Jan 102013

[Trigger Warning: This post concerns a plotline in Far Cry 3 where a secondary character is raped, as well as some related cultural artifacts that also feature rape.]

Buck should have gotten away.

Buck is a peculiar hitman in Far Cry 3. Apparently employed by the game’s big bad, Hoyt, Buck has an interest in men, and in ancient Chinese artifacts. As it happens, he presently “owns” one of protagonist Jason Brody’s male friends, and will exchange him if Jason retrieves a ceremonial knife originating from the treasure ships of Zheng He. Since Jason needs the knife for another purpose, it is obvious from the beginning of the adventure that he will come away from Buck’s tasks with both friend and knife. That’s how these games work, and Far Cry 3 is relentlessly conventional in that respect.

When Jason first learns of Buck from an ally, he responds by referring to [TW] the sequence in Kill Bill Vol. 1 in which the comatose Beatrix Kiddo is raped by an orderly named Buck and men who pay him. This is a scene that has inspired a complex set of reactions, because it operates as a kind of rape joke, in which the punchline is the mundane way both Buck and his “customer” treat the degradation of another human being. To the extent that it’s humorous, it’s not at the victim’s expense, but it still made many viewers uncomfortable, even angry.

At the same time, many responses felt the scene was acceptable because Kiddo murders her abusers. In a review for The F Word, Aideen Johnston puts it succinctly:

However, for those of you who are now put off seeing the movie because I mentioned the words “rape scene”, don’t worry – it’s not as bad as you might think.

Without going into too much detail, she kills the bastards. In the most painful way imaginable. Far from being a distressing scene to watch, I felt a sense of triumph.

Amy Tucker identifies this moment, and the film’s revenge motif more broadly, as a “post-feminist look at the damsel in distress“, in which the female protagonist, though physically weakened, uses her wits and skill to punish her attackers. I won’t pretend to be able to resolve the question of whether rape-revenge motifs are empowering or not. I merely want to point out that even an audience one would expect to object most loudly to a humorously-intended rape scene in a film accepted that scene primarily because the victim was able to take revenge.

This was not the first time Tarantino had used a rape-revenge motif, of course. An even more extreme example of the motif appeared in Pulp Fiction, where the gangster Marsellus Wallace suffers a homosexual rape before his attackers are killed and wounded. Marsellus promises to “get medieval” on the surviving rapist, whom he has already shot in the groin. This sequence is, if anything, even more shocking in its content than the “Buck” sequence in Kill Bill Vol. 1. Nonetheless, audiences approved of the sequence, no doubt because it ends with the rapists receiving their just reward.

This brings us back to Buck and the ceremonial knife. Having jumped through the usual mission-based hoops, Jason is at last invited to bring the knife to Buck’s place. There he finds that his friend, Keith, has been brutalized by Buck. The villain himself appears, and threatens not only to continue raping Keith, but also to rape Jason as well. A fight ensues, in which Jason kills Buck using the ceremonial knife.

Afterwards, Jason reassures Keith that he will “come back from this,” to which Keith responds “None of us will.” That’s an interesting sentiment, but it exists only in the dialogue. There are few opportunities to talk to Keith again, and the fact that he has suffered from brutal rape does not come up in the normal flow of the game. From the perspective of the game itself, the incident is over. Buck is dead, the end.

But it isn’t over. Even in the rare cases where rapists are appropriately prosecuted and punished that isn’t the end. There is no “end”. The emotional and psychological damage from rape can and does last for a whole lifetime, even if the perpetrator is behind bars, even if he’s dead. Why do you think this post has trigger warnings?

This is what bothers me about the rape-revenge motif; it lives on the supposition that the revenge solves everything. You killed the bastards, so it’s all better now. That just isn’t true.

By letting the player kill Buck, Far Cry 3 buys into that idea. The Buck story ends, and Keith’s life-long process of coming to terms with his brutalization, although it surely happens, never happens for the player in any meaningful way. You killed the bastard, so it’s over. Far Cry 3 lets that feeling pass without any more challenge than a single line of dialogue, when it could have brought the idea to life. All it needed to do was let Buck get away.

Letting Buck escape would deny the player the illusion of closure that comes from taking revenge for Keith. Buck doesn’t even have to actually show up again; just the thought that he might do so would be enough to undercut the player’s confidence in his choices, his feeling of assurance and safety. It would bring Keith’s experience of permanent fear into the player’s experience of the game world. A pale imitation, perhaps, but maybe enough to reach the writer’s avowed goal of getting players to examine their behaviors and assumptions.

