Friday, August 29, 2014

Your Critical Framework Matters (Far Cry 3)

Note: This post contains spoilers because it has to. You'll see. Just keep reading.

In my continual quest to squander lunchtimes on electronic entertainment, I recently picked up 2012's Far Cry 3, an open-world, first-person-shooter for which I held out a lot of narrative hope. The game's protagonist, Jason Brody, is a twentysomething from an uber-wealthy family who finds himself and his friends captured by pirates while vacationing on an Asian archipelago. After escaping by the proverbial skin of his teeth, he ends up embroiled in an ongoing struggle between the marauding pirates and the island's tribal warriors. Only by learning the tribes' ways and overcoming his own privileged immaturity can he hope to save those he loves.

You'd expect lots of character development with a setup like that, right? Well, Far Cry 3 has some, but what players end up getting in spades is a lesson as to why a writer's critical framework matters.

During Jason's adventures, he meets a sexy jungle priestess named Citra who molds him into a warrior through dangerous trials and drug-induced visions. She succeeds, as you very well may imagine, and Jason soon transitions from a sniveling slacker to a Rambo-esque figure with few qualms about filleting baddies with a big knife. Sounds clich├ęd, right? Well, the ending changes that. After saving his little brother (who is the last of the captives to be rescued), Jason returns to find that Citra and her men have stolen his other friends a second time. The final confrontation goes disastrously wrong when Citra doses him with a mysterious powder, and he comes out of the hallucinations it induces to find himself with a knife pressed to his bound girlfriend's neck. The game then offers players a choice: Save Jason's friends or sever -- quite literally -- all connections to his past and join the tribe.

I'm not going to talk about the "save your friends" ending, because it's pretty standard stuff and you can watch it yourself right here (content warning). But the other deserves some discussion. Select it, and one very bloody throat-slashing scene later Jason ends up noisily copulating with Citra as the priestess mutters about how his bloodline will help secure the tribe's future. Then, without warning, she rolls over and guts the clueless protagonist with a ceremonial blade. As the light fades, she intones, "You are a warrior. Die a warrior. You won."

"You won"? Sure doesn't seem that way, does it? I mean, that's about as unsatisfying a conclusion as you could imagine. A quick survey of gaming sites would show that Far Cry 3's conclusion enraged fans -- which is exactly what writer Jeffrey Yohalem intended. In an interview with The Penny Arcade Report, he said:
"Sex, violence, and the player is killed. Here are the things that satisfy our animal side as men, but they’re subverted because it’s a female doing it. Here you’re thinking of the princess in the castle. It’s like if Princess Peach stabbed Mario. Now that I’m thinking about it, that final scene should have been Citra castrating Jason. Seriously, that’s the point! It is like, ‘You win, [expletive]!’ It’s totally like, ‘[Expletive] you, you misogynist idiot!’”
Far Cry 3 is far from the only story to morally implicate the audience in its own plotline. Joe Wright's cinematic version of Atonement did so with a gentle touch, while Michael Haneke's Funny Games used a sledgehammer, but the final message is the same: "Hey, you there in your comfy chair, you're to blame because you helped create this meaning of this piece simply by being here."

But does storytelling actually work that way? Not really. In the best narratives, the author lays down commonly agreed-upon symbols (i.e. words, images, sounds, or what have you) in an attempt to communicate his ideas and the reader carefully examines those symbols in an attempt to discern them. The latter isn't creating constellations out of stars scattered across the firmament by the former; he's tickling tumblers to unlock the door of meaning. The framework is one of mutual submission between writer and reader, each humbly reaching out to the other -- not adversarial bludgeoning. In the end, Far Cry 3 lambasts players simply for partaking in it. No wonder they got angry.

(Picture: CC 2013 by Joshua Livingston)

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