Friday, July 18, 2008

The Politics of Far Cry 2

Patrick Redding, narrative designer for Ubisoft Montreal's upcoming Far Cry 2, gave an interview to Gamasutra recently in which he discusses his views on how story and gameplay can both be more effective when tightly coupled throughout the development process.

I respect many of the ideas Redding mentions. For one thing, I admire the willingness of the development team and producers of Far Cry 2 to go big, and if they fail, to fail usefully. For another, it's great to see the positive references to System Shock and Deus Ex -- there can never be enough intelligent games.

Unfortunately, that respect for the intelligent games that Redding cites is severely undercut by a remark he offers early in the interview:

[O]ne of the things we did is we said, "Well, one kind of overriding question we want the player to be asking themselves is, 'How far are you willing to go in order to do the right thing?'" In other words, how much bad stuff are you willing to do, how much of your soul are you willing to sacrifice, in the pursuit of a larger good?

And it's important to say that we're not trying to take a position on that. We're not trying to say, "Oh, the trouble with people today is they're not willing to do really terrible, evil, monstrous things in order to accomplish the greater good." This isn't like some neocon wet dream, right?

Let's set aside the question of whether Redding's disdain for U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq is a proper distrust of foreign adventurism or a foolish blindness to realistic long-term national security policy.

Instead, just consider for a moment that even conservatives play computer games, and more so every day as the kids who grew up with computers and consoles discover their political beliefs. So why is it that so many developers seem, like Redding, to be desperate to go out of their way to stick a verbal thumb into the eyes of a lot of potential purchasers of their product? Purely from a business standpoint, making such comments is dumb.

But let's assume few game consumers will ever notice comments like these on Gamasutra. What about the question of whether this tiresomely juvenile political attitude is shared by the other writers of this game out of Montreal, possibly infecting and weakening the story design of Far Cry 2? (Deus Ex 3, currently being developed by Eidos Montreal, may suffer from the same malady, which would be a shame for a game that aspires to the greatness of its original predecessor.)

I'm not saying I want game developers to have no opinions, political or otherwise, or that they should never express those opinions in the games they make. Some games (and the game developers who make them) can and should challenge everyone's beliefs; that way lies interesting gameplay.

But that means everyone. It's easy to mock only conservatives when all your pals have the same left-leaning political opinions you do; just ask Pauline Kael. That's playing it safe. But that's precisely why this impulse needs to be fought -- if you're going to embed your politics in your game, but you can't bring yourself to develop gameplay and narrative that unflinchingly questions those beliefs, how can you expect any other player of your game to give a damn about that part of the story?

It may be very satisfying personally to use a game as a soapbox for unleashing some political opinion (of any variety). But it's bad business if you're trying to appeal to a mass market, and it's bad game design if you're trying to craft a game that inspires actual thought on topics that matter.

So now, thanks to an offhanded political crack, I have to wonder if Far Cry 2 will be worth spending my money on.

Too bad.

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