It’s often said that game developers and critics speak two different and incompatible languages. To this attitude, Clint Hocking exists as a strong counterpoint: he’s a veteran developer known for several beloved games as well as the coiner of one of game criticism’s most enduring (and hotly debated) concepts, ludonarrative dissonance.
Recently celebrating the 10 year anniversary of his best-known game, Far Cry 2, Hocking brought together his favorite critical pieces in a seven-part blog series. He’s graciously allowed us to reprint his collection here as a Critical Compilation.
For 10 years, Far Cry 2 has continued to generate thoughtful responses, meaningful criticism, and increasingly sophisticated analysis. The reviews of the game mostly stopped coming after the first six months. But the critical discourse and the analysis of the game continued, and continues still. In fact, some of the best articles and analyses of the game have been written in the past 18 months. Some people say the game is a ‘cult classic,’ some say it was a ‘sleeper hit,’ others call it a ‘reference game.’ That’s all fine, but what matters to me, and what has kept me going over the years, is the simple fact that 10 years later, people are still inspired to play it, to revisit it, and most importantly, to write about it.
So for the 10th anniversary of Far Cry 2, I wanted to share some of the best and most thoughtful criticism of the game that I’ve come across. I went back through old emails, searched the internet, and spent hours organizing my Instapaper account in order to narrow it down to what I feel are the ten best pieces written about Far Cry 2.
In terms of how I filtered them: for the most part I avoided reviews, and tried not to select pieces from the six months that immediately followed the launch of the game (I failed, but I tried). I also tried to avoid pieces that were explicitly comparing Far Cry 2 to other games in the series – there are a lot of those. Part of the reason Far Cry 2 continues to be written about today is, of course, because it stands as a reference for the games that have followed it. But looking back at comparisons – even favorable ones – doesn’t elevate the discourse much, and I wanted to focus on writing about Far Cry 2 outside of the context of other games in the series.
So, I’ve gathered together my Top 10 articles about Far Cry 2. I could have easily made this a Top 20, and some very great writing didn’t make the cut. That said, within many of the pieces I’ve chosen to share, you’ll find links to other pieces that would have made the Top 20, so they are there if you look for them.
Thank you to everyone who has played the game and shared their perspectives and opinions on it over the years. You’ve made a big difference in my life, and without your passion, insight, criticism, and perspective, it’s not clear that I would be where I am today. I owe you all an enormous debt of gratitude, and I look forward to repaying it.
#10 – an essay about the Paradox of Tragedy in Far Cry 2
(Note: if the link doesn’t work, paste this into your browser: https://ceasarbautista.com/essays/far_cry.html )
There are several academic, or borderline academic pieces in this list, and this piece by Caesar Bautista is the first of them. I’m not sure when this piece was written – I think it might have been 2012. The idea that we can ‘feel good’ about playing a game wherein we do so much terrible stuff is nicely framed in the context of the Paradox of Tragedy, which I had not heard of prior to this article.
This piece by Justin Keever from the middle of 2017 is the most recent piece on my Top 10. I disagree with a lot of Keever’s opinions in the piece, which is probably the main reason I chose to include it. There have been many criticisms of Far Cry 2, (and also many criticisms of the idea of ludonarrative dissonance), and for the most part I find the criticism more engaging than the praise.
#8 – War Crimes
This piece by Duncan Fife doesn’t actually escape the six month window that surrounded the release of the game, but I felt it worth including because it was one of the first to raise the question of the ethical issues that arise from the absence of civilians in the game world.
Bearing the subtitle “A letter to a younger, angrier me,” I always enjoyed the format of this piece. Alec Meer, over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, has a fresh take on a theme that has carried through the Far Cry 2 criticism over the years: that you need to be in a certain mindset in order for the game to ‘click’ for you – a mindset he wasn’t in when he’d played the game five years previously, but perhaps was when he wrote the piece.
The two pieces that occupy fifth and sixth on my list are very different from one another. One, a thoughtful analysis of the game, and the other a meta-analysis of the early reception of the game.
