Opinion Piece

Breaking Down Far Cry 4’s Narrative

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Spoiler Warning: This entire piece does assume that you’ve already played the game or don’t mind having the story spoiled. If you don’t want to find out what happens  stop reading right now. Seriously. Stop. Stahp. Now.

Like Far Cry 3 before it Far Cry 4 has some impressive aspects to its narrative design that hint at something fantastic lying just below the surface, but also some major flaws which stop it from ever achieving the greatness it deserves, leaving a slightly sour taste in the mouth. What we see throughout the script is a refusal to truly commit to the ideas being presented, leaving the entire thing feeling half-hearted.

Writing quality within videogames has come on leaps and bounds since the days of Space Invader’s blank aliens descending from the sky to conquer Earth because…uh, reasons. Still, in comparison to books and movies there’s still a lot of problems, largely owing to having to build the story around the gameplay. O f course gameplay should come first since it’s the very foundation of what videogames are, but as we’ve seen from companies like Bioware both elements can be combined, and indeed it’s when they successfully are combined that we see games at their best. Sadly so few companies seem able to manage that. Here we again see a story often badly shaped around the gameplay and tamed down because the script has been tamed in order to fit a predetermined structure that some committee deems more likely to please the mass audience.

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Before we start delving into why the narrative doesn’t work let’s talk about what does work. While the charming violence of the pink-suited Pagan Min easily grabs the attention, and rightfully so given the superb voice-work by Troy Baker, it’s really the concept of interfering with a country that the focus is on, with a hefty dose of violence for good measure. By time you reach the final moments of Far Cry 4 you’ve defeated a dictator and made the decision to place Kyrat into the hands of one of two people, but the twist is that neither of them are an improvement over the current ruler. Venture to a specific location in the game world after choosing how to deal with Pagan Min and you’ll be treated to a special scene providing a brief glimpse into how Kyrat is faring with the new leader of the Golden Path in place, and it’s far from good.  Sabal wants to Kyrat to keep its ancient traditions, which ultimately means subjugating women, forcing a young girl to become a Goddess to an entire people and killing those who defied him or who are turning away from the country’s religion. Amita, meanwhile, will turn the country into a nation of slaves working to produce drugs, and mysteriously “sends” her little sister away, hinting at possibly having her forcefully exiled or even killed to ensure the country will not rally around her, since she is supposed to be the living embodiment of a Goddess. As a final decision you can opt to shoot Amita or Sabal in the back during this final scene. While a lot of people understandably want a more traditional happy ending I for one love the darker tone here. As the mad gun-toting lunatic you enter the country of Kyrat and quickly believe yourself to be fighting the good fight because that’s traditionally how videogames work, but are ultimately simply handing the country over to another dictator that will harm the people and destroy the land.

The kicker, of course, is that you initiate the chain of events through a choice; ignoring Pagan Min’s simple instructions near the beginning of the game to remain at the table. Stay seated and he’ll return to help you scatter your mother’s ashes. At the end of the game, depending on the ending you choice, you’ll also discover that Pagan was planning on making you king of the country, and if you let him live he’ll fly off into the sunset with the implication that you’re now the ruler of Kyrat. Had you just sat there at the very start instead of running off to go on a killing spree you’d have flown off to shoot guns, scatter your mum’s ashes and possibly take the throne. Go against the wishes of Pagan Min, make that one very simple choice, and you’ll instigate a sequence of events where you believe yourself to be the good guy, but ultimately are simply helping install a new dictator.

The key concept is that Ajay becomes no better than Pagan Min, shown through that simple choice while seated at the table and neatly mirrored by the song that plays once near the start and again during the closing minutes depending on the choice made; Should I Stay Or Should I Go, by The Clash. As gamers most of us didn’t even bother to think about it – here was clearly a crazy dictator and thus listening to him was never an option. We grab a gun, and off we got to wage one-man war, shedding vast amounts of blood in the process. Pagan Min has killed a lot of people, but then so do you and so do the two people who fight for control of the rebellion. It’s the age-old question of whether violence is the right answer to violence, or whether  committing such acts makes you no better than those you seek to depose.

