Monday, June 8, 2009

Lions and Jackals: The Politics of Far Cry 2 (pt.2)

Let me begin by saying this is not a criticism, at least not yet. This is part two of a two part series about politics in Far Cry 2. This series toys with that idea of videogames as educational tools, examining the game with a political lens. My apologies if you are not a fan of international politics, but allow me to nerd out a bit. You can find part one here. All comments are incredibly appreciated.

Symptoms of Violence

The land of Far Cry 2 is chaotic. Progress means adapting, it means bending the chaos to your will, planning your assault well in advance, but this only minimizes risk. Danger is never more than an arm's length away. Guns jam, fires spread unpredictably, and all the anarchy you try so hard to avoid will inevitably uncork, swallowing you whole into frenetic gun battles with hidden soldiers. You'll be pulling bullets out of your leg with pliers just moments after plotting an ingenious plan of assault. With your buddies dead, unable to save you, it's all the more exciting.

There is one who seems to look down upon the maelstrom: the gun-dealer who you, the player, are assigned to kill: the Jackal. Of all the characters inhabiting Far Cry 2, the Jackal has the most agency. The world he inhabits and the war he is trying to smother with its own violence, is viewed with an almost frightening composure. The Jackal's personal philosophy pervades the game and, intentional or otherwise, Far Cry 2 implicitly sustains popular notions of African politics, and in doing so justifies equally popular beliefs on violence, war, and humanity, beliefs with long lasting political implications.

As I mentioned last week, the lack of civilians in Far Cry 2 actually diminishes its sense of nihilism. Additionally, it also removes any potential agency such actors could have had. Only the mercenaries, and perhaps the political leaders, show any signs of being rational actors. The soldiers, who attack anything on site, are fanatically violent and show little motivation for choosing the gun-wielding life; they are almost rabid with violence.
Violence has taken on the terrifying power. The Jackal considers it an illness, one he too carries, able to kill a man with "the realization of what he turned into." This persistent view point fits into the narrative dotting Far Cry 2. That is to say Far Cry 2 depicts, and perhaps validates, prominent perceptions of Africa as a carrier of disease, of contagion, of civilization spoiled. Politically and culturally, many see Africa as an automaton, a golem created by colonialism, abandoned and doomed to carry out its wicked fate, becoming a perpetual maelstrom of violence and instability.

Into the Heart of Darkness

The game's protagonist descends into this anarchy, as L.B. Jeffries of Popmatters points out, mimicking the narrative from which the game was inspired: Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness. The thematic elements of both stories blend well together, as do the critiques. Chinua Achebe, professor and novelist, famously criticized Conrad and his work in "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness.'" Fittingly, either work could soundly receive Achebe's claim that it depicts:

"Africa as a setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as a human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril."
Unlike Heart of Darkness, the mercenaries are not unwitting visitors to a terrible Africa. They are equally infected with violence, relishing in the opportunity for riches. They have succumbed to the plague of violence before entering Africa. The political philosophy Far Cry 2 depicts is more Hobbesian than Conrad's colonialist racism, and the Jackal's audio tapes support this:

"Who gets the lion's share; that's what it's all about. Whether it's between children, or animals, or warlords. It's not that everyone wants a piece, it's that everyone wants the biggest piece. And the biggest piece doesn't go to the monkey, or to the giraffe. The biggest piece goes to the lion. Because the lion is the fucking king! That's how it works. It worked that way a million years before there were men saying otherwise. That's probably how it should work."

The Jackal sees himself as an agent capable of destroying this disease of violent lawlessness, a necessary evil foreign governments secretly rely on to avoid their own intervention, lest they become embroiled in African anarchy. As the Jackal puts it, "their own media prevents them from taking action." (It is this fear that explains the Somalia effect: the US hesitancy to intervene, even in the face of genocide, after the US failure in Somalia in 1993).
The nameless country of Far Cry 2 cannot be salvaged, there is no cure, no means of transitioning to a stable country. The only hope, and the Jackal's goal, is to remove the innocent refugees and hope the country devours itself alive. The Jackal's understanding of anarchy and the importance of relative power echo similar tenants of Realism, a pervasive political philosophy with significant implications. In a world full of self-interested actors and incurable violence, governments can justify acts which I consider deplorable, ranging from self-interested intervention to non-intervention when foreign involvement is desperately needed. Whether you share my political beliefs or not, these tacit implications are present in Far Cry 2.


