by Salvatore Pane
At the end of 2014, I published an essay in Heavy Feather Review that interrogated the racism in Far Cry 3’s script. The lackluster nature of game’s plot shouldn’t be surprising for any gamer who’s been with the hobby for more than a few months. Much heralded games like Halo or Kingdom Hearts feature narratives that are either straight up copied from action flicks—the former—or so obtuse and nonsensical as to be more confusing than Finnegans Wake—the latter. The central tension I experienced as a player of Far Cry 3 was that while I found the narrative so offensive—a white savior murders scores of brown people to liberate other brown people—I was blown away by how fun the gameplay was. The game’s developers, Ubisoft, have managed to marry the stealth mechanics of Metal Gear Solid to the fast-paced first-person shooter gameplay of Call of Duty. Even more impressive is that all of this is inserted into a Grand Theft Auto-style open world sandbox. The core gameplay of Far Cry 3 allows for creative solutions to a myriad of interesting problems, but unfortunately, those fun mechanics are retrofitted with a story that bathes everything in a repugnant stink.
And this is why I was so interested in Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, downloadable content that promised to completely alter the world of the original game. Far Cry 3’s writer, Jeffrey Yohalem, defended his original narrative as satire when confronted in an interview with Penny Arcade Report:
The story is itself something that can be solved, like a riddle… What makes me sad is that people don’t engage with playing the riddle… It’s like a scavenger hunt where people aren’t collecting the first clue… The Alice in Wonderland quotes are there to clue people in. You analyze them like you would any other text and they let you know what’s going on…If you half-listen to the story, it seems like it’s reinforcing tropes that I disagree with… It’s a first-person game, and Jason is a 25-year old white guy from Los Angeles. From Hollywood. So his view of what’s going on on this island is his own view, and you happen to be looking through his eyes, so you’re seeing his view… It’s set on an island in the South Pacific, so immediately the thing that comes to mind is the white colonial trope, the Avatar trope. I started with that, and it’s like, “Here’s what pop culture thinks about traveling to a new place,” and the funny thing is, that’s an exaggeration of most games, they just don’t expose it.
Yohalem is making the argument that Far Cry 3 criticizes certain racist tropes in video games by blowing them up exponentially, but the problem is that nothing in the game reads as satire. The narrative feels in line with other first-person shooters, and there’s not a single comical moment in the bloated, self-important campaign, unless you count a strangely odd moment when the protagonist quotes Kill Bill seemingly for no reason whatsoever.
Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon definitely doesn’t share this problem. Coated in neon and ‘80s synth-pop, Blood Dragon begins with the familiar Ubisoft logo rendered fuzzy and shaky, a VCR tracking feature scrolling beneath. Start the campaign, and you’re treated to a hilariously over-the-top 16-bit cut scene that uses outdated pixelart to ape everything from Terminator to Aliens. You play as the perfectly named Rex Power Colt, a cyborg soldier portrayed by Michael Biehn, the actor who played Kyle Reese in the original Terminator, not to mention characters in The Abyss, Hill Street Blues, Tombstone, and The Rock. Every sentence in the script is as deliciously over-the-top as a John Waters film. “Space. Earth. In the near future, at the end of the 20th Century… From the radioactive ashes of North America, a new breed of soldier is reborn.” A scientist brings Rex Power Colt online and says, “Cyberheart pumping at 130%!” Even the tutorial drips with sarcasm. At the end of the tutorial, a text box pops up saying, “Press X to make these patronizing screens go away.” Rex responds with meta-commentary saying, “I fucking hate tutorials, and this one is terrible.”
Blood Dragon, written not by Yohalem but by Lucien Soulban, takes immediate steps to position itself as the narrative inverse of Far Cry 3. However, you have to own Far Cry 3 to play Blood Dragon. Whereas Far Cry 3 ended with a self-righteous helicopter ride around the island shooting down natives to “Flight of the Valkyries,” Blood Dragon opens with Rex shooting down robots atop neon fortresses from his helicopter while Spider blasts “Long Tall Sally” by Little Richard. In Far Cry 3, you collect World War II-era letters, camera memory cards, or island relics to receive various power-ups. In Blood Dragon, you hunt for bulky CRTVs and VHS tapes while Rex complains about how stupid video game item collecting is. If you’re looking for an out-of-the-box way to storm an enemy base in Far Cry 3, you might lure a hungry tiger to the entrance to do the killing for you. In Blood Dragon, you toss a cyberheart near the entrance and lure a titular Blood Dragon, a neon monster that shoots lasers out of its eyes. While Far Cry 3 makes wild and fumbling stabs at mysticism and the duality of man, Blood Dragon is content to hurl lame catchphrase after catchphrase, peppered for spice with 16-bit sex scenes and training montages reminiscent of Rocky IV. Far Cry 3 is self-righteous glut that thinks it’s way smarter than it is. Blood Dragon is kitsch that embraces ‘80s buffoonery and the young, dumb, and full of come rhetoric of the first-person shooter genre dating back to the holy trinity of Id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake.
