Spec Ops, Far Cry 3 and Hating the Player, Not the Game

In 2012, a number of games tried to make intelligent comments through their storytelling, writing, and game mechanics. This is a good thing. It also illustrates how far games still have to go to make those comments well.

Delivering a message in a smart and powerful way, using the strengths of the medium to portray that view or idea in a way only that medium can, is what makes films touching, novels powerful and storytelling worthwhile. Video games are starting to grow up in some ways, and smart people are trying to use games to do more than just have lots of things blow up and lots of people get shot in the face. Or at least, they’re using all those face-shootings to say something more meaningful about the greater human experience.

But what confuses me about games such as Spec Ops: The Line and Far Cry 3 is where their messages are aimed, and what they’re trying to convey with them. The purpose of Spec Ops, for example, is not to shed light on some concept of reality like violence, murder, or even the endless march of military shooters that infect the video game market today — Spec Ops takes aim at you, player of games, and asks you why you’re such a blood-thirsty disgrace of a human.

Looking at it objectively, that’s kind of strange. You don’t have pulp novels whose incredibly unsubtle textual and subtextual messages are that readers of pulp novels are fools. Yet, in 2012, some of the most lauded video games on the market were those that actively treated gamers as somehow lesser people for playing them. And they didn’t even do a very good job of it.

Spec Ops itself is a foregone conclusion of a game, cramming a heavy handed message down the player’s throat while using its own structure to reinforce that message. The premise of the game is that players of military shooters play them because they like to feel heroic and powerful, and the game sets out to question why you derive joy from spilling buckets of blood and gunning down endless droves of enemies. But here’s the key fact: Spec Ops never presents you with another option. It isn’t calling you out for choosing the bloody route over the peaceful one, asking the pointed and possibly even appropriate question of “Why’d you choose death over life?” It’s dragging you down the bloody path, and all the while berating you for it as if you had any choice.

I suppose you do have a choice — you can turn the game off. But I’ve never heard of any piece of art whose message was that you shouldn’t view that art, or that deriving some sort of pleasure from that art made you a bad person.

Far Cry 3 is also guilty of a gamer-hating stance, even though it seems much more ambivalent about it, or perhaps just unintentional in the comment it makes. As I wrote earlier this week, the game plays with shooter cliches and tropes but ends up lampooning anyone who would play such games: protagonist Jason Brody plays out adolescent fantasy after adolescent fantasy, much to the dismay of characters who actually want to return to the real world. All the way through, the game pitches Alice in Wonderland quotes our way to remind us of the rabbit hole we’ve gone down. Its ending does a superb job of reminding us of what a joke we all are as we fire fake guns at fake bad guys and do fake hunting and watch fake sex with fake tribal people who fake worship our fake heroics.

Great, fine, maybe these games are right, and maybe we do need to grow up some. The medium of games is definitely overflowing with insane, violence-for-violence’s sake games that usually come with a side of specialized jiggle physics specifically created for female characters. None of that is a good thing on the whole.

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13 Comments on Spec Ops, Far Cry 3 and Hating the Player, Not the Game

Mike

On January 10, 2013 at 2:51 pm

“usually come with a side of specialized jiggle physics specifically created for female characters. None of that is a good thing on the whole.”

You are wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with making boob physics engines.

maven

On January 10, 2013 at 3:07 pm

Personally I would say even in the unlikely event that any “message” in Far Cry 3 was intentional (I don’t give video game writers that much credit), it was ineffective anyway. The points you’re talking about are limited to a few minutes in the cutscenes and had no relevance to or presence in the ongoing gameplay. To me, the whole thing just seemed like lazy writing. There was no irony in the tropes. The entire plot was in there only because you need to have an excuse for the gameplay – just like the overwhelming majority of all games.

-_-

On January 10, 2013 at 10:43 pm

As a friend put it on Twitter, it’s a game that sets a puppy in front of you, demands you kick it, won’t let you proceed until you kick it, and then calls you a monster for kicking it.

That line made me think about GlaDOS…

gasmaskangel

On January 10, 2013 at 10:46 pm

“insane, violence-for-violence’s sake games that usually come with a side of specialized jiggle physics specifically created for female characters. None of that is a good thing on the whole.”

I would argue that while over the top, gleeful (and frankly cartoonish and silly) violence and sexualization, while not being good, aren’t actually bad either, at least no more so than something like, say popcorn. Yes it isn’t good for you, but damn it, it’s the things that are awful for you yet tasty that makes eating all that damned celery worth it.

That said let’s address the growing up that Spec Ops intentionally, and Far Cry 3 accidentally, claims that gamers need to do. Now, I am an adult. I have a job, a car, and rent to pay. I file my taxes on time, regularly give to charities and bare no one any ill will about a trivial accident of birth like race/gender/sexual orientation/disability/whatever. How much more grown up can I get?

Don’t I, as an adult, have a right to enjoy something, to just sit down an unironically have some fun? Or is that juvenile? Well if “growing up” is as dull and miserable as it seems then I’ll stick to my “adolescent power fantasies” thank you very much. My only criticism about them is how a lot of the culture needlessly restricts who can help in creating games and the exact kind of characters I get to pretend to be for a little while before getting back to my real life (I’m tired of playing as brown haired white guys games industry, I am a brown haired white guy, and no, it doesn’t help me to relate to the grizzled idiot that passes for a main character these days).

