Thursday, January 17, 2013

Far Cry 3

As protagonist Jason Brody, I've killed 1132 during my first play through of Far Cry 3. Jason is not a super soldier or exceptional in any way, other than his appearance as a protagonist in a story. He's meant to be a traditional "bro" and yet through my play through of the game, as this "bro," this everyman, I murdered over a thousand people, almost 200 of which stabbed to death. The story juxtaposes this contradiction (bro versus mass murderer) as a journey of self-discovery, maturation, and matriculation to the role of warrior. It's unfortunate that the mechanism of maturation is ethnic cleansing on a giant scale.

Far Cry 3 is a racist video game. The premise of the game is that Jason Brody, his two brothers, his girlfriend, and a couple other people are vacationing in the tropics when they reach Rook Island, geographically and ethnically ambiguous. It's a jungle populated by Asian people as well as Maori people, some of whom have distinct Australian accents (and not New Zealand accents; I know the difference) and some of whom speak in stereotypical clipped "engrish." Brody and his friends are kidnapped by a group of pirates led by the insane, hypnotic, and captivating Vaas. After Brody's older, military-trained brother helps the two of them escape, Jason starts on "the path of the warrior" as the local tribe, the Rakyat, call it.

Once the traditional hero is eliminated (Jason's older brother), Jason becomes the only person with the wherewithal and endurance to withstand the vengeance and murder required to rescue his other friends. The Rakyat perceive Jason, a white upper middle class male, as their saviour from the occupying pirates and their engagement in human trafficking. In order to facilitate their freedom from oppression, they allow Jason to partake in sacred rituals designed to release the warrior within as well as modify Jason's body with tribal tattoos to further mark Jason as "other."

As many other critics have pointed out, Far Cry 3 is a game split in two: the hunting, scavenging, and traveling simulator which rewards patience, perseverance, and hard work and the murder simulator which asks the player to eliminate hundreds of POC. The former is a satisfying and immersive experience. The latter is casual and simultaneously aggressive in its racism. Of course, the obvious problem is that the game is unsuccessful in its bridging of the two halves.

What strikes the player as especially egregious in its racism is that for Jason, the journey to warrior does not simply include ethnic cleansing, but also an interior journey of self-discovery towards maturity and adulthood. The latter necessitates the former, compounding the racism.

At the halfway point of the game, Jason's rescued friends are ready to leave the island on a boat they've painstakingly assembled and repaired. Only Jason feels unsatisfied and opts to remain on the island in order to achieve vengeance on the pirates for the murder of his brothers. Jason's girlfriend says to Jason that he is going to leave her right at the moment she's been waiting for so long. The moment being, of course, his matriculation into adulthood.

Thus, as an object of art, Far Cry 3 belongs in the same category as Judd Apatow films (and imitating styles) as well as films such as Seth MacFarlane's Ted. In this style of narrative, the male is consciously stranded between the siren call of adolescence and the injunction to achieve maturity and independence. The tension is often not presented as economic, but speaks to the higher standard of living Americans enjoy, to the point where they can indulge in tropical vacations while still remaining emotionally immature and financially solvent.

For males (and to a lesser extent females), the cultural injunction to party is omnipresent and menacing in its ceaselessness. In economic boom times (such as the 50s), labour is the island between lakes of leisure. In our current era of precarity, leisure is the tiny island between vast oceans of labour. Thus the need to maximize that tiny island is all the more important. Leisure, when short in duration, is intensified in effort.

Fiction such as Ted, Knocked Up, and Far Cry 3 present the protagonist as negotiating the tension between the island of leisure and ocean of labour as the main drama. The shrill girlfriend, constantly complaining and threatening a break-up, represents the injunction to grow up. In Far Cry 3, the females have even less agency than in Apatow films — which is surely saying something about the patriarchy present in all facets of video game culture. Jason's girlfriend articulates the melancholy in Jason's desire to wreak vengeance when such a task is ultimately a sacrifice of his personality.

Thus, the game attempts to say something deep and meaningful about the loss of personhood in the pursuit of vengeance, but ends up trivializing the mass murder of hundreds of POC by implying it is a journey of maturity.