In an in-depth interview with Gamasutra's Chris Remo and Brandon Sheffield, Ubisoft Montreal's Narrative Designer Patrick Redding has this to say on Far Cry 2's politics:

"We're not trying to say, 'Oh, the trouble with people today is they're not willing to do really terrible, evil, monstrous things in order to accomplish the greater good.' This isn't like some neocon wet dream, right? The idea is that we don't pretend like we know the answer."

Though Ubisoft Montreal may not pose an answer with Far Cry 2, they do depict a world devoid of any answers, not even an attempt at one. When given the Jackal's strong opinion on the matter, and gameplay that supports his philosophy, what are we to hold as a counter-example? To this, I again give Achebe's criticism of Conrad: "He neglects to hint however subtly or tentatively at an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters." At which point, the prominent portrayal of Africa and violence is too easily palatable.

This is not a criticism of Far Cry 2 in the classical sense. I do not mean to call out Ubisoft as creators of neoconservative propaganda. Rather, I mean to prod at a small slice of Far Cry 2 that depicts what some consider to be a political reality. How we understand and interpret violence has real world repercussions. To some, including myself, violence without origin is a ridiculous and dangerous notion that is detrimental towards peace building. Videogames are not cultural artifacts exempt from scrutiny. If they were, I wouldn't enjoy gaming (and this game in particular) so damn much.


  1. Interesting engagement with racism, violence, and politics in a videogame. I am wondering, something I often wonder about when it comes to many videogames, why didn't they just set the game in an unnamed, "imaginary" place that we couldn't easily associate with "Africa"? I would think this would have made the game less problematic in terms of race and politics (or at least certainly with the Western world's colonial, orientalist/racist lens), but probably would not have changed your critique on violence (or would it have- would the rabid, violence without origins be acceptable to you in a more fantastical setting?).
    What are your thoughts on this: would you have preferred the game to take place in an unidentifiable place or do you think its major problems have nothing to do with this? What would Far Cry 2 have lost if it was set somewhere else?

  2. It's funny, I muttered something similar during the RE5 debacle, Far Cry 2's depiction of Africa is much more dangerous because the stereotypes it employs are still actively used daily.

    I love that you go into the Achebe essay, it needs doing. Even the counter-arguments to Achebe's arguments applied to the game would the exact same. Conrad's book was a brutal critique of colonial idealism about how civilized everyone in these countries was. Although the natives receive a few nods of sympathy, they're mostly ignored or background noise while Conrad depicts a bunch of whites behaving like maniacs. FC 2, for me, seemed to be interested in having the player realize they are a psychotic murderer instead of some glorified hero. It's a critique of the modern FPS.

    The problem with either defense is that you're still ignoring the very people all the fighting revolves around and depicting them in the same demeaning manner.

  3. @ Mink

    Firstly, great question. I understand the desire to set the game in a place that is environmentally unique, something western gamers are not familiar. Understandable, though I don't think they do enough with the environment to warrant that decision exclusively.

    Secondly, you're right. In terms of the politics motivating the Jackal and the slice of political reality the game presents, very little would actually change. It may not have resounded as well with Achebe's racism claims, but everything else would stand.

    @ L.B.

    Very well put. I wonder how the Far Cry 2 world would look through the eyes of your glorified hero. Though I would say your actions, or at least the goal you eventually achieve with the Jackal, is portrayed as heroic. During conclusion, it reads many civilians survived thanks to the work of the Underground. But I think you get a clear message that the real hero in the game is you the player. Not that helping refugees flee is bad, but its a strange tone tagged along with the rest of the games anarchic tone.

  4. @mink

    Although it may be a flawed or simplistic portrayal, I agree that Far Cry 2 would have lost something had it not been set in Africa.

    Setting the game in Africa can definitely be a cheap way to cash in on the history of exoticizing and exploiting non-Eurocentric cultures, but it also automatically primes those of us who like delving into analysis.

    I think dealing with complex issues like race, gender, colonialism, etc. feels safer or more abstract in a fantasy setting. For example, Star Trek was a groundbreaking moment in TV in terms of progressive social ideals, but would it have even been let on the air if it wasn't sci-fi set in some distant land known as the "future?" I would argue no.

    Perhaps setting the game in Africa was an aggressive, if not subtle, decision meant to spur people towards analysis?


    Excellent points. I wonder how the game could be modified to take civilians in to consideration? Every conflict in the game is resolved by blowing things up or killing people.

    In some ways, I felt like one of the civilians when playing Far Cry 2: I was almost never safe, people would open fire on me randomly and unexpectedly, I didn't know who to trust, etc.

