Thursday, 25 June 2009

Permanent Death, Episode 2: From Here to the Hearafter

A couple of other bloggers have been inspired by this ‘Permanent Death’ experiment, so I’ll mention them here. Michel McBride is playing along as Xianyong Bai. Catch up with his progress here. Nels Anderson is playing as Andre Hyppolite, and his excellent first entry is here. If you are playing along at home, leave a comment and let me how you’re finding it.

“He doesn’t need to know!” – Prosper Kouassi.

I started this episode inside the UFLL headquarters in Pala. The warlord’s mission was to eliminate some commando’s who were parachuting into the desert somewhere. Mission accepted, I went back outside to check my map and stand with my back to the setting sun.

My new buddy Michelle rang and asked to meet somewhere north-east of Mokuba, I drove east. Coming to the first of many manned checkpoints I overestimated the distance from myself to the soldiers ahead. I was still stepping out of the car when the first bullets started pinging off the bonnet. I remember thinking ‘this is it – my first firefight’ and the feeling of danger threatened to overwhelm me. Certainly, the mixture of exhilaration and jitters proved to pose more of a threat to my survival than did the enemy soldiers. I spent most of the fight crouched here.

It was almost a let-down how easy it was. Dispatching them all safely, I scouted the camp, picking up some grenades from the stockpile to replace the ones I’d frantically lobbed into the scrub. I hopped into a nearby UNIMOG (a vehicle that looks like the love child of a tank and a dune buggy) and continued on my journey east through the dense jungle, spying and capturing a safe-house just off the main road. The fight was short and dangerous and I got flanked from behind by a patrolling jeep. This is normal difficulty however so I only lost ½ my health.

While I slept in the safe-house, I was shown a view outside and spied two soldiers approaching under the cover of darkness. They didn’t really stand much of a chance since it appeared the soldiers default to crouching and waiting in the dark once night falls.

Back again in my trusty UNIMOG I approached a second checkpoint further down the road and, still in complete darkness, dismounted a safe distance away. I crept up to well within earshot of the checkpoint and took out enemies while squatting in this lovely fern.

All clear, I commandeered a jeep from the camp and made the last leg of the journey to my meeting place with Michelle. On the way I couldn’t resist snapping this picture of a beautiful waterfall. One of the things I like best about Far Cry 2 is the stark contrast between the natural beauty and the purposefully ugly humanity.

I hung out with Michelle inside the safe house for a few minutes while she told me that the soldiers who I was tasked with killing were actually here to get back at her for stealing some supplies. Another of the great things about Far Cry 2 is that it doesn’t beat you over the head with morality like many other videogames – it’s up to you to determine the morality of your actions. If you think about it for a second, it is really okay to kill that Michelle wants you to kill these soldiers? It’s very easy to slip into videogame thinking and just go ahead with everything you are presented with the option of doing.

Working with Michelle would, however, upgrade my safe house effectively keeping me safer and better stocked with health and ammunition. So I accept Michelle’s secondary mission and after a quick nap head to The Gun Shop. A bolt-action sniper rifle is within my budget thanks to the UFLL’s generous upfront payment scheme and with my shiny new rifle in hand I headed back west and north. I reach the border of what is marked as “private property” on my map.

I prowled on up the path towards the villa where my target lay and peered through my rifle scope. It appeared that the checkpoint some ways up the road was deserted, however I knew better from experience. I skirted around the side and crouch-walked through a building, looking for hostiles. Peering out the open front door I spied a guard, crouched cannily behind the front wall. If I’d have walked up the main driveway I would have been ambushed! As it was, he was unaware that I was now about to ambush him.

I’ve heard that ‘concentration’ can be described as like ‘a flashlight’, illuminating certain things while keeping others in the dark. You may have heard of the experiment where a person is told to count how many times an object is passed around a circle. The person concentrating routinely fails to notice that a conspicuously dressed person (sometimes in a gorilla suit even) walks through – they were simply concentrating too hard on one thing to notice another. In this case, I was concentrating so hard on the soldier on the right that I neglected to see the fellow on the left, sitting motionless in the bushes across the drive. As Robert Muldoon would say – Clever girl.

If this were anything harder than normal, I could be dead, machete in hand. As it was, I only lost a single bar of health before I took out the other soldier and continued unimpeded along the path to the villa. On the way, I spotted a briefcase full of diamonds.

Creping up to the villa, I scouted the area from a slightly raised position in the south-west corner – spotting a prowling sniper and dispatching him easily, thankful for the telescopic lens of my rifle. The shot drew attention to me, however, and I had to scoot back from my position as the bullets ricocheted around me. Enemies swarmed around like ants, and I used my rifle and pistol like an ant-squashing boot, putting them down easily. I ducked inside a small hut to reload and tend to some superficial wounds. Peering out through the only window, I was suddenly sprayed with fragments of wood as the boards covering the window were shot to pieces. In the middle of dispatching this fresh wave of attackers, one of them launches a flare high into the sky over my head.

