In the last decade there has been a surge of games focussed on building and creating, rather than experiencing a prepared Hollywood influenced narrative or one long corridor of goons and explosions.
These games primarily give players a set of tools and a few basic tasks to guide the player’s creative endeavours; these tasks are often optional.
Primary examples of this are Minecraft and Little Big Planet, both of which focus on creation and a have made a lot of money.
Turns out players enjoy ‘creating’ as much as ‘experiencing’, and such games have aroused the same creative juices that Lego and Mechano have evoked in many a wannabe-architect’s life.
There are many games that embrace this with map and character creators, but this is usually a mere additional feature or means for some minor personal input rather than a pure creation agency encouraged by freedom and a set of building blocks.
The player becomes the director rather than viewer in creation games.
Games such as Little Big Planet and Minecraft are notoriously time consuming despite intuitive controls and gradual learning curve. Some gamers don’t have the time to invest in such games or they prefer a little more guidance and less overwhelming freedom.
This isn’t to say such players are less creative or committed, it just takes a certain type of gamer to create something like this.
That’s where creatively destructive games come in; games like GTA. For all its criticism, the one thing that keeps players coming back to Rockstar’s hallmark series is its destructive freedom and free reign to do (what feels like) whatever the hell you want on secluded islands. While Far Cry 4 is thematically and narratively a completely different beast, the recent first person option included in the GTA V Remastered highlights how similar the two works are.
In both Far Cry 4 and Grand Theft Auto V the player is free to roam a gorgeous environment that borders on the sublime. Both worlds are vast and dangerous. Destruction is the key method of interacting with the environment, often leading the player to question actions they make merely to progress in the in-game world.
In its nature
The means of destruction in Far Cry 4 range from the mundane to surprisingly unique; with explosive barrels and rhinos on the opposite ends of the spectrum. As a modern shooter, most may approach the game with machine guns, rocket launcher, grenades and sniper rifles. But there is so much more to the game.
As it is easy to be outnumbered and flanked, it is often more effective to lure a bear with bait and send it into a group of nearby enemies. The bear will do all the hard work. I often found myself attracting the attention of very unfriendly rhinos, simply to lead one to an enemy camp about five minutes away. It’s probably just as easy to use a rocket launcher and watch the fire spread onto the foliage of Kyrat, only to engulf enemies. However, watching enemies struggle to survive in the face of a terrifying rhino is far more satisfying.
Destruction in Far Cry 4 is a means to an end. It is the only tool the player has to progress, be that a good or bad thing. Improving Ajay’s skills and equipment requires the pelts of Kyrat’s wildlife. This means actively hunting animals is the only way to improve stats and become powerful.
This crafting system is an integral mechanic, presenting a choice to the player: kill animals and make life easy, or turn the other cheek, ignore attacking animals and struggle. This is a game of survival of the fittest, a theme which runs to the core of everything in the game. Far Cy 4 plays out as an exercise of power struggles, the player dancing around enemies and allies with cunning skill or raw fire power to outsmart or destroy.
Eye of the beholder
The use of first person heightens the sense of immediacy, as it does in many games. However, in creatively destructive games such as Far Cry 4 it is necessary to immerse the player as a destroyer.
Picture a box encased in two larger outlying boxes: the innermost box is the mind, the intermediate box is the body and the external box encasing the previous two is the world.
This is a three tier system that has so far proven to be the most effective for narrative stories, particularly those told from a human perspective. The viewpoint of the game becomes the mind and body, an illusion that is broken due to narrative, over the top actions performed in game and the fact you are probably playing in your lounge wearing only your underwear.
For all their merits, third-person games have an additional tier: the camera, as separated from the body. This view breaks the illusion of immersion further than that of a first-person view.
So, even though the player is fully aware they are not actually the protagonist, the player can connect further with the three-tiered system, as this is how most players experiences life: mind, body and world. We don’t view ourselves through a disembodied lens.
This is not a new observation. First person games have been touting and overusing the term ‘immersion’ for far too long. But what makes Far Cry 4 different?
To demonstrate this point I will invert the scenario. Imagine a game with the central mechanic being creation. Let’s call this game Brick Laying Simulator 2015. I know you can already imagine it: a game in which the player plans housing estates with resource and time-based systems. Forget that, think of a game in which the player is a builder, played in first person, and all you do is lay bricks, move things about on a construction site and mix cement. It sounds amazing, I know.
This type of game would falter due to immersion. The spectacle of creation is easier to manage from a detached viewpoint that complements building mechanics; immersion isn’t key for such games.
