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This article contains spoilers for Far Cry 3

There are many admirable things about Far Cry 3. Fearless and fun, I’ve expressed my appreciation for both its roaming animals and its healing animations. However, there is one aspect that casts a shadow over the whole experience: the game’s problematic depiction of the Rakyat, especially during the “Join Citra” ending. Though the writer, Jeffrey Yohalem, claims that the game is a satire that subverts the stereotypes it presents, the Join Citra ending plays into narratives about the Pacific Islands that come not from the real world, but from the racist narratives of the Victorian freakshow.

Before I launch into this critique, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am not accusing Jeffrey Yohalem of being a racist. Though he uses racist narratives in the plot of Far Cry 3, I believe that he was either unaware of their history, or that in using them he hoped the to critique the culture of excess and stereotyping prevalent in many videogames. If it’s the former, he should’ve done his research, if the latter, his reach exceeded his grasp.

As a reminder – or if you didn’t play Far Cry 3 and don’t mind if I “ruin” the ending – the game begins with Jason Brody and his vacationing friends held captive by a band of pirates. Jason alone escapes into the jungle then passes out, only to awaken in a Rakyat village to find Dennis Rogers tattooing him. Rogers then enlists Jason in the fight against the pirates, bringing him to the licentious priestess Citra who favors Jason, sends him of on a vision quest, sleeps with him and allows him to earn warrior tattoos as he fights the pirates. With the enemies of the Rakyat defeated, Citra offers a (drugged) Jason the chance to stay with her on Rook Island and get the final tattoo – but only if Jason mounts the temple steps and kills his rescued friends and girlfriend with a ritual dagger.

If the player chooses to join Citra, the game moves on to a graphic first-person sex scene that climaxes when Citra stabs Jason to death as part of a ritual to release his spirit and create the ultimate offspring from Jason, the ultimate warrior. “You won,” she whispers.

It’s … well, for now let’s just call it provocative.

Since the game’s release, Yohalem granted several interviews where he tried to contextualize this ending. In all cases, he’s stated that the Join Citra ending is a subversion of the Rescue the Princess plotline. “Citra doesn’t need to be saved,” Yohalem told the Penny Arcade Report. “It’s all Jason’s idea! Jason conjures up this whole idea that Citra needs saving and he’s gonna save her, when in reality it was all a ritual she created to find a sperm donor, and she kills him … It’s like if Princess Peach Stabbed stabbed Mario.” Thus, according to Yohalem, Citra is taking revenge on Jason for his misogynistic belief that she’s powerless. In the same interview he explained that the game as a whole plays with the “white savior” trope used in movies like Avatar, but while Jason thinks he’s the heroic leader of the tribe, in reality he’s a political tool for Citra. “Jason is basically a gun, that is upgraded by the natives on the island,” Yohalem told Rock Paper Shotgun.

This ending, theoretically, vindicated the extravagances of the rest of the game – reversing the power dynamic and proving that Citra and the Rakyat are in reality powerful and capable, rather than the noble savages Jason perceived. Except it doesn’t do that. In fact, it reinforces old, hurtful, and repulsive narratives about Pacific Islanders that have no place in modern media. To understand why, we need to go to an unexpected place – the smoky tents and clapboard frontages of the 19th century freakshow.

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, the display of “human oddities” became a staple of American entertainment. P.T. Barnum, and a host of exhibitionists fashioned in his image, traveled the country selling a glimpse at acts ranging from contortionists and conjoined twins to “pickled punks” – human fetuses preserved in formaldehyde. A “Tattooed Man” was usually part of these exhibits, standing shirtless onstage as a carnival barker hawked the terrible origin of the ink that swirled on his body. The story was always the same, borrowed and adapted from the first professional Tattooed Man, the English sailor John Rutherford. Rutherford first displayed himself in 1828, spinning an exaggerated and ludicrous story of shipwreck, capture by the Māori, forcible tattooing by village women, compulsory marriage to the chief’s daughter (or daughters, the story varies), years of captivity and eventual escape back to civilization. The story was a complete fabrication, but it set the mold for other Tattooed Men throughout history. A few years later, an Irishman named James O’Connell cropped up in America telling a similar story of capture and forced inking by savage maidens, but he also upped the ante by selling his fraudulent origin story as a pamphlet. “The third beauty then produced a small flat piece of wood with thorns pierced through one end,” O’Connell faux-remembered, “this she dipped in the black liquid, then rested the points of the thorns … on my hand, and with a sudden blow from a stick, drove the thorns into my flesh.”

Sometimes the tattooing was stated to be a forced initiation, but more often it was cast as a form of torture or punishment. Chinese or Malay “barbarians” were commonly cast in the role of torturer, drawing the process out months. Besides cruelty, there was always a sense of ownership and slavery inherent in the narrative. In O’Connell’s story this was explicitly stated: the The woman who marked him with the final tattoo thereby married him without his consent. Some scholars have pointed out that the Polynesian tattoo narratives were about the horror of men being unable to protect the integrity of their own body, and a gendered power reversal that casts the captive man as a woman, and the tattooing as a form of symbolic rape. Such narratives played well to British and American crowds who were anxious about the rise of early feminist thought and the effect it might have on the gender landscape. The portrayals were highly racialized as well, both scandalizing and titillating the antebellum public by making them imagine “black savages” keeping white men as slaves. In all cases, the captive white men would eventually escape onto a passing ship – but only after witnessing cannibalism and fathering children (“demi-savages,” O’Connell called them) who are fast-tracked into chiefly line of succession due, it’s left unstated, to their “superior” white blood.

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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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