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'Straight-faced satire' and gender in video games: hyper-masculinity in Far Cry 3 and the wider games industry
by Mata Haggis on 12/13/13 12:52:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Trigger warning: at some points this article discusses rape.

(It also contains spoilers for Far Cry 3).

What happens when a game that is intended to be satire doesn't get interpreted that way, and what does this tell us about the games industry?

"My goal was to create something that people could analyse"

This article looks at a range of topics related to the story and narrative in Far Cry 3, primarily from the perspective of gender politics, but also in terms of consistency between narrative design intentions and gameplay mechanics. The writer, Jeffrey Yohalem, encourages close examination of the game, saying in an interview with Penny Arcade: 'My goal was to create something that people could analyse. Analysis is fun because there are many interpretations. If there's just one interpretation then it's not worth analysing.' Yohalem has given several interviews and a presentation on his views of what was created in Far Cry 3, and this article examines his intention for the game and how successful he was at conveying this to the audience, where problems arose, and whether the problems he faced are related to only this title or to an industry-wide issue.

The story of Far Cry 3 has been reviewed as containing stereotypical characters and a predictable narrative progression. Yohlem argues that this is a misunderstanding, and says in his GDC talk that:

The story itself is a straight-faced satire of pop-cultural products like Avatar and clichéd video game plot devices. A straight-faced satire seems to support the very thing that it satirises and only exaggeration and hidden clues point to the work's true meaning.


Yohalem is arguing that the exaggeration is part of what should tip off the player that they are really playing a satire.

In researching this article, I have read around twenty reviews of Far Cry 3, and they seem to be split about 80:20 between the story being plain and uninteresting ('there’s a spiritual, mystical theme running through this third game that seeks to support Jason’s apparently superhuman abilities. While this does help suspend disbelief, it can’t change the lack of a meaningful journey for him.' - Edge Magazine) and it being an exciting blockbuster Hollywood-style thrill ride ('The story, complete with a few twists and drug-addled “is this real?” moments, certainly pulled me in and kept me pushing onwards to see how f***ed-up things could possibly get.' - Strategy Informer). The satirical nature of the story was not mentioned in any of the reviews. The closest mention of this that I found was from The Escapist, 'it can feel like Far Cry 3 is taking a few ideas from other popular action-adventures and trying to put a darker, edgier twist to them - and it can come across as a tad melodramatic as a result.'

With this tad melodramatic plot in mind...

Jacyn Brody and date rape

What did you think of the rape of the main character in Far Cry 3?

You're playing as an increasingly powerful female modern-day warrior, Jacyn Brody, who's seen her brother killed and overcome this through violent action. Then she meets the leader of a friendly tribe. The tribe wants to rid the island of pirates led by the man who killed Jacyn's brother. The tribal leader is attractive and, frankly, a bit weird: he claims Jacyn is the chosen warrior who will lead the tribe against the pirates.

About halfway through the story comes the rape.

The leader of the tribe gives you, Jacyn, a drug. You hallucinate, then wake up under the leader, who is topless and smeared with blood. He's having sex with you. To add to the level of creepiness, his whole tribe has been watching while he rapes you.

So... Date rape. Jacyn is drugged and recovers consciousness while having sex. Some might view this a bit more than 'a tad melodramatic'.

Strangely, Jacyn seems okay with this, after the act. She doesn't even seem surprised, even though they had never even kissed before her hallucination. She gets up and gives a speech about how she will lead the tribe.

Is the rape okay because she doesn't seem bothered by it? Surely it's too late by that point: no matter how sexy the guy, he doesn't have the right to assume that she would want to have sex with him just because he is good looking. Perhaps this is Ubisoft trying to play out a female rape fantasy in a video game form? Those do exist, but I doubt I'm alone in finding it a bit unsettling when it is presented in a 'straight-faced' narrative, even one that is claiming to be satire.

It's hard to imagine this scenario happening in a film without audiences questioning it at least a little, and Jacyn's lack of surprise is hard to believe. Was this intended to be a clue that the game was a straight-faced satire? It seems bizarrely risky to use rape as a tool to do that.

Except, for people unfamiliar with the game, you're not playing as the female 'Jacyn', you are playing as the male 'Jason', and the tribal leader is a beautiful woman: we are playing in a male rape fantasy, apparently.

Does this make it okay? It is certainly different in terms of cultural weight, given that not a single reviewer of the game has mentioned this.

Yohalem's claim is that the exaggeration in the game is a way of indicating that the story is a satire. The non-consensual sex act performed on Jason is certainly extreme, but it does not seem to have flagged the game's story as a satire for any of the professional reviewers. In an industry where narrative dissonance (the gap between the in-game character's likeable personality and the player's often-psychopathic actions) is the average rather than an exception, and where poor writing and hyper-masculinity is notoriously common, it cannot be too surprising that a the rape of a man by a beautiful woman is not seen as a flag of satire, or even worthy of mention.

Hyper-masculinity as a flag of satire

The problem with satire is that it needs to have clues to highlight when it is not actually in earnest. For Yohalem, who has previously worked on Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, the hyper-masculine character appears to be considered enough of a flag that the story was intended to be satire. Jason's exaggeration, such as his aptitude for violence and lack of surprise that he would be mounted by a beautiful woman as soon as his defences were lowered, is a wholesale recapitulation of an American hero stereotype that has existed at least since 1893 when Frederick Jackson Turner constructed a story of the Wild West that, however illusory it may have been, formed a compelling myth around which a nation in need of a unique identity formed itself. In Turner's view, the character of America was shaped by the frontier, and most notably by male individuals who chose to go out into the wilderness and tame the land. This concept of an American conqueror bringing civilisation, leadership, and order to wild tribes while defeating the forces of chaos, should be familiar to any players of Far Cry 3; what is harder for players to see is where Turner's extreme vision of a solo American hero is subverted.

