The Narrative Failures of Far Cry 5

Tags

, ,

far cry 1

As a game, I thought Far Cry 5 got a lot of things right:

  • The sandboxy, open world is enjoyable and amusing
  • The physical setting is gorgeous and nicely rendered, with a good deal of hidden detail for those who like to investigate the game world deeply
  • The cult members, who make up the bulk of the disposable foes, mostly feel like a suitable challenge, and it feels good when you defeat them
  • Sometimes it’s an adrenaline-fueled adventure just getting from point A to waypoint B, especially in the early game when the highways are often no-go areas swarming with enemies and their reinforcements
  • As you help the resistance in fictional Hope County, liberating cult strongholds and turning them over to the everyday resistance fighters, there’s a nice sense of progression and the map changing, bit by bit, to favor your side
  • The companions, which Far Cry calls ‘specialists,’ are on the whole well thought-out with some very amusing dialogue
  • Even most of the side quests, when they’re not the vanilla ‘fetch this’ or ‘kill this’ kind, are fun to do with nice emotional rewards

Unfortunately, as with so many other games, the main narrative thrust of Far Cry 5 is a mess.  It becomes muddled in order to shoehorn in (often regrettable) game mechanics.  The story quickly becomes clichéd, even when it attempts to be self-referential, and ultimately collapses under the weight of its own cumbersome, artificial structure without any emotional payoff.  Dan Hay, who worked on a previous game in the Far Cry series, acted as producer of this game with Drew Holmes as Head Writer.

I’ll unpack what I see as the narrative failures of its main story below.  I will investigate and critique to hopefully train myself to be a better writer by recognizing the game’s narrative failures.  I also provide some thoughts on how the game’s writer and producer could have avoided or fixed these problems.  My analysis includes significant spoilers if you’ve not played and finished the game. 

far cry 2

The Basic Plot and Gameplay of Far Cry 5

A doomsday cult, led by a preacher named Joseph Seed, has taken over a county in rural Montana.  They’re preparing for an upcoming unspecified armageddon by kidnapping, murdering, brutalizing, pillaging, drugging, and terrorizing the locals, presumably to increase their numbers (although the goal is no much beyond “they’re evil psychopaths”).  They speak in a lot Dominionist clichés with some Biblical verses thrown in, especially from the Book of Revelation.

Joseph has three siblings (although the sister is not really related to him) who each control a third of the game map.  John is a psychotic televangelist type who runs his own torture dungeon.  Faith manufactures a powerful hallucinogenic drug called “Bliss” which she uses to create mindless living zombies she terms “Angels.”  Jacob is an ex-soldier raising a fanatical army through abuse, psychology, and a lot of coded mens’ rights speeches about rejecting “soft” modernity and returning to a more pure, primal state.

The player takes the role of an unnamed deputy (also called “rookie”) who travels to Hope County with a federal marshal to arrest Joseph.  Things go wrong and everyone in the arresting party is captured and imprisoned by one of the Seed siblings.  The player character is rescued at the last minute (one of many such rescues) by a doomsday prepper veteran named Dutch who takes the player character back to his bunker.  Dutch starts the player character on a journey to lead the resistance against the cult.

The player is then turned loose on the map and can travel anywhere (except back to Joseph Seed’s compound).  Most game activities involve attacking the cult, often by destroying or capturing their resources or eliminating their regional strongholds.  Every defeat the player deals to the cult strengthens the local resistance, made up of newly militant civilians, and draws the attention and ire of the three Seed siblings (depending on the region affected).

The meta-narrative of the game encourages the player to escalate attacks in a single region at a time, forcing a show-down with each sibling culminating in the sibling’s defeat and liberation of the region from the cult’s influence.  Once John, Faith, and Jacob are all killed, the player can finally confront Joseph and end the game.

far cry 3

Problem:  Capture and Re-Capture

Each Seed sibling reacts directly to the escalating actions of the player character at least three times (Faith is more attentive).  The player triggers these interactions by reducing the influence of the cult in the regions.

Almost every single interaction with the siblings requires the game to concoct scenarios involving the capture and disabling of the player character.  The old ‘villain captures the hero’ cliché is hugely overused, robbing the player of autonomy and control simply to allow cut-scenes where the villains can gloat and provide exposition in person.  It’s also an incredibly lazy writing tool used to manufacture a reason to repeatedly get the player and villain in the same locale.  On my play through, the irresistible, immersion breaking, borderline ‘magical’ ways the story achieves these captures also resulted in rolled eyes far more often than dramatic tension.

In John’s region, the player character is captured three times by ‘magical Bliss projectiles’ that render the player helpless so they can be captured and taken away to be brutalized by John in three different cut scenes.  After the first, the player is rescued by the Resistance.  After the second, the bound player is able to escape (through sheer luck), find a weapon, and fight their way out of captivity.  After the third, the quick-thinking of an NPC and a cut-scene attack leads to another round of combat and a chase resulting in John’s death.

The many times Faith intervenes to harangue the player character over their actions, all she has to do is giggle, say “Welcome to the Bliss,” blow a Bliss kiss, and the player is transported away from the map to a magical dreamscape.  Most of the time in static cut-scenes, the player can only listen to Faith yammer on.  The few times control returns to the player, the player is only allowed to perform a specific action to return to the map.  Twice this involves rescuing another captured NPC, and once it involves watching the murder of an NPC while being unable to prevent it.  None of this involves any player choice or agency, and only serves to violently slam on the breaks in a game when we’ve been up to that point kinetically running around shooting cultists and blowing things up.  Each time I put down the controller, sat back, and simply waited for Faith to shut up.

