Apocalypse Now: The Game? Already done!

In January Killspace Entertainment, a new company made up of team members from Obsidian, Pandemic, and EALA, licensed two web domains: Apocalypsenowgame.com and warisnotagame.net (I got this from Kotaku). Now rumours abound of an Apocalypse Now game in the works. The initial response being that it’s an awfully bad idea. With this in mind I’d like to discuss how it might not be, after all, it wouldn’t be the first game with a narrative based on Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. Far Cry 2 has such a narrative, and this article will explain how it handles that narrative weight in its core ludology with varying degrees of elegance.

I realise I am late to the party writing on the subject of Clint Hocking et al’s Far Cry 2 (Ubisoft Montreal, 2008). I, like a lot of people, was embroiled in the other open-world time-sink Fallout 3 (Bethesda, 2008) at the time of its release and somehow missed out on a wonderful, and difficult, experience. Far Cry 2 [FC2] had a lot to teach, and I personally feel it got a lot more criticism than it warranted. In light of the permanent death experiment (more on that later), its handling of narrative, and its handling of the player as an agent in the game-world, Far Cry 2 has given designers and writers a lot of think about.

While the mechanics of those two games are essentially different (FC2 is an FPS first and foremost, and has no stats or die-rolls or skill trees, and Fallout 3 is a classical RPG with FPS tacked on) they bare similarities: Open world roaming, and weapon degradation. More than that, they are both attempting to make the player feel at risk constantly. They achieve this with varying levels of success. It lies in how FC2 makes your physicality and innate frailty keenly felt, and how Fallout 3 misses this mark.

FC2 firstly has almost no HUD (and it only shows when you need to see it, and disappears without you noticing at the times of respite – elegantly done). Fallout 3’s HUD is overly helpful. It’s a hangover from its RPG roots that whether or not you are being detected by enemies is told to you directly by your HUD when you sneak. It could be argued that it’s to aid you in avoiding combat situations you cannot win, but it becomes too easy to stop looking on the horizon and instead to stare at the HUD. There is certain game-play merit in wandering through the wasteland and then suddenly seeing the HUD change from “undetected” to “caution” to “danger” in quick succession with no idea from where you are to be attacked but, if it’s to replicate the feeling of desperation and fear in the hostile environment, the player deserves the shock of being engaged without warning (without it being a poor tactical choice by the player and them being punished for not sneaking).

This is one example of FC2’s eschewing of gamey tropes. The minimal HUD is about as minimal as an FPS is, in this climate, allowed to get. It strikes the correct balance, in my view between being helpful and being gamey, as it supplies the knowledge you would know if you were really in that situation. I wouldn’t need the HUD to remind me that I had 3 grenades because I would feel them on my belt in real life, and it only reminds me when the situation is tense enough, and I’m being engaged, that I would want to know. The minimap – that great FPS staple is gone. And instead you must get a real map out, hold it out in front of you (it does show your location and an updated legend with objectives on) with a GPS and dedicate time to looking at it properly. If you’re caught wandering around like a tourist you’re not going to last long.

The main way FC2 puts you into the experience is by putting you into your character’s skull. In most first-person games you feel as though you are suspended by steadicam, floating ethereally though the world. Mirror’s Edge (DICE, 2008) and Zeno Clash (ACE, 2009) are the only other games to achieve the feeling that you aren’t – that you’re a person with a bobbing head, with momentum and weight, and with a body. Bioshock (2K Marin, 2007) lets you know you have hands (that aren’t glued to a gun) that get injected now and then – FC2 does this too. It also lets you know you have a myriad of other body parts that are healed by digging shrapnel out of them with a machete or multi-tool. Your body is a temple, but your temple has seen better days. Your character, as both a plot and game-play mechanic, has malaria (which shows on your mosquito-bitten arms), and you need to medicate it constantly – requiring the acquisition of pills, taking them at regular intervals (which you must stop and do), but only when your symptoms take hold – a process which renders you near useless in a gunfight so you must be tactical about the timing of engagements.

It’s not only your malaria attacks that stop you in your tracks. FC2 makes an effort to show you that, unlike most FPS games, you can’t really do two things at once. How often in the past have we run into a box on the ground and been magically healed while we’re still shooting? FC2 would never allow this. You must open a medical cabinet, grab the supplies from inside (that’s with one keystroke), and then heal yourself with an injection when possible. Even Fallout 3’s method of healing was simply clicking on a stimpack (or whatever else would do) in your pipboy (opening the pipboy paused the action, incidentally) which then went straight to work.

Almost every action you do in FC2 has a visceral animation to remind you you’re in your character’s body. Opening a door shows you turning the knob, or knocking. Getting in and out of a car takes the time it does in real life. Fixing a broken down car shows you wrenching at things in the engine. Pulling out the shrapnel from your knee is shown in graphic detail. It was all criticised by short-sighted reviewers as evidence of times that control was taken off the player. That’s not so. It’s times when the player’s choices had consequences. If it’s taking a while to get out of the car and engage these attackers perhaps you shouldn’t have decided to get out – or even get in in the first place. It’s all part of Hocking’s masterplan – which was to show you that Africa doesn’t want you. That you have no place there. And if you eventually do, then there’s no way out for you. Seems a bit lofty, allow me to explain:

To make you feel the hostility of his Africa, Hocking had to put you there. That’s what all of this reminding you how frail you are with you body stuff is about. It’s only one tool in his arsenal, though.

