Don’t worry, it won’t hurt you.

Far Cry 2 is a desolate wasteland all but devoid of life. The few souls you do meet are all out for themselves. Most are content to shoot first and not bother with the questions. The few “buddies” you do acquire are little better, each is out to get what they can from you and the rest of the country and damn the consequences.

Fallout 3 is teeming with life, you can barely travel fifty yards without finding something of interest, a burnt out shopping complex overrun by cannibalistic bandits, a town of decrepit brickwork and corrugated iron. You’re actions will cause you to make friends, and enemies, and there are plenty of people who simply don’t care what you do.

Maybe it’s just my own perceptions but those two descriptions feel the wrong way round. Far Cry 2 is set in a war torn African nation, Fallout 3 in the area around Washington D.C. two hundred years after a nuclear war. For the former to be all but empty and the latter to be packed with things to do and people to interact with doesn’t sit entirely comfortably with me.

There’s a map of the Capital Wastelands on the wall in my front room (Yeah I know, you don’t have to tell me how big a geek I am, especially as it’s sitting above a map of Liberty City), and looking at it I realised there is an incredible wealth of content in the game world. Though clearly a credit to the talent of Bethesda this cornucopia of places and people seems at odds with the fiction of the world. Two hundred years after an apocalyptic nuclear war and there are hundreds of people alive and computers that not only still function but which have somehow retained all their data? Compared to this the fictional Leboa-Sako and Bowa Seko regions of Far Cry 2 are positively spartan.

"Don't worry boy, there's bound to be something over the next hill."

The world of Fallout 3 is designed to ensure that you are never lacking for something to do or somewhere to go. For all its carefully designed locations and quests it can feel like the world is only there because you are. People have their own routines but there’s always a suspicion that if you weren’t looking they’d stand around waiting for you. Of course in this respect Far Cry 2 is little different, of the dozens of mercenaries in country it seems you are the only one capable of actually getting anything done, to the extent that often people seem to be waiting solely for a chance to ask something of you.

I’ve talked before about how I’ve often been left to walk across what felt like miles of empty country in order to find a specific location in Far Cry 2. In these moments the sense of isolation, of being lost in a hostile environment is pronounced. Yet exploring the Capital Wastelands I never feel anything approaching that sensation. Yet it seems to be exactly the emotions such a post-apocalyptic wasteland should evoke. I’ve become engaged in the search for my father, I’ve saved people from a life of slavery or worse at the hands of Super Mutants and nearly died trying to swim across a radioactive river. But I have never once felt at risk, if things become too dangerous I might die but I’d appear again (Thanks to the Autosave) either at the entrance to the area I am in, or just outside the last town I visited. Usually though even that break in gameflow isn’t necessary, provided I can get out of the immediate area I am free to fast-travel to safety in an instant.

The Capital Wasteland is designed to be entertaining but not threatening, everywhere you look there is something to find, something to do and never any real risk. The sickly yellow sky, pools of radioactive water and assorted mutants might look threatening but like the scares of an amusement park ghost train they are ultimately harmless. Bethesda seem to constantly hold back from making the post apocalyptic wastes more than a background. The sense of threat, of hostility of being dumped alone in an uncaring world is never one that is toyed with.

Far Cry 2‘s world is strangely lacking in content, with seemingly only three tiny “cities” in the entire country and a population that is either outright hostile or selfishly demanding of your help. Despite all this it succeeds in reinforcing the notion that this is a world that doesn’t want you in it. You are not the centre of attention you are an annoyance to be eradicated; Africa doesn’t care whether you live or die, though I have the feeling it might prefer the latter.

In the press and the gaming community at large Fallout 3 is praised for its wealth of content and Far Cry 2 berated for its overt hostility. Thematic consistency it seems is not that important. For all the talk of immersion and realism it seems gamers still want games that provide for them, that make them the centre of the action, the pivotal agent in the events of the world, the nexus around which everything is focused.

For all the talk of narrative and thematic maturity it seems games are still focused on fulfiling a power fantasy, the most base and narcissistic of all power fantasies, that of being the most important person in the world.

