Where Direction Stopped Far Cry 3

Interviews with Jeffrey Yohalem, Far Cry 3′s lead writer, have been making the rounds on the internet: this one with Rock Paper Shotgun being the most exhaustive, the most critical. I recommend you read it, even if you haven’t played the game; sure, it will spoil absolutely everything, but the author’s point—that the game is a satire of modern video games—might be more visible if you know everything that’s going to happen. I really don’t know. I never saw it.

I want to take a look at one specific point Yohalem makes, midway through the above interview.

“My argument is that the player is an actor, and the game is the director. And it’s the job of a great director, as opposed to a bad director… A bad director says, “Look at this thing! Look at this! Feel what this thing is! Feel the power of this – cry!” A bad director tells an actor, “Cry now.” Which the actor in their head goes, “Fuck this guy. I’m not feeling that.” In fact, I want to do the opposite of what the director just told me. Not explaining why – it’s really offensive. It’s distrusting the actor’s intelligence. Or even the actor’s essence. So a great director instead says, “Here are all the things that are going on in the world in which this play occurs, and the script. We take those and see what fits with you and give me that.” The goal of Far Cry 3 is to allow players… I think the problem with narrative in the past has been that writers are trying to say something, and they’re trying to get the players to sit down and listen to it. My feeling is that games are interactive, they’re about what you’re doing in the world, they’re about gameplay, and they’re not about sitting there and telling anyone anything. “

I find this quote fascinating, because the dissonance required to say this and then make Far Cry 3 is astounding.

First, I agree completely with his definition. I’ve always been of the mind that video games are most akin to live theater, with the player fulfilling the role of an actor, the developer the role of the director. It’s pretty obvious: the director is making things happen around the actor, and the actor is responding.

In Far Cry 3, the actor is playing 25 year old Jason. The director is playing an island gone mad. The director’s job isn’t to tell us a story, but rather to get us to tell a story.

I mean, that’s what a director does, right? That’s what makes the metaphor work. The director says, “Go here, shoot stuff,” and then we do and we make narrative things happen with our actions. Ideally, this narrative should be emergent from what the actor does, but that’s incredibly difficult, so we often pair it with written interactions, robbing us of our acting agency and thrusting another into our role, but we can accept this so long as they aren’t too different. If we the player-actor are Russell Crowe and the inserted actor is Hugh Jackman, it’ll be fine, because I can’t tell the difference between them. If I go from being Russell Crowe to being Jason Bateman, I’m going to be confused.

There’s a second element to this, though: the player-actor rarely has a complete script. We’re told, “Go to this village and shoot a man,” but not too much beyond that. We have to make connection, and we have to build the wider world around this character. It’s live acting and a discovery period, where we’re learning what makes our character tic, all at once. As such, we’re frequently inept: we don’t begin with the language to interpret what’s happening.

Yohalem’s point on story tutorials is both incredibly Ubisoft (whose games tend to be half tutorial, half ending; ask Assassin’s Creed) and more true than he knows: video games need to train us. They have to train us to look at things in the way they want us to. Read these brilliant talks between Robert Yang and Adam Foster (also on RPS) and you’ll see that designing levels isn’t about building beautiful vistas, like Far Cry 3 tends to think: it’s about making sure we get the right information from them.
Video games are streams of information presented to us dynamically by a director. If we miss “clues”, as Yohalem so often declares in his interview-spree, it’s because those clues are not being highlighted for us; we’re being told they are trivial information. When we’re told the game is about that trivial information, not about the directions we’re given, it’s as bad as not being given a reason. We’re not just not being given a reason to care, we’re not being given a reason to engage.

Journey, to cite a game that succeeded narratively, put our emphasis on two things: on the mountain, and on the other actors who would show up as we travel. The director focuses our intentions on a scant few objects, and we internalize them. Then, everything else that happens relates to these objects. Everything else in Journey either relates to or builds off of the mountain in the distance, the need for companionship. Nothing is wasted. Everything directs as it should.

Now read the Far Cry 3 interview, and note how none of this happens. Every new object John Walker brings up, Yohalem brings up another thing the game’s focused on. It’s a game about shooting, except when it’s a game about racism, except when it’s a game about sexism, except when it’s a game about being a spoiled rich kid unreliable narrator. Certainly Far Cry 3 is a massive work, and we can read layers of complexity into it, but at heart it is a game about shooting and hunting. It’s a game about these things because they are what you do. You become a hunter, and a soldier. Saying the game is about entertainment is like saying it’s a game about making money for a publisher: yes, it is, but that’s not what the inside bits relate to.

Far Cry 3 feels like a game that desperately wants to be about something, but doesn’t know how to make it so. It’s a game where a bunch of AAA developers wanted to make a game about big issues without the conviction to make their game about those things. Far Cry 2, its predecessor that Yohalem apparently didn’t like very much, may not have been “fun” but stuck to its guns: it was a game that took you, placed you in a massive world, and asked you to understand just how real, how wrong this world felt. It was one of the best deconstructions published of video games. Far Cry 3 asked to deconstruct things—that was what people liked about the second one, after all—while also being fun, which makes no sense whatsoever. The way to deconstruct shooting is to make it real; the way to deconstruct racism is to confront us with it.

What’s saddest about Far Cry 3 is that you can see the fascinating core of Far Cry 2 hidden inside, but with a director who lacks conviction to get us there. Yohalem wants us to think about murder, but only in inconsequential details outside our sight lines. He wants us, the actor, to think about the character we’re playing, when we’re terribly miscast: we’re murdering machines. I’ve killed at least ten thousand people in video games; the thought doesn’t bother me. And killing in Far Cry 3 is as simple, clean, and fun as it is anywhere else.

Racism is the same. Far Cry 2 makes it clear weren’t not from around here very quickly, and then exposes us to this world without comment. Far Cry 3 makes it clear we’re not from around here, then tells us we’re king of the culture. Walker makes the point that he didn’t get the colonialism denouement because it happened in an ending he didn’t pick, and I’ll make another point: I didn’t get the colonialism denouement because I saw no reason to beat the game. This is Skyrim with guns, after all: the fun is running around, doing random missions, not in advancing the plot. In the light of people who didn’t pick a specific, disgusting path through the game, you feel like you’re one of the people on the island. Your whiteness is never a question.

In short, the direction is important, and where Far Cry 3 lacks hardest. The game itself doesn’t tell us to engage with the material it so desperately wants us to understand, so we don’t: it lies in the background, unlooked upon, because it’s the equivalent of a beer can hidden behind a prop.