Monday, December 1, 2008

Your Own Private Heart of Darkness

Shtick is shtick because it’s a cheap imitation, tacky to the touch and leaving a shameful aftertaste. On occasion, though, one of these shadows will transcend shtick and become something terrifyingly close to the real thing.

Far Cry 2 is an exercise in post-colonial schtick, shamelessly aping Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness" and, by extension, Copolla’s "Apocalypse Now" with its Kill-Kurtz plot and its moody atmosphere. But instead of being a derivative experience, Far Cry 2 hacks out its own niche within the tradition by taking full advantage of the medium – you are Marlowe, and the game doesn’t jar you out-of-character with a deluge of scripted moments and cooked-up drama. Far Cry 2 borrows heavily from its lineage, but manages to pull a trick rare within the genre – it makes something new.

Breathtaking visuals certainly help the immersion. The Dumia Engine does a great job of rendering a world that is gritty without being murky, and colorful without being phony. Sunrises and –sets are stunning to behold. In fact, I can blame more than one death on slack-jawed admiration of the graphics.

Crytek calls Far Cry 2 a “revolution” in storytelling, though I wouldn’t go that far. It’s the old Molenyeux “blade of grass” line, promising a game world that will react organically to the player’s every action, whether it be murdering his father or altering a single blade of grass. It didn’t work in Fable(s), and it doesn’t work here. There is no choice between good and evil – it’s evil, and eviler. Your only morally commendable racket is the transport of passports to pinned-down refugees, whose do-gooder fixers regard you with increasing suspicion (even then, you do this not for good will, but for malaria pills). If there’s no opportunity to be a white hat – if your path is an unavoidable downward spiral – is the game world truly dynamic?

Well, who gives a shit? It’s a pitch-black world, and an obligatory spread of boy-scout missions would seem tacked-on. The game’s true storytelling achievement is its understatement, its lack of storytelling. The game’s most salient moments are unscripted. Once, I was pinned down by hired guns at a flooded-out diamond mine, bailing out a friend. When the gunfire died down, I found her wounded, groaning for help. I had one health-boosting syrrette left, and I jabbed it into her shoulder. She didn’t get up. “More,” she said. I hit her again with the empty syrrette. “More, please,” she said. I hit her again, and again, until her eyes rolled back and her body went limp. I lowered her to the ground. All of this happened without mournful strings, or any interjection on my character’s part – just the sound of the rain.

It’s a mean game.

Back to post-colonial shtick. Africa has long been painted as the bedpan of western civilization’s sins. The game lets you know that you’re an interloper, a foreigner dabbling where you shouldn’t, and it infects you, both literally and figuratively, the malaria rotting your body, and the practice of war-for-hire rotting your soul. At the heart of this lies the recognition of (gag) “otherness,” a revelatory flash where the player recognizes that he or she is a stranger in a strange and hostile land. It happens in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” in Greene’s “The Heart of the Matter” and even Ondaatje’s “The English Patient.” It would have been easy for Far Cry 2 to arrange a suitable moment for the player, complete with a setting sun and some stirring ethnic music. But it lets us find it on our own, without a hint of the Wagnerian bombast (see: Halos 1-3).

Sure, the “storytelling revolution” is little more than a gussied-up choose-your-own-adventure story– what isn’t? Far Cry 2 is a game that knows its lineage, and respects it with a less-is-more approach. I would hope for similar brevity in first-person shooters, but it would only last until Halo: Recon – excuse me, Halo: ODST – is released, and the orchestra readies their Wagner once again.