Some thoughts on Far Cry 3

Whenever a high quality open world game comes along, I try to play it. Of all the games I play, those are the ones that more convincingly than any other provide me with agency, with worlds that respond to my actions. They present coherent spaces that I can project myself into. Compared to many games of other genres, like the lame, static theatre of many corridor shooters, they’re violently engaging.

So yes, it’s about escapism. It’s about the worn and torn expression immersion (don’t worry, I’m not about to use the phrase “living, breathing world” – “immersion” has become rather tired, but the “living, breathing world” has really been reduced to a parody of PR speak, hasn’t it?).

The last open world game I’ve been playing (and enjoying quite a lot so far) is Far Cry 3. It’s a well made and entertaining sandbox FPS focusing both on emergent and authorial storytelling, but it’s not without a few quirks and I have some thoughts I want to share about those. So here are a some of the things I’ve been up to on Rook Islands during my first hours of play.

I hunt! I stalk boar, deer, pigs and whatever else that is necessary for my survival. But it’s not for the meat. I don’t hunt them to satisfy my hunger. I’m after the pelts, their skin. To survive in the world of FC3 you need to craft wallets, backpacks, holsters, and more… The strange thing is that I loot assault rifles, old photographs, playing cards and all kinds of crap from the bodies of dead enemies, but for some reason I have to tear the skin of a pig and sew a wallet to increase the amount of money I can take with me.

Mechanically I do appreciate this, but they could have done a better job at integrating their crafting with the world they’ve built. The level of ludonarrative dissonance is surprising for an open world game 2012.

By the way, a small hint – the best weapon for hunting is any old car you find. They’re relatively silent and won’t spend your precious ammo. And it’s fun.

I fight! A big portion of your time in FC3 will likely be spent on taking outposts from pirates. When you’ve successfully defeated the pirates and your allies come to patrol the outpost, you gain access to its safe house. Inside is an automated store, full of weapons and ammo. A great reward from a mechanics perspective, but I keep wondering who I’m buying from? It must be the pirates’ store because the place was theirs a minute ago, but they’re all dead now – nothing but perforated, inanimate and soon to be despawned carcasses. Buying weapons from my dead arch enemies doesn’t make sense.

I climb! Rook Islands are littered with radio towers. Each is unique, and if you climb all the way to the top and hit a button you receive several rewards. First you get to see the camera swirl around the nearby area, highlighting local points of interest. Then it unlocks a free weapon in the weapon stores around the islands. The motivation behind the free weapons is that all the radio towers have a signal scrambler installed by the pirates, and the store owners have problems getting new shipments until the player destroys the scramblers. The free weapons, then, is a reward, a thank you from the gun store owners. And it’s a weak explanation that I just don’t buy.

Why, when I skin an animal, do I watch the protagonist tear out its guts while leaving the fur unharmed? Why, when I pick fruits and flowers and herbs from all kinds of vegetation do I only get differently colored leaves? Far Cry 3 remains a fun sandbox with neat gameplay and interactivity, but some of the features running the sandbox feel like raw mechanics with a thin layer of hastily applied paint. Such a poor paint job makes it harder to sustain the suspension-of-belief that I crave.

It feels more like a game than a world. And I get the feeling that it was intentional. But why?

A night of DayZ

Very rarely do I get excited over games anymore.

When I was a kid it was a common thing. I heard about some new game and became engrossed in the game’s possibilities, fantasizing what could happen it its world. Reading about games and dreaming about the amazing experiences they might hold was something I enjoyed greatly, often more so than playing them.

But I’m old now (well…), and cynical (yeah), and I know the gears and pistons that make the monster move, and I know that its beating heart is really a steam engine. Partially because I’ve been a gamer for a long time, and partially because I’m a game designer, the man behind the curtain has become very difficult not to pay attention to.

Then DayZ comes along.

Day Z is a persistent sandbox zombie first person shooter with PvP and (don’t forget to breath) limited resources in a vast environment based on ARMA II.

For non-geeks it translates to a world where the players are the hunted, doing whatever is necessary to survive. Try not to be killed by the hordes of zombies that roam the cities, the villages and sometimes the woods. Scavenge the deserted homes for scarce resources like food, water, ammunition and perhaps bandages, or turn on your fellow players and murder them for their loot. If you get killed, that’s it – your character and everything he’s collected is gone. You start over with a lousy gun and a few cans of beans.

It’s a rare type of game. While the gears might still be visible, there is no man pulling strings behind some transparent curtain. Instead it’s a world run by rules of survival, populated by independent agents, where the story and intensity comes from how the players choose to deal with those agents (and each other) in order to survive. In other words, it’s a game that can tell great player stories, and I believe that player stories are almost always more powerful than scripted stories. Somehow they feel more real.

