The Importance of Ugliness

In everyday life we are surrounded by horrifying sights…We all know perfectly well that such things are ugly, not only in the moral but in the physical sense, and we know this because they arouse our disgust, fear and repulsion. Marginal as the voice of art may be, it attempted to remind us that…there is something implacably and sadly malign about this world.

-       Umberto Eco, On Ugliness

The first thing that struck me about Far Cry 3 is how much I dislike Jason Brody, the character whose skin I am forced to wear during my time on the Rook Islands. He is a professional tourist whose life revolves around thrill seeking and excessive drinking, the perfect archetype of the rich, white, directionless mook. He is empty of ambition, a waste of potential with an asinine haircut.

In Far Cry 2, the player isn’t forced into a particular character. Rather, you can choose from a roster of characters of various ethnicities and backgrounds. I chose Paul Ferenc, a Hungarian-born Israeli national who made his way in the world as a smuggler and ironmonger. Like everyone else in that game’s war-torn African nation, Ferenc was there for little more than blood and money.

Beyond his biographical sketch at the character selection screen, Ferenc (or any other character you choose) is a cipher, but you at least know he is a man of action – you know that he chose to be an amoral mercenary. Brody, on the other hand, literally falls into Far Cry 3 by skydiving onto the wrong island. After a few hours of play, I am fairly sure the only choice he’s ever made was to live his life as a willfully clueless shithead. I would much rather be a man who makes bad choices than one who makes no choices at all.

After a series of set pieces in which Jason escapes the clutches of the psychotic pirate Vaas (whose menacing homicidal potential is on full display in the game’s cover art), you meet Dennis, a former marine who decides to help Brody save his friends and guide him, by way of mystical mumbo jumbo, into fulfilling his potential as a warrior. Dennis also happens to be black, a Liberian expatriate, and, for some critics, his appearance is the start of a downward spiral into problematic stereotypes. For them, he is a Magical Negro at the front of an army of Noble Savages, encouraging a White Savior to deliver them all from their troubles.

The problem here is that Dennis is obviously just as insane as Vaas, only in a less murder-everyone-violently way. He isn’t magical; he is a spreader of delusions – a tired cliche turned inside out and unsettling by the mania that infects the islands of Far Cry 3. Because Brody is an idiot or because he is reeling from psychological trauma, he buys in. He lets himself believe. From that moment, his entire journey on the island is a fever dream, replete with sorcerous tattoos and firearm vending machines.

That there is something terribly wrong with Jason’s fundamental perceptions is immediately apparent. Dennis explains that to become a true warrior, Jason must master the island by hunting its animals and exploiting its plant life. This is the only guidance Jason gets before getting shoved into the jungle, and it shows – despite the fact that the game clearly calls for Jason to skin his prey, the animation shows Jason removing the viscera and dropping the gory mess into his rucksack. As for the plants, he mixes them according to color for injection via syringe. These are not the actions of a clear mind.

The very first thing you see as Far Cry 3 loads up is a butterfly made of guns, a mirror image reminiscent of a Rorschach inkblot. This image of a beautiful and harmless insect formed out of the implements of violence is the first sign that what lies beyond is completely open to interpretation.

Brody’s long hallucination is populated with stiff, unfortunate stereotypes because that is how he sees the world. To dismiss that as a poor or insensitive choice on the part of the developers is to unfairly simplify it. Our job as players is to try to reconcile the dissonance within the game. Why do all the friendly NPCs have the same character model? Why do all the pirates have the same voice? Why is it so much easier to kill another human being than it is to kill a tiger?

Far Cry 3 is a game about games, and about gamers – the same way Naked Lunch is a novel about writing novels, and about writers. It is a mirror, a Rorschach test, allowing multiple interpretations about violence, racism, madness, trauma and a whole host of other unpleasant topics.

And if this philosophically hostile yet incredibly playable game was designed with the intent to simply pander to the impulses of our lizard brain, or made for some mythical every-bro gamer, then that is something we need to confront as well.

Last week, a very real mentally unstable man threw another man in front of an oncoming Manhattan subway train. A photographer from the New York Post captured a picture of the victim staggering to his feet and trying to climb back onto the platform seconds before the impact and his terrible death. In the ensuing uproar over whether it was right for the photograph to be taken or for the Post to have run it on the front page, the real story was forgotten – people took refuge in their outrage.

I am glad I saw that photograph because it is so awful a thing to see. It is a reminder of just how ugly people can be to each other, how horrible and unforgiving the world is. It forces you to appreciate how precarious life can be and just how much work we have to do to just not be overwhelmed by the rising tide of shit. It isn’t a good heart and a philanthropic spirit that drives us to try and change the world for the better, it is being exposed to suffering and madness and pain.

I would rather not see photographs like that, of course. I would much rather get my dose of darkness filtered through art and the written word and games like Far Cry 3 – flawed and pale in comparison to reality though they may be. Andre Serrano, the photographer behind the controversial piece “Piss Christ” once said, “I don’t see anything wrong with provocative art and… I look forward to the day when I can make work that will even disturb me.” So should we all.

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Stu Horvath has a long way to go before he is anywhere close to finishing Far Cry 3, thanks to those damned unkillable tigers, so follow him on Twitter @StuHorvath to see how his ideas about the game evolve.

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