Jacob is perhaps the most remote villain, mainly barking orders during the player’s brief time with him.  His encounters are also forced through more unavoidable ‘magical Bliss projectiles’ shot at the player once they accomplish enough prerequisites.  Military-themed indoctrination and brainwashing occurs, although not to the extent that the player is unable to return to the main world of the game and pick up where they left off before they were whisked off to Jacob’s château by unseen hands.  After the first encounter, Jacob merely has to play a song to render the player ‘captured’ again and subject them to more lukewarm brainwashing.  Out of the three siblings, Jacob is the only one that seems to have a goal in mind: to get the player to kill an important NPC.  The player can in no way can resist this killing, rendering any drama or regret at the action moot since it’s merely another unavoidable beat in the script.  (In my playthrough, I had barely met the NPC before I killed him under Jacob’s nefarious influence, so the intended emotional stakes were even less relevant.)

In all of this capturing and re-capturing, there’s no clear reason why the player character is not simply killed when they are incapacitated by the villains (the old Bond Villain Cliché).  Joseph has some vague lines suggesting the player is special and that their coming was “foretold,” and by joining the cult the player character can atone for their sins, but since pursuing this option this would mean not actually playing the game as designed (liberating regions, killing the siblings, etc.), it is not a meaningful course open to the player.

So instead, the player watches as their character is captured, and recaptured, and captured again, placed in danger where there is no moral danger (Joseph does not want them killed), without the option to refuse or accept whatever salvation is on offer.  It’s simply a “wait until the cut-scene is over” situation, followed by a convenient scenario that sometimes necessitates a “shoot-em-up” escape.

In the end, the main quest narrative of the game over-relies on this capture/interrogate/lucky escape narrative cliché to the point where every single encounter with the Seed siblings uses it simply to force an encounter.  And more often than not, the encounter that results is simply passive and tangentially related to the actual business of playing the game.

What could have solved this problem:

  • Limit the number of capture/escape scenarios so they did not occur at every interaction with the siblings
  • Really—just don’t use capture/escape scenarios as they’re incredibly lazy clichés and also often immersion-breaking
  • Find other ways to get the player character and the villains into the same location
  • Don’t remove player control simply to advance the plot
  • Don’t tease player options (“You can be saved.”  “You can reject a leap of faith.”) where there are no options

far cry 4

Problem:  The Bunkers

Each Seed sibling has a bunker fashioned out of a nuclear missile silo (although Faith’s is also possibly in the Bliss dreamworld, it’s unclear).  Once the player kills a sibling, they must then infiltrate these sanctuaries, rescue prisoners, and destroy the bunker while fighting against random cult soldiers (who don’t run away even when the bunker is collapsing around them).  This is the final step toward liberating a region.

It was an odd narrative choice to ultimately divorce the bunkers from the siblings since all three are already dead by the time the player breaks in.  This renders the bunkers simply obstacle courses full of anonymous, disposable baddies.

The bunker missions all also strike the same narrative beat:  First the player frees hostages (in John’s bunker it’s random locals, in Faith’s bunker it’s the Sheriff who was somehow captured off-screen, and in Jacob’s bunker it’s a brainwashed deputy).  Then the player winds their way through a maze of rooms, shooting cultists, while the place collapses around them (but not enough to harm the player, another action-movie cliché).  There’s little variety and all three bunker sequences seem repetitive in structure and intent.  With the villains missing, they feel anti-climatic, rendering the final fight in each region not with the sibling that’s been menacing the player during entire game, but with a group of interchangeable cult drones.

What could have solved this problem:

  • Flip the order of bunker liberation and the final combat with each sibling
  • Remove the same infiltrate/fight/destroy/“escape while place falls apart” trajectory of each bunker narrative
  • Give each sibling something other than a bunker as a symbol of their power in their region

far cry 5

Problem:  The Bliss

The Bliss is supposedly a powerful hallucinogenic drug manufactured from white flowers and brewed by the cult.  Nebulously defined and used, it becomes the mechanism for whenever the game narrative wants to remove control from the player, which the game does quite often.

While out in the wild in Faith’s region, animals and enemies will suddenly appear in a puff of green smoke, often morphing into another hostile entity.  There’s no explanation for this other than “it’s the Bliss,” although attacks from Bliss-spawned enemies hurt just as much from normal enemies in gameplay mechanics.

The Bliss lacks any limitations to its power.  It’s like a magic system in a fantasy novel that is not very well thought out, with absolutely no consequence for the bad characters that rely on it.  It also happens to work exactly as the narrative needs rather than from any external sense of logic, structure, or method.  Its magical properties sit at odds with the realistic, albeit satirical, world of Hope County.  Bliss becomes merely a lazy crutch to move the main plot forward, especially in Faith’s region.

What could have solved this problem:

  • Turn “Bliss” into something realistic, or at least give it concrete parameters that fit within the world of the game

Far Cry 6

Problem:  Faith Seed as a Villain

Faith’s backstory is buried in the texts scattered around Hope County, inside her own dialogue, and within the spoken musings of random NPC’s.  It suggests Faith is not her real name, and that she is merely the latest in a line of women to occupy her position as the female sibling in this cult.  But she’s also often referred to as untrustworthy and a liar, casting doubt on whatever the player can glean from her  words.  Ultimately none of this really has any bearing on her role in the game as the main antagonist of a hostile region who must be defeated.  At no point can the player utilize anything they learn about Faith.  In order for the game to progress, she must be overcome and killed.

