Far Cry 3 is a great game, and one I enjoy a lot, but I couldn’t deny as I approached it that it felt racist as all hell. Welcome to the Island, American nobody! Now you’re going to become the biggest and best badass we’ve ever had, because that’s what White Americans do in island cultures! Come, be our John Frum of war! I figured the game was going to be fun, but would be racist and ignorant and I’d be able to give it a thorough kicking when I was done with it.
Turns out, not so much.
Is Far Cry 3 Racist?
Okay, first things first, I am whitey white whiterson here. I am descended from imperialists and am part of the dominant culture in my country, which was so racist that we at one point didn’t let visiting sailors from the US Navy off the boat if they were too brown. I am not an expert in the topic of racism, beyond knowing that my culture have done a lot of it, in institutional ways, and we should stop it. I’m used to a certain level of racism in my environment, a background radiation that just colours everything. Things that aren’t particularly racist stand out mostly as contrast. I approached Far Cry 3 expecting the passive racism of cultural hegemony. I mean, Dishonored is a game full of white people from backgrounds ranging from Russian to British to Italian, and I never felt a need to really comment on the way this sort of systemtic construction speaks to the race standards of the world.
Far Cry 3 is a story set on a Pacific Island where a lone survivor, transplanted from America, becomes the King of All Badasses, after learning secrets from a mysterious local tribe nobody recognises by name, with an assist from a Negro who may be, as it were, quite Magical. This is a classic narrative, from Avatar all the way back to Lawrence of Arabia. Hell, it shows up in the Bible in a few places (Hi there, Joseph, you jackass). It’s one of the most basic narratives of cultural dominance that attempts to masquerade as cultural sensitivity. Look at what we can learn from these people! See how amazingly their gifts can be employed, provided they are put into the hands of appropriately In-Group people. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to say ‘White’ when I mean ‘the culturally dominant people telling the story,’ because as long as I’ve been alive, it’s been White people, and, chances are, it will be White people for a few more years yet, at least until Nollywood has another big boom.
Racism in these stories usually incarnates by infantalising the other cultures; they are depicted as possessing great potential, but it is never realised, because they lack something fundamental, like drive, which the White person does have. These people can be sustained, or protected, or given their proper place, provided the White people give it to them, they can be spared destruction, if the White people take up the appropriate role of guiding them onwards. Sometimes it’s more blatant – ‘the savages need to be tamed’ – and sometimes it’s more subtle – ‘I had no idea how ignorant I was of your wonderful ways’ – but it still boils down to White person taking a commanding and important role in the operations of Not-White people’s affairs. It doesn’t even have to be a combative story arc – check out The Help. This narrative, known as the Mighty Whitey over on TV Tropes provides a lens through which to regard how Far Cry 3 treats race.
The Escapist’s Robert Rath was the first person to draw issue to my attention, before I ever acquired the game, and, reading what he had to say on the matter figured it was just another example of a triple-A culture doing something insensitive and problematic, and failing to recognise that, before hiding behind the shield of satire. I think that the writer of the game had it more or less on-mark, though he didn’t know the word he meant to use. It’s not satire as much as it is deconstruction, taking the tropes apart and reconsidering them. In Rath’s study and comparison of Citra to the Tattooed Man dialogue, I feel he misses one crucial detail about the whole scene he describes and its context: Everyone involved in this practice is an outsider. Oh, Dennis is accepted as a Rakyat, and so is Citra, but none of these people are of the Rakyat people. The Rakyat are Polynesian people.
The tale of Rook Island is as a downward spiral, where powerful people come to its shores, become stronger, then are killed by other outsiders. Vaas and Citra Montenegro aren’t Rakyat-born; their surnames and accents stand out as different to the culture around them. When you listen to the Raykat people, they speak with an accent I personally identify as New Zealander. Their surnames are Hispanic – the actor who plays Vaas is Quebecois! I can’t find a reliable source telling me where they were born, but the game speaks about how both Citra and Vaas joined the Rakyat, and then Vaas was lured away, and how Citra became a warrior-goddess to the Rakyat. In her dying dialogue, Citra’s mask really slips, though; she blurts out ‘they’ll have kids.’ That line stood out to me. She talks about ‘children’ otherwise; your ‘child,’ if you sleep with her. But why ‘kids?’ Why when she’s speaking of the excesses of the other cultures, of losing the ‘warrior’ nature of the world, does she yell ‘kids’? To me, that projected a quote from her own mind, her own memories; that there was some part of Citra, and yes, Vaas, that knew of life beyond their shores.
What this casts to me is not, therefore, Citra, the Polynesian stereotype, fulfilling an archaic and racist caricature of a real culture, but yet another outsider, misinterpreting the culture, and twisting it, exactly like all the other ones before her. If she stabs you to death, it’s the cycle repeating; if Dennis stabs her, it’s the same cycle anew. Jason can become part of it, or escape the cycle – but in every case, not a single person born to the Rakyat is involved.