I’m not exaggerating that I got very excited about playing it. Before I got my hands on it I watched more YouTube videos of people playing the game than I care to admit.

Last night I played the game with a couple of friends from work. Our adventure started out brilliantly, but ended in tragedy.

There were four of us. We had finally left the coastal area to escape the mayhem of bandits slaying newcomers, and started our journey north. We were becoming desperate after resources – ammo, water, those kind of things, and identified a shop on the map. Shops usually have lots of useful stuff left behind, so we decided to head to the village that we so far only knew from the map.

We travelled rather carefully, trying to stay behind tree lines when possible, darting from bush to bush whenever we were left naked by open fields. We ran and ran until we finally found the village on a small hill. Scouting the area from a distance, we found it empty of bandits but full of zombies – but we were well armed with courage (and guns), and counting our clips we agreed we had enough ammo to take them.

The first shot was the signal, and before the first zombie hit the ground all our guns were firing unto their targets. The four of us made a line across the road leading into the village, and as the undead came running they faced a relentless wall of death.

The fields and roads and gardens became littered with bodies. Only the zombies on the other end of the village were still alive, oblivious of the carnage that had just been inflicted upon their neighbours. While the place was not yet safe, I had run out of ammo and felt I needed to find that shop, hoping to find bullets. Quite foolishly I hastened ahead of the others, and unfortunately attracted unwanted attention that my friends had to deal with.

But where was the shop? A house held a handful of rounds, but there seemed to be no shop.

Suddenly we were surrounded by a large group of zombies no one had any idea where they came from. Our guns were running hot once again, but the few clips I had found were soon gone and I had to retreat back into the house.

Was it safe there? A few seconds passed before the distorted shape of a zombie walked through the door frame. Slowly shuffling towards me, I made sure the kitchen table was between us. He advanced around the table, which opened the path to the exit. As I sprinted out of the kitchen, I met a friend in the hallway. To my great relief, he took care of the zombie.

The outside was utter chaos. People were hurt, people were running low on ammo, and all of a sudden one of my coworkers fell to the ground, unconscious. Friendly fire. We were not losing control – it had been lost minutes ago and we were now fighting a losing battle. Zombies continued to pour into the garden where we fought and bled. Having no ammunition, I tried to make myself useful by helping my downed coworker.

Slowly the number of living zombies decreased and we started to gain hope. I took the pulse of my dying coworker and realized it was still strong. Hoping that he might wake up I gave him a blood transfusion and some morphine, but he remained unconscious. Most of the zombies were now gone, and we decided to try to get the hell out of there while we had the chance. Dragging our friend with us, we slowly moved away from the houses towards an open field.

The village had been a terrible idea. We were hurt, I was still out of ammo and the fate of our incapacitated buddy seemed grim.

During the slow walk to, well, anywhere else than where our asses had been so thoroughly kicked, we had the occasional zombie attack – but we were now back in control. Except for the coma patient we hauled through the grass, that is.

But we were lost. Not knowing where to go, we kept walking. Minutes went by. Minutes became an hour, and we were still lost and our friend was not doing any better. We couldn’t just leave him there, so we started considering our options. Perhaps we could try getting him to a city. But they’re very dangerous, and even more so if you’re hauling someone with you – and we had been on a mission to leave the cities and the coast behind us. Maybe we could leave him there in the grass, only temporarily, to search for medicine.

Or perhaps we should end his misery with a shot to the head.

The last option started to sound like a good idea as time went by. The problem with a mercy killing is that DayZ has a system where you lose “humanity” when killing players, ultimately turning you into a bandit whom always suffers a risk of getting shot on sight by other players.

Then a large field opened up before us, and in the middle of the field was a destroyed helicopter. With a fully functioning minigun. We couldn’t fly the helicopter, but we considered ideas like getting hordes of zombies to follow us, only to lead them to the helicopter and slay them all with the minigun. Then, with the mindset of game designers, we asked ourselves if killing a player with the minigun instead of our own weapons would leave our humanity unaffected.

The comatose was placed in the grass in front of the helicopter, and one of the survivors climbed inside and manned the minigun. We contemplated the situation for a moment, but there was nothing more to say. It was time.

The trigger was pulled, and then it was all over. The remaining blood seeped out of the perforated body as the smoke cleared from the barrels. Perhaps 600 rounds of high caliber ammunition was overkill, but I guess the gunner wanted to be sure.

We took the most important things from the carcass of our friend, and moved towards the forest. He was dead, but we were alive.