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Heart of Dimness: Half-baked nihilism in Far Cry 2 - Destructoid




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Heart of Dimness: Half-baked nihilism in Far Cry 2


5:00 PM on 04.03.2009
Heart of Dimness: Half-baked nihilism in Far Cry 2 photo



I finished reading L.B. Jeffries' critique of Far Cry 2 over at Moving Pixels less than a few hours after completing my third complete playthrough of the game (on Hardcore difficulty, this time). It's definitely worth reading for yourself, but in it Jeffries takes a relatively popular critical position on the game -- namely, that it is partially successful in its attempts to coerce the player into using progressively more brutal and amoral methods of problem solving as the game wears on, using the game mechanics to subtly turn the player into a sort of anti-hero within this virtual Heart of Darkness.

I've found myself strangely attracted to Far Cry 2 over the past few months, alternately adoring its courage and scope while cringing at its missteps. The idea that the game mechanics suggest brutality and nihilism, however, even now fails to strike a chord with me. It's not that they aren't intended to do something like that -- a discussion with creative director Clint Hocking revealed that this was, indeed, the intent -- but even after playing through the game three separate times in three drastically different ways, I still feel that the game fails to imbue its essential mechanics with as much fatalism and moral ambiguity as some other critics have suggested.

Hit the jump if you're at all interested in hearing about why I feel this way. Spoilers ensue.

While a fair number of players complain about the fact that literally every single person you meet in the world of Far Cry 2 will try to kill you regardless of their faction on the grounds that this decision was annoying or not fun, it's far more harmful to the concept of turning the player into a brutal, deliberately amoral killer. To descend into the heart of darkness, one would think, would require murder to be a clear and conscious decision made for, if not unjustifiable reasons, at least considerably ambiguous ones. Which is more brutal: unprovoked murder or justifiable self-defense?

From the very moment the player leaves the ceasefire zone at the beginning of the game, Far Cry 2 makes it clear that every single soldier in the game world will try to kill you if they see you. It doesn't matter what you're doing, or who you're aligned with -- if you're spotted by anyone, they will literally chase you across the entire map just to put a bullet in your brain. Subsequently, the player can convincingly frame his mass genocide as total self-defense, and thus put themselves in the exact same mindset one would have when playing intentionally mindless fare like Halo or Gears of War.While one could argue that slaughtering hundreds of living beings without guilt is rather dark and nihilistic in its own way, one would also have to then acknowledge the original Super Mario Bros as a paragon of Nieztschian anxiety.

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In order for the player's gradual descent into brutality to be relevant, it must draw at least enough attention to morally differentiate itself from the thousands of mindless, uberviolent shooters on the market today. Mechanically suggesting that the player kill everything in his path out of simple self-defense obscures this intent. Innocent NPC's like Oluwagembi the journalist or the Underground priest even show the player a bizarrely immediate sense of trust, further cementing the player's image of himself as a "good" guy in a land full of "evil" men who will try to kill him for no good reason.

The thematic harm done by the perpetually pissed-off soldiers could have been mitigated by the presence of civilians in the actual game world, but they sadly are relegated to the insides of indestructible buildings and cut scenes. It is literally impossible to hurt or interact with civilians outside of the odd Underground mission or story development. This not only further prevents the player from having to morally consider his actions in the field of combat -- "shoot everyone you like," the game says, "because you'll just be killing bad guys" -- but also draws a clear distinction between the civilians and the soldiers, and therefore between who is okay to kill and who isn't.

The game makes a clear moral judgment about who is more deserving of death by forcibly lowering the player's gun everytime he approaches a civilian outpost in much the same way that Fallout 3 forbid players from killing children while also allowing them to blow an adult woman's head into a dozen bloody pieces that fly through the air in slow-mo (as if revelling in the gratuitous death of an unarmed adult woman or a mutant is vastly more justifiable than shooting a kid). By forbidding the player from killing a particular group of people, it implies that the groups you can kill are somehow more morally deserving of death -- the player doesn't have to question whether or not it's okay to kill soldiers or make moral distinctions for himself, because the distinctions have already been made for him. 

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Many mandatory mission objectives in Far Cry 2 often ask the player to do morally reprehensible things like destroying village water purifiers or killing college professors, but even these uncomfortable jobs can be rationalized by the player's ultimate goal of finding and killing the Jackal to put an end to the conflict. Where the rest of the characters in Far Cry 2 act out of selfishness and malice -- the motivations the player would ideally possess in a true Heart of Darkness scenario -- while the player can consistently remind himself that, as dark and horrible as the things he does may be, he's still doing them to reach the ultimate goal of killing the Jackal and ending the civil war. The player can convince himself that his violence will eventually make Africa a better place. Perhaps the player who feels this way is partially lying to himself, but the moral ambiguity of my actions never crossed my mind for more than a few seconds at a time during my first run-through. I felt bad destroying village water supplies and shooting the occasional heavily-armed college professor, but I did so knowing full well that once I was done, Africa would be well on its way toward a better existence than the one it had before I'd arrived.

