‘Parody is a Game’

Far Cry 3, Repetition, Imitation, & Repetition

Commentary - Parody is a Game

Sam Zucchi is a dilettante games critic from Canada. You can find more of his occasional writing at Games are not Art.

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“Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.” – Vladimir Nabokov

Since its release in 2012, the critical consensus surrounding Far Cry 3 has been one of mixed praise: on the one hand, it is an entertaining game; on the other hand, it falls thematically flat on its face as the colonial tropes, the tone-deaf treatment of rape, and the rote action hamstring the game’s attempts to make more serious points. When Jeffrey Yolahem, the game’s author, says in an interview with Rock Paper Shotgun that the inclusion of these de rigueur elements are part of an exaggerated satire of the player’s pursuit of entertainment in First-Person Shooters – “This game is about entertainment, and about how far will you go in these loops, and how much entertainment are you actually having from them” says Yolahem – we are nevertheless struck by an inability to distinguish the subject of satire from the satire itself. As John Walker’s reflection on his interview with Yolahem so aptly summarizes, “rather than making us aware of the horrors of the starving Irish when he says they should eat their babies, instead it too often felt like he was publishing baby recipe books to the very hungry.”

This essay is not intended to refute these criticisms. Rather, it is intended to suggest that the debate surrounding the game could be placed on more appropriate grounds. As the epigraph notes in brief, the difference between satire and parody is one of moral intent: satire is criticism in a clown’s garb, while parody is simply fun. A carefully constructed, carefully plotted work, to be certain – but fun nevertheless. A parody comments on another work or genre, but lacks the condemnatory fangs of outright critique. It is merely the most recognizable features of another body, embellished for entertainment’s sake. And, given Far Cry 3’s careful construction – predicated on repetition and imitation – it is a form that perhaps best categorizes this problematic game.

‘This time is going to be different’

By this point, it’s a given that Vaas’ speech on insanity is the thematic fulcrum on which Far Cry 3 turns. The following speech outlines not only the repetitive nature of the shooter genre – die, reload, repeat – but also the repetitive nature of the various missions:

Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is? Insanity is doing the exact same fucking thing over and over again expecting shit to change. That is crazy. The first time somebody told me that, I don’t know, I thought they were bullshitting me, so, I shot him. The thing is, he was right. And then I started seeing, everywhere I looked, everywhere I looked, all these fucking pricks, everywhere I looked, doing the exact same fucking thing, over and over and over and over again thinking ‘this time is going to be different,’ ‘no, no, no please, this time is going to be different.’ […]

All right, the thing is I killed you once already, and it’s not like I am fucking crazy. It’s okay, it’s like water under the bridge.

Did I ever tell you the definition of insanity?

This monologue occurs shortly before Vaas’ third attempt (out of five) to kill Jason Brody. It is also the second time he takes the player by surprise, which serves to underscore the subject of Vaas’ ramblings. But the game is loaded with similar instances of repetition: the quests for Lin Cong’s knife are a series of Tomb Raider-esque explorations of dilapidated ruins infested with pirates and komodo dragons; the fight sequence with the Australian assassin Buck Hughes sets the tone for the boss fights with both Vaas and the final villain, Hoyt Volker. This last point deserves elaboration: the arenas for the fights with Hoyt and Buck are identical: checkerboard floor, lights hovering in the air, and a circle of darkness surrounding the action. Both fights are simple quick-time events consisting of a sequence of alternate buttons (say, left and right mouse) and a final button mashing sequence.

But the use of repetition is more expansive in scope. There are missions to recapture outposts, radio towers to be climbed, and animals to hunt with an iterated assortment of weapons (bow, shotgun, knife, etc.) – Patch 1.05 brought this emphasis on repetition to its logical end by allowing the player to reset the outposts, returning them to enemy control and allowing the player to recapture them yet again. One early mission has Jason destroy fields of pot, while a later one has him try to stop, with the German mercenary Sam Becker’s help, pirates from doing the same. When Jason rescues his friends (Liza, Oliver, Riley), they pilot the vehicle (jeep, boat, helicopter) while he guns down pursuers; in contrast to their panic and fear, the pursuit continually leaves him full of glee, and he laughs while they try to remain calm. Even his mythic position among the Rakyat is merely a recapitulation of their own creation story.

The game’s doppelgangers similarly underscore the game’s focus on repetition. For example, Jason and Vaas share, in a twisted way, the same narrative: both are taken from their old lives by Hoyt (one by immediate contact, the other by extension) and transformed into violent creatures. This parallel is supported by the role narcotics play in the story: it is mentioned repeatedly that Hoyt was the first one to introduce Vaas to drugs, and through this addiction corrupted him; but Jason is – if not similarly addicted – similarly altered by the hallucinogens within the story, as he is dosed three times by Citra, by mushroom spores found while spelunking in a cave, and, lastly, maintains a steady contact high while torching fields of marijuana. Like Vaas, Jason’s descent into violence is inextricably linked to his use of mind-altering substances.

