To call Ubisoft’s Far Cry series a gem among the open-world action adventure genre wouldn’t be doing it much justice. Ever since 2012’s Far Cry 3 single-handedly reinvented the open-world first-person shooter, there’s been a desperate attempt to recapture the lightning in a bottle success of the game. In many ways, it’s successor, 2014’s Far Cry 4, not only matched this success but I believe in some cases exceeded it. While it might not show in the moderate critical and commercial success it has achieved, Far Cry 4 dabbled in storytelling techniques that are both refreshing and uniquely introspective, deconstructing the all too familiar totalitarian setting to raise many brilliant points about the very nature of video game morality.
*WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD*
“Battle not with monsters lest ye become one.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Far Cry 4 is set in the war-torn fictitious city of Kyrat run by the presumed ruthless and charismatic dictator, Pagan Min. Players assume the role of Ajay Ghale, a Kyrati-American civilian on a quest to scatter his mothers ashes in her home country, ensuring her the proper send-off she requested. However, in a series of events, Ajay finds himself in the company of Pagan Min, believing him to have a certain connection to his mother.
The game begins harmlessly enough. Ajay, having endured an uncomfortable sit-down for dinner in Pagan’s mansion, is given the option to flee the estate and naturally begin the course of events the game demands of you, or sit down and await Pagan’s return who “had business to take care of” elsewhere. In a brilliant Easter egg, if players so wish to wait fifteen minutes for Pagan’s return, they’re greeted to a secret ending in which Pagan leads Ajay to the shrine where his mothers ashes could be stored, thus ending the game and rolling credits – but from our general understanding of “villains” in a narrative, our brains are simply not wired that way. Naturally, we’d flee the estate after witnessing Pagan brutally murder his own soldiers and torture a companion off-screen. Our instincts would immediately point towards, well, getting the hell out of there as soon as possible, right? That’s perhaps what the game wants you to think.
After fleeing the mansion, Ajay comes across an alliance of rebels called the Golden Path, who plan to overthrow Pagan’s regime and is immediately caught in the whirlwind of violence and uprising. As Ajay becomes more acquainted with the locals and the rebellion, two influential commanding figures seemingly divide the alliance into following their own agendas. Sabal, one of the commanders of the Golden Path, quickly recognizes Ajay’s relation to Mohan Ghale; Ajay’s father and founder of the rebellion. Sabal blindly follows Mohan’s initial vision of a traditional Kyrat, in which the traditions, beliefs and heritage of the old must be upheld and protected as they are of great significance to the country. On the other hand, the second commander of the Golden Path, Amita, shares different ideologies. She believes that in order for Kyrat to move forward, the old traditions must be abolished and a new, more prosperous and socially proactive country must be born from the ashes. These clashes of ideologies is what sets up the main crux of the stories conflict.
Players must choose wisely in who they side with, as both Sabal and Amita have relatively valid points and motivations at surface value. Conventionally, as the narrative progresses, the plot would reveal that one side harbors some questionable agenda that ultimately skews the players choice into following the “correct” path. However, Far Cry 4 cleverly throws a curveball at this concept. Instead of naturally witnessing one side present compelling arguments as to why they’re the right choice, both Sabal and Amita become more consumed by sinister motives.
Sabal believes that shedding blood for the “sacred” land is acceptable as long as it falls under the will of the pious Gods, thus leading to his decisions to selfishly murder anyone content with Pagan’s rule. Amita aims to demolish the traditional monuments and establishments to rebuild a new order of society with questionable ties to the production of new medicine and drugs – although it seems her actions become less about demolishing old traditions and more about doing it to spite Sabal after tensions and conflicts grow to inhumanely murderous levels later on.
Suddenly, Far Cry 4 isn’t a game about doing the morally correct thing anymore. It’s a brilliant social commentary on the way power consumes those who start off with the best of intentions. This is true in both Sabal and Amita’s case. Both commanders start the game genuinely driven by good-hearted intentions, but after Ajay becomes their instrument of destruction, they’re slowly consumed by the realization of their immense power (well, in this case, it’s their misguided delusions of grandeur at the expense of the players skills). The quests given to Ajay in the later half of the game boil down to how many bodies he can leave in his wake. Where Jason Brody’s transformation of character from Far Cry 3 was an internal change, Ajay Ghale’s is entirely external. His character on a psychological level doesn’t experience radical change, but rather his perception of the world around him – a world being desecrated by Ajay’s own hands.
So that brings us back to Pagan Min. In the final mission, Ajay dons his best Rambo impersonation and storms Pagan’s estate to claim his head. When confronting Pagan in his palace, Ajay is given a choice to either shoot him and thus end his reign or spare his life and lay his mothers ashes to rest. This brief moment of hesitation provides an underlying introspective into the main three characters journeys thus far – Ajay, now a murderous tool of war; Sabal, a self-proclaimed savior of Kyrat by way of mass genocide; and Amita, an immoral war hero capitalizing on the countries’ abusive cartel. Pagan Min sits in a position of dictatorial power that, ironically enough, provided a much less oppressive reign when compared to Sabal or Amita’s ideologies up until that point.
Far Cry 4 uses the conventional tropes of the typical rebellion/uprising narrative (much like Far Cry 3) and turns it on its head. Pagan Min is ultimately painted as the villain because that’s exactly what the genre tropes call for and lead players to believe. What Far Cry 4 does incredibly well is manipulate players expectations of the unfolding narrative in an intentionally immoral way. By the end, you’re left with the grim realization that there’s no good guys or heroes in this tale about revenge and entitlement. It’s a story about becoming bigger monsters than the ones you’re fighting.