14 thoughts on “Don’t worry, it won’t hurt you.

  1. It just feels like wasted potential on the part of Bethesda. They had this prime opportunity to push the boundaries of the communicative power of games by highlighting the hostile nature of the world and what it means to live in such a world. Instead they fell back on standard RPG conventions and used a wealth of content to cover up for what is ultimately a very hollow narrative.

    Sure it’s not the first game to do so, but shouldn’t we be expecting more from our games? Or are we just happen with the same-but-better?

  2. It’s funny how thematic consistency just isn’t a priority for so many games.

    In the Pokémon games, everyone is impressed by the player’s progress, even though, unless they have a squadful of Rattata, inertia is all that’s needed to beat the game’s difficulty curve. In Half-Life, somehow we’re to believe that a skinny physicist has the stamina to take down armies of aliens and men.

    However, I’m not really sure that it’s always a bad thing. It might be noticeable to the more observant player, but it doesn’t seem to detract from games for the most part. (That is, unless it makes them boring because they’re so desolate, as with your Far Cry 2 example. (Ben, if you’re reading this, he made the claim – not me)).

  3. What immediately came to my mind was GTAIV, which for once in that series, the main character does not become the biggest and baddest dude in the game – rags to slightly better rags, as they said. Your points are well taken, though.

  4. It seems that with just a little effort, games could be kicked up that extra notch. Like having other mercenaries competing for the same jobs you get in Far Cry 2, for example. If, say, you weren’t to a checkpoint fast enough, or with enough “reputation,” for example, maybe you wouldn’t get that job. Perhaps you’d have to slog through more empty wasteland to complete the mission or story point, or whatever, or complete it by other means. Might add a whole dimension to the game.

    Most western popular media that I’ve seen, including movies, take the easy, safe, “don’t freak out the audience” road more often than not. i think Hancock would have been a better movie if the two superheroes actually die at the end. Video games, by their very nature, are fairly ego-centric, and exist to serve the interest of the player ego. Why would anyone buy a game that was as hard as, or unrewarding as real life can be?

    I really agree with what you’re saying about the thematic inconsistency, but I don’t think the answer lies in creating more failure or raising the “difficulty” level on its own. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you talk about thematic consistency. As Mr. Greenwood points out, I always had a problem with the main lead in Half Life. You mean there’s NO ONE else to run down the sewer and shoot at bad guys? It’s a thin veneer on top of what is, essentially, a carnival shooting gallery.

    Thanks for the insightful post!

  5. Far Cry 2 is, without a doubt, a serious game that reinforces its core themes from end to end (while still managing to be a fun shooter, which is actually a commendable accomplish in itself). I’m not sure Fallout 3 is, or tried to be, the same.

    In a way, Fallout 3 is a book of short stories set after that bomb rather than a single epic. I’m not sure it’s supposed to be a heavyweight, serious affair with devotion to a core theme. Sections of the game contain different themes, e.g. Tenpenny Tower and the impact of the player’s intervention there. Different portions of Fallout 3 are brilliant in their own ways. Largely the main quest isn’t a particular high point (although I did like Vault 112 a lot). That it’s not a brutal slog to move between these self-contained and distinct stories isn’t particularly problematic for me.

  6. Jonathan Blow has a wonderful interview with the hosts of 1UP FM about this very discrepancy you point out in this posts. Except he discussed the themes of humanism in regards to Bioshock. His contention is that the game promotes this sense of consequence in the world and compassion for the little sisters. But at the same time your murdering every Dick Tracy villain that pops up with no regard to actually saving them and Rapture.

    It is definitely an aspect in gaming that is not fully taken in consideration. But a major part of videogame history is the monopolization of dialect aligned with the player. It’s great that you used open world games because that is a narcissism that gamers have when they pick up a game. Who does not want to be the center of attention when they are the primary audience that the world is expected to pander to?

  7. Yeah I guess I kinda agree with you on Fallout – since i picked it up a nearly 2 months ago now I’ve not stopped complaining about how “full” it is for a supposedly “devastated wasteland”. I mean, I call BS on finding so much food and ammo lying around EVERYWHERE. And the enemies don’t particularly frighten me either – even on the hardest difficulty they just require more TIME to kill rather than more skill.