The blame for the unnoticed satire might not rest entirely with the writing; the mechanics of the game encourage the player to accept ludicrous extremes as normality. The PC Gamer review says of some of the crafting mechanics in the game:

If you’re going to ask players to buy into a system so hilariously removed from its origins in real-world logic, it had better work.


With the mechanics of the game exaggerated beyond real-world standards, the narrative would have to have reached even more ludicrous levels to flag it as satire for the player.

But does it do this? Arguably it does. Beside the rape of Jason, which is unquestioningly presented as a male fantasy both in the game and by Yohalem in his GDC talk (discussed later) the game's menu screens are a reference to psychological tests, and the loading screens have quotes from Alice in Wonderland. The enemies in the game span the full range from standard psychopaths, through rapists, and on to weapons and slave traffickers. The violence is brutal and very visceral. The player can punch sharks, wrestle crocodiles, and be pecked to death by a very angry relative of an emu. On the side of the friendly characters there is a Timothy Leary-esque drug addict and a 'group of obnoxiously privileged, ankle-tattooed friends' (GameSpy) who are, in their own way, a less noticeable but nonetheless still extreme stereotype that viewers of the last thirty years of slasher horror films will immediately recognise as suitably beautiful fodder the hero may or may not have the time to save. Jason himself turns from a adrenaline junkie who cowers at conflict into a killer in a matter of moments, and rapidly matures into an unstoppable force of nature. This transformation is miraculous and the game recognises this by draping it with a narrative of spiritual destiny and magical tattoos. To support this journey, we are also given mystical temples, drug induced spirit quests, and World War II letters that descend into a bizarre comedy. In this light, it is easy to support Yohalen's claim that the game's story exaggerates everything as a clue to its satirical nature.

Why doesn't Far Cry 3 work as a satirical art form?

Which only further highlights the question: why doesn't Far Cry 3 work as a satirical art form? In all of the reviews of the game, no one has recognised the satirical nature of the story. The problem may not be with Yohalem's writing at all, but in the nature of the medium he is working.

All of the above stereotypes exist commonly in many other famous games, such as the Call of Duty series, UnchartedDevil May CryPrototypeHaloInfamousMetal Gear Solid, or Resident Evil, to name only a few. In the latter case, the Resident Evil series began with live-action cutscenes that were just earnest enough to possibly be taken as a genuine attempt at a good plot, and the ambiguity about the intentions of the writers has remained unresolved as the subsequent games appear to take their own mythology very seriously even while the twists become ever more ludicrous. The common player-character in these games is a white, heterosexual, male with short hair and a talent for extreme acts of violence. This isn't always the case, but the balance is certainly not even as close to equal as in the movie industry, which also has notable problems in this area. Even as this stereotype is acknowledged by games developers, it still continues to dominate new titles. Against this overwhelming balance of stereotypical action game heroes in melodramatic situations, it is hard to see how any exaggeration by Yohalem was likely to inform the player that the story of Far Cry 3 was supposed to be taken not as a generic video game story, but instead as a commentary on generic video game stories.

What does it say about the games industry that we cannot recognise when an experienced writer at a major studio is trying to satirise the stories we have heard for all of our life? It is fair to say that Yohalem has indeed fulfilled his intention of creating a story with ridiculous extremes, but it seems that the games industry's default setting for its characters is so far into hyper-masculinity that even a concerted effort by Yohalem wasn't able to bring up any questions about his sincerity.

In an interview with Penny Arcade, Yohalem says that:

The story is itself something that can be solved, like a riddle. [...] What makes me sad is that people don’t engage with playing the riddle, trying to solve the riddle. It’s like a scavenger hunt where people aren’t collecting the first clue.


There are problems with the riddle of Far Cry 3. Even if it is a satire of the hyper-masculine fantasy usually shown in video games, the sub-plot regarding Keith (a friend of Jason's) seems strange. Keith has been kept locked up and, it is suggested, raped by his male captor. The dismissal of the suffering of the male-on-male rape seems out of key with the tone of the rest of the game: both Keith and Jason agree to never talk about it, sending an unpalatable message about the topic. Was that intended to be a satire of how sex and gender are treated in games, and of how male sexual assault is often dismissed? It is hard to work out what the meaning of this riddle was intended to be.

Conforming to exploitation

On the subject of sex in the game between Jason and Citra (the tribal leader), Yohalem said the following during his GDC talk 'Method Acting and Interactive Storytelling in Far Cry 3':

We have two sex scenes in Far Cry 3. One seems to conform to exploitation, the other critiques exploitation.


