What would he have spent the money on?
That’s what I’m thinking as I stare at the fresh corpse facedown in Africa’s mud. He was paid to protect the smoldering medical supplies behind me, I was paid to do the opposite. In the end it wasn’t personal, but I still can’t help but wonder what my death would have bought him. Sneakers? A widescreen? Little point in speculation, I suppose. As far as my new riches are concerned: tonight I’ll drive a sputtering jeep home as the dusk dips into evening, I’ll buy a rocket launcher, and tomorrow I’ll come back out here and do it all over again.
Far Cry 2 is discomforting, even in a genre populated primarily by games where you shoot people, because in it you’re not a hero. You’re not even a villain. You’re the lackey who gets shot in the last half hour of the story while the evil mastermind escapes in his personal submarine, a hired gun with only a single fact sheet (chosen from a scant selection at the start) to provide scant background details about who you are. You might learn that character is Sikh or that he can fly planes, but beyond that the game leaves it up to you to decide who you are, encouraging you to roleplay and fill in the details yourself. Why are you here? To help pay for a loved one’s cancer treatments? Because this is the only way you know how to get by? Maybe you just love death and carnage.
Regardless of what character you choose, Far Cry 2 presents shooting as work instead of the relatively stress-free thrill ride that is most first-person shooters. Games like Call of Duty or even later Far Cry games (Far Cry 3, 4) try hard to make you not think about the gun your character is holding beyond how sleek or powerful it is. Most of the time you put your helpful crosshairs on someone and pull the trigger, and that person slumps over or explodes. Killing is easy in these games, often effortless and enjoyable.
In Far Cry 2 guns are explicitly presented not as rad, eviscerating weapons but instead as tools. These are not shiny armaments that will last you the whole game; they’re low-quality guns prone to jamming, forcing you to improvise with whatever you have on hand. Sometimes this means hijacking a jeep and running down enemies, other times you’re burning down the battlefield with a flamethrower and hoping you’re quick and smart enough to get away before the fire consumes you.
Treating weapons as tools means that the game is forcing me to step into the role of a worker, not a badass shooting their way to glory. I’m a fragile, sluggish soldier for hire. Death is my 9-to-5 and the office is a dry underbrush filled with diseases that want to kill me just as bad as my competitors do. Because the game encourages me not to be Rambo, I approach playing Far Cry 2 in a different way than any other action game.
Games like Metal Gear Solid V and even Far Cry 4 often give you a choice of tactical approaches that embody the idea of player freedom: sneak into this camp and slit everyone’s throats or just make a lot of noise, slaughter everyone in sight with a newly purchased weapon, or maybe let loose a legion of tigers to do your job for you. In Far Cry 2, however, player freedom is more an issue of practicality than anything else.
A common situation involves you having to overtake a base housing a dozen soldiers, a few fuel canisters, and a jeep with a machine gun strapped to it that will put a damper on your day if an enemy reaches it. Usually you’ll have low ammo for a weapon that’s pretty much broken anyway, a single grenade that’s just as likely to blow you up as it other people, and a rusty, mostly useless machete. The question here isn’t “what kind of action hero do I want to be?” but instead “what plan is going to get me through this alive?” There’s a mad desperation underpinning Far Cry 2 as it constantly forces you to make plans that are doomed to fail and then expects you to scrape by with whatever tools you have, no matter how broken they may be.
It’s a design that matches this particular version of Africa, a place where the lives of people are the most common and expendable resource in a war being raged by nihilistic powermongers. We are not saviors but disposable soldiers trying to get by the only way we know how: one well-placed, lucky bullet at a time. Far Cry 2 is a bleak game that offers a depressing perspective on the futility and difficulty of labor on both a personal and societal level but it’s not the only game that tries to do interesting things with the concept of work.
A BOUNTY HUNTER, NOT THE BOBA FETT KIND
The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt is another game that casts you in the role of a worker, a professional monster slayer, and because of the game’s execution of that concept it— just like Far Cry 2 with first-person shooters—elevates itself above the rank & file of most similar role-playing games.
A large portion of The Wild Hunt deals with how protagonist Geralt makes his living as someone who gets rid of monsters for communities, so y’know, basically Terminix but for dragons and shit. Playing as Geralt, you usually take on a monster contract by chatting with someone whose son has recently been eaten or who’s being haunted by a specter. And then you get to haggle with your client about the price of your contract. Plenty of RPGs have a bartering system in place, usually as a skill category for you to dump experience points into, letting you get bigger discounts from merchants for whatever weird it’s-just-a-game-roll-with-it reason.
In The Wild Hunt, you get a slider that begins with your typical witchering rate and goes up to a hundred more coins or so. This is a particularly neat feature because it lets you decide how much your services are worth while also encouraging you to take the upkeep of your equipment into account. How much will it cost you to refill your potions, to repair your sword? What’s your projected profit? There are a surprising number of questions that emerge from just having that inconspicuous slider bar.
After the contract is agreed on, the game goes to great lengths to let you get a sense of Geralt’s professionalism. You follow a trail of often bloody clues until the witcher figures out what kind of monster he’s going up against. Then you’re usually encouraged to brew some potions before taking on the beast in its lair. After killing the monster, you get your bounty and even get to strap the decapitated head of the beast to your horse (poor Roach) as proof of just how great a hunter you are. This whole process, from bartering to payment, is the game’s chief achievement because it takes a common RPG trope, that of killing monsters, and situates it inside an actual professional procedure that you have a huge hand in dictating so that this isn’t the EXP-raising chore we’ve come to expect from the genre but is actually refreshing and allows us to help construct our unique version of Geralt.
Nearly every choice we make that helps determine Geralt’s identity is connected to his profession in some way. The Witcher is famous for its morally gray world so there aren’t really any absolute good or evil branching paths that make him fall into one camp or the other. Instead, we get to choose between practicality and idealism when it comes to payment for services rendered. As Geralt we have a skill—killing beasties—that’s deeply valued by potential clients all over Velen and Skelliage.
Will we charge poor, desperate communities high prices so that we can take care of our equipment and ourselves, possibly bankrupting entire villages, or will we do it for next to nothing simply out of the goodness of our hearts? What’s the cost of such kindness? Maybe I don’t have enough gold to repair my sword and it breaks on me the next time I’m in a battle, leaving me totally screwed. And what if word gets out I’m a kind witcher? Wouldn’t that mean everyone who learned this would suddenly have some sob story they’d use to try and rip me off?
Because of all of this Geralt emerges not just as the hero of a fantasy epic but also an everyday working man. It’s an odd, unique combination we don’t see much, especially in games where our characters are often military leaders or a Chosen One with an ungodly amount of resources at their disposal.
The detailed acknowledgment that a witcher’s gotta eat makes The Wild Hunt special. It’s embodies the sort of lesson I wish more games would take to heart: every protagonist doesn’t need to be an overpowered demigod who doesn’t have to worry about mundane issues. We all have to eat and pay bills, and most of us have to work to do those two things. To have characters that feel more like people than archetypes is refreshingly human and hopefully a trend that we see unfold in future games.
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