Last week we explored how Ubisoft crafted a strikingly authentic Himalayan landscape for Far Cry 4. But there’s a lot more to a country than its physical topography, so this week we’ll look at the cultural, religious, and historical aspects of how Far Cry 4 depicts the Himalayas, with special emphasis on Nepal.
What’s fact? What’s fiction? And who on Earth would be named “Pagan”?
I Mean, No One Would Take the Name “Pagan,” Right?
Actually, they might – if they’re from Hong Kong.
Hongkongers have an interesting relationship with English names. It’s common for parents here to give their child a western name as well as a Chinese one, or for someone to take an English name for business purposes. But they don’t limit themselves to the standard baby name lexicon – unique names are prized possessions, and people get creative. Luxury brands are a favorite, so you might meet women named Prada Wong or Ferrari Chan. There’s also the just plain odd ones – rhymes or intentional mispellings like Dodo or Februar.
Then there are the sinister ones. A guy named “Devil Law” appeared before a Hong Kong court a few years ago. And one common tactic – to form a new name out of the parents’ names – can make for undesirable results. I met a woman recently who’s set on naming her son Manson.
So Pagan, while it would be highly unusual, isn’t out of the realm of possibility for a Hongkonger like him. Given that he selected it as an homage to a real-life Burmese monarch, it maintains at least a shred of plausibility.
The “Karma” System: An Accurate Mechanic With An Unfortunate Name
Nepali culture emphasizes hospitality and helpfulness – an aspect that makes it an incredible country for tourism. If Nepalis like you, they’ll do absolutely anything for you. This isn’t limited to outsiders though, since Nepalis take care of each other too. Trekking guides pitch in to help teahouses while off-duty, and get benefits in exchange, like free food. But this isn’t always transactional. Pitching in and trading favors – helping women carry heavy loads or getting a car unstuck, for example – remains a part of life, especially in the mountains. Our guide explained it like this: “In all these villages, everyone knows I’m helpful. So if I ever need help, people will help me.”
The Karma System reflects this dynamic. The more Ajay assists the community, the more inclined they are to bail him out or offer discounts. But this isn’t Karma. There’s no spiritual aspect at work here. What happens in Far Cry 4 boils down to mutual support and repaying favors. It represents a real dynamic, but it’s tragically mislabeled.
The Tarun Matara: More Real Than You Think
Stroll around Kathmandu’s Durbar Square and you can see an interesting person – the Royal Kumari, the world’s only living goddess. Visitors and worshippers enter the courtyard of her palace at Kumari Ghar and – if they’re very lucky – get a glimpse of her on the small balcony. A look, it’s said, will bestow good fortune.
Hindus and Buddhists revere this young woman as an avatar of the goddess Taleju (or Kali), and a vessel of divine female energy. She’s chosen very young, often at two, and will hold the position until she menstruates, at which time divine energy leaves her and a new Kumari will be chosen.
This is what Far Cry 4 references with the Tarun Matara. In the game, Sabal tries to have Bhadra installed as the new living goddess and, if successful, puts her through a difficult trial.
The real-life trials are distressing, but nowhere near that distressing. After spiritual leaders choose their candidates and winnow them down with physical and spiritual examinations, candidates must enter Taleju’s temple, walking among the bodies of sacrificed animals without showing fear. Those that pass spend a night alone in a dark room trying to keep their composure among severed animal heads. These trials ensure that the candidate has the serenity and peace of mind the Kumari requires – though a former Kumari has suggested the tests are not actually as bloody and rigorous as they’re claimed to be. Some international organizations have called for an end to the practice, labeling it child abuse.
As mentioned in the game, traditionally the Kumari remains unmarried after leaving her position, since anyone marrying her would inherit extreme bad luck. However, as the game says, this perception has changed in recent years, and former Kumari can get married – though many go through a harsh adjustment period. Some leave barely be able to walk after having been carried for most of their lives.
Hunting: An Uncomfortable Exercise
Hunting in Far Cry 3 was supposed to feel a bit wrong. Jason Brody killing his way down the endangered species list emphasized his increasing disconnect with his previous values system. I may not have liked the implications of that narrative, but it gave the hunting context. Stalking predators through the bush felt primal and close to nature.
Far Cry 4 shatters that. Now rather than tracking animals through the bush, I’m either Lord Curzon shooting tigers from elephant back or Sarah Palin carpet-bombing wolves from a helicopter. Even when you’re on foot, you can sit on a slope with an elephant gun and farm bears by throwing bait.
It feels like poaching, not hunting. The game seems to realize it too. Every Kyrati Fashion Week mission starts at a table full of ivory and the game goes out of its way to say Kyrat has oh so many rhinos around that they won’t miss one or two.
Indian Rhinos have started to rebound in Nepal, but not exactly in shoot however many you want numbers. In 2008 only 99 survived in the Terai, though that number has risen to 503 by 2011. They face major threats from poachers.
What’s particularly disturbing about Far Cry 4, though, is that the Asian setting makes the gear system dovetail with traditional Chinese medicine, one of the primary wildlife killers in this region. Both suggest that tiger and rhino parts can increase your performance, and that the rarer an animal is, the more powerful it will make you – and that’s not a good idea to reinforce.
