Got kidnapped by Pagan Min again
Riding elephants made him grin again
Poor old Michael Finnegan, begin again
- Ryme of Michael Finnegan, Oran-bored-at-work edition.
My relationship to gaming is odd. I’ve grown up surrounded by it, yet I’ve never owned a console or a dedicated PC. I am, however, a long-time backseat player owing to the contagious geekiness of my circle of friends. Other than that, I am a run of the mill bookworm. As such, my primary interest in games is as a vehicle for storytelling and world building. It’s all a beautiful, bizzare, animated choose-your-own-adventure novel to me. The Romantics held that the most encompassing form of art is opera – combining poetry, narrative, music and visual art. Perhaps computer games have something of that, although I’m not looking for “all encompassing” or “perfectly expressive”. I, if anything, appreciate that gaming is surrounded in part by a quirky, wry, self-aware culture. The other part of my interest comes from my work as a life-drawing model – overt the last couple of years, I’ve worked for several animation, game design and concept art classes, which has made me more keenly aware of the visual language and tropes surrounding character building. This dovetails neatly with the whole visual artist and fiction-writer thing I’ve got going on. .. And in short, no, I’m not a “real gamer”.
(for some reason, some denizens of the internet get very upset when not-a-real-gamer comments on their precious toys)
Anyway, now that this introduction is out of the way, it’s time for me to waffle and gush about Far Cry 4, as promised in the previous post. Spoiler warning, stop right here and don’t read any further if you've not yet played it all the way through and want to let the game surprise and delight/disappoint/brutalize you as it will.
So, yes, games are fun, but why am I so taken with this one in particular?
Well. I’ve always had a soft spot for the entire Far Cry franchise, for the messy, complicated and unkind worlds it sends the player into, the black humour, the lack of easy answers, the moral ambiguity that permeates it, and the cast of characters that inhabit the games. Oh, and the stunning settings.
The fourth installment has several things going for it.
Firstly, the story itself. I will not provide a full synopsis, as one can be found on TvTropes among other places. Suffice to say that the action takes place in a fictional Himalayan region called Kyrat, which has been embroiled in civil war for decades. Ajay, the player character, is Kyrati-born but was raised in America by his mother, whose last wish is to have her ashes taken to Lakshmana, in Kyrat. Things get complicated very quickly. How? You can watch the brief and amusing intro cutscene here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=pe1vnl…
The game reads well on may levels, and one possible interpretation is a gentle critique of its own genre, of trusting in hero narratives and first impressions. If you just behave like a normal human being instead of a computer game character, you can “finish” it in half an hour… But where’s the fun in that?
Otherwise, you escape and eventually join the resistance-fighter group Golden Path, whose two bickering leaders – Amita and Sabal - do their damnedest to sweet-talk, guilt-trip, brow-beat and bully you into running missions for them and not their opposite number. This eventually tips the balance of power in the direction of either Amita or Sabal, at which point their true colours really shine through. While initially, after your rather distressing first encounter with Pagan Min, the Golden Path seem deeply sympathetic by comparison, you gradually discover the two resistance leaders’ respective visions for Kyrat leave much to be desired. Both will ask you to assassinate the losing party once the balance of power between them has been tipped, and neither has a very sensible approach to state-building.Towards the end, Sabal the sad-eyed religious zealot, calls for the execution of any member of the Golden Path who sided with Amita, and also mass executions of heretics, atheists and anyone who has ever committed a sacrilege – considering that a whole generation of Kyratis has grown up under Min’s secular regime that’s a LOT of blood to wade through. Amita, on the other hand, goes all Pol Pot on Kyrat, with the added bonus that you’ll be growing drug crops, not food. Child soldiers, forced labour by adults and children alike, and the requisite accompanying purges. What delightful people.
What’s neat is that the game initially appeals to the player’s natural sympathy for the underdog, and that the character and history of the resistance movement are revealed very gradually. After all, Ajay is an alien in his native country, and first impressions are all that he has to go on. We are naiive, operating on the basis of video game tropes and vaguely held assumptions about the world.
The other beautiful thing is that Amita and Sabal are not wholly unsympathetic even at the end – a well written character fails to totally alienate the audience no matter how repugnant their actions. The death scenes illustrate this nicely – for example, if you let Sabal win in the balance of power, you are sent to assassinate Amita - you find her sifting through documents, filing. She greets you with quiet bitterness and goads you to shoot her before turning back to her folders – and once you’ve pulled the trigger, she looks startled for a moment, before picking up some papers as though to continue with her work. She then collapses into her chair, makes some gurgling noises and dies – still holding the documents. She is resolute in her belief that what she is doing is right, that she is simply making a hard choice for the benefit of her country, and her dedication to her task, however misguided, is touching.