  5. Interesting posts. Thanks very much.

    I only want to talk about the civilian issue briefly.

    First, please keep in mind that '3 civilians in a room' when you went to get malaria medicine was originally intended to be dozens of civilians with whom you could talk and interact with in a weapon secure area, where you would be able to bond and empathisize and not open fire. That was unfortunately scaled back for technical reasons. That would not address your point, I don't think, but it is the difference between what we wanted and what you got.

    Now - I am not convinced the game would be more meaningful with civilians. I think the presence of civilians might have lead to numerous distractions that would have dehumanized the population even further than does their absence. As in GTA or Crackdown... civilians would potentially become nothing more than 'background noise'. A bunch of civilians running around on fire while the player laughs would not increase his empathy, and I think that is more probably the way it would have turned out instead of what I imagine you would like: civilians caught in the crossfire, adding depth and complexity to the gameplay the same way fire or malaria does. Having a family trapped in the middle of the road when you are in a random gun battle with 3 guys at a checkpoint could in theory have added tremendous impact - but in practice I think the player would not have cared at all - they just would have been more 'AI without guns'. Think about how civilians intruding on a street gun battle in GTA feels. Do you (does anyone) feel the horrid repercussions of a public gunfight when this happens? No. Civilians in these games are completely dehumanized.

    Anyway it is certain that we could not have succeeded in delivering what you hope for WITHOUT civilians - I just suspect that what we would have delivered WITH them would not succeed at delivering what you want either - but for different reason (and that their presence might have seriously undermined the things you DID take from the game because comical civilian slaughter and generalized flaming mayhem would have trivialized any bond we could possibly have built).

    Finally. Putting unarmed and helpless civilians in a game this intimately violent - and then being able to burn them to death with a flamethrower - literally means your game is banned almost worldwide and the places where it is not, it is AO-rated and basically not for sale in most locations. In otherwords - the kind of deep exploration you are asking us to permit is not permitted in the current socioeconomic climate of games. I think it's unfortunate, but the reality is, *we're not there yet*. You can watch a movie like Hotel Rwanda, because hundreds of millions of people go see movies and that one can be made predictably profitable under a specific business model that is well understood. If 1 in 10k movie goers see it, it can make back the money required to produce it. Games do not have the bredth of audience. If 1 in 10k gamers play a game it is a massive failure financially. This makes making such a game impossible.

    I guess what I am saying is that, in 20 years, there may well be a place for the game you are asking for if we continue to expand our audience at the rate we doing so today. I really look forward to that day, because I may then be liberated to make the kinds of games you're suggesting.

    Sadly - it's a chicken-egg problem in the sense that it's not about which comes the first: the audience for a wide range of games or the games that appeal to a wide audience... they come together by slowly constructing that audience - by making games that surprise new people with what they can do and make current players ask for more from the next wave of games.

    I wish I could make it happen faster, but I'm doing all I can. :)

  6. @ Clint

    Thanks for stopping by! I'm glad you enjoyed the post, particularly its late appearance amongst so many other thoughts on Far Cry 2.

    Technical reasons aside, which is completely understandable, you are absolutely in a pickle with civilians. The tendency for civilians to become background noise for the less scrupulous player is rampant. I've been playing Prototype lately, and if Far Cry 2 has similar interaction with civilians I would have been aghast.

    I feel for you. Aside from creating npc civilians which the player cannot interact with, I can see a proper depiction of civilians that isn't rife with its own problems. Even if a cut scene were to depict the repercussions the conflict, it would never hold the same weight as in-game interaction. I'm not so sure it would give agency to civilians regardless. I have no delusions that the task is easy.

    As for future games? Well, I'm patient. In the mean time, keep up the good work.

  7. This is a really interesting article. I'm currently writing my phd in international relations (conflict resolution), and my boyfriend linked me to this article as he has had several rants at me about FC2 and the political implications of the game. So I preface this by saying I haven't played but I have both watched him play and spoken to him about it.

    I have two comments, both of which feed off what other people have said already.

    The first of which is to do with the image of Africa portrayed by the game. While this blog and us as commentors might ciritcally reflect on the implications, do you think there is a wider reflection on the implications? By being uncritical of the environment your white, male, macho character finds himself in you are perpetuating a colonial stereotype of Africa, which although not as overt as in games like Resident evil 5, don't challenge the status quo. Do you think games should challenge this?