Yohalem's justification here is that, in the first incident of sex (the rape of Jason by Citra) this is a male fantasy of a weak tribal woman being lured into giving her body to Jason, or possibly, as Yohalem describes it, a 'damsel in distress' stereotype that Jason comes in to rescue from her besieged situation. As argued above, this interpretation of the event is at best morally dubious. The second incident of sex requires the player to choose one of two endings, and so already half of the players that reach this point are likely to not see this sequence. Given that many estimates say that only 8% of players ever finish games at all, it could then be argued that at best 4% of players are going to see the second incident of sex. If this is the point at which the critique is presented, then only a very small fraction of players are going to see it. In this scene, Citra has sex with Jason, presumably consensually, and then she stabs him in the heart after he orgasms. She says that she is now pregnant with his child and that the child will save her tribe. This is intended to be a reversal of the male fantasy, where Citra is shown to really be the exploiter all along. In the alternative ending, Citra dies without this being revealed. In both endings, Citra's acts do not fit with Yohalem's intention for the scenes, and their placement in the story means that few players would ever see them. If the moment of Citra murdering Jason was crucial to understanding the puzzle of Far Cry 3, then it was placed in a way that few players would reach and situated in an already undermined moral position.

"It isn't about creating a morality play"

Mark Thompson, the lead designer of Far Cry 3, told VG24 that the game:

doesn’t judge whether [extreme violence] is right or wrong, [...] it isn’t about creating a morality play. We simply take someone who hasn’t killed before and force them to kill, in order to save their own life and then the lives of their closest friends.


When compared to Yohalem's ambitions for creating a space for analysis of the game industry's views on violence, sex, and masculinity, Thompson's statement that the game is not a morality play demonstrates that there may have been conflicting views on the message that the game was intended to deliver. Without the full integration of Yohalem's satirical intention into the game's systems, it becomes less surprising that inconsistencies may have occurred in the game's narrative.

Reviewers and players alike did not question the riddle of Far Cry 3, and indeed they did not even notice that the riddle existed. In Eurogamer's retrospective of the game, Rich Stanton writes:

The truth is that every fibre of Far Cry 3 exults in Jason's fantasy, and so do you.


When rape, shark punching, and graphic violence are a fantasy that is not noticed for its extremity, and that no straight-faced satire can exaggerate an empowerment fantasy to the point where it becomes obviously satirical, the message for the games industry is dire: we have a problem with gender, and specifically hyper-masculinity, both in our characters and our gameplay mechanics. These values are so entrenched that they are accepted and ignored, even when sending very socially dangerous messages about serious topics such as sexual consent. Like all fantasies, empowerment narratives have their place in games (though the moral messages of consent should be handled with more care), and I am not arguing for their complete removal: they are a valid form of entertainment, just as much as the film Die Hard is a classic narrative of both class and male empowerment that shouldn't be banned because of its own issues with gender politics, which were representative of the time. In the film industry, alternative narratives do exist and are easy to find in very popular mainstream titles. When hyper-masculine empowerment fantasies are the unquestioned normative mode of discourse then the games industry needs to start analysing itself. With such a narrow bandwidth for expression, we can see that satire is indistinguishable from the real thing.

The lesson from Far Cry 3 is not that the game's story was a failure, but that the games industry itself is failing at telling diverse stories.


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Comments


Christian Nutt
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This post makes me reflect that you have to go Saint's Row over-the-top to even be noticed as anything other than straight-faced. Parody functions; satire does not.

Mata Haggis
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I think Yohalem is absolutely right when he says that, as an industry, we haven't helped our audiences adopt a critical approach to games. The indie scene has an admirable mix of intelligent and thoughtful games that fans are happy to discuss, but mainstream gaming does seem to exist in a cultural void, and often appears to actively desire to stay that way. That attitude comes from fans, and often from developers too.

When looking at some of the interviews and reviews I read for this article, it was common to see comments on the pages criticising Yohalem for trying to put a deeper subtext into his games, saying things like 'games are just games'. Although we, as developers, might think of games as art, this kind of response is very common. Even among developers there are many lively discussions about the importance of fun, story, or social awareness in our games.

Neil Gaiman recently gave a speech where he encouraged everyone to 'make good art' in whatever field that people choose. As an industry we are improving our understanding of what makes a good game, but making great art means that we need to accept that critique and analysis are important.

As you say, if we need to go to the level of Saints Row, or Ubisoft's own Far Cry 3 mod Blood Dragon, before the audience gets the joke then we are in a situation where only parody seems possible and satire is beyond us.

Christian Nutt
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Well, one thing I've noticed, which can't help but be related, is that a lot of developers use the "it's just a game" as a shield, themselves, when they approach serious subjects. DICE and Battlefield, Danger Close and Medal of Honor, now Ubi and Watch Dogs -- I've seen developers from all of these (two war games, one about the security state) throw up "it's just a game, we have no message" defense. It's a bit hard to take, but if that's really their approach, it also deliberately saps meaning from contexts which are inherently meaningful. Is it any wonder people are confused?

Ian Richard
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I could be reading the wrong tone, so I apologize in advance.

But I'm one of those people that usually "Just makes a game". I look around to find an interesting situation that a player and I put him into it. My choice of "The Politician" as the villain isn't a critique of modern politics, but that I believed he'd make a good villain.

I believe there is room for meaningful games and I love to see them. But there is nothing wrong with making game for the sake of making a game. I see alot of "Enlightened people" putting down those of us who see games as a means of enjoyment, but there is nothing wrong with my view.

Sure, you CAN say that my focus on making games obscures the possibility of meaning in other people's games.

But you can also say Yohalem simply failed to understand the medium and his audience. There are plenty of games that offer social commentary... but when I played FC3 it came off as disjointed and poorly written*.

Isn't it possible that it was implementation failed to convey his message, rather than all the reviewers overlooked the clear message because of other games?

*I loved the game, but I gave up on the story around the time he shook his fist at the sky yelling "I'll kill them, I'll kill them all!" only to have him surprised that he was a killer many hours later. Seemed more poor writing than deep meaning.

