Spoiler-phobes beware, this thought piece contains substantial plot and ending spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line and Far Cry 3.
An enduring question for all humanity is how otherwise good people are turned towards evil. Both Far Cry 3 and Spec Ops: The Line address this question at the core of their plots and characterisation, which concern a protagonist inserted into a horrifically violent scenario, who comes to relish in violence and death. Does this make the character insane? Are they evil? Or is it just a response to brutalisation? Both games were seemingly inspired by the classic film Apocalypse Now which deals with similar issues. Spec Ops outright took the plot premise, and Far Cry had motifs (such as nods to the ‘Wagner-Helicopter’ scene).
Both protagonists enter their scenarios as relatable ‘everymen’. Jason Brody of Far Cry, captured by the psychopathic pirates of Rook Island, is an archetypal ‘California surfer’ unused to violence and traumatised by his first kill. Captain Walker of Spec Ops is superficially opposed, as a cool and professional Special Forces officer, but he is likewise a stable figure. By the end of their stories, both characters have utterly transformed in appearance and mentality and have alienated their starting companions, who are horrified by their transformations. Walker revels at the end in brutal violence whilst Brody expresses more of a boy-like fascination with weapons and destruction, but both experience violent distortions of reality.
The settings are beyond law and order – they are utterly removed from the world the protagonists came from. Dubai in Spec Ops has been destroyed by an apocalyptic sandstorm. The protagonist may have been sent in by a modern force, the US Army, but he succumbs to the almost primal ‘might is right’ morality that permeates the entire setting. Many found Far Cry 3‘s Rook Island a culturally insensitive locale with a tribe of ‘noble savages’ with mystical properties, and a white South African narcotics lord antagonist to really ramp up the clichés. Nonetheless, one does get the feeling you are experiencing the island as Brody and how he would see it, not necessarily as it really is. He comes to see himself as a tribal leader, despite being a complete outsider, and the ending would expose this fiction.
Both games depict this transformation through changes in appearance and hallucinations, but display their brutal settings differently. Spec Ops is doubtlessly a more horrific depiction of war and explicitly tries to unsettle the player. Far Cry’s strong characterisation was let down somewhat by a mixed tone which tried to be both brutal and an action romp with comic relief from an eccentric CIA officer. The game alluded to abuse committed against Brody’s friends in captivity, but did not explore the consequences his friends faced, other than to provide a plot conflict. This contrast between Brody and his companions in their responses to brutality was effective and should have been explored more. Spec Ops effectively used traditional FPS mechanics to highlight how ridiculous the ‘Call of Duty’-style FPS is. Abhorrent moral choices and imagery set to the staples of the genre raised additional questions about violence as entertainment in the modern age.
It was the ending choices which explored this liminality best. Both games offered the protagonist a choice, to return to America and escape the brutality, or to embrace it and live in their new worlds. After the protagonists complete their missions, it is revealed that they were unreliable narrators, driven by their own descent into brutality. Walker outright hallucinated many events, leading the player to doubt their own interpretation of events. He can leave Dubai with a US Army patrol or remain in the chaos and perpetuate the morality that brutalised him. Brody can choose to kill his friends to stay with the tribe and become their leader. This attitude exposes his growing messianic delusions and callous regard for life. That ending choice jarred with the central plot, which was about Brody rescuing his friends and avenging his brother, but the alternate ending to leave the island was more insightful, ending with Brody acknowledging his monstrous acts but hoping the good in him will come back out.
Both games depict ‘everyman’ characters brutalised by violence, who may choose to return to America and live with the consequences of both their actions and the horrors they were exposed to, or continue to live in the world they came to genuinely believe in, despite both characters having a weakened grip on reality. This depiction of an altered mental state raises an interesting question over the liminality of each character, as well as perhaps a more troubling one on human morality – would we do the same? If removed from our sheltered and ordered lives into a place of utter brutality and the Hobbesian ‘state of nature’, could we keep our sense of right and wrong? Could we keep our sanity?