There was an old man named Michael Finnegan
Dreamt he wore a hero’s skin again
Got self-righteous and quite mean again
Poor old Michael Finnegan, begin again
(Ryme of Michael Finnegan, Far Cry edition)
So, I’m back with more Far Cry 4 waffle.
One aspect of the game I love dearly for its story-telling value, and my boyfriend hates vehemently for depriving him of his guns, is the Shangri-la quest sequence. These episodes occur when Ajay, the player character, falls into a state of reverie while contemplating pieces of the Shangri-la thangka (an old painting of folkloric…stuff). This entails Ajay re-living parts of the epic of Kalinag the Seeker – the nation-saving hero of Kyrati folklore. To my eye these episodes, when combined with the related Yuma sequences, offer yet another nifty little critique of hero-myths and easy answers.
Set in a beautiful, surreal landscape lit up by enough god rays to ravage anyone’s PC, a miniature heroic fantasy unfolds – Ajay’s gloves are relaced by Kalinag’s hands, bare but for paint – the player is placed in a position of identifying with Kalinag and the righteousness of his quest by default. Kalinag tells his story in voice-over. Sent by his king to find Shangri-la, and upon finding it return to Kyrat – a perilous mission from which many warriors never returned, Kalinag succeeds where others failed. Naturally, it wouldn’t be much of a story if he failed too – he finds the place, but finds it in a state of unrest, overrun with demonic creatures led by the demon Rakshasa. At this point Kalinag meets and forges an alliance with a big, white magical tiger (cooler than it sounds, guys!) and off they go to cleanse the place, freeing bell-towers and ringing the “bells of enlightenment” while they’re at it. So far, so good, right? Scattered throughout the place are the lifeless previous seekers, suspended in mid-meditation or mid-action – it is from their hands the player/Ajay-as-Kalinag must collect his weapons.
So, who can blame the player from perchance seeing a parallel between Ajay – himself a seeker, of sorts, as he thinks Lakshmana is a place at this juncture – and Kalinag. Both are drawn into conflicts they did not even suspect were happening until they walked into them, allying with locals against occupation by a diabolical despot and his goons – and let’s face it, Rakshasa the Bell-Chainer sounds an awful lot like a folky epithet for Pagan Min, Guy-Who-Controls-The-Radio-Towers. At this point, it’s easy to start thinking “hey, maybe I really am the hero here…I’m gonna save Kyrat!” – but this wouldn’t be Far Cry if that was where it stopped.
…And then you get kidnapped and drugged by Yuma, Pagan’s lieutenant and adoptive sister, who also fancies herself to be a on the way to becoming the folkloric nation-saving hero that is Kalinag. She seems to be under the impression that this will help her save/unify/subdue (these words seem to mean more or less the same thing) Kyrat. In your first encounter with Yuma, you end up in a special hell called Durgesh prison, while under the influence. The demons you fought in Shangrila appear again, but you are helpless and un-armed and still the human Ajay – your hands are gloved and empty. You build a grappling hook and escape – taking rope and a bent metal bar from two dead would-be escapees suspended in surreal poses in a sequence that mirrors the way you acquired your weapons in Shangri-La. Except now, you’re trapped in someone else’s hero fantasy, and it sucks, and the best you can do is escape.
You do eventually meet Yuma again, and fight her, and kill her. This sequence takes place at a mining facility, after Pagan practically goads you into going after her. Ajay ends up drugged by Yuma again – this has a number of effects. Firstly, a letter (what is it with Kyratis being so careless with their mail?) that previously spoke of some experiments turns into a message from Ishwari, our protagonist’s mother, to the effect of “and this is why we never talked about home”. Ajay then proceeds to accurately hallucinate the Amita or Sabal ending in which the Golden Path leader’s unsavoury plans come to light. Then the usual demon-fighting business ensues – except now Yuma is Kalinag, and she has the tiger on side to boot. Ajay stays Ajay, armed with only a kukri. Kalinag’s familiar painted hands - flailing at you as you repeatedly kill your own avatar… sure complicate things a bit. Seems to me that the message here is simple - the private fantasy of easy heroism is more often than not a nightmare for everyone else entangled in it. It’s only nice for as long as the illusion of self-as-hero is sustainable. And that is precisely the illusion of which the player is disabused over the course of the game.