What interests me so much about the dichotomy between Far Cry 3 and its add-on Blood Dragon is that the gameplay remains almost untouched. The core stealth versus all out mayhem base storming gameplay of the original is the focus of Blood Dragon, and in most ways, this compelling piece of DLC feels less like a new game and more like a superior coat of paint slathered onto the original. If I thought Far Cry 3 was an almost perfect game nearly drowned by its clumsy rhetoric and narrative, Blood Dragon completely removes said story and replaces it with the missing satire Jeffrey Yohalem pontificated about to Penny Arcade. In that way, Blood Dragon exists as a kind of course-correcting apology, completely jettisoning the serious tone and real-world island setting of Far Cry 3 for a zany, over-the-top apocalypse mocking the ‘80s milieu the majority of the game’s developers grew up with. Game mods are nothing new, and many of our industry’s most successful franchises—Half-Life’s offspring Counter-Strike and Team Fortress Classic immediately spring to mind—started life as reworked code. But it’s difficult to recall a mod released by a game’s parent company that so completely and utterly erases the tone of the original game. As video game criticism continues to evolve, modifications must be examined as a creator technique wholly unique to games.
The transition from Far Cry 3 to Blood Dragon is unique to video games, and that’s why it’s of interest for those of us who want to seriously think about games as we continue building a vocabulary for analysis. In film, the closest parallel would be something like the Special Edition versions of the original Star Wars trilogy. Originally released in 1997 and continually tinkered with every few years, the Special Edition versions allowed George Lucas to insert superfluous CGI into his classic sci-fi films in addition to formerly deleted scenes—Han chatting with Jabba in A New Hope—and retconning catastrophes—Greedo shooting first. But even this example doesn’t exactly match up with what Ubisoft has accomplished in Blood Dragon. Although most fans agree that the Special Edition Star Wars films are bastardizations and proof of Lucas’ growing insanity, when paired side-by-side it’s hard to argue that their subject matter and tone are as disparate as those of Far Cry 3 and Blood Dragon. If this comparison were to truly hold, Lucas would have to recut the original Star Wars trilogy into a traditional fantasy series, i.e. something tonally different that held the core mechanics of the original—wizards, magic, and quests.
There’s nothing equivalent in literature either, although we might look at writers who revisit their work later. Take, for example, British novelist John Fowles who revised his 1965 debut, The Magus, twelve years later and published an updated edition. But the second version of The Magus still follows the general structure, themes, and setting of the original—confused young male explores an island of mysteries in a quest for self-actualization. Probably the closest corollary in more established forms of media comes from the music industry in the vestige of the remix. When a band like Girl Talk splices together a dozen hit songs to form something new, is that a distant cousin of what Ubisoft has produced in Blood Dragon? What about when rapper Ma$e used the main riff of Kool & the Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging” for “Feel So Good” and sang, “Take hits from the ‘80s/Does it sound so crazy?” If we’re to further perfect a language for close reading and analyzing video games, maybe we need to borrow a page from music journalism and the study of the remix?
As more and more developers shift to supporting video games long after their release date through electronic updates, patches, and DLC, we as players and critics must search for new ways to think about games not as static objects that can never be altered from their original form—such as the physical gray cartridge of 1985’s Super Mario Bros.—and instead as malleable texts that can be remixed far beyond the scope of traditional edits to film or literature. While some of the conversation in video game criticism of the last thirty years has focused on how games are inferior to literature or film, perhaps we should instead focus on the procedural elements that can’t be replicated in other mediums like the depth of interactivity and the ability to totally replace narrative, tone, and whatever else the game’s developers feel isn’t yet working. We would be remiss not to fully explore how direct modifications to source code might alter games as textual artifacts. Online overhauls like Blood Dragon have managed to transform static artifacts into dynamic artifacts.
Salvatore Pane is the author of the novel Last Call in the City of Bridges. His work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Hobart, Buzzfeed, and many other venues. He is an assistant professor of English at the University of St. Thomas and can be reached at www.salvatore-pane.com.