Real life and Video Games
Spoiler warning, I'm going to use the endings as a big plot point.
Far Cry 3 is a video game about video games being unrealistic.
It clearly seems to be a normal, real world FPS and then descends into insanity. The real question is, why? What is this saying? Why give you a pointless choice at the end, wherein you can kill your friends and then die yourself, rather than taking the "good" ending you've spent the whole game trying to get?
Because it is reinforcing how unrealistic it truly is.
See, Far Cry 3 makes an explicit point that the skills Jason is using to conquer the island- shooting, punching, stabbing- all have little or no point in the real world, will at best be a strain on his civilian life. His video game skills, in short, have no purpose or place in the real world outside the islands. That's why such a point is made about how "special" the Islands are- they really are special, in the sense that they are a video game. Jason can survive his wounds because he is in a video game and it's needed, he has epic boss fights because they're needed, he can do what he can do because that's how the game is designed.
So how does that tie into the choice above? Because Citra vs. Liza is the most important choice in the game. Not because it gives you an ending but because it is grabbing you by the head and screaming, hey, which of these is actually more real? Liza's useless in gameplay outside of a driving sequence because she is a normal, "real" person within the narrative construct. Players hate Liza because she complains about him doing awesome things and is trying to hold the player back from violence- from the video game. But in a real world context, Liza is trying to save Jason from himself and from danger, and we know little of her more important attributes, those things that would matter in a girlfriend- caring, love, ability to reason out problems, shared interests.
Citra? Players like Citra because she shows them her titties and she is violent, tells them how cool they are, and sets up crazy boss fights. She encourages them to go video gaming.
So why punish them for picking her at the end of the game? Because Far Cry 3 is reinforcing the point that video games aren't real and the very kind of thinking they inspire is insanity.
To pick Citra is to choose to do the same things over and over again for the rest of the game (and Vaas' speech makes its triumphant appearance in this discussion). To pick Liza is to actually change, to state that you are done with the game and to go back to the real world, where video game training to fight and kill isn't needed. (Metal Gear Solid 2 has some stuff to say here too).
In short, to pick Citra is to say " I prefer video games."
HOWEVER, in a moment of meta so fucking insane it's literally inspiring, she kills you for it. Why?
Because it's a video game. It needs an ending. And you chose to keep going, so instead of having an ending where Jason Brody gets to be big badass killer king of the islands (i.e. where his video game skills matter), Jason dies, to represent that your playing a game and the real world awaits. The real world intrudes sometime, and the credits are that intrusion in that ending.
In the other ending, where Liza- the real world and change- are chosen, Jason lives, to represent the player realizing its just a game and moving on to do something else.
In short? Meta as hell.
Meditation on Unreliable Narrator, Gameplay Tropes, Imagery, and Insanity.
As with all things, this writing works under the assumption that readers of this work will have played the story to its entirety, therefore there will be not even the slightest effort at hiding any later game details, spoilers, etc.
Given this work is based on first hand experiences, with no authoritative resources, limited professional formatting, and merely personal opinion, I am hesitant to call it an essay. Refer to it as a rambling, if you will. Or a Meditation, if you feel benevolent.
Now, on to the meat of this text.
It's no doubt that Far Cry 3 wishes to a narrative of artistic merit. Something serious and thoughtful that goes beyond "Shoot things, save the girl, feel good" as many mainstream media sources are quick to use to mock the the genre for, hence that provocative (though somewhat generic) tagline of "Face Your Insanity".
I think for their effort, they have created an excellent game, though from a narrative stand point, I, along with many other gamers, for all I know, may have merely seen a video game where Jason Brody goes around shooting Pirates, stabbing people in the back, perhaps engage in some decent voice overs to illustrate character development, and a few bizarre hallucinations that entails the "insanity" bit.
A fun game, no doubt, but not something nearly as provocative as Far Cry 3 claimed to be. We are in, the end, viscerally rewarded for shooting things, same as many other FPS. It wasn't the same as Spec Ops: The Line, that Avante-Garde darling where you play a Third Person Shooter that puts its best foot foward in creating an experience that so clearly hates you, and hates its own existence.
