Far Cry 2 and Infecting the Player
Far Cry 2 is a game that gets a lot of attention for simultaneously being both a masterpiece and a mess. Honestly, the game is rough around the edges. The shooting isn’t quite as smooth as its contemporaries, the open world (while large and dense) is not exactly offering a variety of activities or even much to do at all, the story is forgettable, stealth is nonexistent because the AI is both too sharp and too dumb, and there are some game-breaking bugs. Despite these setbacks, the game still receives much praise and admiration.
It is an atypical first-person shooter in that it eschews power fantasy and stands in direct opposition to the player. Guns degrade and jam, the player must look at a paper map in real time for direction, vehicles (while repairable) are considerably fragile, and it takes time to heal yourself. In certain aspects, Far Cry 2 shares much with From Software’s Souls series in that the game is not “fun” in the traditional sense, but the player struggles with the game and achieves a sense of accomplishment in overcoming the challenges and obstacles. But above all else, one of Far Cry 2’s most fascinating and admirable mechanics is how the game infects the player’s character with Malaria and how the disease influences the entire experience.
Most games treat diseases in a statistical way, such as Skyrim’s diseases. They affect the character in a measurable manner but hardly hamper the overall experience by not debilitating the character or making them easily cured without much effort or cost. However, Far Cry 2 does not use stats. Instead, the Malaria impacts the player far more than it does the character.
Direct Effect on Play
When the character suffers a Malaria attack, the screen blurs and pulses yellow. In order to stop such a Malaria spell, the player must take their medicine, but the pills do not cure the disease. It only treats the symptoms and only temporarily. These attacks are not scripted. The disease will rear its head periodically, not randomly as it works on a clock (supposedly), but frequently enough as you play the game that you never forget about it. Many complained about its intrusion on the gameplay, but I argue it actually enhances the game overall. In a sense, Malaria is one of the ways how Far Cry 2 separates itself from being just another shooter, just another power fantasy (like its sequels), and puts you the player at the game’s mercy.
Instead of simply affecting the aiming reticule by widening it, or slowing the character’s movements, or any other mathematically measurable influence, the Malaria attack directly affects the player’s visual perception of the game. The blurring of the screen makes it harder to pinpoint exactly where the enemy is, not to mention the sudden disfiguration of the environment. A rather typical gunfight in any corner of the game world can suddenly turn into a nightmare while the screen warps and yellows. Suddenly you’re to fending off attackers while also searching for cover so you can take your pill just to stop the effect. Yes, taking the medicine isn’t quite an automatic thing, it takes a few seconds to open the plastic bottle and ingest the pills. Valuable time you are not aiming or firing your gun, time you are not evading the enemy, time you are not tracking your opponents’ movements. In the time it takes to swallow the pill, the enemy could outflank you, leaving you in a situation where Malaria hardly matters.
Even without enemies, Malaria can radically alter the simple activity of traveling from one location to another. I drove off enough cliffs or into so many trees because the screen suddenly became distorted by an onset Malaria that I was left stranded in the middle of nowhere and had to walk to my destination. Or hope that I could catch an enemy patrol before they caught me and I could take their vehicle. But the jeeps were not guaranteed to survive the firefight.
Again, the Malaria attacks are not scripted and that means the player can never assume something will be a simple walk in the park. The player must understand that the symptoms can take hold at any time and dramatically alter the immediate goings-on in unpredictable ways, turning regular tasks into serious events that wreck your plans. The enemy patrols have the decency of making a racket with their jeeps. Malaria simply shows up uninvited and ruins all your furniture.
Treating the Symptoms
There is no cure in the game for the Malaria. You only get pills that suppress the symptoms. The pills your character uses to deal with the Malaria are a limited resource. Your pill bottle only carries a few doses before you need to refill the prescription. Since the game takes place in an unnamed African country in the middle of a civil war, you do not get the option of simply waltzing down to the corner pharmacy and buying more pills. Instead, the only way to get more medication is by cooperating with the local resistance trying to get people out of the country. You help the resistance, they pay you in medicine. Equitable exchange, right?
