Good Night Sweet Prince: Far Cry 2 and Looking Away
Consider the following:
1) In Far Cry 2, it is possible to shoot and wound an enemy without killing him. If you manage to do this, he will roll around in the grass writhing in pain, or maybe grab a pistol and attempt a final act of defiance against you, his assailant. These enemies are not, for in-game purposes, dead—they will eventually get up and begin shooting you again, unless you make sure they stay down.
1a) There is a special “execution” animation whereby you can dispatch these downed enemies with your machete. This is different than simply shooting them once more; opting to kill in this fashion treats you to a short in-game animation where you raise your machete high above your head and thrust it down into the midsection of the body below you. The camera follows the arc of your blade as you stab downward and the whole thing feels very claustrophobic. This is the only time in the game such an option appears, and you are given no reward for performing an execution vs not. It’s just there for you to do if you want to.
2) One mission involves you taking a certain person of interest hostage and forcing him, under duress (‘duress’ here meaning ‘machete blade’) to radio his troops false instructions so you can better attack them later. Once done, you can leave him there—he won’t attack you—but I didn’t. I drew my pistol and, from about 2 feet away, put a single round into his face. His head snapped back and he slumped, ragdoll-like and unceremoniously, into his chair. There was no bonus or reward for killing him, nor would there have been for leaving him alive. The game ignores what is for all intents and purposes a cold-blooded murder. I myself forgot about it until I played through the mission again.
It only takes a few minutes playing Far Cry 2 to see that this is not a game that at all shies away from graphic depictions of violence. On the contrary—it provides you not only with opportunities to shoot and kill, but also to be superfluously violent—to stab and immolate and execute.
But while the violence is stark and unflinching, it’s not tasteless. True, violence is the only real universal constant in the game, dictating not only the mechanics but also, for all intents and purposes, the narrative; but the hand with which the game’s designers implement its use and representation of violence is deft and provides, for a game about indiscriminate killing, some surprisingly human moments.
Unlike most of its genre contemporaries, Far Cry 2 checks to see if you’re paying attention, not suggesting that the violence it has you commit is bad, but simply seeing if you’ve hardened to it. Throughout the course of the game, you will meet AI “buddies”; other mercenaries like you who can assist you on your missions and who you can assist on theirs’. As modern-day companion characters go, they’re barely characters, providing little in the way of dialogue over and above the occasional mission briefing.
These buddies are unique because unlike Alyx Vance or Bioshock: Infinite‘s Elizabeth, they exist entirely independently of you, not relying on you to provide them with meaning or plot context.
They can die. You can kill them.
Upon a buddy being mortally wounded, you’re treated to an infamous videogame trichotomy: share with them a syrette of your morphine to revive them, leave them to their fate (resulting in their inevitable death), or draw your sidearm and end it quickly. If you choose this third option, you’re treated to yet another special animation—one of the only other times in the game a special animation takes over the camera—you cradle their supine body in your arms, draw your pistol, and then you look away as you hear the single shot ring out, accompanied by a final jerking of your buddy’s legs before they’re finally gone.
The first time I witnessed this, I was shocked and confused and, to be honest, a little saddened. Why did the camera pull away as I pulled the trigger? The game had already long since established its yawningly casual acceptance of extreme graphic violence. I’d listened to soldiers scream as they burned alive on the savannah, shot unarmed hostages in the face while they pleaded for their lives. It’s safe to say that I—both as player and character—had been successfully desensitized to Far Cry 2’s brand of carnage. I’d murdered up-close and personal before, but this was different. This wasn’t murder or even combat; this was a mercy killing. I wasn’t prepared for the look of actual human pain on my buddy’s face, or for him to literally grab the barrel of my gun and pull it to his face, practically begging me to put him out of his misery.
This seemingly insignificant fact, this mere turning of the camera at that moment, conveys more about the sentiment of how Far Cry 2 deals with violence than any Kojima-length cutscene in other shooters. In a world with such an established indifference to violence, where player characters commit brutal acts of slaughter with the same disinterest as doing the dishes, it is not the violence we choose to enact, but rather the violence we choose to avoid that is significant. As a hired gun, I’d stabbed and shot and burned and blown up, all without a second thought, but this death affected my character so profoundly that even as a grizzled mercenary who has ended hundreds of lives, he couldn’t bear to look it in the face.
it is not the violence we choose to enact, but rather the violence we choose to avoid that is significant
We have it in our heads that good videogame companions are puppydogs, following us around enthusiastically opening plot-protected doors and feeding us bits of exposition at just the right time. These are in reality not character traits but instead cheap pseudo-narrative “tricks” implemented so that we appreciate them. The Far Cry 2 buddies’ tenuous mortality, and the fact that they choose to come to your aid, introduces a level of responsibility and attachment overlooked by many other companions in games. I know when they’re out there fighting with me that they’re just as vulnerable as I am. Hell, I even feel guilty that they’ve put themselves in harm’s way on my account in the first place.
It’s a subtle thing, but fighting for a buddy means it’s not just about me anymore. I’m not just hunting down mercenaries, I’m constantly scanning the battlefield for the telltale plume of blue smoke indicating a wounded buddy is down, taking it upon myself to look after their wellbeing. Nothing in the game tells me to do this. There are no meters or prompts. Far Cry 2’s buddies aren’t mere husks of characters existing to advance specific plot elements, and their deaths represent more than simple mechanical failures; they represent a personal failure, on my part (both “me” as the character and “me” as the player), to protect them.
Far Cry 2 is nothing if not lean, firmly adopting the maxim that “actions speak louder than words.” In forgoing more conventional and heavy-handed narrative devices, it allows the actions you take directly to dictate the tone and mood of the game. In spending hours establishing what kind of violence your character is willing to accept, it makes the violence that he isn’t able to accept stand out all the more. In abstaining from direct commentary on its own depiction of violence, it is not failing to offer an opinion; it’s actually saying more about its representation of violence than we realize. After all, when you spend dozens of hours staring death in the face without so much as a blink, it is the things that we can’t bear to look at the define the limits of our humanity.