Why Far Cry 3 Fails As Meta-Commentary
THIS ARTICLE MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS UP TO THE END OF FAR CRY 3. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Far Cry 3 writer Jeffrey Yohalem has had a lot to say since the game’s release. He did an interview with Game Front, which ran last week. He did another with Kill Screen. Today, he’s the subject of an article on Penny Arcade Report.
These interviews offer the writer an opportunity to defend his game’s controversial story, criticized in many reviews (including mine). According to Yohalem, we — critics, players — just don’t get it. He wrote Far Cry 3 as a “meta-commentary” on video games, which borders on satire in its attempts to “subvert” and “reveal” the medium’s tropes.
The Yale-educated writer freights his job with a lot of intellectual seriousness, and that’s a good thing; games need more writers who refuse to talk down to their audience, and who think hard about the problematic content games have delivered in the past. If you listen to Yohalem explain his thought process, you can start to make sense of Far Cry 3 as exploitation — a send-up of video game empowerment narratives that wallow in colonialism, misogyny, and bloodlust.
If only this were possible simply by playing the game itself. Yohalem told Penny Arcade Report’s Sophie Prell that “the story is itself something that can be solved, like a riddle…what makes me sad is that people don’t engage with playing the riddle…it’s like a scavenger hunt where people aren’t collecting the first clue.” Except that there’s no first clue to collect, and if the riddle’s not being solved, it’s the writer’s fault, not his players.
To produce a successful piece of exploitation, you have to let the audience in on the joke, usually by pushing things so far over the top that viewers, readers or players get a sense that, on a certain level, you’re kidding. By the time John Travolta is talking about Royales with Cheese in Pulp Fiction, the audience has a pretty good idea of what kind of experience it’s in for. Meta-commentary is often explicitly funny — think Scream 2, or No More Heroes. It’s all about perfecting the tone.
Far Cry 3 is barely ever funny, and it’s hamstrung when it tries to go over the top. Video games, by their very nature, present content that is objectively ridiculous while expecting us to take it seriously. Gamers are conditioned to muddle their way through tasteless, nonsensical narratives — it comes with the territory. Yohalem may point to the “Alice in Wonderland” quotes, which he includes to signpost Far Cry 3′s meta- nature. But video games use quotes like that all the time, and they’re mostly meaningless.
The writer told Prell that “it was important that the deeper significance of the story be kept optional, that players not be forced to interpret.” He couldn’t be more wrong. If games want to be convincing meta-commentary, they have to work even harder than other entertainment media to make the audience aware. Otherwise it’s just the writer in a conversation with himself.
This effort should include as much of the audience as possible — not just critics, people who devoured the game’s pre-release hype, or gamers with degrees in literature. Game Front commenters, for example, spent a lot of time defending the game as just another escapist shooter, and though some of them grasped what Yohalem was trying to do, many didn’t.