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Navigating Space: Far Cry 2 vs Jade Empire (or ‘I hit save draft instead of publish’)

by on February 9, 2013

[Huh.  Turns out "save draft" is directly under the "Publish" heading to the right hand of the screen, and clicking that and running off in a hurry doesn't put up your post when you expected it to.]

 Giuliana Bruno wrote a book called Atlas of Emotion. In it (or at least in the section I read), she details how architecture and film, of all things, have much in common. Because architecture is just the usage of space, and film is a journey through space, the two can use each other’s theories. Of course this is a very simplified description of it, but I wanted to bring it up.

Where this is going should be immediately obvious. A lot of video games have a lot in common with film, but one crucial difference is how much more important and relevant space is. The player navigates through it, some games are entirely about navigating space, enemies navigate space in either predictable or unpredictable ways, and all of these change the experience of that particular play. Thus, architecture and film are both very interesting and importantbanks of useful theories in regards to space. Video games, being such a fledgeling medium, have borrowed heavily from the closest medium it knows of (i.e., film). But how have games borrowed from architecture? In fact, there is even an entire field of game design referred to as “level design.” The urge for the discipline’s cross-pollination shouldn’t need any explanation.

Let us look at two particular instances of constructed space. Jade Empire and Far Cry 2 obviously have very, very different game design philosophies, and this spills over into how they construct their space. Again, Jade Empire is about Wuxia and Man-versus-Man and a heroic adventure, etc. etc. It disposes of realism whenever it is inconvenient to the game, and one more or less spends the entire game with one’s character viewable on-screen. In Jade Empire, the architecture seems far more prominent theoretically: the space is to be traversed, as in it serves as a backdrop. I’ll confess I know next to nothing about architecture, but it seems reasonable to me that a good design goal in architecture would be to make the space unobtrusive. Nobody likes a building that constantly imposes itself between the spaces the [person? Consumer? Pedestrian?] wants to be. Jade Empire seems to take this approach; the space is pure backdrop. Yes, the player may be in a deep, haunted forest or the Imperial Palace or whatnot, and these locations have their narrative and even thematic importance, but traversing them is incredibly simple. Walk through them. That’s it. There may be puzzles, but they are just doors – you take ‘the key’, whatever it is, and unlock them. The space is as trivial to traverse as the word “backpack” is to parse.

Far Cry 2, on the other hand, is pretty different. First and foremost, the entire game takes place from a first-person perspective. Yes, you can pick a guy who you ostensibly are, but your choice is pretty much entirely inconsequential. The only changes are entirely back-end and slightly change how most people would interpret the story in another medium; the Irish ex-IRA mercenary getting stuck in an African civil war is quite a different story than the Haitian mercenry, is different than the Chinese mercenary, is different than the etc. One curious note is that all of the choices are male, though – this is the first example of a Canadian game that I know of where a choice of the protagonist is left to the player, but no female perspective is granted on the part of the developer.

I digress. To get back to the first thing I said about Far Cry 2, it’s entirely within a first-person perspective. Unlike Jade Empire, it’s not about the character. It’s about space. It’s not about the player overcoming narrative or game-mechanical obstacles; but instead about traversing the digital space the developers presented the players with. Bruno wrote that “film inherits art’s historical concern with visual dynamics, especially in the realms of set design, stage setting, and the picturing of townscapes” (Bruno 60). This was published in the year 2002, so to be perfectly honest I’m amazed that Bruno focused on film and not video games. Games need to construct a far more complete environment than in comparison to film. While a film needs to produce its set and then frame the camera’s shots so that the edges of the set do not become clear, in most modern 3D games the camera’s an unpredictable and schizophrenic entity that is both in competition and cooperation with the developers. What’s worse, the camera is actually numbering in the hundreds of thousands (if not millions), and so the environment must be set up in such a way that the aforementioned entities will, for the most part, not find the “backstage” of the constructed space. Video games inherited the same things that Bruno proposes film did, but on a much grander scale.

Far Cry 2 is interesting in its townscapes and whatnot because they are explored in a way quite alien to film. While I’m sure some examples exist (I apologize for my lack of film knowledge), the “first person camera angle” is not a technique used frequently in film, and certainly not in any form of sustained manner. In other words, when Bruno writes about how film is similar to architecture in that it’s a panoramic and haptic exploration of constructed space, it’s nowhere near the same league as video games – and not 3D video games that feature open space and roaming as gameplay elements. Old static-screen arcade games in the style of Pac-Man or the antequated genre of the rail-shooter are counter-examples of what I am talking about. Anyway, small outcroppings of buildings and shoddily-constructed living spaces, twisted war-torn wrecks of what was once a (digitally constructed) living space, foliage both thick and thin, roads both empty and filled with (murderous) vehicles, hills, boulders, rivers, and so on all populate Far Cry 2‘s world. The player navigates around all of these, and is encouraged by the game to make note of their layout.

The reason for this is that the game’s mechanics do not favour a brash, meat-headed approach to combat. The game rewards strategic and tactical use of the terrain; tight twists renders vehicles unusable, while explosive ammo dumps provide tempting targets when a large group of enemies is huddled around them. Unlike film, but like architecture, Far Cry 2 doesn’t just construct space; it forces its user to utilize the space. The space is claimed by the agency of the player and bent towards the player’s goals, whatever they may be.

Just like someone walking down the street, using overhanging buildings as an impromptu shelter from the rain.

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