No Good Choices for Kyrat, or Video Games and Real Conflict

4 01 2016

The 2016 campaign for President of the United States has been underway for a little while now, with most of the media’s focus squarely on Donald Trump, that master of ridiculous, attention-grabbing statements. He’s set the tone, but I don’t know how different things would be if he weren’t involved. Ted Cruz was in the race before Trump was, and while Trump might have made rash, ill-considered statements the order of the day, Cruz’s gleeful embrace of that style isn’t at all out of character.

Perhaps the best example of Cruz’s use of Trump’s blustery, substance-free style is his recent tweet, “Our strategy with radical Islamic terrorism should be very simple. We win. They lose.” I was going to give him some slack – it’s Twitter, after all – hard to be substantial in 140 characters. Of course, the tweet is accompanied by video of him saying the exact same thing in a press conference. Presumably he wasn’t tailoring his in-person answer to the character count.

It’s also a nod to a similar line from President Ronald Reagan that Cruz seems to love – he tweeted it in that form back in November. Thing is, no matter how revered (reasonably or unreasonably, accurately or by hagiography) Ronald Reagan is among conservatives, the fact that The Gipper said something doesn’t make it magically deep or wise, and as a “strategy,” “We win, they lose” isn’t just lacking, it’s profoundly stupid. It’s meaningless. As someone (I regrettably can’t remember who) said on Twitter, it’s amazing that consistently half of all NFL teams fail to employ this remarkably simple “strategy,” this “one weird trick,” every single week.

I don’t know if Senator Cruz plays video games, but his visionary “beat them” plan for beating ISIS sounds a lot like the plot to a run of the mill modern military shooter, and he’s far from alone in that regard. We have the biggest and best guns, so we’ll just win. It’s as simple as that. Recent memory shows it’s definitely not as simple as that, but apparently that doesn’t matter. If we fail, we can just try again, over and over and over until we get it right.

So what does this have to do with Far Cry 4?

The Far Cry series, with the exception of the first game, has been about scenarios that feel very close to the real world. In a sharp turn away from the original’s genetically engineered monsters, the second game kept only “mercenary in open-world setting” and traded tropical islands for a fictional war-torn Central African nation. The player character is a mercenary sent to kill an arms merchant supplying any and all sides of a civil war, but pretty much upon arrival finds the situation far more complex and fluid than initially imagined. Going in with a clear and seemingly worthwhile purpose, killing a bad person doing bad things that lead to the suffering of the masses, the player finds that preexisting local struggles make just surviving, let alone making things better, incredibly difficult. In the end (spoiler alert), the player character seems to die trying to help, and all indications are that it was in vain and that the country will remain mired in violence.

This sense of powerlessness against entropy was also imparted through gameplay mechanics. Upon arrival in the country, the player character contracts malaria and will have to keep a steady supply of medication on hand through the rest of the game to keep the debilitating symptoms at bay. The player’s weapons also degrade over time and with use, meaning that failure to keep them maintained will risk jams at inopportune times. It’s never far from the player’s mind that his or her tools and body are slowly failing, victims to creeping decay that can be delayed but not defeated.

Far Cry 3 moved back to a tropical island setting, but genetically engineered monsters were nowhere to be found, and the player character isn’t a mercenary. Instead, they are a tourist who was kidnapped along with his friends but has managed to escape. Hoping to stay alive and rescue his friends, he becomes involved with a resistance movement that is fighting the group that kidnapped him. The malaria and weapon maintenance mechanics are gone, with nothing similar to take their place. The game’s writer, Jeffery Yohalem, said “This is a story about a normal guy who picks up a gun and that can’t end well”,[wikipedia] so it seems likely that the choice was to focus on the perception of guns as (misguided) totems of power rather than failure-prone machines requiring upkeep, but the choice, along with others in the game, had the effect of making the player seem superhuman.

This is especially true given the fact that the plot has this utterly unremarkable Westerner dropped into the middle of a war with no training of any kind only to single-handedly defeat hordes of trained soldiers and bring an end to an open conflict that had been raging for years before his arrival. The available endings make an effort to bring the story around to some sense that violence begets violence (or something like that – they were a bit confusing), but a pretty good number of people came away thinking they’d just played a “white guy saves everybody because he’s just so much more awesome” simulator. The writers and developers responded that they were trying to tweak that very notion and its frequent appearance in games, and I’m sure they were, but… it didn’t quite land.

Far Cry 4 seeks to dodge that bullet right out of the gate, as the player character isn’t a standard-issue white guy. He’s from a fictional sort-of-Nepal, sort-of-Tibet called Kyrat, though his mother took him and left that country for the US when he was very young, making him effectively a Westerner. Still, not white, and technically not an outsider coming in to make things right.

The character, Ajay Ghale, returns to Kyrat after his mother’s death to scatter her ashes. He tries to sneak over the border, only to be intercepted and brought to a decidedly weird audience with a man named Pagan Min, Kyrat’s despotic ruler. Min seems to know quite a lot about Ajay, and talks about Ajay’s mother as though he had a relationship with her.