Mata Haggis
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Hi Ian, thanks for the comment.

I absolutely agree that games can be made just for the sake of fun, but teh things that we make are also expressions of our culture & society. Even our games for fun have meaning - it just might be that we, as creators, didn't choose to put that meaning there. Regardless of the intention, meaning exists in everything we do: from the games we make to the clothes we wear, we are sending messages about ourselves and the culture we live in.

I always try to be careful when I get into these kind of discussions, because I can absolutely understand that it's so easy to become very defensive about our work. It's very common for people to argue back that they didn't mean a certain message to be in their work, but this doesn't mean that the unintended message isn't there - intention becomes almost irrelevant when compared to the real result. Like I say, whatever we intend, our games do convey messages.

It's usually accepted among developers that our games are art (although we also usually accept that they aren't necessarily good art!), but it's interesting that at the same time it's also often said that they are 'just games'. Game developers and fans seem to be stuck moving between these positions of art-with-meaning and games-that-are-just-games. I don't think that we can claim games are art and then try to say that they don't contain meaning.

>Isn't it possible that it was implementation failed to convey his
>message, rather than all the reviewers overlooked the clear
>message because of other games?

Yes, that is definitely one possibility :) Yohalem said he wanted to make a piece that had multiple readings (see the quote from him at the start of the article), and that is another one that can be made; however, it does presume ineptitude. I respect Ubisoft as creators, and Yohalem's previous work includes some of my favourite moments in the Assassin's Creed series. As I argued above, I think that there are enough moments in the game that do support what Yohalem said he wanted to be in the game... And yet still reviewers and players didn't get the satire.

I prefer to think that the game is close to the intended vision, and that the way that the vision has been missed by players and reviewers is an interesting example of how gaming culture is almost beyond the satire that they tried in Far Cry 3. Personally, that reading seems to fit the evidence that I see, but you could be right, and maybe the vision simply wasn't conveyed well enough by the team itself.

Andreas Ahlborn
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It`s likely that these statements are only made publicly beacuse of legal implications.
I always found the the introducing "disclaimer" in Assassins creed games "This game was developed by a multicultural..." rather weird.

If you are making a game that uses history as a backdrop you will sooner or later tread on mined terrain: slavery, misogynism, rape, religion etc.
But when i found out that Ubisoft recently got in trouble with PETA:
http://www.ign.com/articles/2013/03/06/peta-condemns-assassins-cr
eed-4s-whaling-as-disgraceful

I somewhat understand that they are avoiding to get branded as "political uncorrect" publisher like the plague.

Mata Haggis
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Perhaps I'm a bit more convinced of Yohalem's motivations than you are; I don't think he was Far Cry 3 was satire as a disclaimer. From the interviews I've read, he seems extremely passionate about this point, which was what provoked me into wondering why the message didn't come across to players.

I recall that there was a lot of controversy at the time of the first Assassin's Creed games about the notion of playing a Muslim going around murdering Christians. In fairness, given world events and political tides of the last twenty years, I don't think it's too tricky to see why that aspect of the game might raise a few eyebrows. The disclaimer was added, I believe, to try to diffuse that controversy.

As much as I'm up for fairer and more balanced treatment of everyone in games, we can't ignore the historical and present context of what we are making. It's an interesting thing that Assassin's Creed still has that cultural disclaimer, but I've not yet seen a game featuring sexism and homophobia with a disclaimer saying 'this game was made by a team of mixed genders and sexual preferences'! I'm half joking there, but that the idea seems ridiculous does raise some deeper questions about why religious and cultural offence needs a disclaimer, but a game with problems towards gender and sexuality does not. I'll have to think more about that.

Interesting feedback. Thank you!

Peter Bright
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I think it's a bit unfair to make broader claims about the industry when Far Cry 3's writing was _so bad_.

For example, Yohalem may describe the Citra set-up as "damsel in distress" but I don't believe it was perceived that way. Nothing within the game justifies that description, because she simply isn't. She's plainly confident, able, respected and revered as leader of her tribe. She's also entirely dislikeable. Take away the "damsel in distress" aspect and in turn you take away the idea that Jason is somehow exploiting Citra. Take _that_ away, and the Dances with Wolves, white man saving the noble savage, concept evaporates. Far from satirizing these tired stories, the game does something else entirely.

So in the end, we don't have exaggeration and hidden clues. We have dislikeable characters (both Jason and Citra), we have the frankly gross but weirdly lacking in gravitas male-on-male rape, we have the weird spiritual/tattoo nonsense that doesn't really fit with the broader setting (since the game doesn't take place in a universe filled with casually-used magic), and no real indications of satire, or even broader critique and commentary.

It may not have been deliberate, but Far Cry 3 also (perhaps unwittingly) bucks certain trends. It's a common criticism that a man in a game (or film) can be motivated merely by the desire to do the right thing, whereas women need to have some additional justification (traditionally a rape or sexual assault) to steel their resolve and set them on their ass-kicking path. That's not the case with Far Cry 3. Assholes they may be, but Jason is _plainly_ wronged by Vaas at the start of the game. He is given good reason not just to become a gun-toting killer _in general_ but to seek vengeance against the bad guys specifically. In its own way, I think this subverts the idea that Far Cry 3 is some hyper-exaggerated satire of tired video game cliches.

