open world games – a main quest plus many side quests persists. Jason Brody keeps telling the player how crazy he has become but we never feel it. When he asks himself “What have I become?” after torturing his brother, it feels forced. OK, we should feel this way now. But we don’t.  We also have moments when Jason’s friends tell him that he is becoming someone else.  They want him to leave the island with them and he responds – This island is my home. I have found myself.

But then at the very end when you make the choice to either join your friends or join Citra, the tribal warrior queen. By the time the player gets here, the character has already made up his mind.

Then we get quotes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The list goes on. We get it, he is turning into a monster.

Far Cry 3 jams its message of Jason’s descent into insanity down your throat but the player is never let alone to feel the insanity for themselves. The story is too restrictive with too many cut scenes. There are too many sidequests and too much exposition. And we are never even allowed to react, because we are Jason Brody. Far Cry 2 was able to affect me strictly because it gave me the freedom to respond to the events of the story.

Writing Better Open World Games

It is really hard to write a good story for an open world game because you have no control over what the player will do. The narrative thread can’t be strong if the player can buzz off and skin tigers for an hour before resuming the main story quest line. Good videogame stories are far and few between to begin with, but open world games are the most lacking.

Both Far Cry games are open world games, but one succeeds where the fails. One reason for this is what, concretely, the games are about. Far Cry 2 is not about the player character, it is about the UAC (Unnamed African Country) – the game setting. The player lives in this world and affects it, but there is no main quest that tries to weave an elaborate story for the character. The game puts you in here and says this is how it’s like.

Far Cry 3 makes the game about Jason Brody. It is not a story of the island or the setting. A character story works by having the character experience hardship, fail, then change, succeed, and transform. When you have no control over the player character, you can’t demonstrate change or force it. The best you can hope for is that the player will somehow be affected by the line you have made them walk.

I believe Far Cry 3 is trying to do too much that it loses the focus that made Far Cry 2 so effective. FC3 tries to be over-the-top, exaggerated, videogame bullshit but it still takes itself too seriously in parts to  pull it off.

This isn’t just limited to Far Cry 3. Skyrim, for example, suffers from the same problem. It is an open world game where you have freedom to do almost as you please, yet the main storyline is rigid and doesn’t  change how you relate to the world. In Elder Scrolls games, Morrowind is the only one I have played and that I feel succeeds in telling a character story in an open world game. In Morrowind, the story has the player on a journey to achieve god-like status. By the end of that game, you can literally do whatever you want because you have become so much more powerful than anything else in the world. In Fallout 3, some of the most interesting story beats are uncovering the experimental vaults. These small sections tell a story via its setting.

Claiming outposts and climbing radio towers doesn’t equate to influencing the game world. They are mere distractions at best and at worst limitations to a complete game. I don’t think Yohalem fully trusts his players or himself when he wrote this game. The story is just there make sure players had a story to follow. Now, every game is expected to have a story, even if a lot of games don’t need one.

Far Cry 2 has only one quest, one thing to do at a time, and unless you need more malaria pills, it doesn’t matter when you go kill the next big bad guy. This is a war zone and people die all the time. It just matters that it happens. It maintains immersion and works with the open world whereas the quests in Far Cry 3 work against it.

After completing Far Cry 3, you are put back on the island to keep playing. The developers created this playground for us and we have earned our right to play in it. But if you made a playground for people to play in, it should have been a playground to begin with. Why did we need the story to distract us from having fun?

Videogame writing is in a weird place, because players feel the need to experience stories yet have full control over what happens. It isn’t enough for us to create our own stories and moments. Even in games like the Far Cry series, whose systems are designed to create memorable moments, we want something more. Or at least that’s what writers think.

About halfway through the game, Vass – the first main villain – is about to kill Jason Brody again. Before he does so, Vaas goes into a short monologue about doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. Maybe Vaas’s was talking about how we keep trying to write stories in games with meaning that turn out to be meaningless.

Most games have the same writing, the same stories, the same problems with their stories. And then we talk about them, and how they are different and how they were reaching for ideas in new ways. But it’s really just the same thing in a new package.

It fails every time because we are insane.

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