Nondescript region of concern

October 24, 2008

Far Cry 2 looks absolutely gorgeous and I am tempted to upgrade my PC to take advantage of the visual orgasm. Now with that out of the way, I want to talk about the plot of the game. No, I won’t delve into the specifics of its mercenary structure or parallelisms into Heart of Darkness. I want to address an issue that I believe a lot of war games have: the nondescript, nonspecific, undisclosed location of the game’s setting. Far Cry 2 takes place in an unstable African state. That may suffice for a typical action game, but if the developer intended to place a greater effort into the story-which they have spoken that it was a major concern-then I don’t believe having a nondescript location helps their efforts.

Now, a fair argument can be made that this just isn’t necessary. Africa is simply enough. The player does not need any more specifics for an FPS “action game.” But I believe, that this mentality hinders the genre to grow because it takes away from what could be a very mature narrative and the impression gamers have with playing this genre. What this mindset does do is boils it down to basically a dumb-action movie. But action movies can be very stimulating-look at the Terminator series or even the Bourne series. There is no reason that video games need to be dumbed-down to the player. I even find it slightly offensive that Africa can be considered a setting that is representational of all the regions in the continent. No one would set a game simply in Europe with a single environmental backdrop and expect it to represent the entire continent. It is absolutely ludicrous.

This is highly controversial in the case of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare where it is set in an unnamed Middle East country. What the hell is that? Now before I go further, I do want to give credit that the game does have an amazingly well constructed narrative and simply one of the most memorable gaming moments of last year. But I don’t believe the game went far enough in its responsibility for depicting the consequences of modern warfare. For a game set in modern warfare, the reality of it is totally disassociated when players can bomb areas from a computer screen within the game. It is both beautiful and shocking in the amount of time, care, and detail Infinity Ward put into the game. And though I applaud COD4 as a great game, I wish they gave the player the benefit of the doubt that they can process their actions with a specific setting that purveys much more social and political intertext than simply placing it in the Middle East.

And now we come to the topic of censorship. I am sure if COD4 were to set it in a specific nation there would be huge uproar. But I believe that is a very ignorant sentiment from dissenters. By not placing the game more grounding into the current reality, players have an easier time to disconnect with it. If COD4 were set in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan (which it might as well be) I believe the narrative would become much stronger and have a larger impact on the player.

But do not confuse my intentions to have all games become overly serious. Video games are entertainment and they are an escape. Grand Theft Auto would not be what it is today if it didn’t give the player the ability for free reign. Game narratives are not required to present the players with social conniptions or epiphanies. However, they should try to push the medium in some facet whether it is narrative, game play, design, or simply perfection of certain mechanics. All I am saying is it would be nice to know where the hell and who the hell I am taking head shots at.



  1. At least the country actually has a name. It’s Mwanzo, I think, at least that’s what I was able to scrounge up on Google.

    An argument could be made by the developers that creating a country of their own could be more easily identified to, because connecting a region with a real-world locale causes the developers and the players to restrict their thinking of whatever region with their knowledge/preconceptions.

    It can even purport identity-breaking inaccuracies. As you mentioned, Ubisoft Montreal wanted to represent an interesting variety of Africa’s terrain, which would be innaccurate, and limiting according to the developers goals, if the game was set in Rwanda. I won’t even elaborate on the human component.

    The bottom line is that it is very difficult to capture the essence of a place. It’s interesting that GTA4’s Liberty City is fictional while capturing the essence of New York. (To give an example of what you are asking for, you may look forward to playing in Midnight Club’s actually named LA.)

    Take Assassin’s Creed, for instance. Ubisoft Montreal wanted to recreate these ancient cities with as much accuracy as possible, but many would argue that it took away from possibly more focused gameplay.

    Player identification is important, but it is supported by many more factors than just the name of the country. We should also consider the importance of the accurate representation of real-world places.

    (As a side note, I’ve probably identified with a lot of fictional places more than some real world ones, like the world of Fallout, for example.)

  2. With a one minute Google/Wiki search I can’t verify that as an actual nation-kind of like Syriana. Though I could be wrong 😛

    But you bring up wonderful counter examples on why it it isn’t necessary and even harmful to the immersion of the game by placing a specific location. And you are right. But I do think setting Far Cry 2 in Rwanda would have a bigger impact on what it is saying about the effects of colonialism and foreign intrusion than Mwanzo. GTA is great because Liberty City is essentially a satire of New York and there is that frame of reference to take the world into that context.

    Fallout 3 is going to be very interesting because it is set in Washington D.C. but from what I have read, having landmarks is very helpful in regards to locating where you are in the district and attaches some very interesting political commentary in terms of recent American national policy. Yay for the Onclave!

    Like all things there needs to be a balance and developers will have to decide on a case by case basis on how they want to portray the setting of their game.

  3. Oh, sorry if I was confusing. I didn’t mean to say that Mwanzo was a real place, I’m just saying that at least it has a name unlike COD4’s unnamed Middle Eastern country.

    And, if Ubisoft Montreal was concerned more about speaking on colonialism, maybe they would have set it in Rwanda, but I think they instead chose to prioritize having a varied environment.

    It’s definitely interesting that Fallout 3 is set in DC, but of course, being 500 years in the future helps give them free reign to make it any way they choose.

    Anyway, neat little blog you have here, I’m looking forward to more of your observations.

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