As it is, Far Cry 3 doesn’t do that. It gives the player power, and lets him feel comfortable. It lets him feel like he is making the right choices. When Keith says that none of Jason’s friends are coming back from this, it lets him be wrong. Because it lets you kill the bastard, and it lets that be the end.

  9 Responses to “His name is Buck…”

  1. Games have never been good at getting at trauma.

  2. This is a great analysis, thanks Sparky.

  3. *MORE SPOILERS, also for the ending* Interesting. I read the scene (and the game) in a different way, though. The fact that Jason does succeed in killing Buck, but not in saving Keith before he is sexually abused, underscores the central point the game is making: that the enjoyment Jason (and the player) are getting from playing the putative hero acts as a cover-up for the fucked-up shit that is going on behind the scenes. Saving the day plays second fiddle to living out a power fantasy, and thus, the morality of the player’s actions are called into question. Throughout the game, when Jason is confronted with the darkness of the scenario (not only Keith’s situation but also his having to torture his own brother, or even the sensible advice of his girlfriend Elisa to stop running around like he’s some sort of action movie Messiah), the game quickly papers it over with another exciting action set piece. The ending makes this explicit: in a hallucinatory sequence, Elisa is portrayed as a monstrous shrew who wants to take Jason’s toys away, and the dark ending makes him kill her to attain the ultimate power. This casts the entire game in a new light: a critique of childish entitlement and the refusal to grow up and take on adult responsibilities that manifests in so many young men (and to a lesser degree, young women) these days. Seen in this context, it makes sense that Keith’s abuse is not explored: Jason is only equipped to solve problems with violence and one-liners, and he is powerless in the face of emotional trauma. Keith’s “None of us will” is necessary to make this theme resonate.

  4. That’s an interesting point, but I think at that point we’re getting into the intrinsic flaws in Far Cry 3′s storytelling. I think that it’s okay, even a good idea, for Jason to think the matter is closed. My problem with the whole approach of Far Cry 3, though, is that it puts the player too much in the character’s shoes, rather than driving a real wedge between them. The player needs to be driven (by the design) to see what Jason is missing, and I just don’t think that happens, even though Yohalem is really interested in exploiting the player/character divide.

  5. Though I agree Far Cry 3’s storytelling approach doesn’t completely work, I do think that the almost absent player/character divide works in the game’s favour. The critique, after all, is levelled at the average games player, because all we do is indulge in power fantasies every time we play a “core” game. I agree Yohalem could have made the things that Jason misses more explicit for the player, but for the most part it makes sense that we remain almost as oblivious to it as he is. Yohalem trusts (maybe too much) that the player will pick up his intent from the very subtle clues he weaves into the narrative (Keith’s single line of dialogue, Elisa’s misgivings, Riley’s torture, and the ending).
    In general, being driven by the design to come to certain narrative or thematic conclusions can easily feel like handholding (much like overly explanatory tutorials can neuter the gameplay). Again, I don’t think Yohalem succeeded entirely (it does sometimes feel like the game is having its cake and eating it too), but I very much like the fact that he trusted enough in the player’s perceptiveness to build his counter-narrative from such tiny elements, especially because it fits with Jason’s perception of the world to have these dark elements amount to nothing more than background noise.
    But thanks for the great article! It has made me think about the game’s narrative approach a lot more than I otherwise would have.

  6. While things might be over for the player, they sure aren’t over for Keith – talk to him in the cave after you rescue him and you can see that he is still suffering quite a bit.

  7. To some extent, being able to explore events with lifelong consequences while maintaining some distance from them is the key driving force behind entertainment media, especially power fantasies. Jason and the player don’t have to show up at the funerals of the dozens of bandits they killed, they don’t have to live in constant fear of Buck, and they don’t have to take his girlfriend to therapy after her harrowing capture and escape, because the whole point of the genre in which Far Cry 3 operates is that Jason can do whatever he wants as long as the bad guys get their comeuppance. It’s like critcizing a romantic comedy for not exploring the permanent relationship issues that will result from the couple’s acrimony in the second act. These things would be interesting and valuable to see, and there are plenty of other works that go there, but the conventions of form and genre mean that it’s not reasonable to expect that this particular title takes up the subject.

  8. […] is something that Sparky Clarkson notes in an article earlier this month looking at how the sequence with Buck and Keith (a sequence that Yohalem attests to as particularly […]

  9. […] of the hilt is missing. So yeah, it’s either an independent replica or the inspiration. Edit: upon further reading I remembered that in-game the knife was recovered by the protagonist from a Chinese treasure ship […]

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