A couple weeks back, I found myself in my old South Florida stamping grounds, drinking with some old college friends, who had recently arrived from Miami, Washington, D.C., and Okinawa. The conversation zigged and zagged, from foreign toilets to Benedict Cumberbatch to the virtues of IPAs. It’s usually easy for me to slip into old cliques, but I found myself feeling strangely distant from these people, people with whom I’d spent some of my most dramatic and embarrassing years. These weren’t people I wanted to see me bleed, and I’ve been bleeding for a very long time.
I like a good apocalypse as much as the next guy, and the next guy clearly likes them a great deal. Apocalypse is a permanent feature on the memetic landscape, and every crisis, every moral panic yields another explanation for this fascination. The world’s always ending for someone, after all. The cosmic reboot is a flexible meme: some iterations speak to humanity’s inexhaustible will to survive in the face of its own self-annihilating sins; others posit that even the lifting of the cosmic veil will be more of the same old shit; still others are stories of the lost and broken finding their place in the world. My favorite, at this particular portion of this frustrating and confusing life, is that of the harrowing redemption: the fantasy that one could find ultimate freedom by losing everything.
After revisiting the ghosts of adolescence in Gone Home, and having been inspired by Allow Natural Death to give up on writing for a while, it seemed like high time to go back to the well, to connect to what got me interested in games and games writing in the first place. Depression means constantly trying to remember who you are and what makes you happy.
Having failed in that endeavor, I opted to fall back on white guy power fantasy (subcategory: small arms). Far Cry 3 was one of 2012’s most celebrated games, and I felt less behind-the-curve than usual to be playing a game only one year out of date. I had no previous experience with the series, and I’m not sure why I felt it would be a more compelling novelty than Resistance or Killzone or Gears of War. Synchronicity, perhaps. Most modern FPS campaigns share some aspects of apocalypse narrative, but for all their athletic prose and masculine bluster, they’re usually loathe to embrace primitivism. Perhaps it was a subtle way to assert my value as a being, despite my consistent failure to develop meaningful coding skillz. Perhaps, moping my way through a Massachusetts winter, I just missed sunny days.
Far Cry 3 begins, as do all the great legends, with a vaguely Hispanic antagonist watching vacation videos on a smartphone. This is Vaas, and since the protagonist rarely sees himself, Vaas’s is the face of the experience, more a mascot than an antagonist, and certainly more interesting than the actual lead. Jason Brody, the protagonist whose space I will be sharing, is in a cage with his older brother Grant, who looks better-suited to the role; Vaas admires his stolen phone and angrily threatens to rape and/or gut unruly hostages, although you can tell his heart isn’t in it. Bad guy’s gotta be bad, and Vaas can only work with the material he’s given, but he gets bored quickly and wanders away: presumably, to yell at the writers, in the hopes they’ll make his character more interesting.
Grant kills a guard–somehow–against the cage bars, and Jason-me blanches. “That’s what they teach you in the army,” gloats Grant, and I settle into a feeling of humble gratitude for the safety he provides. I do it for Jason, so he’ll be properly motivated when his brother is inevitably killed, a sacrifice to mark the beginning of the journey.
The escape is refreshing. There’s not enough running away in modern shooters, even though every narrative FPS these days is, for some reason, measured by the ten minutes of the game during which you aren’t carrying a weapon. I sprint pell-mell through the forest and throw myself over a waterfall. In the place between life and death, Jason dreams of the opening credits.
When I awake, I am indoors, lying in what I assume to be a bed. A black man in a USMC jacket is telling me that he found me, and that I am a warrior. He has given me a tattoo, and instructs me to join the native Rakyat in repelling the pirates that have seized control of Rook Island.
This is it. THIS is the shit: the fantasy that our advantages are really our weaknesses, that we’ve been stunted by not experiencing the pain, privation, and horror. That we’re out of shape because we didn’t need to run and jump and climb to escape predators. That we fear conflict because nobody ever pointed a gun at us. That we can’t talk to women because they realize, deep down, that we’ve never opened someone’s belly with a machete.
The story playing out here is utterly pervasive. Stevenson alluded to it in the opening lines of Snow Crash. Young men, we are told, want to be heroes, and “hero” has always, first and foremost, meant “killer.” I never much appreciated that narrative when I was in the target demo, but I find that, as I move toward the deep end of the 18-35 pool, I am softening to it. Not so much as a function of time, I think, but of chronic unemployment.
It’s a power fantasy for those feeling powerless, obviously, but more fundamentally it’s about relevance. I can still help, dammit. Fuck my education, fuck my skills, fuck my pride and status and station in life. I’m not too proud to be an animal. I lack knowledge and grace, but I have Will, a wild rage to shout down the clamoring of the superego. The fundamental worthlessness of the unemployed is an article of faith for about half the country right now, but I’m not useless. I have hands. I can still kill.
Which brings us to the knife. I can say, without reservation, that Far Cry 3 contains some of the best stabbing I’ve ever experienced in a game. It might even surpass Assassin’s Creed, generally regarded as the industry standard for stabbing. While the guns fall prey to the Dalek problem so endemic to the genre, the sundry knife takedowns carry a refreshing sense of a body in motion. The more modern weapons seem to be something of an afterthought. There’s little progression to speak of, and progression of weaponry is the fundamental ludo-narrative arc of the FPS, from Act I’s pistol-shotgun-submachinegun to Act III’s SVD-RPG-BFG. In Far Cry 3, I bought the flamethrower after the first mission. Sure, it felt like overkill, but then, so did the AK, most of the time.
