Every theory of aesthetics must be able to explain what is commonly known as "The Paradox of Tragedy". The paradox goes as follows: if tragedy causes an unpleasant response in a subject, how is it that we ultimately derive pleasure? Several theories have been posited by philosophers ranging from Aristotle to Hume, but few stand up to serious scrutiny.
However, an essay1 from 1983 published by Susan Feagin entitled The Pleasures of Tragedy introduces a theory which appears to unravel the paradox.
This paper explores how Feagin's theory is useful in understanding unscripted tragic narratives through a critical examination of Ubisoft's 2008 open-world shooter, Far Cry 2.
Response and Meta-Response
Feagin thinks that when we interact with art we experience a 'direct response' and sometimes a 'meta-response'.
A direct response is a response to the qualities and content of an artistic work. For instance, we might laugh at a funny movie or cry at a sad one.
A meta-response is a response to a direct response. For instance, we might feel bad for laughing at a lewd joke or feel virtuous for feeling disgust at the sight of a drunkard.
Assuming we are not callous, Feagin solves the Paradox of Tragedy by positing that though direct responses to unpleasant works are unpleasant, we derive pleasure from a meta-response which "aris[es] from our awareness of, and in response to, the fact that we do have unpleasant direct responses to unpleasant events as they occur." This discovery or reminder is pleasurable because it confirms our sympathy for human beings, our hate for evil, and our common humanity, which also suggests that the aesthetic value of tragedy lies on its moral foundations.
In that light, Feagin's theory can explain why tragedy is commonly considered more significant than comedy: tragedy necessarily deals with serious matters that recognize the importance of morality to human life. If the matters were made less serious, the work would be labeled a comedy and its significance would diminish.
As a brief, but important aside, Feagin acknowledges that her theory relies on the belief that fiction can cause emotional responses. In this respect, she adopts the position of Ralph Clark, who posits that "emotional responses are the result of entertaining counterfactual conditionals". In other words, a subject can feel an emotional response from fiction by suspending disbelief. If a subject cannot suspend disbelief, there can be no meta-response, which can explain why highly moral people might remain unmoved by poorly performed tragedy and vice-versa.
Tragedy and Video Games
When Feagin published her essay in 1983, Nintendo has only just published Mario Bros.. Do modern video games reveal anything new about the usefulness or limits of Feagin's theory of tragedy?
If we limit our discussion to conventional video games, the answer is mostly "no". Like most new mediums, video games have largely emulated their predecessors and failed to make use of their unique interactive nature. Narrative in video games is almost always either absent or it is strictly separated from gameplay through the use of non-interactive sequences (typically cutscenes).
However, there are a number of games today that have been exploring how the video games can be used to create new forms of narrative and meaning. Far Cry 2 is one such title.
Led by the creative vision of Clint Hocking5, the man responsible for the creative success of Splinter Cell and Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, the developers of Far Cry 2 diverged from the traditional route of making a game supported by narrative and instead they attempted to create a narrative supported by gameplay.
To this end, they attempted to construct a highly immersive make-believe universe that would lead the player to commit heinous acts in the service of a greater good. The goal was to encourage the player to explore themes similar to those present in Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness interactively.
What makes Far Cry 2 interesting to us is that, though it explores significant moral themes, there is little narrative to speak of nor tragic hero to pity. Can Feagin's theory still help us understand it?
Before we answer that question directly, we need to establish that, in fact, Far Cry 2 evokes emotional responses from its players. If it cannot or does not do so, then it does not meet the criteria for Feagin's theory to apply.
Feagin adopts the position of Ralph Clark when explaining how fiction can evoke emotional responses. She assumes that "emotional responses are the result of entertaining counterfactal conditionals". In other words, fiction must immerse the subject to evoke an emotional response.
Can video games immerse their subject? If so, how?
As a matter of brevity, the question of whether or not video games can immerse their subjects I will consider self-evident. On the other hand, the question of how to create an immersive experience is still a subject of research. Nevertheless there are generally accepted techniques for immersion that are useful to point out in order to understand how and to what degree Far Cry 2 immerses the player.