When an opportunity to escape presents itself, Ajay makes a break for it and falls in with the Golden Path, a rebel organization started by his father, Mohan. Hoping that they can help him scatter his mother’s ashes in the right place (he doesn’t understand where she wants them placed), he begins helping them. Their cause seems pretty just – Min is a brutal dictator who very well may be completely insane, after all.

Over time, it becomes clear that the Golden Path is on the verge of splitting along ideological lines drawn by its main leaders, Amita and Sabal, and the player will have a major role to play in deciding which ideology prevails. Amita is the first woman to rise to power in the organization, and she values progress over tradition. Sabal is dedicated to the primary religion of Kyrat, and he believes that adherence to old customs is the best way forward. At several points throughout the game, the player has to choose a mission from one or the other, with the chosen leader gaining influence (though the final mission choice makes it seem like it’s the only one that matters).

Beyond these “Balance of Power” missions, the game plays like a mountainous expansion pack for Far Cry 3. This may seem like a dig, but it’s not – Far Cry 3 played extremely well, and the same can be said of Far Cry 4 – it’s a terrific game that offers a huge world to explore, lots of fun side quests to complete, and a satisfying and fun experience overall. It’s just that the Balance of Power thing is really the only major departure – but it is a major one, one that makes Far Cry 4 one of the most important game narratives I’ve seen in a while.

The trick is altogether pretty simple (spoilers ahead) – both Amita and Sabal kind of suck. Amita is progressive, wanting education and equality for Kyrat’s women. Seems great, right? There are a couple of problems, though. First, there isn’t much clear subjugation of women in Kyrat. Maybe there was in the past, but in the present day, there are plenty of women in the Golden Path, fighting alongside the men and very often in positions of leadership. They’re already armed and battle-hardened, so someone trying to take their rights away after victory over Min would probably find that a difficult sell.

The bigger problem with Amita is that she wants to finance the post-Min reconstruction of Kyrat with drug money. Min has already established a thriving opium production pipeline, and Amita is eager to turn its profits to the benefit of the Kyrati people. She argues that they’ll need the revenue to modernize the country, but it seems like a bad way to go, with potential for terrible abuse and great difficulty becoming anything other than a pariah state in the long run. Not a great path forward.

Sabal is a dedicated follower of traditional Kyrati religion, and seems like a pretty decent guy until Amita reminds the player that said religion has no problem with taking child brides. What’s more, the player eventually encounters evidence that Sabal believes that failure to abide by the tenets of the faith are cause for summary execution, which isn’t particularly rosy. One of his major objectives is the elevation and consecration of a new Tarun Matara, a living goddess selected in her youth. Amita suggests that Sabal will immediately marry the girl made Tarun Matara as a means of shoring up his power, and Ajay’s mother, the previous Tarun Matara, was married to his 20 year old father when she was only 12. So picking him means creating an absolutist theocracy that ritually sexualizes young girls.

Not a great choice, but it’s what makes the game’s story great. In short, it makes the player a Westerner who falls into a situation he doesn’t understand and immediately starts making unilateral choices for a foreign people based on nothing more than his skill with a gun. It’s clear that the leadership struggle within the Golden Path will come to a head at some point, but Ajay moves ever forward, choosing the fates of thousands based on a woefully incomplete grasp of the situation.

In the end, he has to make several irrevocable decisions with no clear right answer, and the game takes pains to make it difficult to try the alternative path once a decision is made and pretty much never says “Good job, here’s the good ending.” In fact, while there seem to be multiple endings (I’ve only seen one, but a major choice at the end definitely implies at least one more), I couldn’t shake the sense that any ending would seem like a failure, like all of the fighting and killing didn’t make anything better for the people of Kyrat, and that’s brilliant.

Too many games traffic in the “we win, they lose” school of thought. Even when the end of a game leads to further chaos, as has been the case in the Call of Duty games since Modern Warfare, there’s less sense that what the player did had no ultimate point. It wasn’t that shooting everybody didn’t solve anything, it’s that the player wasn’t able to shoot the right people in time, and while the chaos continues (including multiple uses of weapons of mass destruction in populated areas in the CoD series), that just means more awesome shooting!

No Call of Duty ending has had the sense of empty futility that Far Cry 4 threw my way, and that’s a damn shame. Maybe if more games and other pop culture items conveyed that idea, that sometimes there simply isn’t a right answer or a quick way to fix things, we’d stop expecting right answers and easy fixes in the real world. Maybe if we were given more situations where the heavily armed hero doesn’t actually improve anything, we’d think twice about sending our unrivaled military to “solve” things. If Ted Cruz plays any video games, maybe he could play Far Cry 4 and end up feeling like all of the killing and destruction just ended up trading one dictator for another, trading one boot on the throat of the innocent for one with a slightly different tread pattern.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your tastes), the next Far Cry game is set to take place in prehistory, which will probably limit the opportunities for biting sociopolitical criticism.

EDIT 1/4/2016, 4:42PM– Fixed minor typo in 20th paragraph.

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