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Player agency in Far Cry 5 *SPOILERS*


I finally finished Far Cry 5 last night and I have a lot of thoughts about what I consider to be one of the best endings in video game history.


The Far Cry games are murder tourism: you travel to remote parts of the world and start killing whatever evil force has asserted itself there. In Far Cry 3, it was a group of pirates that had taken over a tropical island. In Far Cry 4, a garishly dressed white guy leads a militia that takes over much of Tibet. The protagonist, though you remain voiceless throughout, has always been a white man, which has caused a significant amount of consternation as video games become more socially conscious and aware; that it took a white man to save a group of indigenous people by killing a lot of Bad Indigenous People always stunk of tone-deaf imperialism.

Far Cry 5 is set in rural Montana, the first time the series has traveled to the US and the first time that you could customize your character. The antagonist is a cultist who goes by the name Joseph Seed and who believes that he is a prophet for the end of the world (The Collapse, as it’s called). Because of the setting and timing, many believed that the game had an obligation to address the current political climate in the United States. Far Cry 5 doesn’t do this and never attempts to, despite the fact that it alludes to these issues in passing. Therein lies what Far Cry does spectacularly: break the 4th wall.

In 2007, Bioshock revolutionized video game storytelling when its central narrative was as much about player agency (or lack thereof) as it was about the actual story. You spend the entire game listening to the directives of a disembodied voice being broadcasted over radios. The voice would ask, “Would you kindly [do something]” framing most objectives until you come face-to-face with the man behind the voice, the antagonist Andrew Ryan. You realize that every decision you made was guided by someone else. You did not have the agency that you thought you did in video games; you are following orders.

In the first 10 minutes of Far Cry 4, you come face-to-face with the antagonist Pagan Min (these one-on-one encounters are emblematic of Far Cry games at this point). He’s captured you and brought you to his palace for tea–and maybe torture. He has to get up from the table at one point, and he asks you to wait for him. As the player, you have the choice to sit there or escape. If you sit there long enough, Pagan Min returns, thanks you for waiting, takes you to his gun range where you shoot targets together, and then the game ends. You’ve befriended the antagonist. It was a fun gimmicky story technique that the game employed and something that you’re unlikely to come across unless you know about it beforehand.

Far Cry 5 gives you a similar option. The game opens with an arrest attempt of Joseph Seed. When you’re prompted to put the cuffs on him, you can do so or walk away. The latter ends the game. If you cuff him and escort him out of the building, the arrest goes awry, he escapes, and you spend the rest of the game trying to find and arrest/kill him. Joseph Seed arrogantly claims “God will not let you take me”, as your fellow Marshalls implore you to put the cuffs on him. Once you do, the screen goes black and you hear him say “Sometimes the best thing to do is to walk away”.

This is the first allusion the game makes to your lack of agency, or the idea that you’re making the wrong decision. As Far Cry 5 progresses, Joseph Seed’s lieutenants frequently admonish you that you’re making a mistake, that your sins will eventually be exposed. They prattle on about the end of the world. Typical video game stuff. But the more you hear it, the more obvious it becomes how important this concept is to the game.

At one point, you encounter a friendly NPC that bulldozes the 4th wall. This character explicitly starts talking about Far Cry. He’s a movie director and he’s complaining about how difficult it is to make Far Cry games. He mentions that he’s heard all of the critiques about imperialism and morality and that they’re problematic.”I’d rather put my balls in a vice than listen to everyone with their fucking opinions about world building and player motivation and believability. I’ll kill myself I swear to fucking god,” the NPC says. Even for a game as self-referential and wacky as Far Cry, this seemed important. It wasn’t until I killed one of Joseph Seed’s three lieutenants that it really struck home.

Faith Seed is the only female antagonist in the game. Her role to the cultists is that of a mother figure. Her role in the cult, however, is a drug peddler, the person in charge of intoxicating and controlling the many followers. When you finally kill her, she tells you that Joseph Seed will give you two options, but no matter what you pick, you’re going to prove him right. Which brings us to the final moments of the game.