This has all been leading up to, perhaps, the main way that FC2 represents the hostility of the environment, and its main source of criticism: Aggressively respawning enemies. It may not seem totally realistic that upon your decimation of a militia guard post that it’s repopulated with fresh enemies the next time you come across it (which may only be a few minutes on the return journey) – and that they are in the same numbers, and not making a concentrated search effort to find out what happened. It may also seem a bit unrealistic that there is a jeep full of angry guys driving headlong at you every couple hundred meters, but there is a cheque and balance scenario in place. It’s by examining this part of the design that we see where the different focuses of FC2 and Fallout 3 lie. If there was a more persistent system in place in FC2, like perhaps instead of respawning the moment you left a certain range of the area, there was a more realistic time frame in which re-enforcements/scavengers arrived then the tone of the experience would be different. With short bursts of activity punctuated by much longer gaps of exploration the player would begin to feel safer. The emphasis would change to the sort of disaster-tourism that Fallout 3 is. It’s counterproductive to aims of Hocking’s design to make you feel relentlessly afraid of being in Africa’s outdoors. If large search parties did arrive, making it more realistic, and you could “aggro” areas of the map it would conflict with some of the story missions (which are about you doing that), and it would also become a bit too difficult (the highest difficulty setting I feel ratchets things up enough). But there are two, subtler ways, that the mechanics represent this hostility.

The weapon degradation I mentioned: It’s a reminder of how hellish the place is that nothing works like it’s meant to unless you’ve paid for it with the spoils of your actions (blood diamonds, in a topical and evocative touch). The weapons you’ll use in a tight spot taken from the corpses of the militiamen are all rusty and will frequently jam or overheat. It makes the player of this FPS (a genre that normally enforces a feeling of invincibility on a player – one man against the world sort of thing) feel completely powerless. Weak. Feeble. And for once the flood of people around you actually feel like a real threat. This is bolstered by good tactical AI also. Fallout 3 by comparison cannot boast this – weapon degradation is simply more “RPG stuff”, that can be remedied by skill tweaking and loot drops, and while all of this is a valid and successful design it evokes sensations of micro-management and “pottering about in a tool shed” rather than the abject terror of being defenceless against attack in harsh climes.

This idea that the instruments there to help you are allied to no one, and there is a chaos at the heart of this game, is supported by the somewhat allegorical use of fire as a mechanic. Due to the marvellous Dunia engine the environment in FC2 is practically alive (regenerating trees is a particular favourite – Peter Molyneux, are you watching?!). There is the standard day & night cycles and dynamic weather – including wind, but these actually make a difference. Enemies can be blinded by the sun if you attack them with it at your back, and due to HDR lighting, it can blind you too. Perhaps most impressively the engine supports realistic fire propagation. If the ground is dry then fire will spread, and such as life, normally to where the wind takes it, and often uphill. So there’s another FPS trope messed with. Using flamethrowers and explosives is extremely useful like always, and starting a fire is almost necessary at every turn. It can distract enemies; it can take the focus off you in the heat of battle. It can more or less build a wall between you to aid in your escape or long-range attacks, and it tactically plays a bigger role in this than any FPS ever. But with great power comes… yes, the fire can turn on you. It is wild, and uncontrollable like everything else in darkest Africa. It is the destructive, greedy, chaos at the centre of the narrative embodied in a mechanic. You must prepare to be your own worst enemy, in the mechanics and narrative too.

The narrative in question sees you as a foreign opportunist mercenary sent to find and kill an arms dealer who is fuelling conflict in the region for, what appears to be, his own profit. It is not explicitly stated what your motivations for being there are. It’s as though your intentions do not matter, but your journal (accessed in the menus) speaks in a glib tone about a need to “stir things up”. This is the first evidence that you are not at all noble or likable. It should be noted that the game, like Apocalypse Now, is fairly loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, casting the player as Marlowe, and the arms dealer you are to kill, The Jackal, is the Kurtz character. This is made fairly clear at the beginning, where, having fainted from malaria, your character awakes to find The Jackal standing over him quoting from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. He hints at the narrative drive which will build through the game, that to have any hope of vanquishing him you will have to become him, or what he represents: the exploitation of Africa, and the corruption of man’s soul. He baulks at your ability to do such a thing, and leaves you with your weapons to die.

It’s a little hard to believe at first. You don’t want to believe The Jackal. He’s spouting Nietzsche, putting on a show for you. It’s not too unusual to find heroes in games that come across as cocky, so perhaps you will be virtuous after all, just a bad introduction (Sonic the Hedgehog makes an ass of himself every time he opens his mouth nowadays but his heart’s in the right place). I would personally have done without a journal, and let my own impressions of the narrative guide my blank-canvas character but it isn’t surprising to find the general tone of its entries grows darker as you progress. I checked the journal fairly infrequently, however, as much of my narrative came not from what my character saw in himself, but what others made of him.

