Far Cry 2 is one of the most immersive games I’ve ever played, yet there has never been a game story I have felt more disconnected from.
In Far Cry 2, you are dropped into an african nation erupting into civil war. Your overall mission, as is repeated to you on the loading screen every time you load your game, is to kill the “bastard that armed both sides”. You are free to explore the world, have lots of explosive fiery fights with the agressive militias, and mess about, but to advance the story you have to do missions for the leaders of the warring factions. Every one of these missions is to commit an immoral act that will make the state of the country worse. Stop the production of medicine. Assassinate the chief of police. Destroy a water pipeline. Prevent a peace agreement.
The opening of Far Cry 2 shows you the deteriorating state of the country. Your mission, as you are reminded every time you load your game, is one motivated by the cruelty of the developing war. I wanted to help the country. I wanted to save the civilians. I wanted to stop the war. It’s a credit to the excellent job of the Far Cry 2 team, of all the work they put into immersion, of the work they put into that opening sequence, of the impression of an open world of choices, that I felt so strongly about it. But as Bioshock proved, when you’re a playing a game you’re not in complete control of your own actions. You can only do what the game allows you to do. And Far Cry 2, despite its open sandbox world, will only allow you to do bad things.
It made me angry, at first. There has never been a character in a game I have hated as much as Hector Voorhees, who offered me a mission to disrupt the peace talks between the warring factions just so that he could continue to get work as a mercenary. A mission that the game would not let me refuse. But then over the course of the game, I lost all personal connection to the story and gameworld. I couldn’t stay emotionally involved when despite all appearances, it was made abundantly clear that when it came to the missions, my character was not me, he was some faceless person I would never meet and had no control over.
If you press escape to go into the menu, then go into a journal sub-page, you get to read your character’s thoughts about recent events. From reading this, and from Patrick Redding’s narrative design presentation, I get the sense that there is a predefined character for the player, with defined motives. Namely, that like the rest of the foreigners in the game, you’re a mercenary here to profit from the troubles of the country. Being a villain in a game is perfectly valid kind of story to tell, although I can’t think of an example I’m familiar with that’s been quite so shameless about it as this. Even Hitman included some subtle details to suggest your targets were bad men, in case you needed some kind of moral justification for your killing. Even ignoring that element, I enjoyed being the villain in Hitman. But I hated it in Far Cry 2.
I believe the problem of my reaction to the game comes from a collision between different styles of game storytelling. The Far Cry 2 team have given the protagonist of their story definite motives and character. But in presentation, this is not communicated at all. The protagonist is presented as a blank slate character, in the style of the Half-Life games. We never leave first person perspective, the character never speaks, and even never takes an action that the player did not initiate (it just sometimes doesn’t implement any other actions than the one you’re intended to take). These kind of devices are commonly used in order for the player to put themselves into the protagonist’s shoes, to empathise with him/her, or to prevent the in-game character from ever saying or doing anything that would contradict the player. It helps immersion a lot, which is why I imagine it was chosen to be used in Far Cry 2.
But I’m not sure the story is one that will fit this. In both Far Cry 2 and in Half-Life, the player’s character does whatever he’s told to do. The difference is in what those tasks are, and how they are presented to you. In Half-Life, your goals are generally clearly the only option in the circumstances, the instruction from other characters is merely an explanation of those circumstances. “You’re being hunted, you should get out of the city”, “We’re under attack, defend yourself”. In Far Cry 2, things are not so clear and obvious and urgent. It gives you choice, and only then reveals that its a choice of one, and your option is not one most people would want to pick.
It’s possible that I’m wrong about this, and it isn’t impossible to merge these two styles of storytelling. Maybe it is just a matter of the difficulty of execution, as Clint Hocking claims on Pentadact’s blog. He admits that there were some weaknesses in the early story, and maybe if the changes he describes had made it in, I wouldn’t have had a problem. I nevertheless applaud the Far Cry 2 team for their efforts. It’s an ambitious game, and I think very successful in almost everything it has tried to do, even if I think the story was a poor choice.