I had plenty of warning before the “reinforcements” showed up – the jeep had its lights on and in the darkness stood out like a sore thumb. I took out the gunner in one, ducking behind a slanting piece of wall and sliding back the bolt to ready a second shot, popping up to take out the driver. I was now free to take on the house. I grabbed another briefcase full of diamonds and headed up stairs.

Inside the single lit room, hunched over some papers and a wireless was The Belgian. Looking straight out of the 1950’s with his thick-rimmed, jet black glasses he raised himself from his chair as I approached, jamming my machete against his throat. He spoke good English and understood my intentions, giving the commandos the new coordinates that Michelle had specified. Upon leaving, I paused to deliberate as to whether he needed to be eliminated to prevent him from calling them back and warning of the ambush. Michelle hadn’t specified, but I didn’t see the need to shed any more blood than necessary, so I shot up his radio instead. A futile, but symbolic gesture, as the radio was indestructible. I pretend otherwise.

Next thing I know, my phone is ringing and it’s Michelle on the other end. She tells me that the soldiers were moving into place and that I should go and destroy the evidence of the theft. It was in the back of a truck at a location one map south of the villa. Instead of going there directly, I went north until I hit the small river and grabbed a boat from the dock. There were some guards but they were no threat to my continued survival. I rounded a bend and picked off three soldiers guarding a safe house and, picking up another briefcase of diamonds on the way, moved inside and to have a nice safe nap.

Upon awakening, I re-entered my boat and headed east until I reached land, with another safe house in the distance. On the way, however, I discovered a deserted jeep sitting in the middle of the road. As I approached, I noticed a fellow walking away from the jeep, through the long grass towards a group of soldiers guarding the safe-house. It looked like he had gotten out of his jeep to stretch his legs before deciding to go and chat with the nearby soldiers. I stood dumbstruck for a moment at the normalness of the situation before shooting him in the back of the head.

I engaged the guards at close range and took them out easily, interrupted briefly by a bout of unexpected malaria. Seeing his opening, one soldier decided to forgoe his cover for a better shot at me, rushing out from behind a rusty car. Back to full health I proceeded to shoot him to death with my pistol and in his death throes, he knocked over a barrel of burning pieces of wood, starting a lovely fire that spreads quickly to where the other soldier lies in wait. I use some bullets to help him along into the next world and head inside and to have another nap. It’s nearly dawn.

I pack my bags and leave the Hotel de Safehouse, stepping outside into – THIS! The glorious rays of the rising sun.

If the path of my trip so far has seemed oddly circuitous, it’s only because I know that in Far Cry 2 the most direct route is often also the most dangerous. It’s also usually quicker to avoid checkpoints and guard posts when you can, and if you spend a few minutes planning it’s often possible to plot a reasonably safe and unimpeded course to your destination. Such are the lengths to which I will go just to stay alive. Here’s a rough map of my current journey so far:

Taking the bus from the nearby far-east bus stop meant that I could travel directly to the bus-stop in the south-east corner of the map, bypassing a number of checkpoints. Someone had left another briefcase of diamonds at this bus station and after dealing with another jeep patrol I travelled on up to the gun shop to pick up a fresh new rifle. From that same store that I had visited twice now, I proceeded west to come around at my target from the north and passed the same waterfall from earlier, this time in the daylight. While trying to take yet another beautiful screenshot I failed to watch where I was going and had a bit of a car accident. I wasn't even going that fast officer, I swear!

No sooner had I given up on righting my now useless Unimog than I was assaulted by soldiers. I forgot to mention that I picked up a new machine gun for my special weapon slot back at the gun shop, which I put to good use. Here is a man who met the business end of the weapon and ended up in the river.

Finally, I neared the location of my primary target – Mokuba, a shanty town with a mass of hazardously placed explosives just waiting to devastate living flesh. Here’s some exploding impressively while I coolly reload.

I cleared the camp and, upon reaching my target, fire a bullet into a conveniently placed propane tank, blowing the whole thing sky high.

My phone rings again it’s Michelle telling asking for some help. Not willing to lose my buddy so early, I wander on down the road to the checkpoint where she is holed up. I spot some soldiers crossing the road (to get to the other side, probably) and take aim with my rifle.

