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The Cave as Canvas: A Review of Far Cry Primal

Those who remember Banjo-Tooie (2000) with great fondness, as I do, may remember the ceaseless, bitter conflict between the Unga Bungas and the Oogle Boogles. The Unga Bungas are a warlike people, barely more than sentient beards with clubs; they get very mad when you try to sneak into their cave and routinely administer “big beatings.” The Oogle Boogles, by contrast, are meek and civilized, aspiring not to rule Terrydactyland but to “share” its primeval abundance. Banjo and Kazooie find the Oogle Boogles starving to death in a dark cave, blockaded by their tyrannical rivals. They are clearly the weaker tribe. But you give them dirty hamburgers from WitchyWorld and it becomes clear that they, not the Unga Bungas, will be the inheritors of the earth.

Far Cry Primal is basically everything I just described, without a whole lot of irony. Which is to say it often feels enormously, almost amazingly stupid. The game places you in the middle of a three-sided conflict between tribes of cave people circa 10,000 BCE. There’s the Unga Bunga-like Udam, a bunch of unregenerate cannibals who have barely mastered tool use and look suspiciously like Neanderthals. There’s the “fire-wielding” Izila, the blue team, somewhat enlightened—they sort of discovered agriculture—but held back by a crazy religion. And then there’s your tribe, the Wenja, who aspire only to make a comfortable home in the land of Oros without having to fend off threats both human and not. The lines are drawn pretty clearly, without much in the way of nuance or narrative variation. The Udam and Izila must be killed. The Wenja must be saved.

UNAPOLOGETICALLY AN EXERCISE IN PROJECTION

Like any Assassin’s Creed, the game is ostentatiously and impressively devoted to period detail: everyone speaks variants of an actual prehistoric language called “proto-indo-European”; outfits and environments look like they were ripped straight out of a diorama in a natural history museum; your arsenal is limited to a bow, a spear, and a club. In practice, almost all of these attempts at Mesolithic realism lead to an experience that feels, paradoxically, much more arcade-like and artificial than other Far Cry games. This is a lavishly detailed caveman simulator that wouldn’t feel out of place stationed inside a plastic Flintstones bone car between Primal Rage (1994) and Daytona USA (1993).

Sure, you’re stuck with those three primitive weapons. But then you get a grocery cart full of ridiculous toys: fire bombs, berserk bombs, bee bombs, a sniper longbow, AI animal helpers, meat that heals you as fast as a BioShock syringe, an owl that can tag enemies and kill one for you every 80 seconds. Sure, the language is anthropologically authentic. But it tends to sound like a more guttural Simlish, delivered by the voice actors with an almost absurd level of gravitas. Sure, on the level of narrative, the game proclaims itself to be about survival in an era of incomplete human dominance. But then it ends up being about clubbing and shooting things, over and over, sometimes with style and strategy, often with neitherit doesn’t help that, as you progress further into the game, enemies become spear/arrow/club-sponges that require a comical amount of effort to bring down. Don’t get me wrong: the game’s ooga-booga whack-whack rhythm can be really satisfying in short bursts. But over the long haul, the game’s sincere commitment to the idea of survival makes you wish for something more like Metal Gear Solid 3 (2004), which does a much better job simulating solitude in the forbidding wilderness even if it tends to place matters of bare necessity within abstract menus.

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At the same time, there’s something weirdly captivating about the way Far Cry Primal brings us into its imaginary prehistory with such a brazen combination of complete seriousness and wacky, self-indulgent artifice. At no point does it pretend that the prehistory it depicts is “real”—i.e., an accurate representation of prehistory itself. Instead, it asks us to see at every turn, with every takedown, that its prehistory contains the essence of Far Cry. It’s unapologetically an exercise in projection that invents prehistory according to a contemporary template, filling in the corners of the primeval past with features from other Far Cry games, as well as the Far Cry worldview. It’s impressively recursive: the game is the 5th in the series, but in a canny way it presents itself as Far Cry Prime, the ur-Far Cry, retroactively justifying everything you do in the other games—all the predation, the nihilistic destruction, the animal genocide—by locating it at the beginning of things, in nature, at the origin point. And in that way, it’s also instructive, maybe despite itself. This is a game that shows us exactly what prehistory tends to be: a canvas of ideological convenience.

