In Far Cry 3, a stalling man-boy graduates from "first-world problems" to real-world problems.
You may know some people like Jason Brody. Jason recently graduated from college, and he's a little aimless. He's bored and seeks sensation. He spends money he doesn't seem to have on things he doesn't seem to need. He drinks and takes drugs and has meaningless sex. Though he can barely express himself, verbally, culturally, or morally, we sense that he has some kind of nebulous potential that he does not know how to fulfill.
Brody, the hero of Ubisoft's commendable new shooting game Far Cry 3, is unmistakably a Millennial, that subject of a thousand unsatisfying think pieces in a hundred magazines. I am a Millennial. We have: soaring self esteem that shatters on the beach break of employment; no chance in the global job market; great debt; no religion; a robust social media presence; access to a baffling array of subcultures; no idea when to get married; an unacceptably extended adolescence; the tatters of the American dream clasped like a talisman to our overprivileged breasts; a rotting Earth. Or so you've heard.
The game begins with a montage of Jason and friends flitting dilettantishly about some Southeast Asian sin den, in the manner of good, debauched Millennials. Soon, in the manner of good, debauched Millennials who are unlucky enough to be fictional, Jason and friends are kidnapped by some coked-up pirates and prepped for sale into white slavery. So much for Millennial anomie! Plunged, you are, from the most dizzying, Lena Dunham-ish heights of First World Problematics, like, Mai Tai or Pina Colada?, to that lowest and most pressing of human dilemmas: How to get free?
Because we are in video-game land, the answer is: very easily, thanks. Within the first 10 minutes of the game you have emerged from captivity, minus one older brother and your bourgeoisie illusions, into the great tropical wilderness of Rook Island. Your nominal mission is to rescue your friends from assorted dastards. Your real mission is to shed so many accumulated years of decadent American exceptionalism and emerge the way we used to make 'em: murderous and mean, clever and resourceful, a real genuine cuss.
Rook Island is technically in the South Pacific, but it is really a surreal microcosm of the "Third World" as seen by the "First World." There is a vaguely Maori warrior tribe of which you eventually become the leader (and from which you, in the game's best joke, receive tribal tattoos), but you take instructions from a Liberian hipster, and your tormentor speaks with a Mexican accent, and his sister (and your lover) looks like she's from the Horn of Africa. Basically everyone here is a shade of black and brown save you and your friends (and two incidental villains). Some people are complaining the game is racist and Orientalist and sexist and a lot of other -ists. Well, so are we Millenials in large part, and the game is about us and the way we see everyone else.
When Jason first arrives on the island, he can't compete. He lacks the ruthlessness, the selfishness, the singularity of purpose that one needs nowadays to succeed in the world. He is soft, American. He has to learn the desperate secrets and necessary ingenuity of the darker world before he can reclaim his rightful place on top of it. I half expected a level set in a Dell call center. At one crucial point in the game, you actually dig your way up from the bottom of a mass grave of brown corpses.
"He is back from the dead!" cry some terrified villagers. Never count out Uncle Sam.
The great Millennial fear, stoked by our crumbling economy, is that our preposterous lifestyles are not long for the world, and that we may very soon have to admit that we are like everyone else, which means facing the possibility that any given one of Us is worse than any given one of Them. This is why Jason's descent into—and eventual mastery of—the world of violence and real-life problem is very clever.
Clever does not necessarily mean pleasant. While I admire Ubisoft's dedication to authenticity in making a representation of our cohort one of the most inarticulate characters in the history of talking entertainment, I admit that I longed for a bit of that old-time Nathan Drake quippery. A sampling of Jason's wit: "Eat dirt!", "Yeahhh!", "I'm going to kill them", "This is awesome!" Half of Jason's vocalizations, though, are sub-verbal, and here he shines. He makes, without a doubt, the most convincing orgasm chuffs I have ever heard in a video game. Baby steps.
Far Cry 3, as gamers probably know, is a "sandbox" game. This genre, with its intrinsic tension between moving forward and messing around, feels like a smart fit for the game's basic theme: how to stop being a dithering man-boy. The problem, thematically at least, is that the distractions aren't usually tempting enough and the action of the main plot is too compelling. Would you rather: A. hoof it up 30 far-flung radio towers or B. Hang glide to and then burn down acres of heavily guarded marijuana plants with a flamethrower? Exactly. If the game truly had the courage of its convictions, the main plot would be banal and repetitious and the totally optional toys in the sandbox would be the varied and zany and explode-y.
(As far as I can tell, the only real distraction is Rook Island itself, which looks pretty enough to propose to. You'll find yourself staring at it so long you feel like you should apologize.)
But thematic consistency must sometimes be sacrificed on the altar of fun. Speaking of sacrificial altars, if you play the game long enough, you are faced with that classic Kurtzian choice: revel in your newfound jungle mastery or take the lessons that you've learned home with you in a socially appropriate fashion. My guess is, with his new expertise operating heavy machines, his leadership skills, and his stick-to-it ethos, Jason will have no problem finding a job back in LA. Except, he may want to invest in some oxford shirts to cover up that body art. Or, scratch that. He'll fit in with all the other Millennials.
A version of this post also appeared on Kill Screen, an Atlantic partner site.