Racism in Far Cry 3 is so omnipresent that it permeates below the surface. Previously, video games indulged in a superficial racism, such as Call of Duty games which offer Afghan terrorists and Brazilian criminals as shooting targets, but always in the context of saving the world from nuclear destruction. Only Far Cry 3 is racist enough to contextualize ethnic cleansing as an Apatowian arc of maturation.

Far Cry 3 indulges in some of the most hoary and well-known racial sterotypes. The first assisting character that Jason meets is a Liberian expatriate that fulfills the magical Negro stereotype by kicking off the "path of the warrior" arc. Later, Jason meets Citra, the sister and nemesis of Vaas, who's accent, attire, and tattoos clearly mark her as "other." It should be no surprise that this Orientalist stereotype, oozing of sexuality and sensuality, tricks Jason into sex via hallucinatory rituals. Her motives are, in typically Orientalist fashion, inscrutable, as is her ethnicity and accent. It is not until the very end that Citra's motivation becomes apparent, and then the game descends (if possible) further into racism nonsense.

At the end, once Jason has defeated the paramilitary organization that marks the second more difficult island, he returns to his friends' hideout to find them all missing. He finds out that Citra and the Rakyat have kidnapped them. After a hallucinatory walk, Jason finds himself holding a knife to his girlfriend's throat. It turns out that the only way to become a true warrior is to sever all connections with the past. The game offers Citra as a barbarous native unfamiliar with the more civilized Western way of doing things. The player can choose to either rescue his friends or kill them. I chose to rescue them, but either option has the same results: the blood staining Jason's hands is too much and he decides to stay on the island.

In either case, Jason fulfills the colonial fear of "going native" by engaging in barbarous behaviour, beyond the call of vengeance. Just like Uncharted 3, Far Cry 3 makes the mistake of asking the player to think critically about the actions of the protagonist. How much blood is needed to balance the scales of justice? The major difference is that Jason's mission is not fueled by a sense of pride, but by vengeance.

There comes a moment at the halfway point of the game when Jason is asked to lead the Rakyat on an assault against Vaas. This might be my favourite mission of the game, but it's also the most deeply problematic. Citra requests that Jason lead them to victory, and he turns to the assembled fighters and provides a rousing speech about how victory over Vaas is imminent. He fully accepts the role of saviour at this point, fulfilling the white saviour complex that Teju Cole writes about here. The difference between the morons at Invisible Children and Jason is that Jason gets to ruthlessly gun down those pesky misbehaving ethnic people.

It is my favourite mission because of the mechanics of how to storm his bunker, and how the game reacts with manageable waves of enemies of increasing difficulty until the final confrontation with Vaas. It's the most frustrating mission because of the "white bro leading POC" and the previously implicit comparison made between Vaas and Jason is made explicit.

Vaas is the character pictured at the header of this post. He is, without a doubt, the most interesting character in the entire game. Michael Mando, a fellow Canadian, voices the imposing Vaas with a mixture of insanity and amusement. Vaas is always taken aback that an untrained immature bro could achieve so much in so little time. However, Vaas is presented as the dark mirror of Jason, not only through Vaas's dialogue, but the game's sparing use of quotes from Through the Looking Glass. Vaas is the man that Jason might become if he succumbs to blood lust. Of course, it is no coincidence that Vaas is "othered" through his name, his accent, his facial scar, his tattoos, his attire, and his adherence to a unhinged worldview, totally dissimilar to Jason and his friends' "normal" Western worldview. During the final confrontation between Jason and Vaas, a hallucination of course, figures of Jason strobe into Vaas and vice versa, making the comparison explicit. The great danger is that Jason will go fully native, go to the "other" side, and never return.

The possibility of going native always presented in a negative light. The island is without discernible borders between urban and jungle, an anxious proposal for urbanites, and the island is crawling with predators without any concern for those blurred borders. Even small enclaves of "civilization" is presented in racist tones: Badtown is a shantytown, the kind seen in infomercials to save Africa, and the other major centre has free-wheeling, fun and fancy-free idiots dancing to vaguely tribal music, obviously echoing minstrel stereotypes. Why would any civilized white person want to stay there, unless they were crazy or "othered" in some way?

