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Far Cry 3 has already given me one of my defining gaming moments of the last year – a sequence that brings together in perfect chaos theme, gameplay, aesthetic and music to die to. If you’ve played the game you know the bit I’m referring to. If you haven’t played the game, then at least play the first two-fifths of the missions. You’ll know when you get there because your head will be buzzing for days.
Far Cry 3 also presents one of the best gaming playgrounds of the last year. As a virtual theme park, loaded up with wow moments and well-choreographed quasi-emergent peril, it excels. I really do like a lot of it a lot and Steam says I’ve spent over 38 hours pratting around in its improbably biodiverse jungle.
But there is a problem – I am just over half-way through the missions, and have secured the North Island, but I am increasingly sure that I’m not going to finish it. I have more or less got the gameplay down. I have a well-refined system for taking out outposts. I have hunted what I needed to get tooled up. The gameplay within actual missions is, so far, fairly routine with only occasional flashes of brilliance. It’s almost certainly not going to be worth another 20 or more hours of my life and if I do press on I suspect that I will be chewing for the sake of it without any real expectation of further gaming nourishment.
Does it matter if I don’t finish it? Well, obviously not in any geopolitical sense and I would be lying if I said it was the first game I had left fallow. However, the game has a story, plot, characters. There are some of the characters, like Vaas, who I am keen to hear more from. I would like to see the remaining friends get rescued. I don’t really want to leave the narrative, with all its controversies, unfinished. But I also don’t want to grind through missions and systems that I feel I have more or less exhausted for the sake of that narrative. It could easily take me another 20 to 30 hours to finish the game – more time than my total playtime on FTL, Super Hexagon and Hotline Miami put together. Any one of those other games would give me more in two or three hours than I am likely to get out of another 20 or 30 hours with Far Cry 3. One hour spent browsing www.freeindiegam.es would be time better spent.
Lots of far more erudite and professional writers than I have already spilt a lot of pixels on the question of narrative or plot in games – some finding it to be a contamination from other media, some considering it a feedback mechanism, some considering it to be either necessary for or an inevitable consequence of gameplay, some considering it no different from the narrative in any other communicative medium. I like narrative in games. One of my defining games, historically, is Deus Ex – the game that opened my eyes to ways of exploring ideas, plot, character and world-building that were totally distinct from anything achievable by means of literature, film or visual art. But there is a tension generated by narrative within games that creates eddies and currents unlike any found in our established passive media.
One of these eddies is the problem I have with Far Cry 3. The fact that Vaas is an engaging and involved character greatly adds to the narrative heft of the game. Similarly, the fact that my immersion in the island life of the game doesn’t break despite being so regularly confronted with evidence of an intelligent designer at work, is testimony to the degree of narrative life that the developers managed to breath into their world-building. All this narrative richness contributes to the work’s overall value as a created work and I wouldn’t be without it; however, it also exacerbates a specific failure condition for the work.
With a novel or film, it is usually a pretty damning indication of failure for the work as a whole if you, as an idealized reader/viewer, put it down unfinished. With a game, however, while it is often possible to beat a given game’s systems it is often not necessary to do so to have a worthwhile engagement with the game. I have never beaten FTL, but I still feel like I have had a very worthwhile and complete experience with it. In fact, in some cases a game’s systems may work against completion by becoming indefinitely more challenging.
The awkwardness comes when a game by focusing on directed narrative richness makes itself subject to that same failure condition as novels and films. The game creates the possibility that it can fail not through weak or boring gameplay but through failure to keep a player engaged until its narrative reaches completion.
The problem is actually worse than for a book or film. In those cases, the author or director can take a brutally autocratic approach to pacing. The author’s or director’s only concern is how to implement their narrative as effectively as possible in order to keep you reading/watching and present a satisfying and complete experience at the end of the day.
A game, almost by definition, cedes control of its pacing to the player. Even the most un-game, like Thirty Flights of Loving, a game that by design removes almost all meaningful interactivity, still leaves the player’s hand on the throttle. Worse still, most games are heavily reliant on placing obstacles to the player’s progress, obstacles which are absolutely necessary to give the gameplay meaning but which also further disrupt the pacing of the narrative. This is how we end up with the weird stasis that ensues as explosive political dynamics in Skyrim are put on hold indefinitely while I go and grind levels.