Where was I? Oh yes.

There seems to be an obnoxious trend going through gaming journalism (including gamefront, though to your credit I don’t feel nearly the loathing I do for certain other outlets *cough IGN cough* do largely to a combination of decent writing and valid points) and gaming itself these days of looking down on gamers.

Words like “manchildren” and “entitled” get thrown around an awful lot, and while there are many who are loud and obnoxious, I would wager that the majority of gamers are not racists, sexist vermin living in a dingy basement, masturbating to digital breasts and sending death threats to developers who tone down the size of the breasts or try to animate them in a realistic way. I’m getting kind of sick of it. I’m getting sick of being a dissatisfied customer, or some one who just has obligations outside of their house and the internet, and then having some pompous jack ass try to shame me for trying to enjoy my precious free time in a way that they don’t approve of. Oh I’m so sorry Spec Ops, I didn’t realize that I have to justify myself to you, if you could please present me with the documentation that proves you are some kind of moral authority, I’ll get right to uninstalling every violent video game from my hard drive.

I really needed to get that out of my system.

TL;DR: BEEES! BEEES FROM SPACE! THEY CONTROL OUR MINDS WITH SATALITE LAZERS AND FLOURIDE IN THE DRINKING WATER!

Goner

On January 11, 2013 at 12:27 am

Talk about violence…It was xmas, an there was tons of plastic gun sell , for the 2 and more aged kid.
You wanna sell car put a chick half naked and you win.
When Mario jump on the turtle it is not harmful.
True talking game is mostly about : accuracy, reflex , and logic, this why in U.E ,we’ve got big sell of Wii in the center for old people, just to keep them alive…
Like i try to said in another post with time every thing become just a copy of anything else ” déja vu”.
So for me if the 2 game we talking about try to snap the violence chain or whatever you call it , it’s probably because sometimes ,Teen ,do mass killing in real life .They can’t do it in the beginning of the game cause no one would keep playing, so they do it at the and .Don’t know if i help ….good morning.

CatmanStu

On January 11, 2013 at 10:10 am

Although I wouldn’t go as far as to defend the hypocrisy that these narratives cultivate, I would temper the vitriol with the fact that this is not a medium driven by creative people anymore; it’s driven by money and focus groups.

In an ideal world Spec Ops would have given us more pacifist friendly options, Far cry 3 would have let us broker a peace deal between the tribes, Mass Effect 3 would have taken the risk of creating a scenario with no win state; these decisions would have also involved longer development time for experimental mechanics that (in the eyes of accountants) would present a tangible risk to sales.

The sad fact is, in the AAA market the writing is about the only place risks are allowed; and although these “subversive” messages may be pointed in the wrong direction or badly implemented, at least they are provoking contemplation and discussion.

Any step towards getting games and gamers more (constructively) critical about the medium is a good thing.

Even a misstep.

Hellblazer

On January 11, 2013 at 11:42 am

Gamefront is so dump and they think too much for nothing! A true waste of time and not a real news tss what a bunch of losers.

goner

On January 12, 2013 at 6:50 am

The shame on me ,the silent one’s had become addict.
OK… If it was about make people think : 1st stop create some exotic princess, waiting for some Tarzan boy to release her from virginity, 2 use real news fact , and 3 talk about ecology we really need it.
Now days teen should be smarter that we were, come on!! We are in 2013, so they should understood.
Far cry 2 had a really good start , it was about Africa , about war, the real war,about the worn under the skin, but they screw up with a bad res pawn system who could had be custom by the level stuff and maybe more ,I didn’t finish it …..yet.And if they can’t be frank so ,get indie and be true.

Swcloud99

On January 12, 2013 at 6:25 pm

Goner, no offense but you are making exactly zero sense.

Goner

On January 13, 2013 at 5:19 am

@ Swcloud, until few minutes i didn’t realize that my English was so bad, thanks for care, it’s that way things can be well done.I was trying to says, the ways nowadays games and maybe toys(guns) should be, if they want to wake up people, and make them to think about what is important.
If F.C3 & S.O hammering awkwardly,it’s just for feel clean, if some people loose is mind and do mass killing in real life.But it seem they failed.
About Far cry 2?..Well the beginning was pretty( immerse )and was a good start to think about the reality, the world around, the butterfly effect by some way.( by worn i was aiming worm, the parasite flesh eater)
And finally the indie stuff is a bit like, the ancients from blizzard who left to make the game they wish but i admit on this case that sometimes i let my mind to dream.

Titties

On January 14, 2013 at 9:33 am

Hellblazer is Wesker1984. Either that, or he’s from the same inbred education system that teaches kids that “dump” can be used as an adjective, and that real fans something turn a blind eye to blatant, provable flaws.

goose2989

On January 16, 2013 at 12:35 pm

Once again Phil, you seem to be a little too smart for your profession’s standards. You were supposed to agree with the creators of these games, saying things like “gamers demand too much violence” and “video games foster violent teens.” Instead, you called the games as they are. Well done.

I’m looking forward to more of your opinion pieces in the near future!

Phil Hornshaw

On January 17, 2013 at 8:59 am

@goose

Hey thanks!