By the end of Far Cry 2, I’d murdered my way across Africa to kill one man. I killed for blood diamonds, which I used to fund my manhunt. I’d violated nearly every article and clause of the Geneva Convention, and when I finally found my man, Far Cry 2 lowered my gun and made me listen to the object of my murderous obsession. Then it made me join him in, of all things, a humanitarian crusade.
Choice has no place in a third-world civil war, where war crimes are committed freely, invisible to the disinterested eyes of the developed world.
Until this point, Far Cry 2 turned my lack of choice into a powerful, uncompromising thesis: Choice has no place in a third-world civil war, where war crimes are committed freely, invisible to the disinterested eyes of the developed world. Right and wrong are Western conceits, the intellectual pursuits of a people whose prime concern, as the game says in a loading screen, is planning their next tax-deductable donation.
The deeper one sinks into Far Cry 2, the more its bleak, deathward vector becomes as essential to the game as the stunning African landscape. Linearity, so often a crutch, becomes a statement – there’s nowhere to go but deeper and darker – making it all the more disappointing when Far Cry 2 suddenly and inexplicably swerves towards a happy ending.
Far Cry 2 dumps you in Africa, a continent frequently used to host moral dread (see Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which the game proudly references). You enter an unnamed country just as most are leaving, fleeing the civil war while they still can. Your target is The Jackal, the man responsible for arming the combatants.
The Jackal is an arms dealer cum philosopher, spitting Nietzsche and embracing the violence of his profession. You first meet him as he stands over your immobilized, malaria-ridden body, rifling through your papers (some assassin you turned out to be). He read a book some time ago, he says, that summarizes life in this country quite well.
“A living being seeks above all else to discharge its strength,” he says in an American baritone, paraphrasing Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. “Life itself is will to power. Nothing else matters.”
First-person shooters are obsessed with the discharge of strength, but all too often, “will to power” simply means wrapping your hands around the all-holy rocket launcher. Firefights in modern shooters come with more options than a luxury sedan. Players can shoot out the lights or cut the power, rappel through the windows, sneak in thorough the back door or throw frags and mow down the bad guys with tricked-out assault rifles. Battles are glitzy and oddly bloodless; all new-car smell, no cordite.
In contrast, gunfights in Far Cry 2 feel like short, brutal poems. There are only so many ways to wipe out a militia checkpoint; whether you come from the east with a sniper rifle or from the west with a shotgun, it’s going to end in gore. With no political or moral context to tidy up the screaming – and there’s a lot of screaming, especially when somebody starts a brushfire – the mayhem rises in stark relief, shifting from thrilling to unsettling. Far Cry 2 loves rubbing your face in the horror.
Whether you come from the east with a sniper rifle or from the west with a shotgun, it’s going to end in gore.
In a land where the guns have been sold and re-sold several times over decades, it’s fitting that combat should come stripped of options. According to The Jackal, choice is a first-world luxury. Applying it to Africa is ludicrous. When asked by a journalist why he sells guns instead of humanitarian wares, like radios or car parts, the arms dealer turns the question around: gun manufactures in America are unionized, right? Protected jobs, full salaries with benefits? That kid assembling an FM handset in a Bangladeshi sweat shop – does he get a union salary? Is that fair, ethical or sane?
“You start thinking about morality,” he says, “that’s insane.”
The journalist asks The Jackal why he doesn’t choose sides, designate a good and destroy the evil. Again, bad idea: If he only armed one of the two factions, The Jackal says, he’d lose half his business, and more civilians would die in the swift and gruesome endgame. Better for business to keep both sides in détente.
Players can try to pick sides, but Far Cry 2 forces them to take missions from both factions. It hardly matters; no matter what you choose, you can count on dabbling in war crimes. Wrinkle your nose at the assassination, and you’ll only be forced to blow up a stockpile of anti-malarial medication.
Trying to play as a do-gooder is useless and self-defeating. You can spend hours ferrying passports with exit visas to refugees in hiding, but you’ll never get them out of the country without completing the morally hideous main quest. The road to freedom, it turns out, is paved and paid for with atrocities.
Paradoxically, it’s hard to feel any sense of moral outrage in Far Cry 2. Militia thugs don’t wave flags or spout manifestos. The odd propaganda poster blends in with the rest of the graffiti. Killing a soldier doesn’t mean choosing an ethos or a particular gameplay path; it only means progressing to the next gunfight. Even if the player could choose, what would be their criteria?
Players are free to roam the land by foot, jeep or fan boat, but the ability to choose how you travel is irrelevant if you can’t choose why. The missions only get bleaker, and the freedom of movement quickly becomes a mockery of your lack of choice. Take the road. Take the river. Marvel at kilometers of savannah basking in the African sunset, and take your time: All roads end in armed checkpoints, and in this country, there’s no such thing as friendly territory. Even the cease-fire zones are only a shot away from tipping into mayhem.
Just when Far Cry 2 seems to be a digital adaptation of Beyond Good and Evil, The Jackal’s hardboiled cynicism cracks to reveal noble motives. As it turns out, his détente was engineered to buy time, allowing him to devise an escape plan for the country’s two million refugees. With the innocent out of the way, he says, the civil war can burn itself to ashes. Suddenly, The Jackal’s lack of allegiance becomes a flag of its own, a moral mission. “We can isolate this disease and destroy it,” he tells you.
I now had to choose between sacrificing myself on a mountain and leading an exodus out of the country.
The Jackal breaks his code, and so does Far Cry 2. When you see him for the last time, hiding out in the bowels of a swampy section called “The Heart of Darkness,” the game lowers your gun and forces you to hear out his plan: One of you will bribe the border guards with a suitcase full of diamonds, allowing the refugees to escape, and the other will blow up a mountainside, stalling the pursuing army and killing himself in the process. By the way – taking the diamonds means blowing your brains out after you make the delivery. You, too, are the disease, and you can’t leave with the innocent.
After nearly forty hours of burning my way across the savannah, I was ready to murder this candy ass, steal his diamonds, and run for the border. But where Far Cry 2 once made me choose between bad and worse, I now had to choose between sacrificing myself on a mountain and leading an exodus out of the country.
But Far Cry 2 wouldn’t even let me shake my fist at The Jackal. I’d murdered thugs, generals and demagogues, but I couldn’t kill the man who, at some point in the supply chain, probably sold the gun in my hands.
I took the diamonds, thinking, “If he wants to be a martyr, let him. I’m making it out of here alive.” I fought my way to the crossing and handed over the diamonds, but before I could raise my Kalashnikov and shoot my way to freedom, my vision blinked to black. The first-person perspective, so faithfully observed for so long, yielded to a floating-camera shot of refugees walking beyond the barbed wire.
In these last moments, Far Cry 2 contradicted itself. The lack of choice that once felt so refreshing and unpretentious became suddenly suffocating. The ability to choose, so long suppressed in favor of social realism, was conveniently sidelined to force a happy ending. Cynical players will recall The Jackal’s earlier advice with plenty of irony: “You start thinking about morality – that’s insane.”
Rob Kunzig works in international aid and development. He currently works in Iraq.