For frame of reference, I’ll have just been gushing over the pre-ejaculate clack of Far Cry 3 protagonist Jason Brody’s recurve bow snapping up. This at the very moment of his boots firm-catching solid footing, at which point he vanishes from view into the sunset-gilded oil grass, whereto a pirate urinates. It’s right then that you’ll say it, that word that misses the point, that gets me right in the “Meh”:
“Yeah, it’s soo immersive!”
Maybe. I don’t know. Immersion seems like such a troublesome thing to have in a game, especially when the game’s Far Cry 3, where one’s preconceived notion of “oh look, birdies!” is horrifyingly annihilated by a pack of psychotic cassowaries. Or maybe it’s wonderful in that way, I can’t say for certain, I guess. But what I can say with some certainty is that despite the meat-head stupidity of it all—the “killing, strangling, bombing, electrocuting” of Sam Becker’s succinct synopsis—as well as its questionable satirical narrative, Far Cry 3 was not only one of the best games of 2012, it is also one of the best of its generation.
So what went right?
In a word, grass . . . and no I don’t mean all that marijuana you torch with a flamethrower about a third of way into the story. I am referring to Far Cry 3’s “climbing” system, or rather it’s “walking up a hill” system. That’s right, “best of its generation” because of walking, I said it. And in order to better understand why we have only to look to that other open-world FPS with oodles of rolling terrain, Skyrim. Now, in its “ascending” system, where sharp hills often have an ambiguous friction to them, we are forced to invent a variation of the “shoving a fat letter through a mail slot” method, wherein one hops or trots endlessly forward, scrubbing the ground for footing. Compare this with Far Cry 3′s system, which organizes all of its sharp terrain around a simple and intuitive principle: where grass rises so do I; where none occurs so do I slide.
The mechanic’s simplicity allows for a wonderful depth too, as one begins to get a grip on how one’s momentum affects friction gained or lost, all this without ever once forcing the player to stop and consider anything at all. It simply strikes us, forming out of an extremely common action an intuitive structure. What’s more, it strikes us despite all the game’s other features, because whereas 2013′s Tomb Raider struggles to transmit a subjective experience of “survival” across the whole of its game, Far Cry 3 brims with it. The fact that such a simple mechanic still surfaces over the rest means something, I think: that this game, unlike many others, takes its capacity for subjectivism very seriously. And that gets me right in the “ Bad ass.”
Consider too Far Cry 3′s numerous radio towers, tenuously optional, yes, but nonetheless profoundly implemented. Though we aren’t aware of it the first time we ascend one in the game’s opening hour, it becomes evident not long after that that we’ve been training for a wonderfully clever puzzle element—one that also embraces the subjectivity of survival. I was consistently surprised at the ingenuity of each tower’s layout, and how we are gradually trained into figuring each one out. Or rather, how we were given the opportunity to train ourselves. Add to this the subtle disorientation of our senses as our view drifts askew of the horizon or the metallic twang of the support beams settling to support us and one finds oneself “climbing” another “tower” too, one that serves as a potent reminder of Far Cry 3′s power: to accommodate our instincts without forcing them.
By now you’ve no doubt noticed that I’ve yet to mention any of the game’s marketed features—killing, stealthing, crafting, hunting, storying, etc. Well, I don’t plan too, but not because those things are What Went Wrong. I don’t because what went right with Far Cry 3 is bigger than gunplay and upgrade trees. These are O.K. but fall short of expressing the game’s real strength: its surprisingly human physicality. Because we might spend a lot of time trumpeting games as the “interactive medium,” but we only delude ourselves in doing so. Video games are physical narratives, and as it stands most games—including much of Far Cry 3—have been working from the same set of physical stories as the rest.
But what about those surprising physicalities, like the clack-clack-clack of a parking brake as I take a corner too quickly in one of Far Cry 3’s vehicles? I got to where I liked it so much that I was taking corners too fast just to hear it. Another thing I did regularly: jump into bodies of water just drunkenly enough so that Jason smashes through the surface rather than dives, his vision going black to convey pain and disorientation, then flashing back again. In a game about becoming a survivor, this was my multiple rebirth. Something else that stood out to me was how I would descend into an encampment like a tiger, but crest an unknown hill with that kitty-cat feeling in me, as if I hadn’t seen the same animations again and again and again. It was the expressiveness of the “rush,” I guess, those two hands spin-spinning the wheel to dodge a fast-coming tree; that and the game’s clever obfuscation of deadly distance with regard to cliff-careening: I was never entirely sure how far was going to be too far. And you know what, I was always a little scared to find out.
Which brings us to a peculiar problem: what exactly is my problem with the term “immersion?” My problem is that we use it as an indicator of quality—”Yeah, the game is soo immersive!” we say. But you know what else is immersive? My dentist’s office. The long line at the supermarket. The back of a police car. Yet no one ever calls any of them “immersive,”and the reason we don’t reveals something important about how we should be conceiving of games: we don’t because being there in itself is not as significant as the quality with which the there resonates within us. And thus it will not do to merely state the existence or nonexistence of immersion . . . we have to learn to make quality calls of physical resonances.