Let’s talk about Far Cry 2.
This is a game that does not want to be your friend. This is a game that throws you into a foreign land where you don’t know anyone, hands you a gun that jams all the time, and infects you with malaria – all within its opening minutes. It is belligerent, uninviting, and unwelcoming.
Far Cry 2 is easily one of my favorite pieces of work.
Admittedly, when I first began playing Far Cry 2, I had difficulty enjoying it.
About an hour later, it clicked for me. I stopped looking at it through the lens of my expectations, and instead looked at it for what it was aiming to be. This is not a game with a traditional power curve. This isn’t a game about feeling mighty.
There are many things I appreciate about Far Cry 2. Here are some of them.
Far Cry 2 treats many of its components like simulations. Guns degrade the more they are used. Weather patterns cause stormy days and sunny days. Enemies carry their wounded mates to safety. Wildfires dynamically spread across dry brush and climb up wooden structures.
The in-game map likewise shares the same approach. The protagonist pulls out a paper map and GPS device. If you’re standing in the shade, the map will be dark and difficult to read. If you’re driving a car, good luck focusing on both the road and the map.
Unlike many other games, the in-game map is not a safe shelter. The game world does not pause. Bullets whizzing through the air prior to opening the map will continue to whiz straight into your body.
By treating the in-game map like a simulation, the storytelling door is opened wider. That time you were looking at the map and your jeep soared off a cliff. That time you absatively posolutely needed to withdraw and had to shuffle through your pile of maps while under fire.
In my book, Far Cry 2 is in good company as one of the most effective in-game maps.
The surest way to grind momentum to a halt is to kill the player, reload the game, and have them replay a section over again. Stop, rewind, try again; wash, rinse, repeat.
Well now, let me tell you about Far Cry 2’s buddy system.
In an early section in the game, you make acquaintances with one of the mercenaries in the country. Like all the mercenaries in the Far Cry 2 universe, your new buddy is someone with a murky past that’s dubious at best.
Then at some point, because Far Cry 2 aggressively doesn’t care whether the protagonist lives or dies, the protagonist will probably die during some random gunfight. And when that happens, your character topples down. Your hands clutch the earth. Your face smashes into the dirt.
And it cuts to black.
But here’s the gag: the screen then fades back up, to you looking at the sky. Your mercenary buddy is at your side, firing wildly at your attackers while dragging you to safety. You’re patched up with pliers and bandages as your buddy defends you. To commemorate you returning to the land of the living, your buddy hands you a pistol.
And that’s not all: after you’ve been rescued and you’re repelling the last of the stragglers, there’s a chance your buddy may get wounded in the firefight. The relationship flips and now you’re the one saving someone’s bacon.
And – AND – that’s not all: once your buddy takes one too many hits, they shuffle off this mortal coil – permanently.
Your story goes on. A great little wrinkle is added, the world keeps spinning forward, and the momentum does not halt or hitch or hesitate for one single second. The game takes a failure state and sees it as an opportunity, flipping it upside down into a memorable moment.
I highly recommend reading Tom Francis’s excellent writeup about failure spectrums for a further dive into failsafes and storytelling.
WHAT, NOT HOW
Far Cry 2 tells you what a given mission’s objective is. Destroy the convoy passing by this road. Acquire this valued object. Rescue this character.
However, it doesn’t tell you how to do it. It does not hint at effective ways to do it. It does not place gameplay objects in such a fashion to nudge you toward a suggested play style. It does not rely on a row of dominoes for a canned let’s-burn-our-budget set piece.
It tells you what to do, but doesn’t tell you how. What, not how.
When control is relinquished, it frees up room for the player to join in, participate, and share the authorship. We’ve all been in that situation where one person just dominates an entire conversation. Far Cry 2 is a generous partner. A conversation is most engaging when both parties get to contribute.
By making a world that reacts to your actions, continues to run when when you’re not looking, and leans toward the simulation approach whenever it does anything, the game always has an interesting reply to whatever you say. By always keeping the player in control (Far Cry 2 is one of those rare games that lets you walk away while talking to someone, and it is glorious) the game has massive respect for player agency and the player’s time.
A few things before I go:
I absolutely love how Far Cry 2 has basically zero connection to its predecessor. I find that sequels and adaptations are most compelling when they respect the heart and soul of the source material and burn everything else down.
A talk that had a tremendous impact on me was Patrick Redding’s 2008 GDC talk: Do, Don’t Show: Narrative Design in FARCRY 2. If you’re interested in storytelling systems, give it a listen.
There’s great stuff in Steve Gaynor’s Tone Control episode with Far Cry 2’s creative director, Clint Hocking, including a rather good anecdote about an animal-petting game mechanic.