A Sense of Place
The sun was setting. I left the road to climb a small hill and get a view of the surrounding country. As I approached the crest of the hill, I noticed a campfire—and as I crept closer, the distinctive hum of music filling the hollow air. Two men were on either side of the fire. One played a set of hand drums on the ground and the other stood in a rough-spun vest, playing his flute with a slight sway. I stayed there for a while listening to them. Soon the sun went down. The stars came out and the fire seemed to glow brighter while the men kept playing. The one on the drums spoke a bit – just idle small talk. I grieved that I had no way to respond to him. I wondered if he was put off that my gun was squarely pointed at him (there was no way to lower it). Off in the distance I heard gunshots and shouts. An indicator came up on the hud: “KARMA EVENT: Help the rebels fight.” I turned away from the campfire, and went off to murder the royalists with the ironic hope that I would be duly rewarded with “karma points.”
I have no problem with a game that simulates killing. Plenty of great games do. But I take issue with a game that is so tonally inconsistent that it’s willing to set up that moment at the campfire and then insist on interrupting it. Any number of things could have happened at that campfire; eagles could have attacked and killed the flute player, a tiger could have devoured the man on the drums (I wonder if his drums would have been left behind), or the royalist soldiers could have stumbled upon us and began firing at me and killed both innocents in the process. Far Cry 4 is an open-world and highly systemic game. The fact that all these unpredictable events can occur without warning is part of the draw. And in a lot of the game this systemic design works. But in the context of the scene I mentioned above, it’s pretty strange. I saw this happened many times in the Nepal-inspired setting of Kyrat.
The game’s art direction displays an impressive deference to a small country currently devastated by an unprecedented natural disaster. Far Cry 4 features crumbling ruins, wind-strained prayer flags, dilapidated Buddhist monasteries, and animals sacrificed on altars adorned with native flowers. Every one of these scenes is lovingly designed, modeled, and textured and looking at this beauty in light of the current situation might inspire hope. You could try (and I have) to sit for a moment and soak in these remarkable sights, but before you’re done it’s likely you’d be attacked by an aggressive wild honey badger (not kidding) and have to mow it down with an automatic weapon.
In developing Far Cry 4, Ubisoft poured tens of millions of dollars into its strongest first-person shooter franchise. It had to be fast-paced and brutal because that’s the IP and the source of its broad appeal. But behind the gunplay, I feel like there’s a different kind of creative ambition straining to be set free. So many hours must have been spent researching Nepalese art and society. It’s all so meticulously recreated in the game, but it has no actual gameplay attached. You can’t interact with it aside from destroying it. Take away the new setting and its clear the core combat gameplay loop of Far Cry 4 is the same as it was in Far Cry 3. As triple-A budgets continue to bloat, I can’t help but wonder what it’s all for. Far Cry 4 has so many disparate elements that are expertly crafted, but few fit together in a way that enhances the whole.
The frustration I experienced at the campfire recurred throughout rest of the game. On one hand Far Cry 4 goes far out of its way to show respect for Nepalese culture and history, but on the other hand it’s not willing to commit. At its core, the game is relentlessly combative. At one point, I came across a ruined Buddhist temple built into a cliffside. A small stream lined with reeds ran down before the facade. The crumbling statues framing the entrance were streaked with bright chalk. Inside worshipers lit incense and candles before statues and murmured prayers. I felt awkward as I moved through the scene – my pistol was wavering out in front of me, the crosshairs hovering over everyone I passed.
Photos: Omar Havana, Getty Images.