Branching Dialogue: Wild file preservation (and other Far Cry 2 stuff)

Presenting Branching Dialogue, a weekly, wordy and often worryingly pedantic discussion of video game genres, trends and err ... stuff I didn't think to put in this introductory line.

Alright, that's it. After starting, deleting, undoing, regretting and then restarting this opening paragraph numerous times, I'm just going to write things as they tumble out of my brain and work their way down to my fingertips. Far Cry 2 is a struggle. Narratively, mechanically, stylistically, everything about the game is a to-and-fro tug-of-war. And for me, Ubisoft's open-world shooter is a struggle to decode, to disassemble in my mind's eye and discover that one piece that makes everything click into place. But I think I've found that critical cog in the machine -- the relatively limited save system.

Why? Well, now that I've saved that paragraph for the last time, I'm just going to have to figure that out as I go along.

If you're playing Far Cry 2 on the PC, I have a single request: Do not use quicksave! I don't care if you snap an elastic band on your wrist when the urge hits, or detach the relevant function key and hide it under your pillow. Whatever you do, please don't press a button that magically freezes the world, preserving it for your immaculate return should your plan of action diverge from perfection. Far Cry 2 is aggressively opposed to perfection -- it's about conflict, discovery, improvisation and best of all, things going catastrophically wrong.

Though it makes all the practical sense in the world, a gamer's habit of subconsciously pounding the quicksave key, whenever uncertainty rears its nondescript head, renders the game impotent. With a press of a button, you're robbing it of danger and reducing truly memorable moments to ephemeral blips of excitement. If your actions can be undone so easily, wherein lies the achievement of having, well, done them?

This is your hand if I catch you reaching for the quicksave key.

"If your actions can be undone so easily, wherein lies the achievement of having, well, done them?"

Here comes the "Aha!" moment I've been searching for: Far Cry 2 makes me consider consequences. At the very lowest level, I'm worrying about my own preservation. When leaving the protective confines of a safe house (or is that "save" house?), I have to consider my forthcoming foray into the beautifully rendered, violent and volatile landscape of Africa. Here's a thought: I might not make it back. Here's another: My gun might jam or fall apart in my hands. Then what?

Or rather, "Now what?" It's not a question I find myself asking very often, because most games are entirely predictable. You're thrown into a linear tunnel of fun and taught what to do and how to do it. If you learn the crucial lessons and silently obey the designer's instructions (a concept investigated in last year's BioShock), you will make it to the light on the other side. This works for many games -- I can't complain about the cinematic thrill ride of Gears of War 2, for instance -- but not for Far Cry 2. When your perfectly aimed rocket falls right out of the launch tube, sets the surrounding grass ablaze and summons every enemy in the base that you were supposed to wipe out with precision, you just have to wing it.

How you respond to those consequences (hint: buy new weaponry, older stuff can break down!) opens the game to an unparalleled, unexplored experience, one that's all too fitting for the untamed wilderness. There's no going back, not even if you fall and find yourself on the other side of a gaming cliché: getting rescued. The buddies you associate with will leap into action when you've made a mess of things, something that warrants true, emotional gratitude when your last save was over 40 minutes ago. But your incompetence -- or bad luck -- brings with it another terrible consequence. Your buddy might lose everything, including his life.

And here we have "Plan B."

"Can you let yourself go into the wild, knowing that the safety net is gone?"

It's not very often that death in a game is permanent (it's not called a "save" for nothing!), and it's remarkable that, despite his abrasive personality, my first buddy's bullet-riddled corpse left me feeling a tinge of regret. My actions had changed their roles in the overall conflict, every bit as they had changed mine. Every time I worked with them, they pulled me just a little bit closer to my target -- the elusive arms dealer, The Jackal -- and just a little bit closer to things I wouldn't normally have done.

As you near the end of the hunt, you're increasingly tasked with doing more and more monstrous things, like destroying medicine caches and assassinating kings in your quest for victory. Such is the influential nature of Far Cry 2's war-torn Africa. Catching The Jackal -- and to put it bluntly, "beating the game" -- hinges on your ability to adapt and brave the fires that you've helped set. If you take that to mean the literal fires propagated by the game's graphics engine, then that works too.

Can you let yourself go into the wild, knowing that the safety net is gone? If you can, and are willing to embrace the freedom and uncertainty that the game provides, then you'll love Far Cry 2. But if you still find yourself running down that tunnel of fun -- even when it's not there -- and reach for the quickload whenever you don't like what's ahead of you, you're better off locking yourself in the safe house.

Branching Dialogue is written by Ludwig Kietzmann. He regularly writes posts on Joystiq and also wrote the highly narcissistic blurb you're reading right now (well done for making it all the way to the end, by the way). He can be written to by means of this fairly uncomplicated e-mail address:

This article was originally published on Joystiq.