Chris Remo’s seminal examination of how players seemed to be experiencing the game appeared within days of its release. I tried to stay away from pieces that were written in the first months after the launch window, but the way this piece framed people’s thinking about the game can’t be ignored. Pieces about the game written years after the fact (for example, the Alec Meer piece at #7) makes it clear that either Remo’s analysis was right – or that his framing changed the way critics play. Hmmm.
Over the past decade there have probably been 30 pieces that follow a similar structure to this one; walking through the general flow of the game progression and explaining how the various elements of the game and the narrative work together to reinforce the central themes and aesthetics. Leigh Harrison’s piece landed more than six years after the game’s release, and I chose to include it because of all of those pieces over the years, this one is, I think, the most articulate, and most well-written.
These next two pieces have a lot in common. Both are fairly serious criticisms of the ludic and narrative handling of some elements of the game. These pieces call out the game’s allusions to political Realism, the problem of the absence of civilians, and its handling of imperialist and colonialist tropes. These criticisms are tough, given how hard we on the development team tried to challenge problematic ideas. But it’s not the purpose of these posts to defend the game, so I’m promoting these pieces in the spirit of embracing well-reasoned criticism – especially criticism that challenges.
Jorge Albor’s two part discussion of Far Cry 2’s depiction of politics is framed as ‘not a criticism.’ I think this was a common tactic in early games criticism (between about 2006 and 2009). I similarly committed the sin of disclaiming my criticism when I first wrote about Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock. I was wrong when I suggested that piece was not criticism, and I think Albor is wrong here. This piece is absolutely criticism – and ten years later, that’s something I think we can celebrate, and not sweep under the rug.
Among other things, Albor’s piece criticizes the absence of civilians as a missed opportunity to make the player’s decisions more impactful and consequential. This is a common and fair criticism of the game, and I am not sure whether the game would have been better or worse with a robust simulation of civilian presence. I think the argument can be made that the inclusion of civilians might not only create a bunch of thematic noise were the player to needlessly engage in murder, but might also undermine the central framing of the background conflict being depicted as pointless and futile. Other people (including one in an upcoming piece) have discussed this idea at length, so I won’t here, but regardless, Albor’s article remains one of the best and broadest criticisms of the game. Definitely worth a read.
The ongoing game writing anthology Well Played, published out of Carnegie Mellon University’s ETC Press, consistently brings out some of the very best writing about games, and I was thrilled to discover a piece in Volume 5, Number 1 (page 85), related to Far Cry 2. (Disclaimer: my own piece on Ludonarrative Dissonance was reprinted in the first book in the series.)
This excellent piece by Marcus Hensel is much narrower in focus than Albor’s. It examines the game’s depiction of malaria, and its relationship to centuries of imperialist and colonialist discourse related to Africa. This piece was a gut-punch when I read it back in 2016. I think some of the details of his analysis (such as his suggestion that the visual filters used during malaria attacks explicitly reference miasma) are a bit overreaching, but it’s hard not to accept the core of his argument; that elements of the game evoke the Africa of Stanley or Burton.
A key goal for us was to make a game with a deeper physical connection between the land, the objects in the world, and especially the avatar, in order to forge a psychosomatic bond between the player and the avatar that we could then pay off in climactic moments with the buddies. In hindsight, I wish we could have done better at delivering on the aesthetic ambitions of the game without perpetuating some of the very ideas we were trying to challenge. But escaping your cultural biases is difficult – even when you try very hard to examine them.
The Number Two in my Top 10 definitely breaks my ‘rule’ about not using pieces that were written in the first six months or so if the game’s release. I chose this one, however, because I feel it doesn’t come off as a review so much and it has a timeless quality about.
I’ve chosen Tom Armitage’s piece because I think it is one of the earliest pieces that comprehensively addresses the major design and narrative elements of the game and structures them around a unified argument. The argument itself; that Far Cry 2’s structure is somehow more literary than that of other games, is not one I necessarily agree with, but it does provide a way for him to structure his criticism.
