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.

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8 Comments on Why Far Cry 3 Fails As Meta-Commentary

Christopher S.

On December 19, 2012 at 4:22 pm

“These interviews offer the writer an opportunity to defend his game’s controversial story, criticized in many reviews (including mine).”

Uhn… I don’t think the word MANY reviews is accurate…
Metacritic:
http://www.metacritic.com/game/xbox-360/far-cry-3

90/100 is not a bad thing… Actually is pretty good.

Mark Burnham

On December 19, 2012 at 4:40 pm

@Christopher S.
You’d think if a game’s story was heavily criticized it wouldn’t have a 90/100 on Metacritic, but that’s what happened. For example, the Polygon review referenced in the Penny Arcade article above called the game’s story “exploitative and pointless,” and they gave it a 9.

Everyone has their own way of calibrating a game’s value, so some attribute more or less weight to the story’s failures–but that does seem to have been a common theme.

That is likely what prompted the game’s writer to respond to these criticisms via interviews.

Christopher S.

On December 19, 2012 at 5:01 pm

@Mark Burnham

Most of the reviews i saw didn’t talk about the Story much, and, when they touch the subject, they let know they liked a lot, just when a caracther dies it kinds of go down, but go back up. I played myself, and the story was good.

Anyways, I think a game that have a 90/100 shouldn’t be there if the story was THAT bad… As the critic is about the balance of everything else, in this case a 90/100 kind of let everyone know that the story sucks, but the rest is perfect. And is not the case.

Patches

On December 19, 2012 at 5:59 pm

Funny, but I wasn’t offended the slightest by Far Cry 3…

Probably, because the game let me assume very quickly that every major players on this island are somewhat insane, and at different levels… Some are scary, like Vass, Buck or Hoyt… Some are more comical like your German ally or the ‘Monkey see, Monkey Boom’ guy…
As for Citra and Dennis, they may seem normal at first, but in the end, their true insane nature was revealed to me, especially if you choose the ‘Side with Citra’ ending… It was just a more subtle and insidious insanity than other… Dennis obsession for Citra (hinted at the very beginning, in the village… Drunken because of Citra starting ‘loving you’ instead of him…) and Citra probably thinking herself as an half-Goddess of sort, probably powerful enough to throw herself in front of Dennis knife and survive?…

Citra is a princess in a castle?… Nope, I saw a leader (or a ‘Goddess’) that tried to keep a low profile because she was outgunned… She helped and let the ‘Warrior’ do his job (it’s a game after all, it’s obvious you need to do all the work…) …

Mighty Whitey?… Why not? Sometimes it take an outsider to see a problem with a new perspective…
Maybe this tribe is so caste-like that nobody on the inside can step up and be a hero… We don’t know enough about this tribe, we’ve praracuted there only recently… After all, we don’t know anything of this tribe traditions or ways of life, even while playing the game. Only the small tale of their island creation told by Citra and that they’re fond of liquid drugs…

As for the Writer, he obviously (and utterly) failed to make me understand and appreciate his so called Meta-ommentary…

The Defenestrator

On December 19, 2012 at 11:41 pm

We’re still not at a point where reviewers treat the developers’ success or failure with a story as equal to it’s success/failure as a game. (See also: Mass Effect 3.) Personally, I’d like to see more reviews that treat the story as an integral part of the game but that’s hard to do when so many games still just use the story as cheap window dressing around the gameplay.

Ebalosus

On December 20, 2012 at 5:01 am

I believe this is what tvtropes labels a “Parody Retcon” (look it up).

Riddle me this: did they (the developers) explicitly state before the game’s release that it would be a meta commentary, or a straight game?

Louis

On December 20, 2012 at 5:23 am

The problem is simple – games magazines and review sites don’t hire people who know anything about writing. They hire industry fanboys and yes-men. The ONLY complaints you’ll ever see to do with the story is in its length, or if the characters aren’t PC enough for their limited sensibilities, or some other nonsense. You never see ANYONE analysing the stories as a piece of writing, which is why OPM continues to call Heavy Rain “mature storytelling” when it couldn’t be any further from that, and still can’t grasp the core reasons why people hated the ending to Mass Effect 3. They’re not alone in their insular ignorance.

Hire someone who understands storytelling and doesn’t get distracted by pretty lighting and incidental music, and you get more informed opinions.

Inquiring

On April 8, 2013 at 8:26 am

Far Cry 3′s story screamed “We saw Spec-Ops: The Line, and it’s story and deconstruction of attitudes in modern shooters was brilliant! We need to do that!”

Except where Spec Ops was subtle —perhaps too subtle because the white phosphorous scene is focused too much on as being cheap manipulation and so people miss the other messages spread throughout and just focus on that— Far Cry 3 is blatantly in your face the entire time.

Throughout the story Jason’s actions make sense as someone who wants to: A.) Save his friends, and B.) Get revenge for the death of his brothers. If it was not for the game blatantly telling you (with some rather inept dialogue) that Jason is supposedly enjoying things rather too much, you would never know given the majority of dialogue in the game. No, really, you would never know, because even up to the very end much of Jason’s personal commentary actually does not indicate he is enjoying himself, instead it is very focused on saving his friends or vengeance, and the “mad on the power fantasy” bits feels like it was forced in to add “depth” to the story.

Hell, even that cringe worthy “look at how subversive and topical we are being about violence and power fantasies in video games we have made this!” bit right before you get to choose the ending where Jason’s hallucination of his girlfriend actually says/shouts, “I AM DELETING THEM, JASON!” in regards to the tattoos that are giving you power. That was almost Kojima levels of hamhandidness.

Even the end dialogue of the return to civilization dialogue did not fit the tones of madness or power fantasy, instead it fit a more Lord of the Flies or Heart of Darkness, “I have seen and done some s**t” vibe.

The game has entire sections that feel like they were added in at a later point, well after the script had been written and the game largely finished, to fit a new theme of madness, power fantasy, and commentary on gaming, and these sections feel unnecessary and ineffective.