You eventually encounter Joseph Seed, and you’re once again offered the option to cuff him or walk away. This is the decision that Faith was talking about. If you walk away and let him continue to rule the land, you feel worthless. Instead, you resist him and after a protracted battle, finally put the cuffs on him. The moment you do, an atomic explosion happens in the distance. Joseph Seed was right. He is a prophet for the end of the world. A frantic chase scene has you driving away from fireballs and explosions before your car crashes, knocking you unconscious. You get brief glimpses of the world as you’re dragged into a bomb shelter. You wake up tied to a bedframe with Joseph Seed staring you in the face. He tells you that all of your sins are exposed and that he was right. He is your father and you’re waiting for the nuclear fallout to clear so you can surface to a new world (Eden as they call it). Roll credits.

Now, people HATE this ending, and I can understand why, but it puts all of the 4th-wall-breaking in perspective. The Far Cry series is criticized constantly for lacking moral fortitude and insight. The games are supposed to be fun, exciting adventures, but moral readings of the story are problematic, and I think the Far Cry writers were a little sick of hearing that the thing they created was morally objectionable. So they made that discussion the central story of the game: it turns out you really are a monster, ushering in the end of the world and killing people and animals in the name of righteousness. You’re not a hero. You’re the catalyst for the end of the world.

After beating the game, I was playing co-op with a friend who wanted to kill a bunch of buffalo in order to reach a milestone. I felt awful doing it, knowing that I am not preparing myself to be a super soldier in the name of good. I’m fucking evil and I’m doing evil things. The entire game, you’re being told that what you’re doing is wrong, but you’re being told that by drugged out cultists who are taking over large swaths of Montana and torturing the townsfolk. You’re given ample opportunities to walk away. Far Cry 5 is a Schrödinger’s cat of sorts: if you never play the game, the world never ends. It is a truly spectacular take on player agency and perception.

The end of the game hints towards a sequel, something the Far Cry series doesn’t really do. A post-Collapse world could hold all kinds of horrors and adventures. Hell, it might even be the kind of plot point that hints at Far Cry existing in the larger Ubisoft universe (is this Collapse related to the doomsday scenarios in The Division, for instance?). Far Cry 5 has one of the most ambitious endings in video game history. It challenges the entire concept of player agency and, for one of the first times in the medium, righteousness. Despite the game’s faults (AI wackiness and an over reliance on a few storytelling mechanics, are most prominent) it is a modern masterpiece that should be remembered for how it toys with player perception.

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Fresh bloggin’

So, as this blog’s original content waned in the last couple of months (and really my output on all writing fronts started to dip), I came to the conclusion that not only was this blog a little too spastic for my liking, but I didn’t really care for what I was writing about. My move away from the arts has been a gradual and extended one. I’m not really sure why I’ve become so disinterested in them. Part of it may be my lack of genuine human interaction. I spend a lot of time with people at work and a few bartenders who I’ve gotten to now over the past year, but rarely to I have the chance to engage people–interesting people–in the kinds of dicussion that harbors good ideas and an interest in things like the arts. It’s difficult to relate to human emotion when you haven’t really had any fluctuation in your emotions for a year.

But the one thing that I did gravitate toward (as the posts on this blog show), more so than ever in the past, was sports. I became invested in a lot of sports I wasn’t previously, and more deeply invested in those that I was. As such, I’ve started a sports blog. I waste too much time on message boards, talking to the same people who disagree with me and think I’m an idiot. I’d rather avoid that. But talking about sports still interests me. The blog is called Burgeoning Wolverine Star–the name explained here.  Otherwise, the blog is just about my random thoughts about sports: Breaking down teams/plays, looking at polls and stats, essays on players and leagues. If you’ve ever talked to me, you probably know what the blog is about. Check it out. Or don’t.

Postscript: Man, the user interface is so much better on Blogspot than it is at WordPress. Day N Nite, I tell you.