Eventually, after killing a further assortment of people and animals for fun and profit, you get to Pagan’s stronghold and fight your way in. He greets you as follows:
"Now, before we begin... ah... to whom am I speaking? Hm? The son who returned to scatter his mother's ashes, or the lunatic who has murdered his way to the top of my mountain?"
It has taken the supposed antagonist of the game to let you know that you’ve gone well over the moral event horizon. And for what? Is your mother’s wish fulfilled? Is Kyrat any better off for all your righteous butchering of clock-punching “baddies”, only to bring either a religious zealot or an aspiring drug-trade kingpin to the top?
If you don’t proceed to shoot Pagan then and there because, frankly, you’re sick of being badgered by him via radio, television and repeated kidnapping, the following happens: He tells you that Kyrat was yours all along. You’re the closest thing he has to an heir. If you’d just stayed put at the start of the game, you could have scattered Mom’s ashes, gotten the lowdown on your father, and received the kingdom. But you didn’t. So he calls a do-over, and “takes you to Lakshmana” – the mausoleum of your half-sister, daughter of Min and your mother, murdered by your father in her infancy.
He then tells you that your father, Mohan, valorised by the entire Golden Path, sent your mother to spy on Min – she falls in love with the despot, they have a child, and she’s very close to getting Min to broker a peace with the resistance when Mohan catches wind of the affair, flies into a jealous rage and… the rest is history. He kills your sister, your mother shoots him in return, and leaves to raise her remaining child in the US, having presumably lost all faith in what she was working for, and people generally – hence Ajay growing up knowing nothing of the family past. The Kyrati civil war continues, exacerbated by the fact that Pagan is now mad with grief and rage – although he does admit that this “mad with grief and rage” business became an easy excuse for any atrocity he deigned to commit - just as the ashes of your mother become the justification for you thinking you have any place wreaking havoc in Kyrat. “But goddamn, if it isn't fun” adds Min with a sardonic smile, walking you to the mausoleum.
The whole game seems to be a Rube-Goldberg kingdom-bestowing-device, through which there are many ways... and they all drop you into murky water in the end.
The other aspect of FC4 I am thoroughly taken with is that it is, in a way, a story of ghosts, of memories, of people whose lives and influences you piece together in-absentia. Of myths. There’s your rebel-leader father, Mohan – a fallible and crooked human being raised posthumously to the status of a martyr by a resistance movement that wouldn't have needed to keep existing if it weren’t for his moment of jealous rage. There’s your mother – at first it seems she left because she wanted you and herself to have nothing to do with the country whose history so wounded her in its making, yet her dying wish makes it inevitable that you meet Min, that you hear the stories she never told you – it seems to suggest that she knew all along that you’d be Pagan’s only heir, that Kyrat would stake its claim on you.Then there’s Min himself – such a classic villain on the surface, impulsive and smug and cruel. And underneath? Possibly the most complicated character in the game. Ruthless megalomaniac? Drug lord? Ageing tantrum-prone diva? Mad with grief? Manipulative psychopath? Broken man? Worried uncle? All of the above, and… Flickering just beneath the gaudy, polished surface – a self-aware sadness at excuses and mistakes made, by himself and by others. A stranger in a strange land, a foreigner less foreign to Kyrat than yourself, Kyrati-born as you are. At one point in the game, he sits down next to you – from the front, he looks younger than his 48 years, but then he turns his head and you see the tired, wrinkled skin of his neck, the suggestion of repeated face-lifts – there’s a certain pathos in that. Nothing is simple, and much of the story is told by what is implied, not evident at first glance, counter-intuitive.
Allright, I’ll stop here for now – I can sense I’m well over the TL/DR boundary already. Now that I’ve had my vague, exultant gush, expect a more focused post about the Shangri-La sequences and my guess at their significance, and another about characters. By the time I’m done here, you’ll all be missing my usual babble about historical trivia, introspective tidbits and endless weather updates. Or never reading my blog again.
But yes, hooray for the awful, honey badger-infested Rube-Goldberg device of black-and-gray morality that is FC4!