There's been a lot of talk lately about violence in video games, and I'm not just referring to the notion that games have desensitized people to guns or that they cause aggression. Games like Spec Ops: The Line†are going out of their way to challenge why we use killing as a central game mechanic, and the new Tomb Raider has been criticized for having Lara grow as a character while still having the basic shooter mechanics in order to make it a game. Naughty Dog's The Last of Us is almost a direct response to the story criticisms of the Uncharted series, where the supposedly heroic hero Nathan Drake kills far more people than the villains do. Even if the men we kill in games are "evil", we can't help but wonder how they got to be that point, or if their stories are just as tragic as the hero's.
However, despite my hesitation to play violent games these days, I'm still willing to sink some time into a game despite an 'M' rating. I grabbed Far Cry 3 during a sale this past week and found myself ready to explore a big tropical island. I love open world games like Skyrim, and while Far Cry is far more action-oriented, it still has that same sense of discovery, leaving you wondering what you'll find down the road. I have issues with the story, mostly in the sense that for a tourist dropped in the middle of nowhere, Jason Brody is far too good with a gun. However, my biggest problem with the game is that it forces me to do acts I despise in order to progress. In this case, it's being an animal poacher.
It's no secret that animal poachers are villified in the real world. Even Far Cry 3 seems to think that to a certain extent, considering several sidequests involve killing poachers themselves. But this behavior is incredibly hypocritical considering that Jason has to kill animals to survive in this game. I don't mean that he kills them in self defense; rather, he actively hunts them down and uses their skin to craft better equipment. Every time you skin an animal, there's a short animation where he jabs the knife into the lifeless body while the player watches blood splatter against the screen. It's a brutal bit of violence, and serves no purpose. Are we supposed to feel disgusted? If we are, why is this violence perfectly rational within the context of the game? It's a standard game mechanic in games to gradually upgrade your equipment as you play, but the way Far Cry 3 does it feels gratuitous.
The difference between Far Cry 3 and a game like Spec Ops: The Line is all about the reasoning. I'm sure it's possible to get through Far Cry killing as few animals as you can, but the rewards you get for doing so outweigh the disgusting skinning animation. However, it's impossible to see Spec Ops to its end without commiting the atrocities that the game encourages you to commit. Following the white phorphorus scene, I felt terrible about the enemies I was killing in battle, as I knew that they were not evil. However, because I still wanted to see the game to its conclusion, I continued on. The sense of dissonance I felt was exactly what the game designers had intended, which is why the narrative works so well.
Far Cry 3, on the other hand, completely ignores the animal skinning in its narrative. It's just another game mechanic, just like the plasmids in Bioshock or the property management in Assassin's Creed. While playing Far Cry, I realized that the poaching could actually make for an interesting moral choice system. Perhaps certain sidequests would lead you to powerful soldiers who would drop equipment upgrades upon their deaths. If these encounters were difficult enough, the player could opt instead to skin some of the wildlife, obtaining those upgrades far quicker, but with a hit to your morality. It's not a perfect system (most morality systems aren't), but it would have been an interesting alternative to what's presented.
†Overall, as I play Far Cry 3, I don't know what I'm meant to be feeling at any given moment. Skyrim did a much better job at making the player feel like a hero in its world, especially considering that the more vile sidequests were separate from the main story. Spec Ops goes out of its way to make the player feel uncomfortable in order to make a narrative point. But in Far Cry 3, my only interest in playing the game is to further explore the island and see what further challenges await me. But please don't make me kill wild animals that weren't even attacking me. Even worse, don't make me kill rabid dogs with a rocket launcher.