Far Cry Primal, a video game about cavemen riding bears and chucking spears at one another, came out this week. As is usually the case with new video games, a lot of people like it, and some people don’t.
Those in the latter camp complain that Primal is repetitive, that it feels shallow to play and explore in its world, and that its narrative is disappointing. The last is probably the loudest criticism that’s been leveled at the game this week: that the story sucks. And it’s completely backward—not wrong, because whether you find a story “good” or “bad” is totally subjective; but the wrong way to think about video game stories in the first place. Far Cry Primal actually has the perfect story for this type of video game: no story at all.
Gamers often get caught up in the details of video game stories, and those stories are commonly hot trash. Game series like Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy have cartoonish characters and convoluted narratives that meander over 60 hours of cut scenes and side quests to amount to nothing comprehensible, and dedicated players get so caught up in trying to figure out What It All Means that they usually fail to recognize those flaws at all, like digital Stockholm Syndrome.
Far Cry Primal, developed by the talented Ubisoft Montreal, sidesteps all that by making the story nothing more or less than the actions that the character you control, a caveman named Takkar who’s fighting for the survival of his tribe, the Wenja, would be doing anyway. To continue living, he needs to defeat enemy tribes, tame wild beasts, and conquer the land of Oros. So, as the player, that’s what you do, and that is the story.
In any type of story it’s important that the characters’ motivations make sense, and that they act according to those motivations. In Pulp Fiction, Butch returns to his apartment, even though he knows he may be killed there, because he wants to get his watch back. That might not have made much sense to the audience, if not for the flashback to Christopher Walken telling Young Bruce Willis that his dad had the watch up his ass for five years in a POW camp. Thanks to that we understand Butch’s motivation, and we root for him even though he’s making an arguably stupid decision.
It doesn’t even need to be complex: in Super Mario 64, Mario wants to rescue the princess, so he jumps into magical paintings and collects the Power Stars that will enable him to do so. That shit makes sense. But the more complex video games become, the more game developers seem to forget about this.
Far Cry Primal has “story” missions and writing and characters. I’ve played it for about 30 hours so far and I don’t remember what most of those characters are called, but they’re there. They have dialogue that was written by writers (in caveman speak, but still), and crucially they have motivations that make sense. The Wenja whose friends and family members have been killed by the rival Udam tribe wants to murder members of the Udam and string their bloody ears on a necklace, while the Udam you capture and drag back to your village shares his tribe’s secret knowledge with the Wenja so you’ll allow him to continue living.
These are not complex characters. They are literally cavemen. And the story does consist entirely of you defending your village from attacks, burning enemy encampments, and eventually killing the other tribes’ leaders. Along the way you tame a bunch of cute/terrifying predators to fight alongside you, you upgrade your own skills to become a better hunter/gatherer, and with the help of the Wenja people scattered throughout Oros you craft new weapons and tools for yourself. You become a better, stronger, smarter caveman, like all of human evolution distilled into a dozen or two dozen hours of gaming.
But this may be the most important part: the minute-by-minute things you do in Far Cry Primal are both the things that Takkar would be doing anyway and the things that players enjoy doing in this type of game. Upgrading your skills and weapons or attacking enemy outposts to absorb them into your own territory aren’t new mechanics for action games with large, open worlds; they’ve just never made as much sense as they do here, and for once doing those things doesn’t feel like a mechanical betrayal of the game’s character and narrative elements.
WHAT PLAYERS AND CAVEMEN DO
The biggest game of last year to many people was Fallout 4. The player character lives happily with their family in the beginning, but 200 years after the bombs fall you wake up to witness your wife/husband get shot and your infant son stolen away. That does a pretty damn good job establishing motivation, but the first thing most players do next is either A) join a ragtag militia and start helping random neighbors fend off radioactive rats, or B) simply wander off into the wasteland to start collecting bottlecaps, hand grenades and hairbrushes from the corpses of hoarder bandits.
Technically you can start searching for your son immediately, but that’s not The Point of games like Fallout and Skyrim and The Witcher 3—these games have such massive landslides of side quests and filler content that ignoring them altogether until the urgent main stories are over with is not really an option.
There are two solutions to that, as I see it: if a game has a main story that would realistically require the protagonist to have a sense of urgency for the narrative to be at all plausible or enjoyable—like, I don’t know, their son gets kidnapped in the first 10 minutes—then make that story the only thing players can do in the game until a point where it makes sense for that character to no longer feel so desperate about it. Or, do what Far Cry Primal does: don’t have a story at all.
In Far Cry 3, which came out in 2012, you play as a privileged white dude on an irresponsible extreme sports vacation that goes wrong when you and your friends are captured by dangerous pirates. You escape and guess what? it turns out you’re incredibly proficient not just with all manner of illegal firearm and extreme guerrilla military tactics, but also with the slightly racist native magic powers bestowed on you by a half-naked island seductress (yes, game developers, you think only dudes play your games, we get it). As game critic Luke Plunkett wrote over at Kotaku at the time—amid the developers’ impotent defenses of the game’s lame and nonsensical plot—"one of the best games of the year is actually being made worse by its story.“ The only thing surprising about that is that anyone was surprised.
Ubisoft released one other Far Cry game—Far Cry 4—between that and this week’s Primal. I didn’t play it, but from what I’ve heard it was more of the same, and it definitely didn’t win any "best writing” awards.
So today, in 2016, the developers at Ubisoft should be heaped with praise. They heard the criticism and they saw the problem, and they didn’t just solve it—they eliminated it altogether.
They didn’t write a better story, they wrote no story at all besides what players and cavemen actually do: collect shit, kill shit, and generally fuck shit up. It’s a relief to play a game for once that makes sense.
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Gaming Editor, in charge of all things video games. He etched this review onto a cave wall before committing it to the internet. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.
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