This requires you to take time away from progressing the game, helping out the gun dealer so he can offer you better gear, or even tracking down blood diamonds to pay for the guns and upgrades you need. While refilling the medicine is not the most boring of tasks, it certainly feels ancillary to the primary objectives to the game’s narratives or to empowering your character. But since you cannot escape Malaria, you need to assist the Resistance since you need the medicine. You are not benefiting from these encounters in the usual, measurable way a game rewards the player. All you are really doing is buying time and ensuring your can abate the disease by nullifying the symptoms as fast as you can. Again, Far Cry 2 is not empowering the player, it is forcing you to struggle and overcome.
In a way, this system of medicine payments removes altruism from the game entirely. You and your character never do a good deed simply to do right by someone else. Even if you the player truly wants to help the bystanders escape the terror of their country, the game does not allow it to be perceived that way or entirely feel that way. Every time you rescue a group of innocent citizens from a murder squad, the charity is tinged by your motivation of self-preservation. You are not helping them to help them, you are helping them to help yourself. This reinforces your character’s mercenary status: you do not fight for people or causes. You fight for yourself and only do something if there is pay, whether that is diamonds or medicine. Your character is sick, and some of your illness predates the Malaria.
The Price for the Medicine
The limited amount of medicine, and the work required to get more, creates tension throughout the game similar to how the disease affects and informs the player at the moment it strikes. Every time I saw my character shake out the last pill and stare down at the bottom of the empty bottle, my stomach shrank a little. I immediately knew the implications: the next time I suffered a Malaria spell, I could do nothing about it.
This, like driving off a cliff because I needed to look away from the road and take the medicine, always forced me to take a serious detour. Once, while on my way to rescue a fellow mercenary (the few characters actively not trying to kill you, which makes them a de facto friend and they rescue you should you “die”), Malaria paid me a visit on the mad dash over to their location. My character looked at the empty jar and I realized I never got my bottle refilled after the last pill I took. I looked over the map and figured that my ally was too far, clear across the mountains with no direct path, not to mention all the guard posts I would need to drive past and who knows how many patrols. Driving like a bat out of hell straight to my ally would kick the hornet nests all along the way, and trying to rescue my compatriot in that wall of gun fire was a sure way to get killed, even without the screen yellowed and blurred because of Malaria.
The risk to rush over there was too much. Even if successful, I did not know how much time I would then have to complete the Resistance mission and get my medicine refilled. After an agonizing reappraisal of the situation, I gritted my teeth and made a hard u-turn toward the Resistance mission, abandoning a character who had rescued me a few times too many.
And somehow, among the messier parts of Far Cry 2, this brilliant moment of emergent gameplay came out of the simple concept that the player’s character gets infected with Malaria. I cannot think of many other examples where a simple mechanic became such a major motivation in how I navigated the game. The only one to immediately jump to mind is State of Decay, where the whole game is a lesson in entropy. But even that is several different systems and resources at play, not to mention the game does not stop tracking time just because I stopped playing. In Far Cry 2, my character is sick and needs his meds in order to accomplish any mission effectively. The cost of those pills was all sorts of detours and rearranged priorities, throwing more havoc into a game where even one random jeep full of enemies can quickly become a downhill train wreck into victory.
While many have complained about how this mechanic intrudes upon the experience of the game, I argue that Malaria is a core aspect of the game. A sudden onset of Malaria symptoms drastically changes what could be a murder by the numbers shoot out into a frantic scenario where you have more to worry about than just enemies, your health bar and ammo. It is a mechanic within the game that reaches beyond the confines of its world and directly impacts the player.
In a way, Far Cry 2 is an open world game that sets you against a clock, similar to Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Instead of after three days the moon crashes almost everything resets, your ability to play the game becomes hampered by the game itself. While I would hardly say that Far Cry 2 is a Malaria simulation, I would say that the game makes admirable use of a disease to influence and enhance its overall experience in a way that turns an otherwise 7/10 open world shooter into the distinguished, modern legend that it is.
Getting the common cold debilitates from someone’s efficiency enough as it is, imagine fighting for your life while infected with something far worse. That notion got spun throughout Far Cry’s DNA.
This hub was written for Critical Distance and its series Blogs of the Round Table, and other articles in the November series, Illness, can be found here.