Note that between the Yuma episodes, the normal Kalinag episodes continue – Ajay finds more thangkas and has more heroic daydreams. In the final one, he fights the demon Rakshasa – upon his victory, the tiger that had kept him company self-immolates by jumping into the dying demon’s fiery maw. So both the occupying force and the head of the local resistance in the folk-tale are dead. And Kalinag closes with some insipid stuff about how Shangri-La is a place within the self, a state of mind that entails in belief in something greater than one’s self, before asking “now, is that enough for your thangka?” – thus pointing to the emplotted, constructed, fabulated nature of resistance narratives, indeed the artifice of all history-writing - perhaps foreshadowing what Ajay will have to do once he tells the tale of how he came to be king, in order to legitimise his own regime.
All this put me in mind of David Scott’s critique of certain post-colonial studies narratives of resistance – those emplotted in the mode of romance. In these “history rides a triumphant and seamlessly progressive rhythm. They have tended to be narratives of overcoming, often narratives of vindication; they have tended to enact a distinctive rhythm and pacing, a distinctive direction, and to tell stories of salvation and redemption”. And that’s exactly what we are lead to expect when we first join the Golden Path, no? Scott argues that it is often more useful and compelling to style such histories as tragedies, wherein “relation between past, present and future is… but a broken series of paradoxes and reversals in which human action is ever open to unaccountable contingencies—and luck”. However true or false this may ring for history, it certainly dovetails neatly with the overall themes of the story told in Far Cry 4.
Ok, so Kyrat isn’t exactly resisting colonisation per se – Pagan has plenty of locals on side, and his mercenaries were in their own time welcomed into the country by the Royalists to help prop up a local despot. But I was only just today reading about Scott, and felt the need to plug him into whatever I wrote.
Oh, and while we’re on the whole colonisation and oppression and whatnot topic… I did catch wind of the Tumblr furore about the promotional art for FC4 being perceived as racist. This highlighted something interesting, at least to my eye. As always, at the centre of this business and the surrounding flurry of re-blogging were mostly American (mostly white) social-justice-inclined folk. So, what did these guys see, that so upset them? A blonde, white man, enthroned on a half-demolished statue, patronisingly resting his hand on the head of a kneeling local, who holds a pinless grenade in clutched hands.
Funnily, I didn’t have this reaction to the posters. Why? Well, at one of my workplaces, most of my colleagues are Nepali expats. The Himalayas in general, and Nepal in particular, are hugely ethnically diverse, and few of my colleagues look alike. As a result, on seeing those first pictures of Pagan Min, who turned out to be half-British, half-Han Chinese, I thought he too was from Kyrat, or somewhere in the Himalayas at any rate.
The entire Tumblr furore, to my eye, betrays if not a latent racism, then certainly a great deal of both ignorance and stereotype-laden presumption on the part of the participating bloggers and journalists. You see, these guys seem to have a certain idea in mind of what a person from the Himalayas should look like – most prominently, that they must be dark-skinned. Never mind the Limbu then, one of Nepal’s Kirant ethnic groups, who are mostly relatively fair-skinned and more East-Asian in appearance. Never mind the Sunwar, either, or any of the dozens of other groups. Never mind not having a damn clue, or at least conveniently forgetting, that all countries and regions have histories in which wars, migrations, and trade took place, resulting in people mostly looking …well.. like people… and fairly diverse otherwise. As for the bleached hair – do our dear bloggers believe the Himalayas to be totally bereft of hair salons? So, in short, it appears that the presumption in question went something along the lines of “those dark people who… don’t look so modern”.
Anyway, as it transpired, I was just as wrong, and Min is indeed a foreigner. But still, isn’t it fascinating how eager we (people generally, that is) sometimes are to shoe-horn all material into familiar, and convenient narrative forms?
And yes, watch out, I’ll be back with more waffle soon.