When video games acknowledge what they are, it's usually in a toe-curling rap on the fourth wall. The moment when Remedy's Max Payne realises he's in a computer game has long stuck in the craw as a toe-curling moment of self-awareness. They did it again in Alan Wake, with a mental patient games developer raging against game producers and“mullet time”. On the slightly more sophisticated end of the scale we've got Bioshock's famous moment, which throws a spotlight on the limited issues of choice in a linear shooter. If lead writer Jeffrey Yohalem's claims hold water, Far Cry 3 might the unexpected new champion in the world of games that play with the idea of their own gaminess.
Many of the references he cites are - if not obvious, unsurprising. He's trying to do what Apocalypse Now did for a different generation - a new generation of young people who've never known the threat of conscription. Conscription was eliminated to keep people complacent about the wars their country was fighting, and Far Cry 3 is hero Jason Brody's journey from a pampered hawing tourist to a warrior with a metric brain-ton of mental issues. Robocop is another influence, a movie that never lets its social commentary get in the way of being a great action movie.
Other influences he mentions are economist Adam Smith and Jane McGonigal, who writes about “gamification”, a word that no human can use without drawing attention to how ugly it is. But it's visible everywhere - the application of gaming's compulsive quality to things that aren't explicitly games. How that'll fit into something that is, in fact, a game, we'll just have to wait and see. Will Far Cry 3 be to shooters what Dan Harmon's Community is to SitComs? A love letter to the form, combined with a subversive attempt to broaden what they can be?
We'll have to wait and see - the playable demo at E3 gives only a taster of the madness and hallucination we're promised. We start with Brody becoming a warrior, a process that naturally involves having sex with the sister of the psychotic villain, Vaas. Those two have got a complicated relationship - Vaas claims that the first person he killed was for her, and you suspect from his tone that he didn't consult her about it. Your warrior-dom also involves the tattoo on your forearms. This tattoo will be generated by your own progress, and the order in which you explore the world. As you become a skilled hunter, and complete optional missions around the islands, your body art will reflect your path. After early talk about the value of linear moments, this is the evidence that Far Cry 3 is staying true to its more open roots.
Delivering a rousing speech to the assembled warriors, we leap off the cliff, into the sea, and swim toward's Vaas island. There's a patrol on the pier, which we take out silently with a lunge from the water. We find two more guards, giving us a chance to try out a powerful combo. On a gamepad, a flick of the left thumbstick during one melee kill with send you stabbing into the next man's neck.
Check out sections of the demo in this clip from Ubisoft's E3 presentation. Warning: not safe for work.
Inside the compound, we're given a glimpse of Far Cry's options. A network of roofs and alleyways give you alternate paths, and there's a grumpy tiger in a cage you can free to add a touch of chaos to the battle. There's a machine gun encampment. There's a fuel tank that will, eventually explode - if you lob enough firepower at it. All around the camp is Vaas' influence. His motivation is that of a frustrated artist. He sees himself as the director of his ransom videos, his crazed monologues cast himself as the hero, victim and philosopher. He's also amassed an impressive number of vintage televisions. They're held up in bundles of cables, like the egg sacs of a cathode ray spider.
We dispense with a heavy flamethrowing unit (shoot the fuel tank, of course) and we're in Vaas' world. The lights dim, and Vaas' face appears, spread over a dozen TVs. He's accusing us of being a disappointment, a rat in a Skinner box. A Skinner Box is an artificial system of stimulus, response and reward, used by Skinner to train animals. It's also one of the ways you can dismiss video games. After all, what are video games but brilliant processes of stimulus, response and reward? It's the first inkling that Far Cry 3 is going to pull a fourth-wall breaker on us, but thankfully it stays classy.
When we eventually find Vaas, he comes out of nowhere in a scripted ambush. He plants a knife in our shoulder, triggering a collapse and a hallucination. We're on a path of TVs, flashing with primal words of survival. “Fuck” and “kill” feature prominently, as you'd expect in a psychopath's vision. It's easy to forget that this isn't Vaas world, but Brody's own dream. It's one of obsession Vaas is pole-dancing to the right. You can see yourself having sex with his sister to the left - at least until a glitch in the dream replaces you with Vaas. And there, are the end of the path, is another Vaas. Underlit in all the colours by his Disco 2000 carpet of TV.
He grabs our gun and plants it on his head, ordering us to kill him. It's a callback to the beginning of the game, where he did the same thing to Brody's friend, before killing him. It's that moment of Bioshock, where choice is taken away. It's also not Vaas, as our friend's face glitches accusingly into his place.
That's the end of the demo. Far Cry 3 looks like its taken on board some feedback from the last game (yes, there is fast travel, no, the guns don't jam), and added an entirely unexpected element of intelligence and layered narrative. Just one thing - if this turns out to pull a Buffy or an Estacado, where you're not sure if Brody's in a mental asylum or not, we won't be happy. But Yohalem inspires confidence. “One of the biggest pleasures in telling a story is playing with the audience's expectations, and pulling the rug from under their feet. And there are going to be some pretty big rugs in Far Cry 3.”