Insanity plays a large part in the themes and plot of Far Cry 3. The CIA man that helps you with a couple quests is presented as the paranoid company man jumping at shadows and the main antagonist is a slaver from what sounds like South Africa. Of course, no white American would partake in that totally wide spread phenomenon of human trafficking. Only "othered" whites would stoop so low. The link being made implicit is of course between "otherness" and insanity.

An Australian man, Buck, instigates some of the missions in the first half of the game. He appears unhinged right from the get-go, but he asks Jason to find some mystical compass (of course) that leads to some mystical knife necessary for the path of the warrior (of course). While this part of the plot is tedious (mystical object! because foreigners are always magical unlike us urbanites), the climax of the arc is interesting. It turns out that Buck is actually holding one of Jason's male friends, and the game heavily implies that Buck has been repeatedly raping him. Jason rescues the friend who then asks Jason not to mention anything to the girls.

Male rape panic aside, it's hard not to see that Jason's journey of murder is also a journey of reclaiming his manhood from odious ethnic types. It's a journey to take back and bring together the man with his phallus. In Far Cry 3, the phallus is the knife that Jason uses to dispatch the main enemies (and kill numerous henchman) by penetrating them. While the "othered" characters threaten or commit rape, only Jason's figurative rape is acceptable, and this is surely due to his asexuality as a Westerner. When dirty foreign types rape, it's so gross that the game cannot even address it explicitly, but when Jason penetrates a bunch of ethnics, it's acceptable.

While I've stressed so much that this is a thoroughly racist video game, down to the smallest degree, I haven't really talked about how much I enjoyed this game. I love Far Cry 3, despite the numerous problems. It's at this point where I should introduce Social Justice League's How to be a fan of problematic things. I've struggled previously with how I should enjoy something so racist or sexist, but Rachael provides a way of negotiating this tension. She writes
Liking problematic things doesn’t make you an asshole. In fact, you can like really problematic things and still be not only a good person, but a good social justice activist (TM)! After all, most texts have some problematic elements in them, because they’re produced by humans, who are well-known to be imperfect. But it can be surprisingly difficult to own up to the problematic things in the media you like, particularly when you feel strongly about it, as many fans do. We need to find a way to enjoy the media we like without hurting other people and marginalised groups.
She goes on to list ways that we can approach the problematic object without ignoring or denying the problematic elements therein. The first part is to acknowledge the aspects that are troublesome and to not excuse them or justify them. This derails the conversation and limits what can and cannot be said in conjunction with the object. By this, Rachael is referring to the "don't read too much into this" or "it's just a video game" defense that many people take. This trivializes or dismisses the various readings that people take out of a text. Forcing somebody to engage with the text using your interpretation is not conducive to an open dialogue wherein problematic aspects can be brought to light, or discussed.

In the case of Far Cry 3, I opened up this review by framing the video game as fundamentally racist. I wanted to acknowledge this fact head on and provide the evidence for my interpretation of the text (which is widely agreed upon, apparently). Despite this approach, I still had a great time with the game. The mise-en-scène is strong enough that pop-up text and even the mini-map are practically useless, the combat is imminently responsive and fluid, there's a deft balance struck between stealth and assault, the hunting is fun and useful, the side quests are interesting and not terribly repetitive, and the god-like feeling that comes with shooters like this is immensely palatable.

None of this exculpates the game or even me. It's still a problematic object, but acknowledging it, talking about it, disseminating the idea that this is not okay is part of the labour of changing things. The unfortunate part is that the 60 dollars I paid do not go to Ubisoft with a note explaining my misgivings. Unfortunately, justice is not blind, but money is. The makers of this game won't know that I found this game equally entertaining and troublesome.

Ultimately, the discourse surrounding the game seems to highlight the inherent racism. I have yet to read a review that doesn't address the game's both casual and aggressive racism. There's an interview with one of the makers in which he defends the game using the "you don't get it" defense but this fails. Even the most guarded racists must realize how deeply problematic this game is, even if it's an entirely fun murder simulator. When everybody starts to discuss how problematic this game is, perhaps this is a step towards addressing greater cultural problems such as the prevalence and banality of rape culture as well as the sexualization of violence against women.

Oh wait.

Goddamnit, video game industry. You're making it extremely difficult to be a fan.

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