Regardless, when I peruse the tropes of this game article, I find myself hanging onto this particular: "Unreliable Narrator", which Word of God (presumably the writer Jeffery Yohalem) insists Jason Brody is. As we see the world through his eyes, therefore the world is unreliable. Sitting down and pondering my experiences, the realization of how unreliable Jason Brody's experiences are, and hence, our campaign run of it, began to grow in my mind.
For it's true, the game on its surface plays straight forward. It's a straight forward FPS. Like all games, there are formulas that make us ease into the world, and never question it. There are mini games, driving, hunting, Takedowns, Outposts, Radio Towers, and so forth. In this, there are hallucinatory "sequences" that we passively experience by pressing forward on the Joystick of our game pads. See weird, kooky stuff, watch Jason wake up. Write off the moment as "Wow, check out that game engine!", and get back to the "game" ("Damn, where are those boars!?").
But as I have to accept the writer wants us to not trust Jason's experience, as I play the game, and reminisce, I have to see threads in this clean "formula" of a sandbox, and pull on them. The moments that don't mesh or make sense. I have to trust the merit of a game as "artistic", that it's a willful creative choice, not an oversight by our maligned "Lazy programmers", or "Evil Corporate CEOs demanding rushed products. As the logic of the game play begins to fall apart, I begin to question the presence of the game, and hopefully with some merit, the relationship of the game experience to the player.
At the crux of the imagery of insanity in this game is one single object. It appears in nearly every major hallucinatory sequence following the sequence in the cave under Earnhardt's mansion. It some times appears without question, but it does arrive nonetheless. I, of course, speak of the ancient ceremonial Chinese Knife.
Its entrance into the story is fairly innocuous. It's a bargaining piece for both Citra and Buck. Citra will take it as proof that you're serious about joining the Rakyat, Buck will barter it for Keith's safety. So you undertake the task. You get involved in a small story chain where you track the damn thing down, see some Chinese "magical shit", and get the knife. You figure it's a quest item that's used up its narrative value, and will disappear.
Then you hunt down Vaas, and he jams it in your chest with no prior indication, right before the most confusing, vague sequence occurs, the very heart of the insanity in the game.
Vaas' death really is something. With little build up, you are Loading Screen-Teleported to remote island, where Vaas seemingly gives you a fatal injury that inexplicably draws you into another hallucination where you stab him to death. Afterwards, you wake up in Citra's lap, and everybody is patting you on the back for killing Vaas. Killing Vaas in a dream sequence, where he defiantly gives you one more eye blink while he lies on the ground, and afterwards, you are given no definite proof in the form of his inanimate rag doll animated body, just the script referring to him in past tense, and Hoyt sounding unhappy.
This part everyone gets. "Ooh, Insanity! Unreliable narration! No dead body! Hallucinations!" It couldn't be shouted any louder into your face this is "Being Insane" in fiction any more than Norman Bates wearing a dress.
What I want to draw you back to, though, is the presence of the Chinese knife. The knife that Vaas in no way could have come to possess, since Citra had it. The knife Vaas probably hadn't even heard of. It wasn't important in the long run, it was merely something of importance in a small quest chain. Yet in a single action, in the center of the most bizarre part of the game, the knife's symbolism is elevated connotations equal to Vaas himself.
Later, of course, the knife is introduced again to nearly kill Liza and your friends, in another hallucination, but that's after the player has come to learn the significance of the weapon and expect it to reoccur. But what about before all this? The appearance of the knife before? That is to say, during the quest chain.
If one retroactively associates this knife with insanity, Buck's quest chain starts taking on ominous connotations. Let's go over it again. Buck will trade Keith for the knife. You have to go find it for him, via searching multiple ruins. Each time, you meet the man ahead of you, who drops a bit of historical context for the place you enter (Chinese convoy in ancient times enslaved the Rakyat, WWII Japan garrison unsuccessfully mined for it), before you go in, maneuvering through ruins and shooting pirates.
When I first played it, I accepted the situation. Buck even gave you some pseudo history to contextualize everything. But back away for a second, don't listen to what Buck's saying, pay attention to what you're doing with your own hands, seeing with your own eyes.