    Which makes me ask my second question/point. Which is, why is it unacceptable to play as an African, or to have an 'every-day' life carry on? Other posters have spoken about the implications of civilians and I think Chris is very right when he observes that perhaps hte inclusion of civilians would further dehumanise the population.

    As long as you play the 'outsider looking in' you are going to have these cultural issues with games. it is more than a perpetuation of stereotypes, its a continuation of colonial understandings of African that disallow an 'african' perspective because it is implicitly bound in our colonial understandings of the continent as 'inferior'. Therefore, despite these kind of conversations which are important and meaningful, the gaming industry at large, and games like FC2 gratuitously feed on the stereotype and a) embeds it further and b) proposes no solution (which was said in the article). Do you think the industry can step outside this and contribute, or challenge these criticisms?

    Sorry for such a long comment. I really enjoyed reading the two parts. Thanks

  8. @ Helen

    Thanks for stopping by. Its great to get those outside the "hardcore" gaming community involved in the discussion. I especially like people who focus in conflict resolution! (What school do you attend, if you don't mind my asking?)

    As for your questions: I don't believe there is much interaction with wider implications in games in general. Sometimes its not so problematic, other times its troublesome. For example, something like the Civilization series incorporates assumptions in the rules about how the political world works. Same goes for games not specifically political in nature. (There are, of course, games with no such concerns). Which is why I like writing about them so much. :)

    To be fair to FC2, they do have a black playable character, though he is Haitian, not African. The outsider element is important to the story as I see. That doesn't negate your point however. Its also interesting to not that though there are female mercenaries in the game, none are playable.

    I would also suggest RE5 is just as overt as FC2 if not more. The difference is that the first relies on images akin to ethnic stereotypes while the latter relies more on political stereotypes. Though again, neither is free of either tactic.

    As for the outsider, I would forgive FC2 the outsider trope because its partly the story they are trying to tell. That is to say, how outside actors are still intimately involved in foreign conflicts are not somehow sin-free. That being said, there is a dearth of native perspectives.

    So yes, the industry at large is lacking multiple perspectives that could better portray conflicts, Africa, and other political situations. But there is less of a clear answer as for progress. I wouldn't say just making an African character is an authoritative perspective. After all, how much does a mother in Lesotho share with a Muslim child in Somalia and a ex-combatant in Sierre Leone?

    I do absolutely believe the games industry can address these concerns. In fact, I think Far Cry 2 makes leaps in bounds in just bringing up a conflict situation in which you are not some magical hero. Trust me, its a big step forward. There are absolutely those in the games for change movement that will advance your concerns. As for the mainstream, I think gamers are increasingly open to the idea of non-normative compelling narratives. Its just a matter of time and effort.

    Sorry myself for the long response, but your comment warranted it. Feel free to email me if you have anything else.

  9. Well damn, a number of much more articulate people delved into some of the points I made in my other comment. This post brought up a host of other thoughts as well though.

    For Jorge:

    I completely agree with you in hoping the gaming industry can push the envelope on addressing and examining social issues. I think it goes a long way to establishing video games as "art" (a relative and loosely defined term to be sure) and it's going to take continued brave moves by publishers to put it out there. I would really like to see a game that really pulls it all together in its examination, or at the least, really opens up an issue, rather than a cursory examination or interaction with the problem.

    Can't wait to come home and give this game a crack myself.

  10. Interesting post. I actually came across it looking for information on a sequel.

    With regard to civilians. It's a video game. The decision not to include them in civil game play has more to do with designing an interesting video game than completing the story. Throughout the game, civilians are referenced and interacted with (the "underground" characters), but just not seen during live combat. I see this simply as part of the design process, not part of the story.

    My main observation is about The Jackel. I had assumed he was undergoing some transformation as the game progressed. At first, he declares that he decides who lives and who does. Over time, his tapes become more introspective and toward the end of the game, he is overwhelmed by guilt or at least an imperative to end the killing. At least that was my interpretation. I thought his decision to sell arms below market price was confusing, but I don't necessarily interpret it as a strategy he has to end the conflict. He seems more like he has a moral awakening as he goes, but has no exit strategy from who he has become.

    On the soldiers motivations. At times you overhear them saying things like, "I wish I never got out of bed" and "why am I here?". Throughout the game, you see propaganda urging civilians to take sides and leaders even condemning the "cowards" who refuse to fight. You get the feeling that soldiers aren't motivated by anything other than self-preservation, like gang members who join gangs only to avoid violence at the hands of other gangs.

    The fact that the soldiers are really just civilians with guns goes a long way in explaining their incompetence.

    Anyway, just my thoughts. ;)