Saturday, 11 July 2009

Permanent Death, Episode 4 - Chekhov's Diamonds

If you are just tuning in, I’m currently in the middle of an attempt to complete the 2008 game Far Cry 2 without getting killed and examining how the new found permanence of my characters death changes the experience.

Last we saw our intrepid hero, Qurbani Singh was somewhere in the deep, deep south where he had just avenged the death of his good friend Andre Hipolite (who wasn’t actually dead in his own universe so much as in Nels’ Anderson’s).

Since then, on his way to an assassinate mission Qurbani unlocked a safe house at dawn; ran over his first zebra and picked up a briefcase full of diamonds on the side of a cliff next to a burnt out car.

I must admit that the fear of dying has more or less completely disappeared by this point. The worry and hesitancy with which I approached the earlier missions has atrophied to the point where I am confident enough to take out an assassination target head on, using explosives. I’m regularly flirting with danger now, and it remains to be seen whether I will get burnt.

I was in a bit of an exploratory mood, so after swimming around and under a submerged house in the middle of the lake I wandered off down river and, passing through a checkpoint, spied a bridge overhead. I realised that in all the times I’d played the game, in quite possibly every game I had played, I’d seen the bridge but never actually visited it.

I went up and explored the bride as well as three other checkpoints along the ridge, all of which I had never even seen before. At one of these checkpoints a jeep charged through the jungle at me and ended up having a car accident. You just can’t scrip for the surreal.

Under the bridge I spotted some diamonds and in the process of their retrieval got myself stuck half-way up a cliff with no immediately visible safe route down. Escaping any real ill effects by sliding down the space between two walls, I pretended that Qurbani Singh had lost the seat of his pants in his daring escapade and therefore had to put up with the shame until he reached the next safe house and was able to change his pants. The safe house was conveniently located near another scenic water fall and it amazed me that I’d been able to spend so much time with this game and still not ever have traversed this particular, admittedly quite large, patch of jungle. I thought I’d been everywhere.

On my way back to Pala I spotted a hang-glider and wondered whether I could get all the way to Pala in one flight. It didn’t look that far on the map…

…but my short lived trip was ended by this tree branch and I ditched into the river.

After slogging back to Pala, I stumbled into the hotel, purely out of curiosity. Nothing much had changed and no one had yet bothered to clean up any of the mess. Admittedly, they all probably have better things to do than rebuilt a hotel while there’s a war raging. On the upside, my one time room has a lovely new skylight now.

I got patted down by a guard with a huge scar on his lip and headed upstairs to a meeting with the UFLL and Carbonell. This time I’m sent off to locate some buried treasure and send an SMS with its location. I take my diamond filled dossier and go.

Barely out the door, I stop for a second having noticed the green flashing light indicating a nearby briefcase of diamonds. On second thoughts, notice is not entirely accurate; perhaps ‘comprehend the possibility of its acquisition’ is a better description. I’ve known that particular briefcase has been there since my first play-through of the game as it shows up clearly on your diamond detector any time you are near the UFLL building, however given my new found brazen attitude I was suddenly very aware of how much more obtainable they now seemed.

Thinking back over it later, it made me consider the difficult time developers have in employing traditional narrative tricks and techniques to game narratives. Specifically, in all of my previous games I had for various reasons never once picked up this particular briefcase before. Why is that important? Well, in drama there is an axiom known as Chekhov’s Gun which says that "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." (A suitably violent axiom for a game like Far Cry 2, wouldn’t you say?) In all of my previous games on varying difficulties, I had never even considered taking the diamonds because I didn’t want to break the peace treaty. 1-3 diamonds just never seemed worth the risk of getting shot to pieces before.

Why then, in all those earlier games, did the Diamonds exist? Chekhov’s Gun says that if no one is ever going to fire it, don’t put it ‘on stage’ since it is not necessary for the narrative. It’s clear, however, that a game designer has absolutely no way of knowing if a certain player is going to want to take the diamonds or not and so has no choice but to place them in the world and let whatever happens happen. If they were to remove the diamonds, then the player would be denied even the possibility of taking them.