In many ways, Armitage’s piece presents the core arguments that Keever’s piece in the Number 9 spot counters. A lot of time passed between Armitage’s piece in 2008 and Keever’s in 2017, and many of Keever’s criticisms are interesting and fair – but Keever also makes those criticisms after having played Spec Ops: The Line, and Kane and Lynch 2; games that did not exist when Armitage was writing. Similarly, Keever’s understanding of Ludonarrative Dissonance is much more sophisticated than Armitage’s (or mine) was in 2008, and stands on the shoulders of excellent analysis such as that of Lana Polansky from 2015. If only we knew in 2005 what we know today, Far Cry 2 would have been a much better game.
Overall, I think Armitage’s piece is important, and it earns its place at #2, because I think it is the piece that best encapsulates the favorable side of the commentary around the game when it shipped. I think the more critical commentary around the game in that time frame was far less sophisticated, and it took many years before the criticism of what the game was not succeeding at was finally properly articulated.
I think one of the things that is unique about Far Cry 2 is that it arrived at a time when game criticism was becoming suddenly more sophisticated. As a game that (arguably) merited more sophisticated discussion, its very existence attracted a kind of critic, and a kind of writing that was probably predisposed to be favourable. At least that’s how I interpret the imbalance of critical writing about Far Cry 2, circa 2008/9 with the benefit of hindsight.
#1 – a post by Akoomsh
I don’t think anyone could have predicted this would be my number one.
‘Never read the comments,’ says the popular wisdom. And to be honest, I’m not even sure how I originally came across this obscure post by a random player on the Steam forums. But I saved it to my Instapaper account, and over the past few years since it appeared in 2013, I’ve gone back and re-read it several times.
I think this piece is important for a number of reasons. First, it’s not criticism, so much as opinion writing; it’s not directed at the creators and it doesn’t exist within the established circles of critical discussion. It’s not a reply to someone else’s blog post, article or retrospective. It’s not an attempt to generate clickthroughs or page views. It lives on its own, and from a reach perspective, it may just as well have been written in a diary and tucked under a pillow.
Furthermore, one gets the impression (or at least I make the assumption) from reading it, that the author is not even particularly familiar with the critical discourse surrounding the game. He claims to have read comments – likely forum posts themselves – about the game, but does not seem to be regurgitating other people’s messages from the usual sources. He seems – at least to me – to have arrived at his assessment of the game on his own. The fact that he’s not really saying anything new is not important at all – the fact that he is arriving at his conclusions and his assessment of the game autonomously is what matters to me. His does not appear to be an opinion constructed from exposure to the opinions of others. It feels to me, at least, to be genuine.
By his own admission, Akoomsh struggled with the game, and he found his own way to what the game is about. Far Cry 2 changed his perception of what games are and what they can be, and what they can say, and how they can say it. Akoomsh, and some invisible minority of people like him, are the reason I make games, and this forum post is worth more to me than a 10/10 on a popular website, or a big bonus earned for hitting a sales target. It’s proof that the things I believe aren’t futile and that I’m not just flailing at windmills.
It’s proof that games are worth fighting for – even if fighting means a decade of losing. And I owe it to all the Akoomshes out there to keep fighting.
To conclude this series on my favorite pieces about Far Cry 2, I have chosen a handful of pieces that, for one reason or another, I felt did not ‘fit’ in the Top 10. I chose to keep these pieces separate from the Top 10 for a few different reasons.
For example, a couple of the pieces here are only available in print or for purchase as e-book, and it seemed pointless to blog about them without being able to link directly. I’ve included those here. Included also are a few pieces that were too contemporary to the game – something I largely tried to avoid in the Top 10. Also included is a YouTube clip that is more entertainment than analysis, and a piece of the Far Cry 2 discourse that was so unique that it simply didn’t belong with the rest.