Every singular encounter with Faith begins with a flirty giggle and blown Bliss kiss toward the player.  She often grasps the player’s hand and pulls them through her Bliss dreamscape world.  Her white dress and expression of seductive purity is meant to contrast with a scarlet backstory that teases references to sexual assault.  In short, Faith seems written to appeal to a certain straight male gaze.  She is embodied in a manner unlike any male antagonist.  She is always framed in soft focus and allowed to seductively touch the player character in every encounter (John only touches the player character once, to attempt a drowning, and Jacob not at all).

I at first thought, or hoped, she might represent a critique of how sexualized purity is used within the Dominionist community (Purity balls, etc.), or the interchangeability of women in real-world examples of Christian cults.  This would at least suggest something was at work with Faith other than straight male fantasy, but I soon found absolutely nothing there except her direct role as seductive temptress in a game written by straight males.

Her final boss battle is ridiculously reductive.  Faith suddenly becomes able to launch (easily avoidable) projectiles at the player character, who needs to only run around and keep shooting her, backed up by stockpiles of ammo that appear in her Bliss dreamworld for some reason.  We’ve seen this artificial, repetitive mechanic a million times in games and it’s never satisfying, especially from a narrative point of view.

Also, in one of the final encounters with Faith, I don’t buy a Montana hick suddenly giving a lesson about the ancient Greek goddess Nemesis to make a point the dialogue writer wants to use as context for an unavoidable plot point.

What could have solved this problem:

  • Make Faith’s backstory (really the only significant backstory given to the three siblings) relevant to her role in the narrative
  • Allow the player to choose how they react to Faith (not every player is a straight male)
  • Make the final showdown with Faith something other than a cookie-cutter boss battle from a Nintendo game circa 1999

far cry 7

Problem:  The Silent Protagonist

Following on from the problems with Faith Seed as a character is the problem of the character the player spends the most time with.  A narrative choice was made to craft the player character as a blank slate.  This is usually done in games (such as the Elder Scrolls, Fallout, and Dragon Age series) so the player can map onto the player character the personality they wish to play (within the framework of the game world).

Far Cry 5 conspicuously removes any ability to create a personality for the player character.  Many NPC’s talk to the player character and comment about actions accomplished (usually attacks on the cult), but apart from three occasions all leading to the end of the game narrative, choice is never allowed.  To play the game, the player must simply attack the cult through activities across the map and follow quest markers.

The player character therefore seems more like bland cipher which NPC’s are, inexplicably, drawn to compliment (if part of the resistance) or despise (if part of the cult).  Playing the game becomes a carnival ride for a camera.  Often the player character is literally strapped down, watching the narrative chug forward on its own path.

In my playthrough, my player character never interacted with John, Jacob, or especially Faith Seed in a way I would have chosen, but I had no option other than to watch passively as a cut-scene showed my character performing what the writer wanted me to do.

The head writer for the game is a straight male and his viewpoint creates the only allowed viewpoint inside the game.  This is clearest in the game’s depiction of Faith Seed, but also colors every narrative strand in the game.  Apart from one easily-missed note, gay people are entirely absent from this world.  Players choosing to play a female protagonist report dissociative experiences going through the game’s narrative in a female body:

“In a scene in which your character is interrogated, their shirt is being ripped apart to expose (presumably) the chest. If you were to play a male character, the way the scene plays out would not be extraordinary. Playing a woman, this scene feels incredibely (sic) disjointed and out-of-place…  You play a silent protagonist, but everytime my character grunts, screams or is visible I am reminded by this profound sense of dissonance that pervades my experience of playing Far Cry 5. It’s like my character doesn’t belong into the world she saves and influences so thoroughly. The way other characters interact with me, the way they look at me and the way they refer to me does not match the person I am playing as.”

The game fails to include gay people or adequately prepare for the experience of female player characters.  The writer seems to have constructed a narrative and game with himself, and his outlook, as the only possible default.  His choice to only allow the player to experience this singular narrative was, by definition, a political choice.

In Far Cry 5, I had no autonomy, and therefore at the end of the day, did not really care if my player character succeeded or failed.  I neither knew him as an individual nor recognized him as a representation of myself.

What could have solved this problem:

  • Hire diverse writers able to conceive and write narrative views that are not their own, or simply wish fulfillment by proxy
  • Craft meaningful options into your narrative to personalize even a blank-slate protagonist

far cry 8

Problem:  The Shallow Theme

Critique of the writing of Far Cry 5 generally falls into two main categories: thematic and structural.  I’ve mainly focused on the latter, but should briefly address theme.

In his astute review of the game for gameinformer.com, Javy Gwaltney gave an interesting analysis of the general shallowness of Far Cry 5:

“On paper, the premise (of the game) sounds terrifying, something that could result in an unapologetic, bold portrait of American home-grown terror of modern times. A game that could look upon controversial subjects such as gun rights and the intersection of religion and violence with an unwavering, critical gaze…  However, the problem with Far Cry 5 is that it doesn’t do the groundwork for the terror and paranoia it supposedly seeks to inspire. 