They return fire, their AK47’s pinging ineffectually off the rocks around me. This is why I advocate long distance engagements in my original “How To Kill People More Effectively in Far Cry 2” post. I take out the last stragglers see and head in closer. On the way, a solitary burst of AK fire and the words “mission accomplished” inform me that Michelle can take care of herself. She tells me that she’s okay for now that I can go on my merry way. Stopping only to pick up another briefcase of diamonds, I head to back to the bus-stop and take a bus back to Pala, completing a giant, lopsided circle and the first of many missions in Far Cry 2.

A few things I learnt from that episode: Number one – Far Cry 2 is a long game but writing about it takes even longer. This was (if you’ll believe it!) the condensed version of Episode two and still clocked in at 2,000 words. I’ll definitely be making these shorter in the future. With Far Cry 2 containing around 30 or so missions, going at the current rate I would end up writing around 60,000 words by the time I got to the end (assuming I made it that far). That’s enough for a decent sized novel! Suffice to say, I’m going to have to skim a bit in the future.

Number two: On normal, it’s still far too easy for me. I’m going play some more and hopefully as the enemies get better weapons it will become harder, but I’m still considering doing something along the lines of purposefully avoiding working with my buddy or limiting myself to only using shotguns (which is, quite frankly, the quickest way to get yourself killed in this game).

For the moment, I’m going to try and breeze through a couple missions and condense them all down into an episode. Maybe when it gets hard again I can go into greater detail about my trials and triumphs. As Justin Keverne has pointed out, the best moments in the game happen when it all goes horribly wrong.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Permanent Death, Episode 1: An Inauspicious Beginning

Death in games is often very… temporary. I want to find out what happens to me as a player if I make my videogame death much more permanent. This is the story of one game of Far Cry 2 – one single narrative that one way or the other will end in my death. Whether it is at the hands of my enemies, the harsh environment, or my own ineptitude, I am not going to survive the telling of this tale.

The rules: Normal difficulty; fortunes DLC installed. When I die, that’s it. Game over.

Let’s see how far Qurbani Singh can get.

I used the introductory car ride to adjust my visual settings; I figure that if I’m going to be fighting for my life I probably want the best frame rate I can get. I take everything down a notch, and while I normally play with most settings on “Very High” I take them down to just “High”. I also change from 2x to 4x anti-aliasing – if Charlie’s going to be crouching in the jungle waiting for me, I want as 'accurate' a picture of him as I can get. My life is depending on this now.

The taxi ride ends and I come down with malaria. I black out… and wake up in the room where the Jackal tells me about some Neitchze he read and nearly chops my head off. I black out again. So far, it’s all scripted cut scene.

I wake up again to the sound of gunfire and one wall of my room explodes – hit by a scripted RPG. At least I’m playing the game now and from here on in the risk of dying increases greatly.

I get up out of the bed, picking up the sidearm and machete that the Jackal left. I scrabble out of the room and make my way to the central stairwell. From previous experience, I know I don’t want to go out the front door as it’s obvious that would lead me right into where the fighting is worst. Instead I cross to another room, scooping up a dropped machine gun on the way. Anything is better than this pop-gun of a sidearm, I’ve got to be able to defend myself now and a pistol just isn’t going to cut it.

I find the open window and leap out of it – no one is in sight (it is normal difficulty, after all) but as I creep down the back alley I spy some soldiers down a side-street. I turn the other direction and sprint up the hill away from town. I get as far from town as I can before I have to stop sprinting, my breathing getting ragged and my vision blurring. The malaria virus clouds the edges of the screen as I stumble across a bridge out of town. In one of the last scripted sequences before I reach the main game, I collapse onto the wooden decking of the bridge. As my vision goes dim, I hear a jeep pulling up and men jumping out of it. I slip into unconsciousness.

Let me take a second here to mention that, up until now it has all been very scripted. Very safe. No matter what you choose to do in the town to try and get out you end up blacking out and being picked up. Even if you get shot, you black out and get picked up. I have a feeling that where you are when you go down affects which faction you get ‘rescued’ by since every time I've gone down on that bridge I get stuck with the following guy…

When I awoke, I’m greeted by this friendly looking guy who is slouched across the doorway. The shady looking fellow goes by the name of Joakim Carbonell and he works for the UFLL.

Carbonell tells me to fix my wounds, get some guns and go out and repair a car that’s letting off steam outside. Apparently I’m indebted to him because he saved my life and got some of his soldiers killed back in town. He’s got some monkey work for me to do and I'm happy to oblige, since he also promises to introduce me to Gakumba, the regional boss of the UFLL, if I do this work for him. Gotta start somewhere.

Fixed up the car; Carbonell can’t be bothered coming outside of his hut even thought I'm standing right outside so he calls me on the phone instead. Tells me about an enemy safe-house that he’d like to see get roughed up. I take my guns and my new car and head on up. They don’t really pose much of a threat and Carbonell calls me back when I’m done.

