Warning: spoilers ahead. Far Cry 3 does a lot of things right. It's fun to play, the island setting is beautiful, sneaking around is a lot of fun, gunplay is solid, and everything works well. But the story… well, the story has some issues.
As I pointed out in my review, the unevenness and general kinda dumbness of the narrative is the thing that holds Far Cry 3 back from "we'll still talk about this in five years" glory. I'm midway through my second playthrough, and the problems with the story are more apparent than ever.
It's never terrible (and at times is perfectly enjoyable), but the storytelling is often lazy, sometimes irritating, occasionally offensive, and never manages to come together into a unified vision. And the ending just flat-out stinks.
However, with a single change to the story, Ubisoft could have addressed almost every problem the game's story has. Not only that, Far Cry 3's story could have gone from "forgettable romp" to "everyone is calling this the best story of the year."
"Oh, god," you may lament, "surely you aren't going to engage in this worst sort of Monday-morning quarterbacking! Surely you aren't about to suggest your own ending while ignoring all of the development hurdles that make writing a video game so uniquely difficult?"
Yes, I'm afraid I am. Indulge me for a moment, and let's imagine what might have been.
We're going to have some big ol' Far Cry 3 spoilers in here. OK.
First, the problems. Here they are:
- It's tonally inconsistent. Far Cry 3's tone is all over the place. We've got serious business going down, Jason's brother gets killed, there's a super-dark rape subplot, people are being subjugated, murdered, and sold into slavery. But then there's Jason's stoner friend cracking drug jokes, the out-of-place Quentin Tarantino references, the ridiculous (though awesome) pot-farm burning mission, and all manner of wacky CIA hijinks. Generally, the story's tone is all over the place.
- The heroes are arseholes. There's an argument to be made that we're not supposed to like Jason and his motley band attractive white kids. But that's never really explored by the story… we just sort of leave them after a certain point, and they return for the ridiculous, tacked-on conclusion. They're all arseholes, including Jason. I wanted them all to die, including Jason.
- The race stuff. Far Cry 3 handles race in some pretty problematic ways. Far too often it relies on the "Magical Negro" trope, and Jason is given tribal tattoos that allow him to "access his inner warrior" and become a badass. Particularly in sidequests, the native people of the island are portrayed as helpless simpletons who are just thrilled that this untrained white boy from California has decided to come and save them all.
- It's not believable. There's a big difference between realistic and believable, and games generally can skip the former if they're nailing the latter. But Far Cry 3, when you step back and think about it, never feels realistic or believable. Why is this kid suddenly able to save everyone on the island? How is he any more qualified than any of Citra's many tattooed warriors? Why is everyone behaving the way they are? Why does Vaas go to such Bond Villain-like lengths to kill Jason in elaborate ways? Why are we being asked to accept that rich white Americans can be kidnapped and sold into slavery?
- It ditches the best character. The best character in Far Cry 3 isn't Jason, nor any of his friends. It's not Citra, it's not any of the other questgivers, and it's certainly not Hoyt. The real star of Far Cry 3 is Vaas, the manic, menacing pirate overlord who so entertainingly pursues you for the first 2/3rds of the game. And yet after a certain point, you simply go and… kill him. In a dream-sequence? And he's never heard from again. What a waste!
So, those are the main problems with the story, as I see 'em. But here's the thing: The entire story could have been salvaged by a simple decision, a plot point I felt was telegraphed throughout the entire game, and which I was perplexed never came to pass:
Halfway through the game, it's revealed that you're not Jason. You never were. You're Vaas.
This could've been made to work with the existing content in a number of ways. Let's say the entire first half of the game is an elaborate hallucination brought on by, I don't know, torture and imprisonment. How about this: Vaas was a successful worker for Hoyt until his power over the island grew too strong, and he pissed Hoyt off by failing to kill an American kid who escaped him. An American named... JASON BRODY.