“The game spends a large amount of time telling you that you should feel a certain way instead of actually trying to get you to feel that way…  Instead of letting you see the means to which such groups trap people into their way of living, Far Cry 5 is content to rely on lazy tropes, like drugs being used as a way of mind control…

“The cult followers you fight in Far Cry 5 are functionally no different than the pirates you fight in 3 or the fascists you fight in 4. They either run at you screaming, firing blindly, or they stick to cover and shoot at you. They’ll insult you. They’ll say they’re giving their life for Joseph Seed, so on and so forth, the kind of barks you expect from all first-person shooters. You don’t really get to know any of these people or the cultural symptoms that made them the way they are. You’re just expected to believe what the game tells you: that these people, through one way or another, came to be a part of Seed’s cult and now they have to die. I understand that the genre requires you to see these people as targets more than characters, but given the deadly serious subject matter, that Far Cry 5 doesn’t bother to try and humanize the cultists, to try and make you understand why they’ve fallen under the sway of a madman, is a fatal flaw in the game’s attempts to create an unnerving, bleak world.

“Instead, Hope County is a strange, hollow playground. It’s a land where, one moment, I’m looking up at a dead man hanging from a billboard, his guts spilling into the street, and in another, I’m cutting off a bull’s testicles for some hick festival. Far Cry 5 wants to be wacky and fun, wants you to kick turkeys to death and ride ATVs off mountains while, (and) all in the same breath, point a finger at America’s decayed institutions and have some profound realization that never comes, because, again, the game hasn’t done the legwork…

“Far Cry 5 has no stance, has nothing substantial to say about cults, religion, politics, or the world at large. It’s simply a run-and-gun exercise through a poorly built nightmare world.”

I generally agree with Javy Gwaltney about the tonal disconnect between the serious issues the game wants to use as narrative instigators, motivations, and mechanics, and the real-world corporate need to produce a game with the tongue-in-cheek style of the series.  It is perhaps a tension that was never going to succeed in a AAA game.  This results in a story that plays with edgy themes, but only uses those themes as shortcuts to communicate shallow elements of the plot.  As with the game’s lack of engagement with sexuality and gender expression, the decision to not engage with the political ramifications of its theme was a political choice.

far cry 9

Problem:  Joseph Seed as a Villain

At first glance, Joseph Seed ticks a lot of villain boxes.  He is clearly a religious psychopath who has scarred his own body.  He speaks with a muted intensity, and his yellow glasses draw focus to his eyes which are often disturbingly trained on the player character (Greg Bryk, the actor who voices, and presumably did the motion capture for Joseph, deserves kudos for his portrayal).  Joseph is clearly modeled on David Koresh of the Branch Davidians religious cult, and brings that nefarious, real-world baggage into the game for those who recognize the connection.

Unfortunately, Joseph is kept in the background for most of the game, only occasionally appearing in a passive cut-scene to recite a menacing soliloquy at the player, then disappearing back to his compound to wait until the player kills his siblings and liberates the three regions.  His motivations are also not clear.  He speaks often of hearing God’s commands, but this is in itself a vague incentive that the player is encouraged to disregard and disbelieve.  And certainty the sheer brutality, violence, and suffering he is responsible for in Hope County is reason enough to wish him defeated.

When he is finally brought forward in the finale, he becomes only a bullet-sponge boss, zipping around the battlefield with the aid of Bliss until the player shoots him enough times to be brought down.  No realistic reason is given why it takes so many bullets to do this.  His hushed intensity is discarded in order to turn him into a maniac with an automatic weapon for the duration of the final combat.  As with Faith Seed, narrative characterization is abandoned and the main instigator of the story’s conflict devolves into just another end-level obstacle.

As an aside, I also suspect the reason why Joseph is so often seen shirtless in the game is to unfortunately associate his male body with homophobia.  In a similar way that Zack Snyder utilized the uncomfortable nudity and effeminacy of Xerxes in 300 (2006) to embody a barely-subliminal threat to a certain type of straight male viewer, Far Cry 5 repeatedly puts Joseph’s lithe, marked male body on display to make what it considers its default viewer uncomfortable.

What could have solved this problem:

  • Instead of making Joseph all powerful, show his weaknesses, or possibly how matters with the cult got out of hand and veered away from his intentions
  • Give his plans depth and his characterization nuance
  • Provide Joseph with likeable qualities so he is not such a cardboard cut-out baddie
  • The story may also have benefited from Joseph being the only villain, as currently he is judged alongside John, Faith, and Jacob and because he is only in the background for 90% of the game, does not fare well in comparison
  • Bring him forward in the narrative so he is not simply lurking in the background, and when he receives focus, keep his portrayal consistent (and not simply turn him into an end boss)
  • Allow the player to defeat him

far cry 10

Problem:  The Ending

Few aspects of Far Cry 5 have infuriated and incensed players as much as the three possible endings to the game.

The first is possible within ten minutes of starting the game.  The player can refuse to arrest Joseph with the federal marshal and credits roll, but this is mainly a glorified trolling on behalf of the developers before the gameplay even starts.

 

At the end of the game, after dispatching all three Seed siblings, the player travels back to Joseph’s compound to face him.  A simple binary choice is given, either to resist Joseph’s murderous, barbaric, psychotic take over of Hope County, or to walk away.  The game mechanic only sets up one possible choice as valid, since “walking away” after spending 40+ hours mowing down cult members is a ridiculous option that makes neither narrative nor gameplay sense.  Again, artificial choice is not a legitimate choice.