In theory, a perfect simulation of reality would be perfectly immersive. But faced with limited computational resources, designers must remove inessential aspects of the simulation and request a certain amount of imagination on the part of the player. Will Wright, creator of The Sims, describes the problem as such:
Especially right now with current technology, there are a lot of limitations in terms of what we can do with character simulation. So, to me that seemed like a really good use of the abstraction because there are certain things we just cannot simulate on a computer, but on the other hand that people are very good at simulating in their heads. So we just take that part of the simulation and offload it from the computer into the player's head... So you know, it's parallel processing of a sort.
If we accept Wright's statement, then we conclude that the more abstract a game is, the more "processing" it must ask of the player. In that sense, we might conclude that games that want to be highly immersive games should depict highly accurate depictions of reality.
In that sense, we note that few games try to be immersive: most deliberately involve elements of the supernatural or science fiction, gratuitous violence, or abstract game interfaces.
Far Cry 2, on the other hand, makes an exceptional effort to be immersive.
Realism in Far Cry 2
Along with the game, the developers of Far Cry 2 built an entirely new game engine2 to animate the player's world. To fully appreciate its complexity is practically impossible through playing alone. Many details are hard to notice statically, and many require complex interactions between game elements. Though there is no explicit division in the engine, for clarity, I will divide the simulation of the universe into three parts: simulation of the world, simulation of others, and simulation of the avatar.
Simulating the world
There is a lot of evidence to suggest that simulating the world realistically was a very important goal in the development of Far Cry 2.
For one, we know a significant amount of effort was spent on enhancing the "Dunia Engine" which animates the game world. One developer, Jean-Francois Levesque,6 spent a year making fire burn realistically.7 Another developer spent three years on the vegetation system.6 And a group of the developers traveled to Kenya to compare their simulation with the real thing.
Second, we note how believably the game world manifests itself: the ambient sounds, the dynamic weather, the visible degradation of guns over time and with use, the presence of wildlife, and the passage of time from day to night. Tree branches and grass sway in the wind and in response to explosions.
Furthermore most of the world is highly destructible. Besides the explosive barrels littered around and most things being flammable, the ability to destroy things extends to individual tree branches which can be split off from trees via bullets or explosions.8
One aspect of Far Cry 2's game world that draws a lot of attention is its realistic propagation of fire.9
It's hard to know all of the details, but from interviews we know that it's spread is affected by a number of conditions, including the direction of the wind, the humidity of the environment (which is affected by the fauna and whether or not it has rained recently), and the slope of the ground (fire burns faster going uphill than downhill). Furthermore, we notice that objects on fire burn in sections, and that if a burning object falls into water, only the submerged part of the object will extinguish.
Another impressive aspect of the world of Far Cry is the believable behavior of its inhabitants.
For instance, enemies have noticeable relationships with each other. They talk casually, yell commands at each other, and hurl taunts at the player. (There are some 100,000 words of dialog such that hearing repeated dialog in a single playthrough is highly unlikely.4)
Tactically, enemies behave believably as well. Against sniper attacks, they dash to find cover and hide indefinitely. If the player incapacitates an enemy non-lethally, his companions will try to rescue him and take him to cover. If the enemies lose track of the player, they will spread out and procedurally comb the area they last saw the player. And, when attacking, enemies coordinate to constantly expose the player's cover.
If an enemy notices a startled animal, he will investigate to see what startled it (which can often foil a stealthy approach). Other times, an enemy will leave his post to stalk and kill an animal himself.
Enemy behavior is also noticeably different depending on the environment. For instance, during the night enemies tend to be more alert and during the day they tend to be more relaxed. If the player attacks with fire, enemies will largely ignore fighting the player until they ensure their own safety.
Simulating the Avatar
In most games, when the player takes an action, like opening a door, the action completes without the avatar animating to take it. The player must imagine that the action does not happen on its own. In the case of doors, the player must imagine it doesn't open on its own.10
In Far Cry 2, this is not the case. When the player take an action, his avatar animates to take it in the game world. In the case of doors, the avatar physically turns the knob and opens it.
It's not just doors though. When entering or exiting vehicles, the avatar physically climbs in or out-- there is no teleporting the camera.