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Things get more complex and delicious when you consider just why Pagan Min ended up like he did. Allow him to live in the closing moments of the game and he’ll reveal Ajay’s family history. As it turns out Pagan Min and Ajay’s mother had a daughter together, and in a fit of anger Ajay’s dad Mohan killed the child. In retaliation Ajay’s mother killed Mohan. Pagan himself talks about how he built a shrine to his beloved daughter and put her ashes to rest in it, and how upon exiting the shrine he had become the maniac we see throughout the game. Pagan Min, admittedly only according to him, is a broken man, shattered by the actions of Ajay’s father, a man revered as a hero by the rest of the country. It’s a fascinating character dynamic, and makes even more sense if you replay the game a second time as Pagan’s speeches via radio and even his initial introduction come across as almost fatherly. When you combine this with Pagan’s apparent desire to set you up as ruler of Kyrat it paints him in a very different light, still as a man who has done terrible things but also a far more understandable and sympathetic figure.

To a degree it’s bullshit, though. Dig into the game a bit and you’ll discover that Pagan Min was still a dick when he was younger and had quite the ruthless streak. Meeting Ajay’s mother, ironically because Mohan sent her to the palace to be a spy, does calm him down a bit. Still, one can’t help but think the story would have been more effective if Pagan had only become such a terrible dictator after the death of his daughter at the hands of Mohan. Indeed, this would have tied in with the fact that ealier in his life Pagan set his eyes on Kyrat, pretending to side with the royalists before betraying them at the last second to seize power for himself. He achieved this by bringing forth an apparent heir to the throne, before them murdering the heir. Imagine, then, if the story had gone that Pagan was actually a decent ruler, but that Mohan had led yet another revolution to seize power which then resulted in the affair and death of Pagan’s daughter, sending Pagan into a spiral of madness and making him a more interesting character, at least in my eyes.

It’s somewhat ironic that the “best” ending of Far Cry 4 is really only achieved if you stay seated at the table and enjoy the food and view. Wait for the charismatic dictator to return and you’ll just fly away, avoiding the bloodshed of fighting for the Golden Path. And who knows, perhaps Ajay winds up as rule of Kyrat and manages to piece the country back together, or gets killed by the Golden Path as Sabal and Amita continue their rampage. Maybe, just maybe, Ajay helps Pagan Min find peace, not that he deserves it by that point.

IN the end nobody in Far Cry 4 is any better than anybody else, leaving the general population to take the brunt of it all. Pagan Min, despite at least having understandable motivation, is a mass-murderer, while Ajay is just some idiot that comes trundling in and starts killing people, all at the behest of two Golden Path leaders who are not actually fighting against Pagan Min specifically as they only want the country for themselves. No matter who was on the throne, both Amita and Sabal would likely still be attempting to overthrow them. The message, in a sense, is that Kyrat is fucked no matter what happens, a mirror of what seems to be happening in several countries at the moment.

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As the basis for a narrative there’s some substantial material to work with here, especially one we stop to consider the historical cases of entire countries intervening to depose rulers and replace them only for the new person to be just as bad or even worse. It neatly plays into the idea that in videogames we’re always the good guy fighting the good fight, but here we are battling Pagan Min in order to create a new reign of terror.

But it’s a foundation laid by writers never given the chance to explore their own ideas fully. Both Amita and Sabal present some of the biggest problems due to their lack subtlety. While both characters are ultimately supposed to be revealed as potential dictators themselves, they are clearly terrible people from almost the very beginning of the game, and thus as the player you can see the basic outline of the conclusion forming too early. Although they are both so clearly horrible people with questionable motivation Ajay simply doddles along with their plans regardless, seemingly oblivious to their moustache twirling. With more subtle characterization it could have made the narrative so more satisfying.