Once the player chooses to resist, the camera pans around to show the player character’s friends emerging behind them.  These are the quest-giving NPC’s and companion “specialists” the player has been unlocking and adventuring alongside the entire game (and which the game mechanics conveniently strip from the player when the player has to face Joseph and his siblings).  At this final stage, it doesn’t matter what camaraderie or affection the player has developed for these characters because… (heavy sigh) they all have green Bliss-induced clouds dancing around their heads.  Somehow Joseph has managed to corral, enslave, and transport all of the significant NPC’s to his compound just in time for a final boss battle.

The mechanics of the boss battle are, ridiculous, tired, and uninspiring.  The player must shoot the Bliss-induced NPC’s (with actual weapons) which doesn’t kill them (as actual weapons actually would).  Instead, downing an NPC with a weapon breaks them out of their Bliss stupor and, after you revive them by helping them stand back up, they fight alongside you as you try to shoot as many bullets as you can into Joseph, who is running around trying to shoot you.  Pumping enough damage into Joseph causes him to disappear in a puff of green Bliss smoke for a few seconds until he reappears and resumes his assault and brings in another wave of Bliss-induced NPC’s.  Until he stops respawning and you finally down him, packing his body with so many bullets that he’s reduced to crawling on the ground on all fours.  Then it is time for another cut-scene!

This final boss battle has no narrative function.  Joseph’s use of Blissed-out NPC’s has no precursor, rationale, or explanation beyond “we need enemies for this fight.”  Bliss is once again used as a magic wand without rhyme or reason to create a game scenario, a scenarios that is immediately nullified by the easy way the player can remove the Blissed state of the NPC’s.

The writing wants to use the player’s emotional connections with the NPC’s to create an emotional stake in this final battle.  It doesn’t, but if it did, that would also only detract from the emotional stakes that are supposed to be in the final battle between the main antagonist Joseph and the player.

It’s a mess.

But there’s worse to come.

A downed, bullet riddled, but somehow still capable, Joseph Seed spouts some more religious pabulum in a cut-scene, then three nuclear explosions go off in Hope County.  Mushroom clouds arise over the mountains.

No clear explanation is given for these explosions.  One possibility is that Joseph set them off (somehow, remotely, on cue).  The only previous references to nuclear weapons in the game come from one of the bunkers (John’s) which was a missile silo at some point, so presumably the cult could have access to nuclear weapons.  Some other commenters have suggested that the explosions represent an external attack on the US (on rural Montana for some reason) that occurs exactly when Joseph wants it to, proving him right about armageddon (if not proving the need for his cult’s widespread murder, kidnapping, animal brutality, and forced drugging).  Neither alternative is clear in the writing or the experience, and neither makes sense to the larger narrative.

Control is returned to the player for one final run through an obstacle course.  The player has to drive the screaming cop NPC’s and a now-handcuffed Joseph through a hellish landscape of falling trees and burning deer.  This evokes, for the fourth time, the repetitive scrambles through the collapsing bunkers earlier in the game.  The car flight will ultimately end in an unavoidable crash that conveniently kills the NPC’s and, even more conveniently, results in the tenth (at least!) capture and incapacitation of the player character.

A shirtless Joseph Seed, having survived all of the bullets the player put in him, a nuclear attack, and a car crash that killed three people, is able to drag the unconscious player from the wreckage, break into a bunker (handily located nearby), kill its owner Dutch, and bind the player.  Upon waking, the player has to listen to Joseph explain how this was all foretold, including everything the player did, and declare that with his other siblings dead, the player character is now his new family.  Credits roll.

All three endings lead to a victory for Joseph and the cult and a defeat for the player.  Far Cry 5 is a game designed to pit the player against a doomsday cult, facilitating all manner of violent combat alongside a narrative story of resistance, which is impossible to win.

Unfortunately, this means Far Cry 5 is not a game.  Like many of its long cut scenes, it’s only a vehicle for passively experiencing the written narrative with occasional bursts of futile agency.  Ultimately, nothing you do in the game matters.  You can not win. After all the hours you spend in Hope County, and after all of the story you are shown, there is no catharsis.  There is not even on a meta-level a Brechtian attempt to subvert catharsis to provoke definable real-world action.  The game simply ends.  The player loses.  Always.

 

It is incredible to think that the production team and beta testers at Ubisoft played through the game’s main quest with its instances of the player character being captured over ten (!) times and approved the main narrative, but that is what seems to have happened.  This is so unfortunate because in many other ways Far Cry 5 is an enjoyable game, but only in spite of its narrative.  I only felt happy I’d purchased it when I ignored the main quest, something the game itself often prevented me from doing.

The game’s story, with all of its false illusions of choice, is riddled with narrative failures.  It is nihilistic, bloated with cardboard villains and video game clichés, ridiculous in its internal logic, cowardly in its choices, tonally schizophrenic, and uninclusive.

Advertisements

Telling Stories in Games: Rewriting the Narrative of Fallout 4

Tags

, , ,

carousing title1

I’ve played many, many hours of the post-apocalyptic adventure game Fallout 4.  I’ve finished the over-arching main quest and hundreds of side quests.  I’ve saved the bombed-out Commonwealth around a destroyed Boston and become powerful.  Although games like this give you the feeling (sometimes the illusion) of being open-ended where you can do whatever you want, I thought the main quest of Fallout 4 was ultimately quite controlled, cliched, and disappointing.  It was certainly the least rewarding part of the time I spent with the game.