Hang on, hold on, OK. Back up. That image is from the handbook in the game. Let's see here. Here we've got this guy:
and this guy:
One looks like a bad mother, probably crazy enough that he could cause some damage. The other looks like a grade-A doof. I don't mean to say that the doof's story can't be interesting, but it'd be more interesting to tell us the doof is the hero, then pull the rug out from under us.
Anyway. Back to making stuff up. The particulars of this aren't really that important; there are a handful of ways that the twist could be made to work. Here's one: Hoyt had Vaas tortured and imprisoned, where Vaas relived his downfall through the imagined eyes of his nemesis, recreating Jason's exploits and greatly exaggerating his prowess. As it turns out, Jason just sort of got lucky and evaded Vaas -- but in Vaas' twisted mind, Jason was granted magical powers by Vaas' sister Citra and became an all-powerful Rambo. How else could he have eluded Vaas for so long?
At the point in the story when Jason kills Vaas, instead of dying, Vaas re-awakens and it's revealed that Vaas actually killed Jason, and you take control of Vaas. You break out of Hoyt's prison and spend the remainder of the game taking down Hoyt and conquering the island. Maybe there's a sequence where you kill Jason's friends. Sweet.
Not only would this be one of the boldest, most talked-about narrative twists of the last few years, it would solve so many of the problems listed above. We wouldn't have to swallow the idea that an untrained twentysomething rando could take down an entire army. The disdain shown to the islanders would make more sense, given that we're seeing everything through Vaas' eyes.
The tonal inconsistencies would be turned on their heads, and it'd match with the kinda cheesy, pop-dark vibe of the game. The moment we assumed the role of a gleeful villain, it would be much easier to shoot, burn, and pillage our way through the Rook Islands. The white saviour thing from the first half would dissolve into irony. The arsehole main characters would all get killed, thank god, and our vendetta against Hoyt would feel less abrupt. And best of all, the game would really feel like it was about something: About insanity and dominance, about taking what you want and using it to take more.
The more I think about it, the more I'm surprised Far Cry 3 didn't go this route. Even the menu and loading screens play with the idea of duality: Fading, Rorschach-like inkblots of Vaas and Jason blend into one another. The "characters" screen of the game's handbook shows Vaas standing behind Jason, with a gun pointed at his head. Even the cover of the game prominently features Vaas, with Jason (or someone?) buried up to his nose in sand.
I don't know about you, but if I saw that cover and knew nothing about the game, I'd guess it was about the guy in the red tanktop.
Every time the two characters meet, there's this weird tension, like we're not being told the whole story. How is Jason surviving all this, again? Why is Vaas talking about the definition of insanity, and how that means doing things over, and over, and over? As Vaas lectures Jason about family, love and madness; as Jason wanders through hallucinations and sees Vaas at every corner, every Fight Club alarm in my brain went off. Surely I am this guy, right?
But nope. Apparently Vaas is just some jerk who sort of dies in a dream sequence.
Putting my pie-in-the-sky imaginary endings aside for a minute, my broader point is that many games, even good ones like Far Cry 3, could be taking more risks and telling more interesting stories. Games like Red Dead Redemption and this year's flawed but ambitious Spec Ops: The Line have toyed with similar ideas, and I hope to see more big-budget games taking on similar notions in the future. Considering the high level of across-the-board talent responsible for Far Cry 3, it doesn't seem out of line to have hoped for more.
"The whole game is about subverting video game cliches," Far Cry 3 lead writer Jeffery Yohalem told me when I spoke with him back at E3 . "It's a psychological adventure. We're definitely trying to question what a game is, and I think that's what Far Cry 2 did as well, where they tried to explore the limits of video games. And our game is about video games to a huge degree, and about what you expect from video games, and how we change things up."
When I heard "change things up" and "subverting video game cliches," I was expecting something truly surprising. What I got were some well-written characters, a couple of quality drug trips, a helicopter minigun sequence lifted from Apocalypse Now and a final moral choice that made no sense.
Oh, well. At least the game is super fun.