Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Far Cry 3's Citra Is Straight From the Freakshow

Robert Rath | 28 Feb 2013 16:00
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Does any of this sound familiar? It's indeed quite astounding how closely Far Cry 3 hews to this old, and profoundly problematic, story. Jason Brody meets disaster and wakes in a Rakyat village to Dennis marking him. He meets with Citra who further inks his skin through mystical powers, then drugs him with hallucinogens and rapes him. Jason then obeys the commands of his new lover as she objectifies him and uses him as a dehumanized tool against her enemies, culminating in him rejecting the "civilized" world by killing his friends and "going native." Only then does Citra allow Jason the final tattoo that solidifies her ownership of his person. Then, Citra kills him during sex, plunging a phallic dagger into his heart as part of a ceremony to birth a "superior" child. In fact, this last detail is the most disturbing to me, and not just because it plays with (satirizes?) the idea of creating racially superior children through Jason's DNA. No, what bothers me more is that even the prejudiced narratives of the Tattooed Men usually didn't include human sacrifice. Frankly, even the suggestion that modern Pacific Islanders would sacrifice human beings is both absurd and hurtful. While it's no secret that many Pacific societies once practiced human sacrifice, so has every other culture on earth at one time or another, and such a thing would be alien to any modern Pacific Islander. One might as well suggest that modern Texas own slaves and gleefully massacre Native Americans.

What's troubling about the use of these narratives in Far Cry 3 isn't necessarily their racist nature - after all, Yohalem claims the game is satire - but that instead of these being challenged and subverted, they are the subversion. Citra and her warriors aren't the noble savages that Jason perceives, they're the old-school tattooed pagan shaman stereotype. In fact, the Rakyat are just a checklist of the exoticized, eroticized and superstitious characteristics westerners attributed to Pacific peoples, along with the western worry about "going native." (The only one they missed was cannibalism. Gotta save something for DLC, right?) Citra isn't a modern empowered woman, she's a mystical, licentious, "savage queen" that existed only in the minds of European carnival promoters. It all begins to look like hipster racism after a while, where we're supposed to accept racist depictions as satire simply because they're racist depictions and we're oh-so-self-aware. Meanwhile, I doubt most of the audience could name a single island in Melanesia or describe even in basic terms what life is like there. Part of the problem with racist narratives about the Pacific is that for most people, it's their only narrative of the Pacific.

So did Yohalem know what he was doing when he played into this narrative? My guess is yes - it's too specific to be a coincidence - but I also believe he didn't really know what he was doing. Yohalem graduated from Yale with a degree in English literature, so it's likely he's read Typee, Herman Melville's novel about a captive who learns to enjoy and appreciate Polynesian life, but flees when the tribe pressure him to undergo tattooing. Ultimately, it doesn't matter. Whatever his intention, Citra's knife speaks louder than any postmortem interview, and the thing players will take away isn't a subtle critique, but a racist caricature more than a century old.

What makes me most disappointed in Far Cry 3 is the lost opportunity. Tattooing in the Pacific Islands - which yes, is often referred to a tatau - has a rich cultural legacy. In Samoa it's known as the Pe'a, and wraps around the body in symmetrical lines from the navel to the knees. Undergoing the process takes weeks of agonizing pain, and serves as a test of courage. The Māori call it tā moko and is a sign of social rank; instead of needles, they carve grooves in the skin with a bone chisel. There are far more interesting religious practices too, none of which include the offensive suggestion of human sacrifice. In Tanna, Vanuatu, a local cargo cult worships an American sailor from World War II named John Frum, a belief that developed after the overawed locals saw the invading Americans land magical objects like bulldozers and bombers. The John Frum Society is not only a functional religion, but because it's so new it gives us the opportunity to study how belief systems develop over time. For example, the sign of John Frum is the red cross - since during the war, the islanders realized that they could get medical assistance from anyone wearing that sign. Once the Navy left, islanders constructed mock runways and radio towers, and tried to call the planes back on mock wooden radios, with coconut shell headphones. The Society still believes their god will return one day in a white ship, bringing them western consumer goods like refrigerators and Jeeps.

The Pacific, Southeast Asia, and the beautiful islands that inhabit them contain such rich stories and interesting material for game developers. When I see ill-conceived and problematic caricatures like Citra, it doesn't make me consider the nature of racism in videogames. Instead, it makes me wish writers like Yohalem would fight stereotypes by showing more interest in the real Pacific, not the one that comes from a freakshow pamphlet.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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