There is a recurring theme here: Yohalem had a particular intention, and the writing failed to deliver appropriately. It might be tempting to blame the medium, but Yohalem failed to even properly convey "damsel in distress", and that's a trope that video games have absolutely down pat. It's basic stuff, and Yohalem didn't deliver it.

The one bit of writing that was effective was portraying Jason as a general shitbucket. He's the worst kind of bro. But I think this is ultimately counterproductive. For me, at least, I didn't share in Eurogamers' enjoyment of the character's fantasy. The more the story progressed, the more distant I felt from Jason. He wasn't the kind of person I am, nor the kind of person I aspire to be. I didn't relish his gun-toting ways (and I write that as someone who enjoys FPSes in general). I was much more sympathetic to his girlfriend, trying to drag him back to reality. It's why I chose the ending that rejects Citra, and honestly, I would expect that most people did the same.

It may well be that computer games are unsuitable for telling "diverse stories". But I don't think we can use Far Cry 3 as evidence of this. It's too flawed as a narrative to draw any broader conclusions at all.

David Serrano
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I agree.

The story was exactly what it seemed to be; another badly written and poorly executed male adolescent power fantasy. Flashing random quotes from Alice in Wonderland during load screens did not constitute a riddle or imply there was a hidden deeper meaning to the gameplay or narrative. It was just a cheap device used to create the pretense of meaning (and creative talent) where none actually existed.

Of the 147 AAA games I've played since 2007, Far Cry 3 was one of the handful that was so puerile that I couldn't force myself to finish it.

Juliette Dupre
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I wish I didn't feel this way, but I don't buy the riddle. After the initial rape scene (as Jason) I was utterly done with this game. I don't see that this was sold as a satire in the least either - One look at the trailer shows it was sold as the usual bilge for the common audience. The only possibility I realistically believe is that this is just coming from a place where part way through the process the extremism as a comment became an afterthought now conveniently acting as a shield to criticism. I don't think there was anything besides shock value profitability at the forefront of the story decisions. If it truly was a commentary, it wasn't well executed.

Michael Eilers
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Great piece of writing! I would argue that Spec Ops: The Line also dabbles in this territory, in a way, as it satirizes the CoD one-man-army trope as sort of a meta-comment on shooter hypermasculine heroism.

I think that satire can work, and work well, if you have a laser-focus on the audience for the game. I always thought that the character of Morrigan from Dragon Age: Origins was a satire character, embodying (literally) every cliche about females in D&D and yet at the same time constantly snarking to the player and mocking heroism itself. The Mass Effect series also has a few satire characters that mock sci-fi conventions and tropes as well as meta-mocking games themselves.

The real difficulty (IMO) in making satire work in the game context, especially one with open-world elements, is the simple function of time; if I put 40 hours into this game, broken up over weeks or months, will I get every nuance or hint and and get them in the right order to make the satire have impact. This is an issue that affects all types of game storytelling, obviously, but satire is especially "fragile" as it depends so much on context.

Mata Haggis
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Spec Ops: The Line is a great comparison to make here :) It's a very interesting piece: as a stand alone experience it tells a story of a descent into madness and violence, but in comparison to the jingoistic titles such as CoD it appears to be a critique of them. I don't feel that it functions as a satire, although I do see that you could read it that way, and it does suffer some of the same narrative dissonance that we all struggle with when making an action game: the characters are inhumanly resistant to injury. It's necessary to have this for a modern and appealing gameplay experience, but it does go counter to the message of the fragility of human life that the game's story conveys.

That's a very interesting point that you make about the length of the experience undermining the satire of Far Cry 3. I did notice a lot of moments in the game where there were jarring elements, but during play they didn't strike me as being *deliberately* disharmonious with the story, and that they were so spread out may have lessened the amount that I and other questioned them.

Yohalem's GDC talk on his ideas for the game is fascinating and well worth watching. I really do think that he genuinely intended the experience to work as a satire, but, as I wrote above, the problem may be that the industry is so deeply into a territory of extreme storylines that no straight-faced satire is possible until there are many more completely coherent narratives to compare it against. Currently a jarring moment in a game makes us think that there was a mistake in development or a miscommunication in the team, rather than that the writer was trying to deliberately draw our attention to something. The problem I still face, even after watching the GDC talk, is that while I'm sure that some of the jarring moments were deliberate, I'm not sure that all of them were, and that undermines the feel of deliberate satire that Yohalem was trying to convey.

It's a huge challenge. For the moment, I suspect that it would be more beneficial to try to make games that tell wonderful, intelligent stories. I think that is more likely to get people analysing than a satire in this mode. Trying this might even challenge us as games developers to create new gameplay mechanics, or repurpose old ones in interesting ways. That kind of idea gets me excited about the potential future for games.

Thanks for your reply!

Ron Dippold
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Spec Ops: The Line is a great comparison here also because almost everyone who played it understood the point.

As far as I can recall there was never a bit in SO:TL where the character monologues at you with 'Is just shooting people really all there is? And is this really a sane mechanic?' but reviewers certainly got the message, and I think most players did. There was a contingent that had a beef with the mechanics and some of the delivery, particularly how you can't choose not to [spoiler], but they still got the message.

You mention the scope of time spent, but I played both games monogamously (no other games, start to finish) and I don't think that was what hurt FC3 at all. SO:TL just had much better writing and much better awareness of the medium. Heck, the medium was the message and the message was about the medium, and they took that into account.

I did enjoy FC3's combat more, and thought it was more fun if you ignored the plot and characters, but I also remember a lot more moments from SO:TL.