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Last year, I took one of my classes to the American Museum of Natural History. Like everybody else, we were there, primarily, to see dinosaurs. But we were also there to see the lingering traces of Victorians—the 19th and early 20th century figures who had built, funded, and designed the Museum as a reflection of their own worldview. We learned about Henry Fairfield Osborn, an early president of the Museum who put together maximally violent dinosaur exhibits in the hope that they might combat “effeminacy” in young boys. We saw remnants of the Museum’s previous life as a display case of colonial power. We saw remnants of the racism of its initial curatorial premises: the idea that there was one human culture, not many, and the Museum was a place where one could see previous, inferior versions of it through the plate glass of scientific detachment.

We also saw animals that were often, beneath their carefully taxidermied surfaces, a lot more human than they seemed. Our tour guide was an amazingly knowledgeable Upper West Side native who’d grown up around the block and seen the Museum change enormously, despite the epochal solidity of its columns. At one point he paused in front of a diorama of four Indian tigers—a mama, a papa, and two cubs. “As you can see here,” he said, in his thick Billy Crystal accent, “we have the nuclear family.”

Memo,” he went on: “Tigers are solitary.”

A CANVAS OF IDEALOGICAL CONVENIENCE

Meanwhile, tigers are abundant in Far Cry Primal, along with cave lions, cave bears, woolly mammoths, woolly rhinos, massive elk, and rare or “legendary” versions of all of the above. Playing the game is like putting your face up to a firehose of charismatic megafauna: roughly every 10 seconds, you hear the drumbeat of combat and a major zoo-grade predator runs out of the bushes and bites you in the face. But these animals are a lot like those sitcom-family heteronormative tigers, domesticated ideologically even as they appear savage and untamed. They present themselves—always present themselves—as recurring examples of a few basic truths that Far Cry wants to convey to the player, even if it does so with a little bit of a Ron Swanson wink. Predators are the only animals that matter. Masculinity means being able to kill them before they kill you. Being one with nature, being “natural,” means assuming the human’s rightful place at the head of a hierarchical kingdom.  

Again, a lot of this feels tongue-in-cheek. But the thing about Far Cry Primal is that it shapes and contours prehistory to fit even its own brand of irony. It shapes and contours prehistory to fit every aspect of itselfwhich makes it much more than a reskinned Far Cry 4 (2014), even if it often feels like one. The basic gameplay loop of the series somehow becomes the daily rhythm of Mesolithic life: early humans apparently spent a huge amount of time stalking enemy encampments by themselves, nailing sling headshots like King David, and sprinting around the wilderness until they could find a very specific clay needed to fully upgrade Dah’s hut. And the games’ overall sensibility—perhaps best described as Reservoir Dogs (1992) meets the TV series Vikings—somehow becomes the sensibility of that distant world. That sensibility is kind of ironic: the games are always prone to gleeful moments of nihilistic violence; they’re obsessed with presenting better and more colorful psychopaths. But it’s ironic only to a point.

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Caveman image via Wikimedia.

In one cutscene, for example, we encounter the aforementioned Dah in his hut, freaking out because he has some sort of migraine-like condition he has dubbed “skull fire.” “Open Dah’s head to get rid of skull fire!” he commands, and you oblige: wielding your rock-knife like a chisel, you tap some bloody little holes into his head, each yielding one of the game’s many bone-crunch sound effects. Instead of passing out from the head trauma, Dah laughs gleefully and grabs you in a manly embrace: this, clearly, is a moment of brotherhood.