The Fallen Monarchy
In Far Cry 4‘s backstory, Pagan Min stormed the palace and murdered the heir to Kyrat’s throne.
This references a real event, the Nepalese royal massacre.
On June 1st, 2001, King Birendra ordered his eldest son Prince Dipendra to leave a party after he’d started exhibiting bad behavior. Drunk and high on hashish, Dipendra returned carrying a massive arsenal, and proceeded to murder nine of his family members before shooting himself. The dead included the king, queen, three princes and four princesses. Ironically, despite having perpetrated the massacre, Dipendra was by law still next in line for the throne. He was crowned king and reigned for three days in a coma before dying, leaving the crown to his uncle King Gyanendra.
Ask Nepalis what happened, though, and you’ll get a different story. Some insist that Indian secret agents carried out a mass-assassination dressed as the prince. Others say that Gyanendra – who was not popular- orchestrated the attack and manipulated the ensuing investigation. It’s easy for outsiders to roll their eyes at these wild theories, but remember, 61% of Americans still believe JFK’s assassination was a conspiracy.
Unusual traumas demand unusual explanations, and the public imagination is always happy to fill in the gaps.
The Civil War
The Nepali Civil War lasted from 1996 to 2006, a decade that saw 18,000 Nepalis killed, over a hundred thousand internally displaced, the monarchy destroyed, and Maoists entering mainstream politics. Initially the U.S., EU, China and India supported the monarchy, but after King Gyanendra put the constitutional monarchy on hold and took direct control of the country, his allies deserted him. It gave the Maoists – who were already winning in the countryside – room to maneuver politically, and they signed a peace accord with the Prime Minister. The agreement achieved the Maoists’ primary goals – ending the monarchy and forcing an election for a Constituent Assembly. A commission investigating human rights abuses during the conflict is ongoing – it’s thought that around 13,000 civilians died in the war, including over 8,000 killed by government forces. Torture, executions and press suppression were liberally applied.
In some ways, it’s unfortunate that Far Cry 4 chose the civil war as one of its themes, since most Nepalis can’t get away from it fast enough. As one can imagine, the instability wrecked Nepal’s tourism-based economy for nearly a decade, even though tourists weren’t particularly at risk. During the war, Maoist insurgents were known to stop trekkers on the trail and demand they pay a tax for using the roads – when the tourists paid, the insurgents issued them a receipt so they didn’t get charged twice. Trekkers were known to make friends with Maoist squads on the trail, then grieve when they heard via radio that the rebels they’d marched beside had been ambushed and killed.
Today, the civil war is a painful memory, and a part of me fears Far Cry 4 will reinforce the mistaken impression that Nepal isn’t safe for tourists (in fact, not a single tourist was killed, even as the war raged).
Furthermore, the emphasis on conflict takes focus away from the local culture which is extremely welcoming, hospitable and gracious. While I understand that this was a Far Cry game, and Far Cry‘s ultimately a shooting game, I wish that there were a better way to interact with the Kyratis rather than shooting and “Press X to Gain Karma.”
Progress vs. Tradition
Golden Path Missions emphasize the cultural rift in many Himalayan countries, and while I’m impressed that Ubisoft highlighted a dynamic that absolutely plays a role in Nepal, the choices were far too extreme.
While it’s true that there’s a push-pull relationship between tradition and modernization in Nepal, it’s not as clear-cut as Far Cry 4 presents it. While the Maoists did take to cultivating opium and marijuana as cash crops during the war, they didn’t aim to make the country a drug state as Amita suggests.
Sabal clinging to child marriage is also realistic, but lacking nuance. Nepal’s laws set the legal age of marriage at 18 with parental consent and 20 without, but in reality, rural Nepalis marry in their teens. A 2013 study found that 41% of women aged 20 to 24 were married before they turned 18 – but many rural Nepalis now get married in “love match” elopements rather than arranged marriages. While they’re still marrying young, elopement gives women more of a say than they had previously.
The partisan divide also isn’t as rigid as the game suggests. For example, some of the more traditional Nepalis I met – the ones who sneered at television, iPhones and western medicine – were also big advocates for alternative energy and ending harmful traditions like gambling at festivals. Moreover, the progressives continually worried about how widening roads might destroy architecture or how modernizing may impact old beliefs.
Diverse voices make up Nepal, and I felt the game simplified and stratified these perspectives.
If You Like The Game, Consider Visiting Nepal
My greatest hope for Far Cry 4 is that it encourages more people to see Nepal. Sweeping mountain ranges, world-class hiking and historic architecture draw many travelers, but what keeps them coming back are the people. Hospitable, tough, hardworking and with a tight sense of community, Nepalis continually amaze you.
Far Cry 4, despite a noble effort, didn’t capture the Nepali spirit.
At the right time of year, airlines offer $900 flights from New York to Kathmandu. That’s a lot of money, sure, but it’s worth saving for, and I bet it’s less than you expected. As I’ve pointed out before, that’s like going to PAX once or twice, and once you’re in Nepal, accommodations, food and services are very cheap.
If you finished Far Cry wishing it gave you a deeper view of the Himalayas, the best thing would be to see them for yourself.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in The Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.