I should also add that after I decided for the first time that I didn’t want to collect those diamonds in my very first game (having been effectively deterred by warnings from soldiers, etc) that until this most recent game I didn’t even consider taking the diamonds. I didn’t even decide each time to deliberately not collect them; I just didn’t even consider it as an option. According to Chekhov’s Gun, those diamonds should not even exist!

If all of the previous games where I ignored the diamonds were written as a story similar to the one you are now reading, the diamonds wouldn’t get a mention and you, the reader, would have no way of know they even existed – even though they clearly existed in the game each time.

So obviously games have a distinct disadvantage in storytelling when it comes to the ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ rule. The game, by having to show/render/populate the world with this diamond case, was resisting my own attempts to organise and tell a good story and obey the rule of Chekhov’s Gun.

Perhaps Chekhov’s gun simply doesn’t apply to games, I will freely acknowledge that I have no practical solution to this problem, and indeed, you might disagree with me that it even is a problem.

I think that, were Chekhov still around today, he would either be an obsessive, completionist player or he would stop believing his own rule. I can just imagine him saying about all 200+ briefcases that, “If they put it in the game, it needs to be collected!” But the problem as I see it is that when we as the player are forced into acting in a specific way like this (or face compromising the narrative integrity) then we are dominated by ‘the story’ and must obey it – even if it that ‘story’ makes for a really, really boring narrative! (Who after all really wants to read about a guy collecting 200-odd briefcases of diamonds? Where’s the story in that?)

Moving right along – Qurbani went to go meet Michelle at someplace called ‘lakeside’ which didn’t seem upon arrival to be in close proximity to any lakes. Taking a boat, I reached my stop (don’t worry – the soldier is just sleeping).

In the Safehouse, Michelle tells me to go and kill the king who’s gold the UFLL are after and to collect his signet ring so that the King’s son can skip the country and get access to the swiss bank accounts. I decide to take a slightly subtle approach to the fort where the king is hiding and slink up under the cover of darkness. I scout some snipers on the ramparts and take them out first, continuing my journey up to the fort along a track that brings my up to a back entrance to the fort.

On my way, I alert the guards and it’s on for young and old. Crouching at the corner of a wall, I wait for a soldier to appear, hearing his footsteps approaching. Even though I knew he was coming my reaction time was not quick enough to prevent him getting off a shotgun blast, the brunt of which slammed into the wall beside my head.

Inside the walls of the fort I made a dash for the tower in which the King was residing. Upon reaching him, I finished him off with a shot from my flare gun – leaving a trail of burnt corpses is becoming a bit of a trademark of mine.

I also noticed that he is a very fair skinned King compared to his son, a fact that I noticed when I gave his son the ring. Maybe his mother had a darker complexion? Or maybe he wasn’t really the king’s son! We may never know. I handed the ring over anyway.

Then it was time to go save Michelle and find the buried treasure. I took the sturdier of the two Jeeps the son-formerly-known-as-Prince left as a gift for me. I ended up parking it next to the hole down which I had to climb to reach the treasure to use as cover.

It came quite in handy and I had to revive Michelle after the fight. Tempting, so very, very tempting…

Back to Pala I went to start the second last mission for the UFLL, continuing my inexorably march to the scary part of the game where I would be without a buddy – the inter chapter section. For this mission, Greeves sent me into the jungle to blow up some pumps on a farm the APR were protecting so some multinational corporation could “mess with the ecosystem” as he put it.

When I caught up with Michelle, she sent me into a chemical plant and retrieve some super-defoliant. I started a lot of fires to get it.

I dropped the big canister off with Michelle at the airport – she had some harebrained scheme where she was going to spray the stuff all over the farm to deny the soldiers their cover. I couldn’t see how this could possibly work. I took a circuitous route from the airport in the south up to the farm in the central-east section of the map, stopping off to see this crashed Cesna 150.

I also had another minor car accident…

Followed by another…

I picked up some silenced weaponry at the armoury on the way and crept into the farm with a silenced MP5, Flare Gun and RPG. In hindsight, not exactly a super sensible load out but I wanted to try and destroy the pump from far, far away with an RPG. Unfortunately I had to get rather close to the pump before I landed a direct hit enough to disable it, just in time to hear Michelle’s light aircraft go flying overhead, defoliant streaming out the back.