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Merriweather Post Pavilion

Or, Animal Collective fans have declared music in 2009 is officially futile and superfuluous


In case you hadn’t already heard, the ZOMG BESTALBUMEVER was released a few weeks ago: Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. A record that many are already considering to be the pinnacle of music in 2009 at it’s green, three weeks young. I’ve read so much criticism (through message boards and reviews alike) that I hardly know what to think anymore besides, this record is a certified classic and a dramatic musical event–in the indie world at least.

So the question on everyone’s mind: Is this the best record of 2009? Unfortunately, that’s yet to be determined, but Animal Collective got their chips in with the best of it and are looking to avoid some back luck. Is this the best record in the last 365 days? Absolutely. And per my year-end post, that’s both a compliment and a subtle jab (not lots of great music, tons of very good music, etc.).

Tangible things in a vacuum
To put my American Culture degree to good use, I’ll employ the two analogies of the American make-up: the salad bowl vs. the melting pot, the former being a bunch of different parts thrown together to make a whole while the latter is the chemical melding of elements to create something completely new. This analogy’s application to the construction of America is rather self explanatory, wherein these are two different ideologies about how the racial, religious, and socioeconomic immigrants relate when considering the country’s make-up. Merriweather Post Pavilion, in this argument, is quite obviously the melting pot.

Take, for example, Radiohead, a group that, through it’s decade-plus existence has experimented with a number of different styles. Though Radiohead have been lauded for their ventures into electronic, dance, Brit pop, etc., these different genres materialize in distinct moments in their career. Merriweather Post Pavilion, in contrast, is a record that integrates pop, psych, electronic, dub, dance, and drone simultaneously. This is no easy task given how varying these different forms are, but Animal Collective has managed to do it.

For proof, look no further than “Summertime Clothes,” a song that a colleague who I hold in the highest regard is already calling the song of the year. The track has a baseline like a heat wave, claustrophobically pulsating alongside the rather simple boom-snap of the track’s percussion. The watery melody is alien but singable. And that’s what defines this record: A perfectly balanced dichotomy that’s both immediately recognizable and discernable, as well as a sonic blend that doesn’t feel forced or out of place.


Mainstream what?
After Animal Collective’s last record, Strawberry Jam, there was constant Internet chatter that was all “This is the record they finally make it to the mainstream with. This is just a pop album”. The Internet’s resident fanboy/Animal Collective prodigy, Mike Powell, puts some of this into perspective as well as writes one of the most eloquent retrospectives I’ve read in a while–seriously y’all, dude is the best music writer in the nation, I highly suggest you look him up.

But does this record, which is quite obviously more pop oriented and has some of the most glorious melodies of any recent album, actually going to hit the mainstream? It’s already gotten a little bit of national press, but to think that a record that is ostensibly still an experimental psych record will be widely adored by the masses is sort of nonsense. They’ve made some moves in their marketing of the record (e.g., releasing the vinyl before the CD with an included digital copy, as well as releasing it in a relative down time for releases) that will help get it more attention that it typically would, but you’re not going to suddenly see Animal Collective popping up in 14-year-old girl’s record collections–I almost typed TRL, it still weirds me out that TRL is no longer a show; what will I tell my kids?–unless the government starts passing out LSD again and there’s a massive freak fest that grabs national attention.

– “Brother Sport”, the album’s closing track, is being much maligned even though it has the album’s best melody. The album was somewhat unfortunately sequenced as this track’s change of pace and tonal shift would’ve been perfect to disrupt the gooey, monotonous center.
– As mentioned above, the sequencing of the record is just OK. But because there is nothing resembling a bad song on this entire album, they can get away with it.
– This is, no questions asked, the best, most complete Animal Collective album to date, and one that I’m not sure they’ll ever top. It is a complete record in a way that their previous albums weren’t. It’s more complete, containing less of the random experimentation that muddied their earlier records; melting pot vs. salad bowl.

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