After some time away, I got the itch to return to Fallout 4, but knew I didn’t want to jump through the same hoops with a new character.  So I decided to use player-created mods (scripts you can add to the game to change parts of it) to make a new way.  To ignore the badly written main-quest and just enjoy the game mechanics, side quests, and fun of running around in an interesting and compelling world.

377160_20170308194357_1

One of the things I also wanted to do was make the game narrative more LGBT-friendly.  The company that makes the Fallout series, Bethesda, has a mixed history of creating inclusive and diverse games.  Their handling of non-heterosexual sexuality has always been clumsy, and their handling of gender often ridiculous.  I hope to use mods and other tools to overcome the many limitations Fallout 4 imposes upon the player character regarding identity and sexuality.

With this return to the radioactive Commonwealth of Fallout 4, I began to think about how I could create my own narrative in the game.  Freed from the overarching narrative imposed by the company that made the game, how would I anchor my character’s decisions and actions?  Games like this encourage exploration.  Going out and finding your own adventure.  How would I tell my story?

I decided to record my play through and provide narrative commentary.  I’m still quite new to this, so the first couple episodes I’ve recorded are a bit more about the game mechanics than building a narrative, but I’ll hopefully hit my stride soon.  I’m looking forward to using the game to tell short stories– to use my character as a protagonist and explore narrative through game mechanics (and the language of video editing).

377160_20170321230015_1

How to Watch:  If you would like to watch what I’ve done so far, you can find the videos on this YouTube Playlist.  I’ve given the series the title “Carousing Through the Commonwealth.”  I’ll post more as I embark upon a new (for me) way of creating narrative.

Meat-Scenery

Tags

, , ,

 

butterfly

The penultimate scene of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), a far better piece of cinema than anything associated with Mel Gibson.  If you don’t know it, learn it.

In the 19th century, photography brought the carnage of the American Civil War home to the civilian population.  Photographers captured the torn and twisted bodies of anonymous soldiers strewn across battlefields, and those images were published in newspapers and journals to show the cost of a war that would go on to kill 2% of the entire population of the country.  The barbaric violence was put on full display and changed our national perception of death.

civilwarbattlefield

During the brutal trench warfare of WWI, photography, and also increasingly the moving image, documented horrible new forms of mass death men inflicted upon men.  Poison gas and the machine gun rendered killing impersonal.  The brutal slaughter, the bloody sundering of bodies without discrimination, horrified a generation of European men.

Now such graphic violence is masturbatory fodder for men (almost always men) playing a gory video game or watching a violent movie.  Especially a fucking Mel Gibson movie.

hacksaw-ridge-banner

Anonymous men in uniform get torn apart let and right in Gibson’s new film– and most of the time in “cool” graphic ways bordering on both the sadistic and acrobatic.  Unnamed soldiers are “disposable people” and their cinematic suffering is presented without any real thought or comment other than a voyeuristic pleasure inversely proportional to any audience’s sense of compassion.  These torn-apart bodies are dehumanized on the screen (especially the non-Christian Japanese).  They are background meat-scenery.  They are not protagonists.  They are not actual humans with thoughts and emotions, or anything the camera is willing to linger on except their blood, viscera, and gore.  These men are mute but for their screams.  In the larger narrative, they don’t matter because the camera only objectifies their anguish.  The film perversely revels in their messy deaths.  Their only role is to convey whatever pious, cruel, muddled message Gibson’s harping on now (jonesing for some sort of professional comeback without, you know, actually doing any real contrition to deserve it).

This lack of compassion, or at least the failure to apply it uniformly, is a tiresome hallmark of Gibson’s directorial work.  It is also a theme in the novel I just finished.  I’ve written a murder mystery set in the ancient Roman world– a brutal world Gibson would have felt at home in.  But I didn’t want to just present corpses for my detective, already cold MacGuffins simply representing puzzles to be deciphered.  I wanted to explore what it meant to be a compassionate man in that time who understood on a deep level that there really are no “disposable people,” and only our immature selfishness deems them so.  My main character, Gaius Pedius, learns every life has value.  He realizes that every man who dies on a battlefield (or is cut down by a murderer) is the subject of his own tragedy, his own subjectified reality.  Pedius’ investigations are not just a search for justice, but a forceful rejection of men like Gibson (who exist in every age) and their bloodthirsty nihilism.

death-meleager

I’m assembling the final draft now and getting ready to begin the protracted process of querying agents to shepherd it toward publication.  Along with hopefully being an enjoyable, amusing mystery novel, I hope A Murder of Crows on the Wall can also be, in its small way, a compassionate, Humanistic counter to our modern American trend toward dehumanization and cruelty.  And anything else Gibson puts up on the screen.

 

Ready Player Re-Done

Tags

, , , , , , ,

characters9

A brief twitter thread chat between @RandomiseUser, @Endo_Chick, and myself got me thinking about character appearance in games.  I set out to put some ideas down as to how games structure this, and why I’m so drawn to character appearance in the games I enjoy.