On the other hand, destruction becomes a spectacle from a ‘real’ view. It leads to intimidating moments that boarder on the sublime. Over‑the‑top context of videogames usually allows the player to detach themselves from the intimidating subject matter. This is why we don’t feel guilty about killing thousands of NPCs a day. Well, that and the fact that they aren’t real. At least I hope they aren’t.
Think about the recent addition of first person to GTA. What once was comical often becomes too real with the first person view, making many feel uncomfortable with their in-game actions.
Far Cry 4 inverts creation games, purposefully or not. Far Cry 2 did this nearly seven years ago, but Far Cry 4 is more refined and its story and progression mechanics (the simple skill trees and crafting systems) embraces the creatively destructive nature of play. When a game makes me question whether I want to kill a beautifully rendered snow leopard simply so I can hold more ammo, I have to take a moment’s pause to praise such an ability in the current state of the industry. It’s a direct reward for destruction that fuses perfectly with the rest of the game.
Death, death everywhere
Far Cry 4 is concerned with death, destruction and chaos. Look around Kyrat at any given time and there will most likely be two opposing factions caught up in a firefight or a heap of corpses on the floor. Many of these heaps are random: the destruction presumably caused by a fierce animal or firefight that the player was not privy to. Others can be staged but nicely coalesce with the narrative.
One such example can be seen near the arena, a place for illegal fights against animals or generic goons. Barbaric gladiator rules apply.
This guy has wedding photos on him, sad times
The arena can be found on a cliff-side with a calming but eerie lake below. Upon first leaving the arena a few locals can be seen throwing bodies from the cliff into the lake. It’s safe to assume these bodies are the ones you killed to survive just moments ago. If you take the time to visit the bodies below, you will further find skulls and bones of past fighters, a simple reminder of the death and destruction that was necessary for Kyrat to be the troubled country it is. On one of the fresh bodies you can find a set of wedding photos. It’s an easy way to pull at a player’s heartstrings but feeling this person, your deceased enemy, had a life beyond your act of slaughter and main narrative is a delight. It’s a fictional life that has never been programmed or fully realised, but imagined and alluded to by someone at Ubisoft. It makes the player feel like an agent of destruction that is harming Kyrat rather than assisting it. It is much more effective than being told this through cut scenes and overwitten dialogue. Exposition is crucial in art.
Tough decision to make
NB. Spoilers below
Far Cry 4 is deceptively about choice. The infamous option to complete the game in 20 minutes took the internet by surprise back in November 2014. Fans were expecting – in part due to journalist critiques – the game to be a simple reiteration of Far Cry 3. While this is true on the surface, there’s a lot more under the hood of Far Cry 4.
Surrounded by death, Pagan eats with monkey heads for company
In the choice alluded to, Ajay, the protagonist, is told by the antagonist Pagan Min to stay seated for a while and he will return to help Ajay complete his quest. Pagan has thus far been very antagonistic, killing his own guards, stabbing Ajay’s ally in the back with a fork, tasting the ashes of Ajay’s mother and, gasp, taking a selfie of himself with Ajay. None of this invites the player to stick around, defenceless, to wait for Pagan to return. Plus, when recent videogames have taught players to push forward and follow the on‑screen prompts, who on earth would wait around?
If someone was to listen to their apparent enemy and go against gaming convention, they’d be treated to one of the best design choices of 2014. Pagan gives Ajay what would otherwise take 15 hours to achieve. This is Far Cry 4’s first objective; waiting or fleeing is the first thing a player can do. The choice isn’t merely a gimmick; it’s essential to the pathos of the game’s conclusion and a direct response to the deserved criticisms of Far Cry 3.
It also highlights the problem of playing AAA games. AAA games are dull, uninspired and linear. Far Cry 4 inverts this and places the blame on the player. It’s the player who lacks creativity, not the pre-designed game.
Far Cry 4 doesn’t want the player to believe what they are doing is right, but it also knows that being destructive is the best way to enjoy what is on offer. It encourages exploration with minute details that do not interrupt the flow of the action, allowing for the player to simply shoot their way to victory or decide their own victory. Even when Pagan helps Ajay during the finale and flies away in his helicopter, the game gives you some time to watch him go. Of course, if Pagan has not won you over by this point, this is your last chance to pull out a rocket launcher and shoot him down. The game does not prompt you to do this. This is not a choice that is forced upon you. If you decided to do this, then well done: you creatively killed Pagan without being told to do so. You creatively beat Far Cry 4.
The only thing Far Cry 4 is missing to be the perfect example of a creatively destructive game is environmental destruction such as featured in Red Faction. If Ubisoft opt for something like this in the next iteration of the series, Far Cry will become the perfect antithesis of games like Minecraft. Here’s to hoping.
For more, check out the Far Cry 4 review here.