I could practically taste the carcinogens and I wanted to hold my breath. The stuff must have been super-strong because it worked fast. As Michelle’s plane disappeared into the distance I heard the sound of far off anti-aircraft fire and hoped she was okay.

I quickly ran out of ammunition, my weapon load out coming back to bite me in the butt. I couldn’t find any loose on the ground even as the guards kept coming, so I swapped my MP5 for a rusty old Homeland shotgun (as you can see above). Thankfully, the thing was practically unstoppable.

Michelle called to let me know she had been shot down and that soldiers were closing in. I hurried to her and came upon her crashed plane first, with the sound of machine gun fire coming from a small depression to the south-west.

There looked to be just one soldier nearby and he had her in his sights. I fired a flare gun hoping to either distract him or perhaps score a lucky direct hit. I misjudged my aim and it bounced off the trunk of a fallen tree and landed in the grass, starting a fire perilously close to Michelle. I swapped to my grimy, mud-encrusted shotgun and prayed the slugs would fire. They did, and he went down.

Tired of being the Knight in Shining armour for the N-th time, I headed off to a safehouse for a nap.

That was Episode 4 of Permanent Death – thanks for sticking with it. I should mention that in the space between my last episode and this one another blogger has started a Perma-Death game and reached it’s conclusion. Elliott Richard’s tale can be read here. Also, if you somehow missed it, Far Cry 2’s lead creative director Clint Hocking wrote some lovely things about Permanent Death and you should absolutely go read it – that man is the future of gaming or I’ll eat my hat.


Grey_Ghost said...

Wow, your sniper rifle in pic 20 sure is worn out. I really enjoy reading your exploits. Would be really unfortunate should you die.

Chris Hyde said...

Now I'm secretly hoping Clint Hocking fails as the future of gaming so we get to enjoy Youtbe videos of you eating your hat.

Ben Abraham said...


Jay Alderton said...

Dude, awesome work. I'm starting up a Permanent Death blog of my own over at playing as Marty Alencar. It's very bare so far but you can check it out if you're interested.

Really looking forward to more exploits from our good friend Quarbani Singh!

Elliott Richards said...

Wow! Thank you very much mentioning my blog, and my very untimely death!

This blog was really good, and I love the mission you just completed where the Plane flies overhead, to poison the plants.

I simply must point out how undeniably more interesting the Faction missions are if you simply do your Buddy's subverted quest.

Great Job.

Anonymous said...

Excellent posts, Ben. I'm impressed with how you have produced a very cool narrative from the bare elements that the game provided to you. You are creating the gameplay experience rather than just having the game pull your strings. Also, you successfully put into words many of the sensations and emotions I felt as I played FC2 the first time.

I remember one nighttime mission early in the game. I was sneaking through the dense jungle canopy trying to avoid the enemy patrols that were out there somewhere. I happened upon a lonely ramshackle hut that was in the middle of nowhere with a rotting corpse lying in a ditch nearby. I heard myself saying, "Shit, I don't want to die like that poor motherfucker in this fucking strange land where no one would know or care how I died."

That is the tragedy of a mercenary’s existence. FC2 captured the mood perfectly.

Clint Hocking is a genius, and I don’t throw that term out lightly. Between his posts, which are always fascinating, I hope he is finding the time to finish FC3. I cannot play another type of FPS after having been spoiled by FC2. Anything else would be like going from Miles Davis to …Kenny G.

Anonymous said...

It's funny your attitude about the Pala diamonds. I was the opposite. Not being able to resist any challege (if it's in the game, it could be done, hence it should be done), the guarded diamonds were always the first ones I picked up after having my diamond tracker activated. You won't get shot if the guards don't notice your opening the briefcase. I have walked past several Pala guards many times with a shit-eating grin on my face after I had stolen their loot.

Baggie said...

Quite interesting reading about the treasure mission, in my particular playthrough I was with Josip, and we had a particularly EXPLOSIVE fight after I tagged the treasure. But he went down, and after 3 Vials he overdosed and died.

While it was notable I felt some remorse for a videogame character, it was all remakably poetic. After all we were going after an enourmous treasure, the biggest achievement so far, but he couldn't quite make it out. Hell, I wasn't sure it wasn't scripted until your buddy there didn't die.

Anyway, good work.

Web Designing Karachi said...

Cool graphics.