    Far Cry 2… well… I think it’s empty on purpose and that’s a good thing. If you haven’t yet read Tom Armitage’s “Africa Wins Again: Far Cry 2’s Literary Approach to Narrative” then you absolutely have to.

    Oh and Spencer, you haven’t even played Far Cry 2 yet – go play it already fool! =P

  8. I think you’ve hit on one of the things that has me watching non-US/UK gaming lately– that sense of non-threatening safety, like the world is a big amusement park full of toys rather than an environment. I liked how Far Cry 2 did it (mostly), although the most obvious example of that kind of game environment is STALKER (the first one in particular), where the player doesn’t even necessarily feel like the protagonist in the game. There’s a moment toward the beginning of the first game where, walking north along the road, a pack of mutant dogs runs across in front of the player. Being used to game worlds, I immediately readied my assault rifle and got ready to do some shooting, only to realize that they were running over to fight some pigs for the corpse of another stalker. Heck, they hardly noticed me most of the time, unless I specifically went after them or there were enough of them that they felt confident enough to attack. It was striking, coming from Oblivion to Stalker– in Oblivion, EVERYTHING is there for the sake of the player. There are no encounters with other stuff going on, things auto-level so they stay tough, and so on. There’s no environment and the local fauna don’t have home ranges or anything– they just appear, attack, and get killed. They may fight, say guards or something, but that’s almost incidental. In Stalker, the local critters just don’t care unless you’re a threat or a poential dinner. I loved that, and nothing since has really done that. (Fallout 3, of course, has almost the same problem as Oblivion for fairly obvious reasons.) I don’t think that’s something a US or UK game would have done…

  9. I REALLY don’t think Fallout and Far Cry are “praised and berated” for the same thematic reasons.

    The problem in Far Cry is not the theme, it’s the play. Being attacked constantly is tiring and ultimately frustrating. I think dynamics are EXTREMELY important and Far Cry lacks in that department. When reviews complain about hostility it’s because they want a moment or two where they can feel safe rather than existing in a state of expectation for the next attack.

    Also, you’re talking about the player not being the centre of the world in Far Cry but the fact that every NPC in the entire world wants to viciously kill you on sight says otherwise.

    I realise I haven’t really defended Fallout 3 but… oh well.

  10. I’m surprised more people haven’t complained about Fallout 3’s “incessant hostility”.

    I won’t deny that the guardposts in FC2 respawn a bit much. But: for most of the game, you always have the tools to deal with them. They’re never beyond your difficulty level, and you’ll at least break even in ammo if you decide to take one out in its entirety.

    By contrast, I’ve found Fallout’s wasteland irritatingly hostile – peppered with tough, well-equipped enemies who chew down my health, never return the stimpaks or ammo I’ve used to take them down, can’t be outrun, and none of the human ones will let me break out my Speech/Intelligence.

    Yes, the Wasteland is peppered with things to do – but it’s always one house in a village, one human in lone diner. Yes, it’s big, but it seems more suspcious that there’s *one* house I can enter in a town of twenty that are boarded up.

    Despite having written about it at length, FC2 is not perfect, but it does take efforts to stage-manage its events. It is emphatically not the population shooting you, but foreign mercs; the civilians are pretty much out of the picture thanks to the underground. The scale of the country might be a little strange, but it’s not aiming for realism; it’s aiming for a stylised feel, and to do that, it needs to emphasise certain aspects and hide others, often through devices and staging: no flights out of the country; closed borders; deserts and mountains at the edges. These don’t help give you amazing, open-world freedom; they just help Hocking et al tell the story they want to tell.

    I like the idea of F3 as being a series of short stories, in the same world, rather than a single narrative. There’s the main plot, and then all the little spin-offs alongside it, and the world has to sustain both. Given the amount it has to sustain, I think that leads to a dilution of its impact. FC2, whilst less densly populated, only has to fulfill a single goal – a single story – with its landscape, and as such it focuses all its resources on telling a single game.