Cool games that force me into the skin of a pre-made, pre-packaged protagonist, quite frankly, annoy me.  Those set player characters rarely interest me deeply, and have never been close to any real concept of who I would prefer to be.  So the experience often becomes one of merely driving around an avatar designed by someone else, and ultimately enacting someone else’s story (no matter how many narrative ‘options’ the game design gives me).  In the end, I really don’t come to care about those characters.

characters1

But of course, this mirrors real life.  We don’t choose to have the skin, complexion, sex, hair, eyes, shape, or attributes we’re born with.  We have some control over some aspects (increasingly even those once thought immutable), but we all learn to deal with the design we’ve been given.  Or we seek to tweak.  There’s a role for games that purposefully inject you in another sex, body, or race as part of a larger narrative or moral goal, but I’m speaking purely about games that pre-design the protagonist primarily as your vehicle for experiencing the game world.

characters2

Playing modded Skyrim in Roman armor

In the triple experience of gameplay, narrative, and character, I usually gravitate to character the most.  I can forgive a lot of crappy gameplay in good faith (too much grind, clunky mechanics, repetition, etc.).  As a writer, sloppy or clichéd narrative bugs the shit out of me, but to be honest, we don’t turn to games for well-written stories with nuance and depth (although there are some exceptions, such as Bioshock Infinite).  But if a developer puts genuine thought and effort put into customizable player creation, I come back to that game again and again.  It holds meaning for me.

Games I enjoy make this work in a few different ways, both single-player and MMORPGs.

characters3

Guild Wars 2 (Human, Norn, and Silvari)

Some have a limited template of designs (hair, faces, shapes, etc.) that you can mix and match in various combinations.  It’s the bare minimum of customizing your player character, and sometimes causes the unfortunate circumstance of running into your twin in the world as you encounter someone with the same look as you.  I suspect some rendering limitations in that game’s engine are the probable technical reasons behind this choice.  Often, good games will help temper this with providing a wealth of outfits for your character, usually in the in-game store.  MMORPG Guild Wars 2 has innovative but limited physical forms for your avatar, but a huge range of expanding options for clothes, weapon types, and accessories.  It has a consumables system that allows you to apply any unlocked look to any armor or weapon you use, so you don’t need to surrender your look when you upgrade your gear.

characters4

The Secret World MMORPG

Similarly, The Secret World (the best MMORPG you’ve probably never heard of or played) has hidden “combat armor” and allows you to present your avatar dressed however you want given a wide palette of options, reward clothing, and purchased looks.   Weapon customization is not as flexible as Guild Wars 2, but it exists.  As a serious game that uses a modern, real-world setting (albeit one infused with Lovecraftian monsters, aliens, and secret societies), you might think it would skew toward prioritizing modern, Western fashion.  But no, it’s quite common to see people dressed like Roman soldiers, future robots, death’s-head demons, and killer squirrels running through the world hubs.  Players in The Secret World often wear the dream cosplay outfits you expect they would wear in real-life if they could.

characters5

Dragon Age 2, pre-make Hawke (left) and my Hawke (right)

Elsewhere on the spectrum of customizable character creation is the pre-made protagonist character that you can “make over.”  In single-player Dragon Age 2, you play Hawke, who has a mostly-linear story-line that you can influence, but you also have the option to mold his appearance to better fit your imagination.  The same is true for the female Hawke option.  The Dragon Age series aims for an immersive fantasy experience, including scripted romance between your character and some of your companions, so I find it a welcome option to be able to craft your avatar’s appearance.

characters6

Saints Row IV pre-made protagonist (left) and mine (right)

On the flip side is Saints Row IV, an amusing (in its own right), tongue-in-cheek parody of games like the Grand Theft Auto series (which have no real first-player story physical feature customization and force you play as pre-made characters).  But the generic Slab McBulkhead main protagonist of Saints Row IV can be customized as in Dragon Age 2.  This is a welcome expectation of a free-wheeling game that also allows you to fight with guns that launch toilet plungers and elastic dildo bats.

characters7

First-person only view in Bioshock Infinite

The final category I’ll briefly mention is the first-person only games that coyly prevent us from viewing or customizing our character in third-person.  Booker in Bioshock Infinite is a fully fledged and voiced character, but his appearance remains off-camera (except for a few brief glances).  Such first-person shooters have a genre history of keeping player appearance vague, but the same mechanics are on view in the new No Man’s Sky and other exploration games.  One might think that keeping things first-person would foster greater self-identification and immersion with the player, but that’s not the case for me.  Since the action is always happening on a flat plane (my monitor), I experience such a game as I would a movie.  My life-long conditioning with this structure has been to disengage and observe.  However, when I can rotate the camera and see my avatar fully embodied in a 3D space, running around the landscape as a body and not just my gaze, my own self-identification and immersion is actually greater.  There’s still a screen between us, but that screen is not built directly into the mechanics of my gaze.

characters8

The Sole Survivor in Fallout 4 (you may have noticed a theme or two)

Not everyone prioritizes character design.  It’s not something that matters to all (most?) players.  There’s a long list of games offering only a bland, interchangeable, and ultimately disposable character model for the player, where the developers have given only cursory thought to appearance.  However, I do give it a great deal of thought, and effort, and I’m probably seeking a mix of comfort, self-identification, wish fulfillment, creative input, and a pleasant objectified gaze when I play a game with a custom character.