Far Cry 2 and the Dirty Mirror – an essay in Shooter
(Disclaimer: I was the author of the forward to this collection of essays edited by Reid McCarter and Patrick Lindsey.)
While overall Lindsey’s analysis of Far Cry 2 was fairly standard, and didn’t stray too far from the critical consensus, it was of note that he leaned into the then-emerging discussion of the self-aware shooter. Lindsey discusses Far Cry 2 as an example of a game that uses it mechanics and dynamics, rather than its authored story or cinematics to invite the player to question their actions and their application of violence to achieve their goals. While I think Lindsey’s piece is worth reading on its own, I especially wanted to include it in this list because many of the other essays in the book are also worth reading. If you’re reading these blog posts, and you’re interested in the critical discussion of games in general, Shooter is worth reading.
Extra Lives by Tom Bissell (Chapter 8)
Like Shooter, Bissell’s book Extra Lives is not exclusively about Far Cry 2. Bissell discusses numerous games in the book, and each chapter is devoted largely to a different game. Bissell’s analysis is more personal and intimate that most other pieces written about the game, and the book as a whole reads almost as a travelogue of Bissell’s journey through the medium and his developing understanding of how games achieve their creative aims and (as the subtitle suggests) ‘why video games matter.’ Bissell is an accomplished author coming from outside the industry and outside the critical circles of the specialty press, so his take is refreshing (though since the book, Bissell has gone on to write for over a dozen different games). Whether you want to read more about Far Cry 2 or not, I highly recommend Extra Lives.
Three pieces written contemporaneously with the game
One of my criteria in selecting pieces of the Top 10 was to steer clear of pieces written within the six months or so around when the game released. I made this decision for several reasons, but principally, I was more interested in focusing on criticism and analysis more than reviews. This was a tough razor to apply, and ultimately I did end up including a few pieces that were written close to the game’s release. Here are three more that I came across and among the last to get shuffled out of the Top 10.
Seeing Africa Down the Barrel of a Gun by Iroquois Pliskin
Heart of Dimness: Half-baked Nihilism in Far Cry 2 by Anthony Burch
Far Cry 2: The Heart of Darkness Game by L.B. Jeffries
The Idle Thumbs gang were big supporters of the game, and I’ve always enjoyed reading their stuff, listening to their podcasts, and talking to them about the game. This two minutes of footage is pure Far Cry 2 gold; one tiny mistake and everything goes to shit. Also, while I absolutely love the games soundtrack by composer Marc Canham, I can only dream of one day playing the game with Chris Remo riding shotgun and providing a real time score.
Permadeath – by Ben Abraham
(Disclosure: Ben Abraham is the founder and a current board member of Critical Distance.)
Finally, it should come as no surprise that Abraham’s permadeath experiment is on this list. Not only was Ben part of the early critical discussion surrounding the game, but his record of his permadeath playthrough inspired many others to play the game the same way. In hindsight, the PDF of his experience is a complete oddity, and utterly unique in video game criticism; it’s 400 pages of screenshots and descriptions of Abraham’s playthrough, culminating in his death (and then his choice to carry on anyway). This is Twitch before Twitch, and had Abraham undertaken this experiment three years later, it might have been seen by millions. I read through it again recently and was struck also by the introduction I had written for it at Abraham’s request. It’s interesting for me to re-read those words in consideration of my own mental state when I wrote them. Six months later, I would leave Ubisoft to walk ‘back into the terrible unknown.’ Life imitates art, I guess.
So that concludes my celebration of some of the best writing about Far Cry 2. Now that I’ve done 10 year posts for Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, and for Far Cry 2, I am out of games to write 10 year posts about. I badly wish I could be three years away from putting up a ten year retrospective on some game I made at LucasArts or Valve or Amazon – but the waves just didn’t break that way.
That said, I’m working as hard as I can to get you all something you can write about for the next ten years. Thanks so much for all of your support and passion and engagement. Without all of you playing, talking and writing about this game, I very likely would not be here today working on the next one.