Coming back to Far Cry 3, it seems to me that the game sits in a particularly uncomfortable spot in relation to this issue. It’s narrative is a major and integral ingredient in the overall experience, much more so than in the case of, for example, Borderlands 2 or XCOM. In neither of those games am I likely to finish the story, but it doesn’t bother me because both games are driven first and foremost by gameplay – despite the very important contribution that world-building makes to the experience, at root the directed narrative is little more than explanatory wrapping paper. If you stripped out the plot from Borderlands 2, removed identifiable characters, and reduced it to a set of pure gameplay challenges it would still be a lot of fun and a major part of the experience of the game could survive. If you did this with Far Cry 3 you would be left with a fun but shallow and short-lived experience. There would not be nearly enough variety in the gameplay to sustain it as a major work.
But the core of Far Cry 3’s moment to moment experience is also strongly grounded in its shallow but moreish gameplay. Unlike in an adventure game such as The Longest Journey, you can’t excise Far Cry 3’s gameplay and be left with an experience that is even remotely comparable to the original game. Far Cry 3’s shooter gameplay, despite not having the variety of a game like Borderlands 2, is what, hour to hour, keeps you clicking.
Neither gameplay nor narrative takes a backseat in Far Cry 3 and to an extent I feel that it is a game where both are fighting for control of the steering wheel. From a gameplay perspective, the game is keen to up the difficulty and introduce new challenges (with mixed success – I just faced a boss-fight that appears to have escaped from Arkham City). From a narrative perspective the game is keen to build dissonance in the presentation of the Rakyat and to set up the ambiguous conflict between the Rakyat and Hoyt.
It is clearly very difficult to address this issue when a game, like Far Cry 3, sits so delicately between the two considerations. As a player, what I would like to see in this situation would be greater freedom on my part to intervene and nudge the game towards either narrative or gameplay as I feel the need. Given that the nature of a game is to give up at least some control of the experience to the player, I do not think this is inconsistent with the need for authorial responsibility over the game as a whole by the developer.
So, for example, in Far Cry 3 is saddens me that – as far as I can see – there is no way for me to go back and repeat the fantastic mission that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. It saddens me that the game has now apparently taken away my fast travel meaning that I can’t unilaterally head over to South Island and do some more outpost capturing – or that I can’t reset some of the outposts on North Island and capture them again, perhaps using different approaches. It used to be the case that the “Choose Mission” screen was an absolute fixture in FPS games. However, in the last ten years it seems to have totally vanished.
At the same time, in terms of the narrative, I would like to have the option of accelerating that narrative in order to achieve a complete experience. For example, aspects of the narrative arc that are less core could have been split into side-quest arcs. The substantial arc involving Buck could have been a separate arc of side-quests as could some of the Willis missions. Instead of having each of the friends rescued within the linear narrative, why not have the rescue of each friend as a separate line of side-quests, with the number of friends rescued having an impact on how the end-game plays out? This is of course how lengthy, narrative-heavy games like Mass Effect deal with the issue of player-driven pacing. Alternatively, give the player options to speed up or circumvent mission gameplay as needed. This is why the modern iOS ports of adventure games typically have some kind of hint system. L.A. Noire took this to an extreme of offering the option to skip action sequences if you fail to complete them swiftly and the option to skip driving sequences.
Not all of these solutions would work in every game. However, something I would like to see more developers engage with is the principle that ‘long’ does not always mean ‘better’. I can see that a long game, which will suck players in for a couple of months, keeps them away from other games and may be competitively desirable. However, a far better and more compelling game is one which makes efficient use of a player’s time to get its point across concisely, while also exploiting the non-linearity and fluidity of experience offered by the medium to allow players to deepen their engagement through repeat or extended play. The approach taken by Dishonored, despite being a touch lightweight, of presenting a short but dense story line, coupled with gameplay that invites repetition, and exploration and environmental story-telling that is there for those who choose to deepen their engagement, beats Far Cry 3’s approach of spinning out a fairly sparse set of narrative beats over a lengthy and linear arc of gameplay objectives that attempts to cover all the angles within a single critical path.