When the player wants to consult a map, the avatar uses an in-game paper map, rather than some kind of menu. To scout, the avatar uses a compass and monocular.
When aiming, there is no aiming reticule to guide the player. Instead, he must shoot from the hip or look down the sights.
When the avatar heals himself, he physically fixes his wound. For small wounds, the avatar might use a small syringe or a bandage, but for more grievous wounds the avatar might dig shrapnel out of his knee or pop a dislocated limb back into location.11
The lack of cutscenes, the minimal interface, and the heavy use of animation is not accidental. The avatar purposefully never speaks. The healing animations are deliberately shocking. The designers very intentionally tried to create a close bond between the avatar and the game world reasoning that it would result in an equally visceral connection between the player and the game world.
While it is of course impossible to guarantee that the player, the subject, will suspend his disbelief, it is at least evident that immersion was an important goal.12 To what extent can we say the developers were successful?
There is of course no way to measure how deeply a player is immersed. Nevertheless, we can make some guesses from the anecdotal responses that appeared after the game was published.
One man was so moved that he replayed the game and wrote a 300 page diary of his experience.
Another, Trent Polack, a senior game designer, calls Far Cry 2 his "Game of the Decade" for compelling him "to write about it in ways that I simply don't for most games" after telling a story3 from the perspective of himself in the game world.
Another, Tom Bissel, author of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, describes a particular gripping emotional moment in his book:
At one point in Far Cry 2, I was running along the savanna when I was spotted by two militiamen. I turned and shot, and, I thought, killed them both. When I waded into the waist-deep grass to picuk up their ammo, it transpired that one of the men was still alive. He proceeded to plug me with his side arm. Frantic, and low on health, I looked around trying to find the groaning, dying man, but the grass was too dense. I sprinted away only to be hit by a few more of his potshots. When I had put enough distance between us, I lobbed a Molotov cocktail into the general area where the supine, dying man lay. Within seconds I could hear him screaming amid the twiggy crackle of the grass catching fire. Sitting before my television, I felt a kind of horridly unreciprocated intimacy with the man I had just burned to death.
From Comedy to Tragedy
According to Feagin, the difference between comedy and tragedy is that while both deal with unpleasant subject matter, comedy only evokes a direct response because it deals with subject matters that are judged insignificant. Feagin goes on to say that if it were the case that the matters were judged of great significance, it would be "saddening rather than amusing that people were subject to such flaws".
In this respect, Far Cry 2 faces some difficult obstacles.
At least in American culture, video games are deemed insignificant (and therefore, quite unintuitively, comedies), even if they deal with significant matters like death.
The problem is only made more difficult when we consider that the scripted narrative exists only to encourage the player to write his own, in which, unusually, the player is both the author and the protagonist. To establish its significance, Far Cry 2 needs to make the player tell a story where he is the tragic hero.
The way the developers solved this problem is, in my opinion, incredibly clever. Far Cry 2 gives the player a variety of morally-abhorrent authorial blocks and a morally upright purpose, and then it proceeds to slowly undermine the player's purpose. If and when it succeeds, like Othello just after killing Desdemona, the player will discover his tragic fault.
At first, Far Cry 2 may seem like a stereotypical shooter.13
The game takes place in a imaginary central African country that is in a state of anarchy and civil war. Two factions, the United Front for Liberation and Labour (UFLL) and the Alliance for Popular Resistance (APR), battle for control, fueled on by an elusive arms dealer known as 'the Jackal'.
The player enters the universe as a mercenary with no backstory.14 All we know is that he has recently arrived and with orders to find and kill the Jackal:
The target's presence in the state continues to be a destabilizing influence. He is largely responsible for the recent influx of weapons into the country in clear violation of the Joint Signatory Framework. His reputation as a dangerous arms dealer is well-deserved. Orders are to terminate.
The player meets the Jackal at the beginning of the game after passing out from malaria. Waking up in a hotel and unable to move, the Jackal, revealed as an older American man, reads aloud the player's orders and recites some lines from Nietzche in his disgust. He spares the player's life, but not long after he leaves, explosions rock the player from his bed and the game begins.
After escaping to safety, what the player does is largely up to him.