A friend of mine once described the kinds of games I like as “Barbie for boys.” I love character building and appearance crafting.  Along with all the fun stuff the game lets me do (fight monsters, explore space, survive in the radioactive wasteland…), and a strong narrative journey I can help enact, I’m drawn to the creative process of character design.  It doesn’t matter if I’m just goofing around and causing vehicular havoc in downtown Los Santos with friends or slaying the great dragons of Tamriel alone, I’m happiest if I can join with the effort of the game designers who have already crafted the world and the adventure.  I’m eager to bring the main character.

(Go follow @RandomiseUser and @Endo_Chick for deeper and better game analysis than mine.  You can follow me at @gmdevore.)

 

 

 

 

20 Free Copies of Pantheon Available

Tags

,

pantheon_vols_small

I recently published a new revision of my novel Pantheon.  Now readers can read the novel serialized over 6 separate volumes, or as the original 700 page omnibus edition (in both print and ebook form).  I can share the first volume with potential new readers, instead of foisting a huge tome on them. 🙂

To celebrate, I’ve put 20 FREE copies of the ebook version of Volume I up on Amazon.  If you’ve been interested in reading my novel but not yet picked it up, here’s a chance to sample it and see if you like it!  Or if you have friends who might be interested, you can share the link with them.  The free ebooks are first come / first serve (and ‘US only’ too for some weird Amazon reason).

You can claim your free ebook copy at https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/996ffece74b7cfbf   Click the bouncy treasure chest to claim it.  And please leave a review!

Thanks for all your support!

The Death of Giordano Bruno

Tags

,

Rome

I was writing today about the Campo de’Fiori in Rome (preparing a small waking guide for a friend soon to visit the city) and happened to notice that it was the 416th anniversary of the execution of Giordano Bruno, a personal hero of mine.

Bruno was originally a Dominican monk, but left the order to roam northern Europe and England, usually one step ahead of the Catholic Church who considered him a dangerous heretic. Bruno believed that the universe was divine in itself, and that such divinity was contained within every living creature. He wrote, “Nature is simply God in things,” a beautiful statement, but one that went against Catholic theology.  He also believed in such heresies as the heliocentric model of the universe where the Earth revolved around the sun.

Eventually, the Inquisition caught up with him in Venice. He was imprisoned in Rome for several years before being condemned to death. After the sentence was read, Bruno said, “You judges who condemn me make the pronouncement with much more fear than I who receive it.” Bruno was executed in the Camp de’Fiori on 17 February, 1600. He was gagged, bound naked to a stake and set on fire.

After 1600, the square was regularly used as a place of execution. Many people, criminals and heretics, met their fates here, either by being burnt or hung.  Today, the picturesque square, the only major square in Rome that does not have a church in it, is dominated by an imposing statue of Giordano Bruno.

I can recommend a good book about Bruno and his times: The Pope and the Heretic by Michael White.

Crows: A Tyrant’s Empire

3071

I mentioned in my last post that my new mystery novel A Murder of Crows on the Wall takes place in 209 CE. For most people in the Roman world, I suppose that year was one of relative calm and security, although they could easily remember violence and civil war. A North African military man named Septimius Severus had been their emperor for 16 years. In the beginning, he had been just one of four powerful men attempting to seize power after the assassination of the despotic Commodus (the villain from that Gladiator movie). Severus had succeeded by force of arms after a chaotic four-year civil war when Roman legions fought other Roman legions on behalf of their favored imperial candidate.

After a short respite, the question of who was finally going to be the uncontested emperor was only solved after a big, bloody battle in 197, twelve years before the opening of my story. For context, Bush’s electoral defeat of John Kerry was only 12 years ago from now. The seizure of the throne by a powerful family of upstarts and outsiders from North Africa was fresh in the Romans’ minds.

Severus was a cruel and ruthless man who valued the might of the military above all else. He began a new imperial dynasty at Rome, and his family members mostly took after him. His eldest son Caracalla would eventually be his disastrous successor, becoming what Edward Gibbon called, “the common enemy of mankind” (quite a statement given the general reputation of Roman emperors). Caracalla’s reign would also begin with great violence, including the murder of his brother Geta by his own hand in the presence of their mother. Both brothers are characters we meet in my novel.

It is no surprise that between 197 and 209, Severus conducted several large-scale military campaigns around the empire. Warfare was mostly what he knew, and he felt the most comfortable on campaign. The economy and internal politics at Rome were still relatively stable, an inheritance from the period of prosperity cultivated by the second century emperors (such as Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius). Severus launched offensives in the east, conquering some land from the mighty Parthian empire, and in Africa where he established a line of fortifications to protect the southern frontier of the Roman Empire.

Severus then turned his sights on the province of Britain, to do something the Romans had never quite been able to accomplish­– lay claim to the entire north of the island (modern Scotland). So for the first time in two generations, Roman troops marched into Britain and conducted a brutal war of suppression against the northern tribes. Severus led the campaign, although he was old and infirm and had to be carried around in a litter because of his painful gout. Before the end of the war, he would be dead and his son Caracalla would hurry back to Rome as the new emperor.

This northern war is the backdrop for my novel. My main character, a Romanized Greek named Gaius Pedius, is a mapmaker and surveyor sent (with a hundred others) to Britain in order to re-survey property lines in the province. It is part of the war effort, since Severus hopes to redraw the tax records in his favor and extract more funds for his expensive campaigns. While there, Pedius stumbles into a murder mystery involving a mysterious religious cult and five dead soldiers.

(More information about A Murder of Crows on the Wall can be found at garydevore.com/crows/)