GDI Doujins
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The larger issue is what I call "James Bond" sexuality which is plaguing the culture, where Bond has no qualms off-ing someone he'd just been intimate with. How can there be true intimacy without trust?

That's the main problem regarding depiction of healthy sexuality in videogames, and it affects most scenarios regardless of which way you flip the gender coin.

Mata Haggis
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Conveying trust in a game does seem to be something that the industry is becoming more interested in (usually through social mechanics), but it does seem to usually be outside the areas of meaningful physical relationships at the moment. 'Ico', 'Portal 2' and more recently 'Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons' are examples of where trust is being used in gameplay, and arguably the Army of Two series also work with this, but these are not in sexual relationships and it would be interesting to see that direction experimented with.

If you know of and example where trust in an intimate relationship is explored in a game then I would love to hear about it!

Luis Guimaraes
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I know trust is used in gameplay in DayZ/Infestation, but I really don't see it in the games mentioned.

Joel Hruska
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As someone who reviewed Far Cry 3 partly from a technical perspective, let me say this: It never particularly occurred to me to go looking for depth and subtlety in such a wretched piece of storytelling.

There are rare occasions when a game can take an in-your-face, up-to-11 approach to gaming. Typically these experiences are entirely divorced from storytelling. Games like Doom, or Serious Sam take a "50,000 enemies against one guy" approach and it works by sucking the player into having tons and tons of fun, as opposed to considering a story.

Far Cry 3 is full of misogynistic humor and jokes so awful I winced to read them. Here's a sample: http://hothardware.com/articleimages/Item1966/FC3-NotFunny.jpg

If you want to see a game that recalls and exaggerates a viewpoint that was prevalent at one time, look at BioShock Infinite. Far Cry 3 is a single bass track played at maximum volume from the moment you start the game. It tires, and it tires quickly. You can't ask me to take any sort of social critique or comparison seriously when the game quickly introduces a Magic Negro, wretchedly bad humor, and enough psuedo-mystic mumbo to rewrite Heart of Darkness.

It's just bad. And so, what was the rape scene? It was more bad. The game didn't get seriously debated in these contexts because no one who reviewed it thought it actually had anything worthwhile to add to the conversation.

Mata Haggis
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Hi Joel,

I think the writing was intentionally so cringe-inducing in an attempt to make the viewer step back and see how common bad writing and lazy stereotypes are in games. This might have worked if it weren't for so many other games being full of bad writing. Gamers are accustomed to simply switching off from the story as soon as the writing goes bad - the idea that it would provoke us to look further, or that the clues to the puzzle would be enough to reverse that behaviour, was very optimistic.

As I said at the conclusion of the article, it's a warning sign that writing that is intentionally so bad, so sexist, and so morally dubious, doesn't make players or reviewers question it. Instead we file it away with all of the other bad games with all the same features. I believe our industry needs to show more good examples before it can satirise itself with bad ones like this. Hopefully this article highlights that need. I'll try to do it in my work, and encourage it in others, and maybe one of us will get it right if we keep on trying!

Joel Hruska
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For me, FC3 was a death of a thousand cuts. Too many poorly executed tropes. Too many little things. When you gut a creature in FC3, you don't actually skin it. You grab a bunch of intestines and shove them in your bag. Then the creature (skin still attached) is sitting in front of you.

Now that's a tiny thing, granted. It might even seem pedantic to pick on it. But combined with the jokes, and the tropes, it felt like a game that didn't really care about its own storytelling. So I'll cop to that -- I missed any larger point precisely because I couldn't find even a single example of more than technical proficiency.

(The fact that certain technical features were also broken didn't help).

I love storytelling in gaming. I cut my teeth as a kid on classic Sierra adventure games. I'm an RPG and FPS fan, I think you can tell a great story on a 2D side scroller or a world like Skyrim. But part of telling a story is typically preserving meaningful choice. The option to be hyper-masculine would have had more weight if there'd been options throughout the campaign to express alternate outcomes.

Jennis Kartens
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As with the follow-up "Blood Dragon" it just did not work. It may have not been the pure writing itself, but it's presentation too.

To me, FC3 did not present itself the way it apparently was meant to be taken or questioned. It did present itself flawless within the downward flow of bad AAA game stories/characters/writing...

For Blood Dragon goes the same, on a different level. It tried to be fun, it tried so hard, that it just wasn't.

It is not funny to beat down someone and then say "but hey look, this is a parody of all the violence in the world" — that is not how that kind of humor works, there needs to be an edge.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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I will throw in some of my thoughts on this "phenomenon".

"Reviewers and players alike did not question the riddle of Far Cry 3, and indeed they did not even notice that the riddle existed."

I will fall back to my default position here that games are simply not a good medium for storytelling.
Players have been conditioned not to accept hyper-gratuitous violence or extreme power fantasies, but rather to ignore narrative dissonance between plot, narrative and gameplay. Satire relies to present dissonance and games come with dissonance off the bat.

Gameplay, the core focus of every game, is what players experience games for, they are used to ignore certain elements that are non-logical, contradictory, dissonant, or outright crazy.
Regenerating health could be one example, but another could be simple abstractions like jumping on enemies heads to defeat them, we do not question these design tropes because they are not important to be analyzed in the context of a game.

Story, narrative, lore and other storytelling devices are there to at best contextualize actions, at worst provide an inconsequential background of noise in which systems and mechanics exist to provide challenges.
Why does Link not die falling into lava but rather respawns at the ledge? I don't know, nobody knows, as players we ignore it as a certain dissonant element divorced from the setting.
Why doesn't Mario just get a stash of fireflowers before he starts looking for Peach?