Amita and Sabal’s overly obvious goals affect another aspect of the game. The choices you are asked to make are interesting and somewhat tricky, but only in the sense that you’re picking between the lesser of two daft evils. It’s clear from almost the start that Amita and Sabal aren’t great leaders or people you should be handing control of a country too, yet you’ll be forced to choose between them regardless, continuously grimacing at the ludicrous nature of the conundrums laid before you. Such characters demand quality writing to ensure that while their goals may still be questionable their reasoning and logic is enough to persuade you, to make you believe that you’re ultimately doing the right thing.

Ultimately it’s the character of Ajay Gale who undermines most of the narrative through Ubisoft’s own inability to choose between his being a silent protagonist or a fully fledged character in his own right. The result is an awkward compromise between the two, leading to some strange scenes in which Ajay fails to react to huge revelations or remains silent when he really needs to talk. On the flip side when he does speak it’s usually pointless, a minor comment that provides no insight into the subject at hand. He is neither the player  projected into the world, as per the likes of Skyrim, nor truly Ajay Gale the character, a person that you inhabit and take on the role of.

In comparison Jason Brody of Far Cry 3 at least had his own personal story arc that clearly defined him as a character in his own right, a character you merely inhabited. Throughout the course of the game he transforms, with the help of a lot of drugs, from scared tourist to impressive warrior to utter fucking nutcase with truly violent tendancies. Because Jason was written as a person his choices made sense throughout the game; it wasn’t you opting to do certain things, it was Jason. Ajay, though, doesn’t have a character arc, his family story largely forgotten about until the closing minutes of the game, and those dark secrets do finally come to the fore Ajay’s reaction is…nothing. His desire to spread his mother’s ashes quickly becomes a paper-thin reason to hang around in Kyrat killing a whole lot of people because it too becomes quickly forgotten about. Ajay enters Kyrat and quickly becomes a devoted and highly effective member of the Golden Path and his only reason seems to be because that’s what the needs to happen in order for the player to play the game. Jason had a genuine reason; saving his friends, and through that he became something dangerous and crazy, eventually only continuing because he had found his place.

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This comes back to the new decision system, and its repercussions. In order to allow such a system to be in place Ubisoft clearly felt like they needed to keep Ajay’s personality limited so that the player could feel like it was them making the choice, rather than Ajay. This ultimately fails because as the player I would never have attempted to choose between two clearly corrupt leaders. Every moral fork in the road involved two possible options that were entirely nonsensical to me and my method of thinking, and thus picking either route made little sense. Had Ajay been more defined as a character, and the player able to feel like they were taking on a role rather than projecting themselves, those choices would have worked far better.

Then there’s Ajay’s wasted backstory. As somebody actually born in Kyrat he would have been to the perfect window for the player to view the country’s traditions and culture, yet Ubisoft seemingly refuse to step away from the norm and thus Ajay is actually American, having been raised there. Yes, he may have been born in Kyrat, but he’s American through and through. The result is that he doesn’t seem to have any connection to the country he was born in, and the game refuses to ever  fill us in on what kind of place Kyrat is. When dealing with Sabal you quickly learn that he’s a traditionalist, but what does that even mean? Are you siding with somebody who likes to sacrifice children to the Gods? Because I’m not okay supporting someone like that. Far Cry 3 suffered from this problem too, as its lush land and people was quite vague.

The fact that the developers don’t take the time to craft Kyrat into a believable place erodes the foundations of the game. Though we are often told of the people being oppressed and of the mighty Golden Path fighting against tyranny we’re rarely given a sense of either of those things, or ever have enough information to feel attached to this world. At most we see people being held hostage or occasionally shot at, but that’s it, while the Golden Path are merely a few random guys and girls wandering around with guns, the entire resistance seemingly incapable of doing anything without you. And as for the rest of the population they often feel like they aren’t even there.

