It turns out that Far Cry 3 wasn’t really a hamfisted story of a manchild-turned-jungle warrior, lousy with offensive white colonialism tropes. It was actually a subversion of those things.
Or so says the game’s lead writer, Jeffrey Yohalem. In response to reviewers (myself among them) who thought Far Cry 3’s plot undermined an otherwise enjoyable game, Yohalem gave his take to Penny Arcade Report and to Rock, Paper Shotgun. The critics, he said, missed the point.
From John Walker’s interview with Yohalem at Rock, Paper Shotgun:
It’s so funny to me. I’ve seen these arguments on forums, and I think these arguments are fantastic because people are engaging in a discussion about art, which is exactly what I was hoping would happen. But, the game’s argument is that Jason is basically used by everyone on the island – Jason is basically a gun, that is upgraded by the natives on the island. It’s the opposite of Avatar. And it’s fantastic to me, because Citra is standing in front of the home tree when you first meet her, you’re called Snow White, the people are called the Rakyat, which means “the people.” It’s the laziest name for a tribe ever, they’re not real, they’re a metaphor. People need to be looking at the names of these things. There are all kinds of secrets in this game for people to figure out, that tie into the main plot. It’s all part of what the game is trying to say.
The main takeaway from the interview is that everything that might have seemed corny, lazy or offensive in Far Cry 3 was put there to satirize other games, whose plots often fail to jibe with what the player is actually doing. Yohalem says that by serving up a story that doesn’t fit, he’s questioning the value of entertainment, and what we’re willing to sacrifice to get it.
Reading the interview left me with conflicted emotions. I do feel a bit silly for failing to grasp the game’s deeper meaning. Then again, most other critics came to the same conclusions as I did, which makes me think most players will also. So in a sense, the subversion is a failure; it didn’t have enough clear signals to help players think about the plot on another level.
Let’s compare that to Hotline Miami, an indie shooter that also calls the player’s thirst for violent entertainment into question. The difference is that while Yohalem says we should have figured out that Far Cry 3 isn’t real, Hotline Miami just comes out and says it halfway through the game, yet it withholds enough hard details that the message doesn’t feel heavy-handed. The fact that Hotline Miami is an indie game likely helps, because players approach it with different expectations, but that only means Far Cry 3 needed to work harder to get its message across.
Still, I wonder whether Far Cry 3 needed to satirize the big-budget violent shooter genre in the first place. On one hand, you could see Far Cry 3 as the video game equivalent of a Douglas Sirk melodrama–panned by critics at first, but later revered for hiding symbolism and irony within the confines of big-budget development.
On the other hand, the video game industry of 2012 isn’t really like 1950s Hollywood. For those who want it, there’s no shortage of smarter fare available, Hotline Miami being one example. I think the audience that’s reading reviews and devouring developer commentary is receptive to games with more overt messages.
So maybe the big-budget stuff is better off moving beyond tired tropes instead of playing them up. Otherwise, the average player might miss the point entirely. Same goes for the average critic.