All these questions are ultimately irrelevant in the game context because games are about systems, mechanics and challenges. Storytelling interconnects at no point in the core systems because it can't. Game mechanics in of themselves do not tell stories, and stories do not make for mechanics.

FC3 not being the first in the franchise, or even the first in the genre, players have come to accept really weird things going on and rolling with them. In fact, most players will actively disregard story and narrative elements automatically if these clash with the gameplay or interfere in the enjoyment of the systems.

The idea here isn't that we are desensitized to specific thematic elements (violence, power fantasies), but rather that players are uninterested in analyzing an element of a game that has but the most tangential relation to what they actually came for.

In short, most game plots/stories/narratives become satires through guaranteed narrative dissonance because they are not simulations. This is why genuine satires are not possible to spot.

"When hyper-masculine empowerment fantasies are the unquestioned normative mode of discourse then the games industry needs to start analysing itself. With such a narrow bandwidth for expression, we can see that satire is indistinguishable from the real thing."

Lastly I want to comment on this ending paragraph.

The problem here is the assumption that thematic and/or story elements are the modus of expression in games. Far from it, the medium of expression in games is gameplay and the bandwidth for it is quite large. Narrative elements are neither here nor there in relevance to gaming as they are only the coat of paint presented to the audience to contextualize actions.

Even if every game would be a hyper-masculine power-fantasy, these fantasies can be expressed in a myriad of unique ways. For example, the damsel in distress trope can be done as Mario or Zelda, two very different games, not narratively, but from the perspective of expression through gameplay. Both these games have merit beyond the application of their narrative elements, because games are not bound by narrativism.

Perceiving the industry and games only through the lense of stories and judging their bandwidth of expression this way is simplistic to say the least. It would also be highly selective and inaccurate considering how many other thematic elements are, and have been, present in games throughout the years.

Joel Hruska
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"I will fall back to my default position here that games are simply not a good medium for storytelling."

I think this depends on what you define as a story and what you expect from a storytelling game.

Let's take a game like Dragon Age: Origins. On the one hand, it's story is as rote as it gets. You start weak, get strong. Gather friends. Fight the Big Bad. You can tell as soon as you start the game what the end goal is going to be. You don't have the option of going off and ignoring the Blight. You can't say: "Hey, let's go to Orlais to get reinforcements." So in that sense, I agree that there are intrinsic limitations to the structure of any game.

But those structures exist in *any* narrative. In really well-written stories, the author presents reasons for why the story turns out the way it does that are both internal to the character and driven by other events. Within the framework of the Dragon Age universe, you choose your allies, you choose your interactions with those allies. You have a sense that your activities make a difference in the world around you.

I would argue that games that tell great stories are the games that give players a sense of impacting the world around them. The best games include an element of player choice that no other medium can offer. Making that work believably is difficult, but a great game will leave you wanting to play it over precisely because you think that if you make different choices you will end up in different place.

Kevin Fishburne
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"...we have a problem with gender, and specifically hyper-masculinity, both in our characters and our gameplay mechanics. These values are so entrenched that they are accepted and ignored, even when sending very socially dangerous messages about serious topics such as sexual consent."

You don't say. :)

http://information2share.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/hardcore-gam
er_s-iq-test.jpg

The men show off their muscles and body armor while the women show off their TNA, while both indulge in a bizarre combination of ballet and butchery. Disemboweling a live enemy just isn't as effective unless preceded by a pirouette, after all. I'm not sure what writers and animators are trying to accomplish these days, but a lot of games over the past ten years have been outright crazy.

Good article. I basically think that, considering just how insane the stories, characters, sexualization and violence are in modern games it would take no act of subtlety to satirize them. Maybe all the dialogue and character names could be overtly ridiculous? Jeffrey should have watched Dr. Strangelove a few times if satire was his goal.

Jennis Kartens
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Awesome picture though, thanks =)

Willy Hwang
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I would say it's because it's the norm, but also because it's what they want to make. Assuming a male modeler or writer.

Back when I was in art school, there was a bit of a running joke (or maybe I'm overblowing it and it was a joke that was told only once) that modelers working on a female character would spend most/all/extra time getting the vertexes in the ass just right.

I'm guessing that these people then go on to work on the games that influence the next generation of artists and writers, influencing them at an early age, and the cycle continues. Maybe there's even some amplification of tendencies over cycles. (bustier women, beefier men)

edit: Sorry, I misunderstood you and thought your second point was connected to the picture you linked. I think part of my point still stands though, that the next generation wants to outdo the previous in terms of bombasticity(?).

Kevin Fishburne
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@Willy: I see what you're saying. Males have dominated the industry since the beginning, so it would be a self-reinforcing cycle of student becoming teacher, teacher becoming industry icon, etc. A bunch of dudes doing dude-like stuff. Ultra-hard male protagonists and ultra-sexy female protagonists, wash, rinse, repeat.

The pic I linked to was really just to show how little video game characters have to do with real people. Everyone has to look like a hard core space marine or some half naked bimbo. There have been plenty of exceptions of course (Alucard was thin, pale and somewhat feminine for example). Gordon Freeman was decently designed. Most Nintendo characters are pretty respectable, actually...

Willy Hwang
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Back to your original point, I kind of see movies doing the same thing (compare Bruce Lee's movies to something like The Matrix). I wonder if games are taking a page from movies there.