The game not only assumes that the player feels this way, but goes so far as to remove any option not to feel this way. During the many occasions the player meets up with the Jackal, the player is never able to do any harm to him. Killing the Jackal is never truly an option; initially, the player is unable to act because of his own physical weakness or because the Jackal surprises and disarms the player, but eventually these contrivances are completely abandoned. By the time the player meets up with the Jackal at the prison near the end, the game assumes that the player is in such agreement with the Jackal's philosophy of killing both factions to save the country that the player's gun is forcibly lowered and removed from the screen with no explanation. The player can't not kill soldiers out of a desire to end the war and give the country a clean slate, because the player can't destroy the one man who is attempting to do exactly that. The player is perhaps allowed to feel slight unease over their actions, but those actions are never allowed to be anything other than an unfortunate means to a morally righteous end. As Jeffries suggests in his article, "The player should have been given the choice to have a truly dark ending. If you pick the diamond suitcase, you pull out a gun and kill the Jackal...You walk out of the country while the number of diamonds on you sky rockets." Where Jeffries considers this a problem with the game's ending exclusively, however,  I'd argue that the ending is merely symptomatic of Far Cry 2's problems as a whole.

On that note, it's also worth re-examining a quote from the great Versus CluClu Land, which Jeffries cited in his article. Pliskin argues that the player's "buddies" -- the NPC mercenaries who can help or be helped by the player as he traverses the African landscape -- are in fact a mirror by which the player sees his own selfishness and moral ugliness. Buddies will verbally celebrate the deaths of soldiers; they'll ask you to steal or kill solely so they can retire to some faraway tropical island, indifferent to the lives they've ended; they'll ask you to kill a local disc jockey solely because the DJ said some mean things about them on the air.

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They are horrible people indeed, but Pliskin feels that "Seeing yourself in the other mercenaries just reveals what you would know if you weren’t locked into seeing the world from the first-person: you’re part of the problem. The player is just another well-heeled Western interloper looking to capitalize on the political chaos for his own ends." As potentially interesting a revelation as this could be, however, it fails when one considers that, unlike those jerkbag mercenaries who just want diamonds so they can buy a yacht, the player initially wants to undo the harm done by "Western interlopers" by killing the Jackal, and ultimately wishes to destroy both factions to bring lasting peace to the region. Your friends are acting out of greed and self-interest, while there is a speck of altruism, however small and dirty and hidden, in the things the player does. Granted, some of the buddies' optional side missions ask the player to do horrible things for no ultimately justifable reason (which, for the purposes of the Heart of Darkness argument, would actually be a good thing), but even the moral opportunities these missions bring to light are stymied by the game mechanics themselves.

The buddy side-missions don't fall under the "I'm doing this so I can get to the Jackal, so it's okay" moral umbrella, but the player also has no real reason to complete them and subsequently no incentive to follow this disturbing, interesting, Objectivist thread to its philosophical conclusion. A typical buddy mission can consist of pretty shady stuff, but the rewards are meager enough that the player probably won't complete more than one or two during any given playthrough, if that. Completion of these buddy missions gives the player a greater relationship history with the buddy in question, which, ostensibly, is supposed to make them more likely to defend the player and save him from death.

In reality, however,  the player only has to complete one or two required faction missions in a way that pleases his buddies in order to keep them around, and those optional buddy objectives are often more or less morally equivalent to the regular mission objective (for example, the UFLL might ask you to kill a guy, but your friend will ask you to rob and kill him). The nasty, uncomfortable buddy missions can be almost completely ignored, while the ones that actually benefit the player are generally much easier to swallow.

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That said, the buddies do actually provide some interesting opportunities for player brutality, especially if the player has already beaten the game once. Right before the very end of the game, the player is sent to a helipad to pick up a case of diamonds. Upon reaching the diamonds, the player may be surprised to find their best buddy standing next to the case. Upon grabbing it, the player is summarily ambushed by every single surviving buddy (and, unfortunately, sometimes a few spontaneously resurrected ones) in the game. Those characters whom the player relied on for ammo, health, and his very life are suddenly attempting to kill him.

Ironically, the more careful and compassionate the player was with his buddies -- if the player gave them health syringes when they fell in battle, or tried to defend them so they wouldn't fall in the first place -- the battle is actually more difficult than if the player had ignored or slaughtered all his buddies throughout the rest of the game. My first time through the game, I did whatever I could to protect my buddies and ended up facing no less than a half-dozen of them at the game's conclusion (which subsequently led to an awful lot of saving and reloading). My third time through the game, I executed -- or murdered, rather -- every single buddy I came across and was subsequently ambushed by a measly two buddies at the finale. The mechanics send a clear message: no matter how nice or helpful your buddies may seem, you're better off murdering them to further your own self-interests.

Though Far Cry 2 frequently approaches issues of moral ambiguity and player ethics in a multitude of interesting ways, it does not fully engage these ideas in such a way that the game effectively and unquestionably forces the player to explore their own personal, virtual Heart of Darkness. It deserves a great deal of credit for even attempting to convey such controversial ideas through gameplay, but in the end, it is a failure. A beautiful, clever, courageous failure. 






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