For this fight I was for the first time faced with the possibility of dying, as I had no buddy to rescue me had I stuffed up and gotten myself killed. There was a little bit of tension, but it was still incredibly easy seeing as it is on the normal difficulty. After playing on 'Infamous' (the absolute hardest difficulty) for so long I think the temptation might be for me to not take it seriously enough, which is kind of good and dangerous. I imagine that it shares a kind of verisimilitude with real war, of which there is the saying that it is “long stretches of boredom punctuated by brief moments of sheer terror”. It means that I’ll have to work to maintain concentration and focus.

Carbonell didn’t want me to fall asleep on my feet, so he told me to go inside and rest. I decided to sleep till the early evening. It had been a long day, after all. I awoke at 8pm and stepped outside to answer a phone call. Carbonell wanted me to go up to some lumber camp just up the road. I got there and scout around a bit. Apparently there was someone being held captive in one of the buildings and I was to go and rescue them.

I snuck up nice and close and easily pulled off a headshot on the first of two soldiers in my sights. They were unsuspecting and went down fast. One of their number, however, managed to get a flare off before I dispatched him; no one came to help him though. When it was clear, I entered the building and freed a woman held captive named Michelle who was to become my best buddy. Knowing the kind of things I'm going to do in this game, and the kinds of tactics I'm going employ to make absolutely sure I stay alive, who would want to be my buddy? They must be pretty messed up themselves...

I drove back up to ‘Fresh Fish’ where Carbonell gave me my reward in diamonds, if I could find them stashed somewhere in the camp. And find them I did, since I’d already done this about 4 or 5 times when I'd played the game before. At least the later missions will be a bit more interesting as I can start to explore the freedom the geography of the world affords.

I headed on down to Mike’s bar and the gun shop next door to buy myself a new gun, or more accurately an unlimited supply of one particular gun. I also bought an accuracy upgrade for it which I hope will help me save ammo and stay alive better. By being able to bring down enemies quicker I’ll stop them from being able to bring me down. It’s this kind of strategic thinking that I’m going to need to do to make sure I never, ever lose the upper hand in this game of Far Cry 2.

Inside Mike’s bar I met up with Michelle as well as Warren Clyde who will one day provide me with a second chance if I get almost-dead. Hopefully I won’t ever need him, but I honestly don't want to risk it. You never know what dumb things might happen. I could fall off a cliff – it’s happened before – and I’d be mighty glad to have my ‘get out of death free’ card handy. I also met Reuben who will be of next to no use to me in this game, as I’m just trying to stay alive and, frankly, he’s got nothing to offer me. Michelle kinda creeps me out by mentioning something about knowing what the "price of a child" is in the country. Was she encouraging me to paedophillia?! Creepy lady is creepy. If I didn't really, really not want to lose my backup rescue buddy I'd totally find a way to kill off Michelle. I seem to recall CLINT HOCKING mentioning that eventually she annoyed him enough to provoke him to murder.

On my way back up to Pala (the town where the fighting broke out and the place that I can get malaria medicine and missions from) I break into a shack and recover some diamonds. In town I visit the church and the priest gives me some medicine in exchange for delivering a tape that Reuben gave me. Malaria can pop up at any time, so I’ll need to stay stocked up on pills. The last thing I want is to be on my last legs and then have a malaria attack render me defenceless. Something like that could get me killed very quickly.

As I stepped outside the church, a dialogue told me that I’d finished the tutorial. The gloves are off. I felt very much on my own, but at least I now have my rescue buddy ready. I walked on over to the headquarters of the UFLL, the guard patting me down for concealed weapons before admitting me in to see Gakumba. I stepped inside the dimly lit building, ready for danger.


Well that took far longer than expected. At least I’m onto the meat of the game, and I 'm exposed to death proper now. I could die at any moment! The danger! The excitement! The Permanent Death! This is what it's all about folks.

One part of the motivation for this project was Manveer Heir’s talk on ‘Designing Ethical Dilemmas’ and the back-and-forth between him and Clint Hocking. It was suggested by someone that having decisions be irreversible would add weight to our in-game actions. I’m only at the start of this journey, but I’m beginning to see how that could potentially be both true and false, depending on the circumstances. If I get killed in the second episode, and that’s permanent, I’m not really going to be mourning my own death - I'll probably just write this experiment off as a bit of a failure. I’m more likely to just be annoyed at not having gotten anywhere. If, however, I get myself killed at one of the many points later in the game where you don't have a rescue buddy, I can certainly imagine being consumed with rage at the unfairness of the premature ending – which itself somewhat mirrors feelings and reactions to death in the real world.

So even if I die tomorrow (and in the game!) I’ll still have gotten some new insight into games that I feel makes it worthwhile. Here’s to hoping that trend continues.