Without having anything to latch on to it’s difficult to care about the story or the so-called consequences of your actions. Choices are given to you throughout the narrative, but it seems clear that Ubisoft didn’t want to commit to the concept, and thus our decisions merely influence the objective of the next mission rather than have a lasting impact upon the world. You’ll chose between Amita and Sabal, but never see the  true consequences of those decisions and thus they fail. Choice is nothing without consequence. The closest the game gets is showing us the bodies of deal Golden Path members after opting to chase Amita’s intelligence rather than save them, but it had zero emotional impact. It’s actually pretty stupid because when you examine the narrative choice lies at the heart of it; the choice to stay at the table or go join the Golden Path, the choice between Amita or Sabal, the choice to kill or spare Pagan Min and the choice to shoot Amita or Sabal in the back. Choice matters and choice is one thing everybody on this planet can understand, and thus to portray so weakly and without consequence baffles.

All of this and we haven’t even talked about Pagan Min’s lieutenants. You see one of the criticisms often levelled against Far Cry 4 was that Pagan Min was absent for most of the game, a mere voice on a radio, which I actually believe to be a deliberate attempt to create that sensation of a guiding, fatherly voice, albeit warped by the weirdness of Pagan. This should have been balanced out by the four primary  lieutenants who would act as projections of Pagan Min’s force within the world, embodiments of his violence and power. However, like Pagan these four people are strangely absent, and their unique personalities are never explored. Indeed they seem to appear and disappear within the story at an absurd pace, introduced and killed off after a very short amount of time.

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There’s two prime examples of this problem. The first is Yuma who is supposed to act as Pagan’s second-in command, and even as a secondary antagonist. She grew up with Pagan Min and even idolised him, but as soon as Pagan feel in love with Ajay’s mother Yuma felt Pagan became weaker. As the second-in command of Pagan her presence should be felt everywhere, but in reality you’ll barely ever see her or be aware of her, and her backstory barely gets a mention.

By far the best example, though, is Noore, the woman in charge of Kyrat’s arena. Once a doctor condemning the state of Kyrat she travelled to the country when Pagan Min invited her to come and offer advice. After a short time she brought her family to Kyrat too, at which point Pagan captured them and held them hostage, forcing Noore to work for him, trafficking humans, running drugs and operating a blood-thirsty arena. As a character she’s fascinating because while she actively seeks to help Ajay recover her family there’s the feeling that she almost enjoys what she has become, that Pagan’s so-called 12-step plan for corrupting her is actually working. The twist that her family is already dead and thus she has been committing atrocities for nothing is great, and it creates an intriguing dynamic between her, Pagan and Ajay. None of this is ever used, though, as you’ll meet Noore a total of twice in the game, both for short periods of time, with the second being her dramatic death, a death wasted by the lack of time given to presenting her as a genuine person.

The problem is an unwillingness to commit fully to the many ideas within Far Cry 4. We have a protagonist who often acts like a silent character but actually isn’t, speaking out at odd moments and staying quiet when one would expect some sort of reaction. There’s choice system which refuses to show any consequences, a narrative which doesn’t allow for enough subtlety to completely work and a fascinating world that’s only actually fascinating on the surface. Even in the final moments the game simply finishes, leaving you to wonder what will happen to the land of Kyrat and its people past a brief scene that can be found explaining what Amita or Sabal were up to, exhibiting one of the very few moments where the game provides some semblance of consequence. Far Cry 4 needed to commit to its eccentric villain, it’s morally corrupt rebellion leaders and Ajay Gale as a lead character, but it doesn’t, and that leaves the narrative feeling interesting but ultimately shallow. There’s just so much potential that never gets realised.

Such unwillingness to truly commit is a problem we in many forms of entertainment, but it often feels more prevalent within games. Triple A games are an amazing thing, but they are designed to reach a wide audience, thus they have a lot in common with summer blockbusters. They are here to entertain, not provoke deep thought or bring interesting perspectives to the table. Viewed from this angle Far Cry 4 serves just fine as the narrative provides enough hints at something deeper to keep things interesting without ever actually having true depth. Viewed from another angle, though, it’s frustrating, because there’s something quite amazing lying under the surface that could have potentially been outstanding if Ubisoft had let its writers off the leash. There’s a fascinating relationship between Ajay, Pagan and the Golden Path which could have perhaps gone down as the next Spec Ops: The Line, a subversive narrative which made gamers think and question and reflect.

Ah well.

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