Far Cry 3s writer talks rabbit holes, racism, and colonialism in a game he claims is misunderstood
Warning: this post contains some things that may be considered spoilers, and some things that most definitely are.
Jeffrey Yohalem is the lead writer of Far Cry 3. The games story has been criticized as being filled clichéd writing and well-worn tropes. Kotaku called it “dumb”, while Polygon wrote that the game often felt “exploitative and pointless.”
Its easy to think were going to be over-analytical here. Yet, according to Yohalem, based on the responses hes seen online, people arent being analytical enough. “The story is itself something that can be solved, like a riddle,” he told the Report. “What makes me sad is that people dont engage with playing the riddle, trying to solve the riddle. Its like a scavenger hunt where people arent collecting the first clue.”
The first words you see when you start up Far Cry 3s story arent a tip or hint. Theyre a quote from Lewis Carrolls Alices Adventures in Wonderland. “In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.”
That quote from Lewis Carroll isnt just for fun; Alices descent and journey through Wonderland mirrors Jasons own journey in many ways, but that wont be obvious to players unless they try to actively hunt for clues and pay attention. “The Alice in Wonderland quotes are there to clue people in. You analyze them like you would any other text and they let you know whats going on,” Yohalem said.
For example, the islands Far Cry 3 takes place on are called the Rook Islands. “Rook means to steal from, or be a fraud, as well as the piece from chess. So its like a game that is a fraud,” Yohalem explained. “Through The Looking Glass is a chessboard. The landscape that Alice is moving through is a chessboard, and she can only move according to the rules of chess, and the characters she meets are on the chessboard.”
Yet Yohalem said that he hasnt seen anyone connect those dots. He said it was important that the deeper significance of the story be kept optional, that players not be forced to interpret, but its been somewhat disheartening to notice a lack of discussion. “My expectation that people would discover that framework on their own has been challenged,” he said.
Players vs. developers vs. journalists
I asked Yohalem if, since it seems like his message isnt catching on, he would alter his approach in upcoming writing. “No,” he told me. “What Im hoping is that through talking about this game and the Internet talking about this game, is that all this stuff will come to light, and the audience will say next time, We want more of this.”
“This all comes from my sense that players shouldnt be talked down to. For me, theres a kind of caustic relationship thats developed between players and developers. Its really a bad, abusive relationship, because developers say Players wont get it anyway, so were just gonna do something that holds their hand. It doesnt respect them, and then players say I hate this, or I hate that, or This game sucks, and that hurts developers. So its like a cycle. It also feels like critics arent looking for meaning in the game, either. So its like all sides have just stopped listening to each other.”
“So what Im hoping is, at least Far Cry 3 will create a conversation between people about what they expect from video games and how much the player can be involved in an analysis of the game,” Yohalem said. “Once that happens, developers will have to deliver.”
Yohalem likened game development to an actor on stage. An audience understands that when an actor is on stage, every movement, every word, every gesture means something. Gamers, however, havent come to that point yet for video games. Yohalem thinks its because developers havent been trusting gamers enough, havent been designing their games around that principle. Once they do, Yohalem thinks the bad relationship can go away.
So why put so much effort into this? Yohalems tone dropped and his speech softened. “I think we have a very limited amount of time on this earth, and it should be spent doing valuable things,” he said. “For me, the worst thing would be to waste the players time.”
Proof is in the pudding (or bullets)
So are there other messages in Far Cry 3 that people have missed? Plenty. The sad thing, Yohalem pointed out, is that many of these hidden messages could put to rest the troubles that weigh on critics minds.
Jasons ethnicity and background, for example, contribute to a common critique of the game: that it espouses a story of white colonialism, where the untrained white boy from America comes to save the damsel, become one with the natives, and lead them to victory over the encroaching, typically corporate-minded forces. Yohalem told the Report thats exactly what players are supposed to see, but they need to take it one step further.
