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.