You're looking for parts of a magical compass. In an underground temple that contains full scale medieval Chinese temples. Shooting pirates.
Why is this happening? This is a story about escaping pirates in the modern period, yet for five or so missions we're in stages better suited for Tomb Raider or Uncharted, with ancient temples with ancient mechanisms, death traps, and acid pools. Even Jason finds the whole situation suspect with the inexplicable presence of pirates standing in your way. Even the after action of each mission starts to feel a bit surreal, as you crawl your way back to some random section of the world map, with no indication of how the Underground Temple sequences even feasibly connects to the outside world. At one point the game honestly expects you to believe you crawled out of a rock by the side of a river!
An easygoing gamer (like I) might just shrug it off. "Game logic, I guess. Hey, we do speed runs where we clip through walls. Sand boxes have entry and exit points for missions, that's how it goes."
A discerning player might snort in derision, "Really? You expect me to be involved in a game that spits me out of a rock?"
This what Tropes would call Story and Gameplay Segregation. The rules of the narrative might not mesh with the rules of a game, but overlook it, for the sake of the Suspension of Disbelief.
But this time, perhaps I should say not to. This is a game about insanity. Jason might not have been passively watching a hallucination that spontaneously sprouted trees, made a house collapse backwards, or walk on television screens, but shooting Pirates in an intricately carved underground temples for parts of a "Magical Compass" doesn't make any less sense.
However, we believed these ridiculous sequences for two reasons. One, Buck gave us a history lesson, that somehow made these temple ruins "more real". Two, the gameplay had "traditional" FPS combat with shooting pirates. It follows the "mechanics" of the game that "doesn't involve hallucinations". Therefore, we can trust it.
But if Jason is an Unreliable Narrator, in a game about insanity and hallucinations we have to look again at Buck, a man who just seems to spontaneously arrive before you all the time, and the Pirates, who seem to have no reason for being there, save to be a obstacle in your way.
The unreliability of Jason's interaction with people in the "Non-hallucinatory" world suddenly makes me doubt Jason's interactions with everybody, or their presentations. Besides Jason's friends who are capable of interacting with each other, Jason mostly interacts one on one with other named characters that seem larger than life the more and more I think about them.
Citra, the fantastic priestess of a warrior people, fantastically sultry, wearing nothing more than a mini skirt and a halter top. Vaas, the ever present force of insanity. Willis, the ridiculously Jingoistic CIA agent who basically references Modern Warfare with a wry grin. Hoyt, who can be seen like a walking image of the fear of Western Civilization still preying upon third world countries. (I must also remark that Hoyt's body is never found either. You wake up to a room filled with corpses, but never a sign of that greasy yellow shirt of his.)
Characters. Fantastic spikes of personality existing on an island where you spend your time otherwise shooting pirates that come out of the woodwork, custom fitted to be either an Assault, Charger, Sharpshooter, Shielded, etc.
Is anything real at all? Did Jason actually see anything happen? What experiences are valid? Or am I insinuating that everybody he met are merely figments of his imagination, archetypal narrative figures made to justify a revenge fantasy in his head, while he fired wildly into the air at pirates that don't exist?
Or am I going too far for the hell of it?
There is one answer, I think, which would be appropriate. The answer is "No. None of it is real".
Because we're playing a video game.
I don't mean it in a sneering, smart-assed way, like I lead you on this whole diatribe before shouting "psyche!" at you. I want to remind you again of my earlier mention of the game's relationship with the player. I want to imagine the game is trying to say something about players, in the same way Spec Ops does, by turning the protagonist's experiences into a mirror of our own experiences. Just as Jason's experiences might at any time be seen as a hallucination, isn't a video game in itself, a hallucination in its own way? We see fantasies we never would attempt in real life, and become part of narratives in far off lands that realistically, shouldn't happen. We willingly immerse ourselves.
I like to imagine that perhaps Far Cry 3 is trying to say something not unlike Lord of the Flies. Jason moves to the "Center" with the help of Citra, to the jungle of his mind and soul, to express power. Perhaps in my own ways, I, the player, have a jungle in my soul, for which I am all to willing to use a hallucination to try and embody.