  11. it seems gamers still want games that provide for them, that make them the centre of the action, the pivotal agent in the events of the world, the nexus around which everything is focused.

    Oh, and I think one of the most interesting things in FC2 was that however much this seemed to be the case… in the end, it turned out that the player wasn’t the centre of the action at all; they were responsible for continuing the events of the plot but not having any agency over them. It’s often an unsatisfying reveal when that’s the case – cf Metal Gear Solid 2 – and it’s an understandable one; how do you make sure you don’t devalue a player’s experience during the game? After all, whilst you’re playing, you should be the center of attention; the game should treat your time and attention as precious and reward you. You can still tell gruelling, unpleasant tales, but you have to tell them for an audience that’s totally bound into them. Managing to then suggest they’re not as pivotal as the agency they’ve had (to that point) over their actions is difficult. MGS2’s initial reveal was a big shock for some, but I think by the end the telling of Snake’s story from another character’s perspective paid off. By contrast, FC2 makes you feel like the centre of attention right until the very end, even though you know more and more clearly towards that end that you’re definitely not.

  12. Far Cry 2 if not really any less guilty than Fallout 3 when it comes to making the player the centre of attention; as I explained all the mercenaries in Far Cry 2 seem unable to get anything done without your help. However as Tom mentioned it becomes clear that you have very little real agency, you can complete your given missions and even kill of the leaders of the UFLL and APR but in the end nothing changes. You might be the only person taking an active part in the war but your actions are ultimately meaningless. Everything you’ve done is for nothing.

    @Tom: I actually think Fallout 3 is a more challenging game that Far Cry 2, but the Autosave and Fast-Travel systems serve to mitigate some of the fear of failure; you will lose very little of your time when you do inevitably die.

    Playing Far Cry 2 it can be difficult to die, or to fail outright, but you may well (As I described in a previous post) end up destroying your only means of transport and be forced to walk to the nearest safe house or mission objective, or use up some of your resources and be left with a weapon that will jam constantly. The sense is that when something goes wrong in Fallout 3 it doesn’t really matter you are reset to an earlier time with the actual failure ignore. When something goes wrong in Far Cry 2 it’s going to cause you problems; even if it does just mean you have to spend time acquiring new transport or getting a more reliable weapon. The former glosses over your failures, the latter makes them part of the experience therefore you are forced to deal with their consequences which gives them the impression of having more weight that they really do. More of the staging you mentioned.

    The Longest Journey is another game that subverts your belief that you are the centre of attention.

    @Chris: I can’t help feeling that you’ve made my point for me. The dynamics of Far Cry 2 are such that you are conscious of the fact that everybody you see in the open will attack you on sight. Yes it is tiring and frustrating that is the point, you are supposed to feel like the inhabitants of the world are out to get you. You are not meant to feel safe when you are in the open. I stated that Fallout 3 is praised for its “wealth of content” and that Far Cry 2 is berated for its overt hostility. The former seems strange for a supposed wasteland the latter fairly sensible for a war torn country.

    Of course maybe “it’s meant to be hostile” is a cop-out excuse, but I’m inclined to accept that it was intentional.

  13. Putting aside the fact that Far Cry 2’s Africa is only big and empty enough to hide the load screens, the issue with its hostility is due to the game’s single ‘moral’ path. Your not a good guy, and that’s fine, at least it deserves credit for not forcing your to kill a bunch of NPCs to prove it. The game even lays on a sickness metaphor to drive it home: your a cancer to that county, but at least your making it sick enough to make it go get help. Fallout 3 gives you the option, in actuality the illusion of an option, to be good or bad, so it needs a bunch of people there to tell you that one way or the other. In fact, it gives you so many “options” in play style; it has to pack the wasteland full of things as to not leave anyone out.

  14. I think the scale and location of both games also comes into play as well. In Fallout 3, you’re not really playing in a “desolate wasteland,” you’re in a bombed out metropolitan area. There’s going to be a lot of things to do because a city is dense. On the other hand, since Africa isn’t as developed as DC, there will be less to do. So it makes sense to me in that context.

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