On the one hand, violence is funny. On the other hand, masculinity—expressed through ceaseless rituals of becoming-man—is deeply, powerfully important. On the other other hand, you wouldn’t be having this cheerful interaction in the first place if Dah, a former Udam chieftain, hadn’t conceded your dominance. Dominance is more important than anything. That combination of nihilism, masculinism, and pseudo-Darwinism is Far Cry in a nutshell, and Primal does a surprisingly effective and plausible job placing it at the bedrock of the everyday struggles of Mesolithic humans—and therefore, by extension, the human experience.

What’s interesting about this insertion of the present into the deep past is that it’s something we always do. It’s The Flintstones. It’s Terrydactyland. It’s Roland Emmerich’s 10,000 B.C (2008). Even on the level of more serious cultural artifacts, the history of prehistory is a history of interpretations, a history of appropriationsa history, especially, of visions of prehistoric life that tend to cast the caveman as the icon of a fundamental violence, selfishness, or impulsivity in the human breast, forging a connection between anthropological origin and psychological essence. Late 19th and early 20th century psychology and anthropology constantly used the caveman to put a (pre-) human face on the subconscious. In his Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Freud cast primitive man as another version of the child, the neurotic and the “savage,” that creature of impulse that stays with us, deep down in the psyche, even as we consider ourselves unimaginably distant from it. Heart of Darkness (1899), like a lot of other adventure novels before it—many of which anticipate Far Cry—makes the connection explicit: as Marlowe travels deeper into a place of “savagery,” he travels deeper into himself.

AN INSERTION OF THE PRESENT INTO THE DEEP PAST

Other writers have been more inclined to insist that the caveman embodies better, nobler essential qualities. As G.K. Chesterton put it in his 1925 polemic The Everlasting Man:

When the psychoanalyst writes to a patient, ‘The submerged instincts of the cave-man are doubtless prompting you to gratify a violent impulse,’ he does not refer to the impulse to paint in water-colors; or to make conscientious studies of how cattle swing their heads when they graze. Yet we do know for a fact that the cave-man did these mild and innocent things and we have not the most minute speck of evidence that he did any of the violent and ferocious things.

Chesterton anticipates Claude Lévi-Strauss, who insisted in the 1960s that the “savage” was, in fact, the greatest scientist, driven even more than modern scientists to categorize and organize the surrounding world. In a way, he also anticipates Werner Herzog, who spends most of Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011) curbing his usual nihilism in the face of the wonders of cave art. But Far Cry Primal is attached to a longer, more entrenched rhetorical tradition that tends to be much more interested in those “violent and ferocious things” that cavemen did, that we still do. Interested because they can explain us. Interested because they can absolve us.

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At the beginning of The Last Dinosaur Book (1998), a history of the dinosaur as a cultural icon from the mid-Victorian period to the current day, the visual scholar W.J.T. Mitchell raises a weird and useful thought experiment: if aliens were to dig up remnants of our civilization 3,000 years from now, what would they make of our obsession with dinosaurs? Looking at the endless toys, the endless effigies, would they not be compelled to assume that it was an object of worship?

Dinomania ebbs and flows. It’s back again, sort of, thanks to Jurassic World (2015) and the recent unveiling of the Titanosaur. But it may subside again. What remains constant is our investment in the dinosaur as a figure—”the totem animal of modernity,” in Mitchell’s viewwhich we prop up always as a kind of dialectical foil for ourselves. They became extinct; we are still alive. They were ancient; we are modern. They were fearsome; we are cunning. And I think one thing Far Cry Primal makes colossally clear is that the caveman works in much the same way. It transforms  with the changing needs of a modernity searching endlessly, restlessly, for an origin point as well as an opposite—a thing we once were; a thing we cannot be; a thing we want to be anyway because it represents the “natural,” the essential (see, e.g., the paleo diet). The caveman always changes. But in its changes you can see what we need it to be, and that need is more powerful than any idea of ‘essence’ it represents.  

Header image via Flickr.

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