Look to the other cultural elements in the game. Listen to the Raykat people talking, with their snippets of Malaysian, told in broad New Zealand accents. They handle technology just fine, they repair their own vehicles, they handle outposts and patrols just fine on their own. They are shown dancing, laughing, singing, partying, fighting and scavenging for resources. They aren’t infantalised – they are a people at war with another force that is their equal. When they take it upon themselves to act against you, you are literally powerless – they take your friends, then they take you just as easily. You never fight them directly – the game’s pace doesn’t allow for it – but their actions are, barring for plot-focused events, the same as yours.
Dennis asks us to reimagine our narrative relationship, by confronting us with the very Un-Magical nature of his Negro-ness. At one point, he drinks himself sloppy and starts talking about his experience as a Liberian who emigrated to America. He speaks of being paid less, of being ridiculed and treated as an outsider for his accent. He speaks of the racism he faced, the gap in his wages, and then of coming to Rook, where he was accepted and regarded as an equal by the Rakyat. This was my But Alas She Is A Woman moment in Far Cry 3. The point where the story tilted its hand at me, looked me in the eye and said I know what you’re thinking. Dennis isn’t a Magical Negro; he’s not happy helping the White Dude achieve his own ends; he is a player in the narrative himself, a believer in the ideals Citra represents, but not what the Rakyat themselves represent. Furthermore, when he speaks to you about your brother, he’s the one who volunteers that Riley isn’t important, because he distracts you from the Rakyat.
From here, the narrative flows on in the traditional structure; Citra The Outsider guides Jason the Outsider into eliminating things that she wants eliminated, while implying herself as a prize.
That’s not all, though. The game introduces Sam Becker and Willis Huntley. Sam is a German-American, regarded and treated positively because of his (coincidentally) white racial background and even mocks this position. Sam even high-fives you with a America, Fuck yeah! and gets the role of Uncle Sam comically wrong. Willis is a CIA Agent, and, I don’t think it’s unfair to say, completely mental. Willis can’t think of anything better to say as a farewell than that he loves his country after diatrabes of 80s Paranoia filtered through 50s language and 70s fashion. Buck, the Special Kind of Evil, is a white Australian ousted from the Australian military for his brutality, and who considers himself very informed about Chinese and Japanese culture even while he uses backwards slurs to insult the people responsible for it. Finally, the great villain of the piece is Hoyt Volker. Rather than simply make an American the bad guy, the game spreads its influence further. Hoyt Volker is South African, and old enough to have grown up benefiting from Apartheid. Psychopathic and cruel, he even sneers at American culture, waving his arms and waxing poetic about his global slave trading market. That is to say, a white man who grew up in one of the most oppressively racist modern societies in the world, a culture that is still grappling with issues of poverty and education, is a global slave and drug trader.
In each case, these characters’ races inform the story and their character, and suggest something of them to you, the viewer. Sam defies expectations of him despite his race; Willis represents the insane paranoia of a helpless superpower; Buck and Hoyt show cultural domination and cruelty in human form as avatars for cultures with terrible histories in racial relations. The writers could have made Dennis an African American, could have made Citra a Rakyat native, but didn’t. This whole game could have used simpler, less complex stereotypes, less varied racial backgrounds, but didn’t. Racism and terribleness are not American properties, they’re everywhere, and the cultural hegemony of White People is shown in how white people from many different cultures represent different failings of that massive culture. Far Cry 3 has a multiracial cast whose races play into their characterisation. Where race is an issue, it is used in an intelligently informed way – and should cause us to wonder if Citra is actually what Robert Rath’s article suggests, a Polynesian stereotype. She is, but she is a Polynesian stereotype as perceived by an outsider to that culture. There is no doubt at all that Citra and Vaas are both crazy, in totally different ways.
At its face, you can stand back and – quite accurately – say that the game is about a White California Boy travelling to an island culture and becoming its greatest warrior, exceeding the other warriors in this culture, expressed by slaying literally hundreds of brown people including the tribal leader’s brother. That is, I feel, the point – this is a game that wanted to use the conventional framing of this Mighty Whitey narrative, perhaps to deconstruct it – or maybe to reconstruct it. That it’s uncertain is part of the game’s charm. I don’t know if the people who made the game loved the stories of John Carter and Tarzan, or if they hated them – but they put love and craft and thought into the work before them, and tried to treat race as another thing people could misidentify and assume.
Now, if Far Cry 3 could be as aware and sensitive towards issues of patriarchy, then it’d be a properly fantastic piece on these matters of hegemonic dominance.