So, I run and jump and sneak and stab. I enhance my senses with drugs I made from local flora, the syringes strapped into a pack I made from local fauna. I seize enemy safehouses, one brutal raid at a time. I hunt boar with an assault rifle and people with a machete.
By a week or so, diegetically speaking, I feel I can be said to have gone native. I take the sentry in the guard tower first, and render the alarm similarly inoperative. I look down on the prison from above, counting red dots in the distance. The walk makes me more nervous than the fighting, such as it is: one, two, three, a silent knife in broad daylight. I hide the bodies, but I’m not sure it’s necessary. When I can only see one more left, I spray him with the submachinegun, just because I’m starting to feel silly carrying it with me if I’m not going to use it.
After a few more such adventures, the last of which burns down a building, Jason rescues Liza, who I’m told is his girlfriend. I drop her off at a safehouse with another escapee, and go out and kill until I’ve rescued the other surviving members of our party. They mostly seem like assholes, honestly, but you engage in guerilla warfare to save the friends you have, not the friends you wish you had. With each rescue, Liza grows more worried about what’s the experience is doing to Jason.
I like that Jason’s friends have the sense to be horrified at what they’ve experienced, and I appreciate their concern. It somewhat alleviates the unavoidable goofiness of FPS narratives. My most persistent complaint about the game, incidentally, is the petty, sarcastic voice of Willis in the archives. I’m already participating in a juvenile power fantasy that’s violent, sexist, and more than a little racist; it seems like the very least he could do is not throw anymore cynical teenage bullshit into the experience. “Jason Brody. From Los Angeles,” reads the character bio: “Great grades, an athlete in college. Only odd jobs since graduating.” Our beloved protagonist was full of potential, even back home, but with no direction or ambition, he couldn’t do anything with it but pursue his idiosyncratic passions. Which leads to what might be the most disturbing scene in a game about wiping out a human trafficking network: the breakup.
When the gang has secured transportation off the island, Jason informs them that he’s staying behind. “I’ve found my place,” he says. “It’s here, on this island.”
Somber music plays as Liza paces, visibly grasping for words. “I am trying to get a read on this,” she says.
“For the first time,” Jason replies, “I know exactly what I want, and I’m not gonna let it slip away.”
“You are all grown up,” she says, choking back tears and contractions. And we’ve seen this conversation before, haven’t we? Liza lays it down: “I’ve been waiting for this forever. Now you’re leaving me.”
I’ve found my place.
I know exactly what I want.
I’ve been waiting for this forever.
Now you’re leaving me.
As if he’d decided to join the Peace Corps. As if he were dropping out of college to pursue his dreams. As if he were quitting his job at the bank to follow Phish around for a while. He hasn’t decided to join the Peace Corps, though, and he hasn’t even decided to join Rakyat society, since he’s spent almost no time in that society. He has no ties to Rook Island, no relationships to maintain. What Jason is staying behind to do is to fight in a recreational guerilla war motivated by personal revenge. The redemptive freedom that makes him walk taller and laugh louder has nothing to do with the sight of a sunrise over the mountains. Jason’s redemption can be found in the smell of a freshly skinned boar, or the dull gaze of a pirate whose lungs have filled with blood. Jason’s redemption is all about the knife.
I don’t know much about Liza, but I suppose I like what I know. She seems to be practical and passionate and supportive, and she’s a woman in a videogame, so she’s beautiful to boot. She reminds me of any number of amazing women I met back when I was in Jason’s demographic: when I still thought of myself as a sleeping demon. I’m sure slacker boyfriends can be intensely frustrating, but the fact that she’s willing to accept Jason’s decision to throw his heart and soul into killing–that she very nearly seems to admire it–is intensely depressing.
I booted this game because I wanted to be a psychopath for a while. Stop making me out to be the romantic lead.
Not content to leave gross enough alone, the game closes with a rather stark binary: Citra–the Rakyat priestess who initiates Jason into the cult of the warrior by getting him fucked up on hallucinogens and molesting him–kidnaps the comely coeds I’ve spent the whole game rescuing and demands that I execute them. It’s insane, but I suppose it qualifies for what gamers laughably refer to as “moral choice.” Also, I’ve already killed basically every other man and beast on the island.
When it came down to it, I pulled back. Liza’s sitcom girlfriending notwithstanding, I didn’t feel much for these characters, but I’d spent too much time with Jason send him all the way into the dark. Jason loved power, to exert his Will upon the world with knife and arrow and full-metal jacket rounds. There was no Will in slicing up these ciphers, these shadows shaped like women; the world, by refusing to resist, offered no satisfaction. They didn’t seem to belong in the game. Killing them would cheapen the holy terror I’d wrought so successfully. In a game I was playing specifically for its celebration of pointless violence, killing Jason’s friends was just too pointless.
Power is exciting. Sadism is dull.
And on that staccato note, the story is over, and the lights come up on the really real world. There isn’t any way to kill my way out of where I am. I am probably no good at killing, and it’s a privilege to maintain that ignorance.
The school where I did my graduate work is putting together another issue of their newsletter, and the emails are pouring in from my beautiful former-colleagues, new jobs and new babies and the like. I try not to look at the emails, and focus on more productive things. I write, even if it’s not marketable. I run and lift weights, and convince my central nervous system to give me just a little more time to get it together. I read fantasy novels and drink local beer, and savor the scents carried on the dry winter air. I am alive, and I try to remember that. I try to remember that it is a privilege to be here, and a privilege to fail.