I guess it's more video-genic, although it is getting kinda hard for my eyes to track, haha!

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Kimo Maru
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I played through Far Cry 3, but I have absolutely no idea what kind of satire they're referring to. Maybe I've become desensitized, that these devices are common in games today, but I don't see anything. The only thing about FC3 that struck me was how unlikeable and Jersey Shore-like the good guys were. I still have trouble believing that Ubisoft thought that these characters should be the protagonists. I don't get it, I don't get it, I don't get it.

Luis Guimaraes
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Taking a Video-Game that's has good gameplay and making it bad using writing is an achievement. But it's more an achievement of the game being immersive enough that makes it's bad writing matter (by breaking that immersion) than an achievement of the writing being bad enough to put down an otherwise good game.

In the end I see it as a title that doesn't respect the audience and sees everyone that plays Video-Games as an idiot. And I mean cognitively idiot, not in that "meaningful" buzzword art-babble thing. Each line the doll drops is an offense to the player's intelligence. Sadly the it's not the game's fault because it's actually a good game.

That and the Ambient Occlusion. Man, that game looks awesome when you turn that off in the config files.

Jason Daniels
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An interesting article, thanks. To be very blunt, I just think that the biggest problem was bad writing and then a much worse sin: Hubris. Yohalem wanted to write a satire and so he set about writing something and didn't think about how it was working with the mechanics and he didn't think about how it was working with the audience. That literally zero critics understood it is somehow not a fault of the writing, but a fault of every human being playing it. This is a HUGE problem.

We can look at Blood Dragon, which is also a satire, and notice that it is immediately, obviously a satire (albeit one that is kind of painfully bad, even if that's part of the joke), and we see this level of satire woven through the entire project. This is what good satire does, it understands what is happening and how the audience will perceive it and it seeks to undermine it in that way. Simply trading in on bad cliches and then, later, saying it was ironic, well, that's a problem. In other words, it isn't that games can't be satire (other games like Stacking are chock full of satiric devices in even a silly little stacked dolls game), but rather this game does a very poor job of satirizing the elements of gameplay it is also embracing through mechanics.

Listening to Yohalem talk about the work, and especially with how he has spoken with critics (the Rock Paper Shotgun article sticks out) reinforces my idea that he had a good idea and simply couldn't follow through with the execution. It's not an unforgivable sin, but it's still a problem. The takeaway here is that we need writers that not only have interesting ideas, but know how to implement them. The reason that Far Cry 2 was as successful as it was (critically) is because the writing and the mechanics all work to reinforce an idea of the world that points to the rhetorical underpinning, it isn't something that is only there in the mind of the writer, possibly teased out if you ignore all of the contrary evidence due to (simply) bad writing.

This probably sounds overly harsh, and if so, I genuinely apologize, but this is not only someone in over their head, but someone who refuses to acknowledge it, which is as much a shame as it is stupid.

Christian Nutt
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Blood Dragon isn't satire; it's parody. There's a BIG difference between satire and parody, despite the fact that the words are often used interchangeably.

Joel Hruska
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I got tired of Blood Dragon almost as quickly as FC3, but I'll give you this -- it made me laugh more often, and more genuinely. The sheer over-the-top ridiculousness of some of it, and the the way the lead character complained about being forced through a tutorial was genuinely funny .

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Val Reznitskaya
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It's interesting that you mention Metal Gear Solid. I started playing those games fairly recently, and I can't help but interpret MGS2 as satire. Rather than exaggerating what games are, it sort of messes with what players expect games to be.

I'm not sure if I see it that way because I'm interpreting it in the context of what games have become in the decade since its release. From what I recall, MGS2 wasn't generally received as satire when it came out. I can't help but feel that it came before its time - it still seems pretty relevant now, maybe even moreso.

Ironically, it also spawned some of the weirder tropes in the series...

Ian Richard
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I read a funny story about that actually. Keep in mind, this is based on my memory and the original story may not have been true. Take what I say here with a grain of salt.

MGS was supposed to be a single game before Kojima moved onto his next challenge. But the fans and company demanded more. As such, Kojima wrote much of MGS2 with a friendly jabs at sequels and the players in general.

I don't know how much of this is true, but I seem to recall reading that a few years ago.

- - -

One thing about Kojima that I respect though, is his willingness to stand by his morals. The metal gear series is full of annoying "Is the violence really the answer?" dialogue, but it also allows for and rewards non-violent play. It isn't just lip service, but a solid part of his design.

Too many developers force me to kill hundreds of people or torture only to lecture me for my wrong-doings. I can't take any game seriously if they condemn me for the doing the only option they allow.

Val Reznitskaya
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I think I remember reading something similar. I don't know about friendly jabs though - the whole game read as a giant swing at sequels. And since MGS1 had many elements of a male power fantasy, MGS2 felt like it was trying to be the opposite of one.

I agree about the violence thing. It's interesting how the option to not kill adds so much depth to the games. They may be notoriously linear in terms of story, but they really do give the player a lot of freedom.

Ron Dippold
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There's a general term for this - Poe's Law. The broad version is that a parody of something extreme is indistinguishable from sincere extremism, because no matter how ludicrous you think your parody is, someone sincere has argued for worse.

Which is kind of what Mata is saying here. In a world where Call of Duty's single player 'plot' and 'writing' and Resident Evil exists, there is very little that a po-faced embrace of the tropes can do to somehow elevate itself above the tropes. If Yohalem is being honest, then FC3 can be seen as an object lesson in this.


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