“Its a first-person game, and Jason is a 25-year old white guy from Los Angeles. From Hollywood. So his view of whats going on on this island is his own view, and you happen to be looking through his eyes, so youre seeing his view,” Yohalem explained. “Its set on an island in the South Pacific, so immediately the thing that comes to mind is the white colonial trope, the Avatar trope. I started with that, and its like, Heres what pop culture thinks about traveling to a new place, and the funny thing is, thats an exaggeration of most games, they just dont expose it.”
“For example, GTA is a colonization game. You come to New York, you colonize New York. Most open world games function that way. Ezio comes to Rome and colonizes Rome. To take that to its extreme, exaggerating those tropes is how you reveal them. The exaggeration of that trope is what happens in Far Cry 3.”
In one of the games trailers, Jason is seen having sex with Citra, a shamanistic princess figure and sister to Vaas. Jason stands triumphantly after hes finished, and declares to the tribe, “We are the warriors of the Rakyat, and I will lead you to glory!” Yohalem explained the scene as another instance of tropes being intentionally exaggerated. “When youre with Citra in front of the warriors, thats Jasons fantasy, you know the white guy from LA has sex with this beautiful woman, its very gratuitous, and its in front of the whole tribe. Its a fantasy that weve seen in pop culture cinema.”
Again, the problem comes with taking the story on its face. “What I didnt expect was the people who half-listen. If you half-listen to the story, it seems like its reinforcing tropes that I disagree with,” Yohalem said. “People will get 2/3 through the game or halfway through the game, and theyll think that they know and they stop listening. And its like no no no no no, were gonna take that and totally loop it back on what you think it is, and were agreeing with the critique!”
Caution: I am about to talk about one of the games possible endings. There are no spoilers more spoilerific than this. You have been warned.
So what kind of critique is Yohalem referring to? How does he “loop it back?” The game has two possible endings, and in one, you can choose to stay with Citra on the island and be the ultimate warrior. Sounds perfect for the violence-hungry gamer or action movie hero, right? Guy kills bad guys, guy gets girl, guy is immortalized as a badass. But thats not what happens in Far Cry 3.
Citra, the damsel in distress, kills you if you choose to stay with her. Yohalem is expecting players to follow along with Jasons ideas about Citra being in need of saving because thats what weve been conditioned to expect. “Its like okay, if you chose her, Im gonna give you extremes of what you want,” Yohalem explained. “So you have this extreme sex scene with her which is very graphic with the sounds hes making, and she stabs him, and theres extreme amounts of blood. At the end, she says, you win.”
“Why do games treat females this way? Why is there a princess in a castle? Citra doesnt need to be saved, its all Jasons idea! Jason conjures up this whole idea that Citra needs saving and hes gonna save her, when in reality it was all a ritual she created to find a sperm donor, and she kills him.”
“Sex, violence, and the player is killed. Here are the things that satisfy our animal side as men, but theyre subverted because its a female doing it. Here youre thinking of the princess in the castle. Its like if Princess Peach stabbed Mario.” Yohalem laughed. “Now that Im thinking about it, that final scene should have been Citra castrating Jason. Seriously, thats the point! It is like, You win, motherfucker! Its totally like, Fuck you, you misogynist idiot!”
Far Cry 3 is playing with your expectations. Youd think a knife to the chest would make us realize that.
All a dream?
Far Cry 3 plays heavily on dreams and visions. Jason is an unreliable narrator, and his visions could just as well be delusions. Did you really cheer the Rakyat into battle? Are the Rakyat even real in the first place? Did you, a scared white boy from Los Angeles, take down a slaving operation headed by a mohawk-sporting psychopath? Most importantly, can you read this article and take the knowledge with you into forums to prove strangers on the Internet wrong? Maybe, maybe not. Yohalem says theres no one correct way to interpret the events of Far Cry 3.
Its up to players to decide. If the work is good, if theres not one interpretation where people can explore what it is, it becomes their narrative. Its like Alices journey: is Alices journey a dream or not? Thats what I love about Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, that he doesnt have to say it was all a dream, Yohalem said. My goal was to create something that people could analyze. Analysis is fun because there are many interpretations. If theres just one interpretation then its not worth analyzing.