But in this addicted aspect Jason also mirrors Dr. Earnhardt, the pharmacologist who fled to the island after the death of his daughter, Agnes, and who now uses his skills to distract himself from his grief. Jason too, after the loss of his brother, finds solace in his own violent analgesic. And in both instances, the traumatic death of a loved one is successfully relegated to the background: Agnes and Jason’s brother, Grant, are only mentioned when in the presence of Jason’s friends, and otherwise remain unspoken. There are, of course, other instances of repetition between the characters: Citra and Vaas are repeatedly conflated with one another – as is made explicit during the final fight with Vaas – while Jason shares Sam Becker’s joy in raucous violence, and so on. In short, the game’s dramatis personae consist almost entirely of doubles and doppelgangers.

A Funhouse of Mirrors

All of these details are not merely the ancillaries of a medium that depends, to varying extents, on repetition: they are narrative and mechanical set pieces that subtly reinforce the importance of repetition and mirroring to Far Cry 3 as a whole. And, with all the necessary caveats surrounding the importance (or lack thereof) of authorial intent, we find that Jeffrey Yolahem’s (almost incoherent) interview makes this very point by describing the game as a series of “loops,” expressing in shorthand the repetitive structure of Far Cry 3 and how its characters, missions, and gameplay continue to loop back into imitations of previous iterations.

Again, Far Cry 3 is a carefully structured game centered on the notion of repetition. As Yolahem notes, the ‘rook’ in Rook Island can refer to cheating someone, but the reference to the chess piece cements the importance of doubling: there are two rooks for each side in the game. The game repeatedly encourages the player to see in the various characters, situations, and motifs a reflection of their own actions: the hallucinatory sequence that frames the player’s battle with Vaas is marked by the shift between a mannequin of Jason, then Vaas, then Jason again holding a gun to their head while the player is asked “who are you, Jason?” By framing Jason in this reflective fashion, the game tries to ask the player what exactly distinguishes the two sides of the game – after all, in chess the only thing that distinguishes one rook from the other is its color.

But if this subtle back and forth is meant to provoke moral uncertainty in the player, then we are forced to return to our initial judgment of lackluster satire. To summarize Steve Wilcox’s article on the subject of satire in games, it is not enough for satires to merely present the systems they are critiquing and claim mission accomplished. Instead, there needs to be room for the player’s actions to subvert the system entirely, thereby making clear the faults in said system. But Far Cry 3 does not do this, as the violence it presumably seeks to lampoon is the core element of the game. Instead of a scathing critique, it creates a funhouse of mirrors and encourages players to wander inside and enjoy themselves. To cry, as Jason Brody does, “Faster, faster! Hell yeah, these motherfuckers never knew what hit them” after Liza says “I’m going to throw up.” Or to shout, “Use the Force” when recently rescued Riley panics over not knowing how to fly a helicopter.

But if there is a moment where Far Cry 3 demands reflection, it is at the end of the game. After spending the whole game asking the player “who are you,” (again, literally so at the beginning of the hallucinatory execution of Vaas) by way of its doublings and doppelgangers, the player is finally given the choice to answer that question: are you ready to stop, or are you ready to keep the game going? Saving Jason’s friends leads to the death of Citra (who dies, like her brother, with a knife in her chest) while Jason monologues over his inability to come back from what he has become; the other ending depicts Jason dying in a similar fashion after having murdered his girlfriend. This choice is significant because it forces apart two motivations that have remained parallel throughout the entire game: the sheer joy of violence and the need to rescue your friends. Up until this point, the two aims have worked in concert: by running and gunning, you are also working towards your friends’ freedom. The moment those objectives become mutually exclusive is the same moment that you need to decide which is more important. But this split does not carry any satirical weight: it merely takes the two driving aspects of the game (narrative and function) and asks the player which is more important to them. Either choice ends with Vaas’ doppelganger dead (again, with a knife buried in the chest), completing both the game and the cyclical design that structures the game.

Parody seems to be the most appropriate category for Far Cry 3 because the game is so carefully structured as to demand that structure’s recognition, while its ability to comment on anything other than the experience of playing a shooter remains muted. The game’s cyclical structure both embodies the general repetitiveness of modern shooters while at the same time reinforcing the way in which entertaining violence has become motivation enough for playing a game. The way in which Jason becomes a mirror for the player’s tolerance for violence is neatly captured by this insightful series of letters between Leigh Alexander and Quintin Smith, while also playing into the emphasis the game has on reflection and mirrors. Ultimately, the game continually goes through the same repetitive motions that characterize the genre, but with a muted sense of self-acknowledgement. Again, there is no moral point to be found in the game itself; there is only the worn smoothness of Sisyphus’ rock until, at last, the player is told to stop.