FC2, being open-world needs quest givers, and to facilitate this you have your two opposing faction chiefs. Both factions are equally ruthless, war-mongering, greedy and uncaring about the political state of the nation or its peoples. As is common their names are insincere propaganda hypocrisy: “The United Front for Liberation and Labour”, and “Alliance for Popular Resistance” – militant groups that are no doubt based on the likes of the “Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda” and the “Rally for Congolese Democracy”. These are the real fires that tear across the landscape swallowing villages whole, and The Jackal, you are told at the start supplies both sides of the conflict – and that is the only reason you need to work for them – in an attempt to get closer to him.

However side-quests are plenty and come in the form of your “buddies”. It is through these that mirror is held to you. Your buddies are just like you (in fact all the males can be selected as the player character, and the ones you didn’t pick populate the game), all foreign, all profiting out of the war, and while they speak of giving you advice, helping you profit, and even when they’ve rescued you in battle (instead of dying, if you have a buddy near by, they will come and drag you away from the battle field, get you on your feet, and take on some of the enemies for you) you will never be in any doubt that these are all bad people. Their loyalties to the factions based only where their diamonds are coming from, and you are little more than a tool to aid their success (often they will give you an alternative method of completing a mission that will prove much more dangerous for you and profitable for them).

You are here to kill an arms dealer, yes, but you are already complicit in his crimes merely with your presence – whose guns are you purchasing? If not The Jackal’s than those of another equally reprehensible arms-dealer? In the first mission I held a machete to a man’s throat to get him to broadcast misinformation to an opposing group of mercenaries. Then I was told to destroy medical supplies. Once you’ve destroyed medical supplies you feel your character has passed a moral event horizon. The game is full of those moments, chipping away at your soul.

It’s never explicitly stated by any characters that this erosion of your character is occurring. The Nietzsche quote, and the initial blurb at the beginning are enough. You are reminded of the damning affect of your atrocities by the people you exploit, and overhearing the conversations in the cease-fire towns. One conversation that serves to merely remind you that you are in hell is between two men guarding a town, one of whom believes the other to have killed his friend in a recent battle when they were on opposing sides. Unsure of the man’s identity he backs down anyway, declaring it to be in the past and that “we’re cool”. Other instances where you are culpable come from the mutterings of the NPCs. You are nearly called a “foreign mercenary” in one instance, only for the man – a doctor – to say “altruist”. If he had called me a mercenary I may not have noticed – it’s a job description. But the fact that he said “altruist”, that insincere rose-tinting of the work, reminds you that you are not just a mercenary, you are mercenary.

These are all interactions that reflect on your in-game character. It is perhaps too easy for the player to look on in disgust, while the character threatens someone, and reject their responsibility in the act – but the message of this game works beyond the narrative encased within. Baulk in horror all you like, you are still performing these acts in one context at least. Knowing it is wrong to destroy medicine out of the game may cause you to ponder doing so in it. Thinking about it, I’m sure, is enough for Clint but more than that the player who quips or jokes about doing it – in an attempt to shrug off any guilt that the game is almost seducing him to feel – succeeds in encapsulating exactly what the game is about; Through playing the game you realise that blowing stuff up, killing people, and starting fires are all very fun to do. You stop being afraid of every check-point and patrol, you learn how the world works here, and you begin to feel as though you own it at every level. What destroys your character’s soul is that he does too. Your character rejects his preconceived notions of morality and succumbs to the chaos of this hell-on-earth and, by playing the game and enjoying it, you do the same – almost.

There is an inherent lunacy to the traditional FPS with all your running and gunning and morality-free generic world saving. What Clint Hocking does here is tweak that staple to make it mean something, to represent the insanity of savagery on the player by showing us the mirror to our actions, and those FPS mechanics we play without question – assuming it’s normal to kill dozens of people within 5 minutes of play ect.  If an Apocalypse Now game is made, it had better represent this descent into madness as subtly as Hocking does here, or make it an over the top freakshow, with protracted sequences of psychedelia. Anything else, a simple tour of scenes from the movie, or a standard Vietnam shooter with on-rails boating excursions, would be a great disservice to the source material. I don’t want to be told my character is going mad. I don’t want to read it in a journal, or hear Martin Sheen tell me. I want to feel it.

The horror. The horror.

Mike Dunbar (Follow me on Twitter at MikeDunbar and for Chronoludic updates click here)

Post script: I’m happy to discuss any of these points in the comments thread. Especially the penultimate paragraph – I’m not explicitly equating videogame violence with real-life violence, if that is your concern. I am simply discussing the possible artistic merit in a game that convincingly strikes a comparison with your growing familiarity with a foreign system of game mechanics, and the idea that you can “go native” in a hostile unfamiliar environment.

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  1. DocDre
    Posted June 21, 2010 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    Great post. There are some things i’d like to add about race and gender in FC2, but what you have here is so admirable that i just want to applaud your work.

    • mikedunbar
      Posted June 21, 2010 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      Thanks very much. That’s nice of you to say. If you had any thoughts and the time to share them I’d welcome a comment on your impressions of race and gender in the game.

3 Trackbacks

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