To be sure, there are a number of sub-tasks that the player must do. All are generic and uninteresting. They invariably involve taking contracts from local militia, weapons vendors, mercenary "buddies", or anonymous voices behind cellphones, and then killing someone or blowing something up.
How the player completes these quests though is entirely left to the player. And each time the player must surmount a number of obstacles posed by the world and his enemies.
Man versus environment
The conflict between man versus environment is always present.
Much of the game is actually not spent fighting despite its nature as a shooter. Instead, much of the game involves running, swimming, driving, and boating to the next target or the next contract. Between the extremely violent conflicts, the game is unusually peaceful.15
However, while the game world frequently evokes a sense of awe, it is stained with a certain amount of grit and terror. Alex Amancio, the art director of Far Cry 2 sums it up cleanly:
While Crysis went for a hyper realistic style, a tropical island setting and an obvious sci-fi feel, Far Cry 2 plunges into something grittier and more primal. Our game changes the setting drastically and leads the player to a stylized, gritty, low tech universe where the player is forced to get down and dirty. Everything in the game is built around this principle and the universe is ever evolving on all fronts; from the destructibility, to the dynamic time of day and weather system, to the vehicles that you drive and the guns that you shoot that get dirtier, older and end up malfunctioning, Far Cry 2 is built around a living universe.
And indeed, it shows. While in most games, everything "just works", in Far Cry 2, almost nothing does. Guns are unreliable and misfire at the worst moments (and if it's a rocket, you had better run). Vehicles move slowly and frequently break down. Fires suddenly change speed and direction with the wind. Malaria can at any moment bring the avatar to his knees.
The in-game objects are also just terribly boring. There are no fancy cars or alien weapons. You use a rotting jeep to get around. A machete, a rusty assault rifle, and an RPG do your dirty work. Everything has its purpose and there is no pleasure from using them.
The summed effect is a mix of aloneness, self-reliance, frustration, and estrangement.
Man versus man
Man versus man is no less brutal. Again, there are no fantastic aliens or magic creatures to battle-- your enemies are men like yourself.
As the player progresses, the game gets increasingly difficult resulting in only more brutality. As enemies increase in number and acquire better equipment, the player's ability to experiment is reduced, his actions take on significance, and he is forced to become efficient and ruthless.
The player adapts by learning guerrilla tactics. He trades his machine gun for a sniper rifle and his grenades for IEDs. He learns to scout using his map and monocular. He learns how to move without being detected and how to attack at night. He learns to control fire. He learns to shoot to wound. Killing becomes second nature.16
As all of this is happening, the game steadily works to undermine the player's moral purpose. This is done through a reputation system, called Infamy, which tracks the player's cruelty.
There's this notion that Infamy is this sort of the big counter under the hood that's driving the story to unfold in different ways. And the way I build my Infamy is by pulling the trigger. And by choosing to pull the trigger in a certain way, I can accelerate my growth of my Infamy. I can be a more cruel human being. - Patrick Redding, Narrative Designer of Far Cry 2
As the player becomes increasingly violent, the world around him changes. The men in the ceasefire zones, once rowdy and loud, begin to whisper when the player gets close and apologize if the player bumps into them. When under attack, enemy shouts, once taunting the player, take on a tint of genuine fear.
It's not just the setting though. Infamy has meaningful consequences.
Eventually - depending on how you play - your infamy will become so apparent that the Underground will stop trusting you and will refuse to provide you with medicine. At that point, your health will start to fall and your malaria will start to worsen, and you will be forced to be even more ruthless and cold-blooded in order to press your advantage and complete your mission before you succumb completely to your disease.
It is of course impossible to guarantee that the player will notice these changes. (And many reviewers did not.) But if and when he does, the tragic irony of the atrocities he has committed in the name of killing a villain manifests itself to the player. The player, once taking pleasure in the efficiency with which he conquered his enemies, suddenly feels ashamed. The narrative reaches its climax, and Far Cry 2 completes its transformation from comedy to tragedy, revealing itself as a modern-day Trojan Horse.
The rest of the game is comparatively lackluster. The player resumes his hunt for the Jackal until the final act, which mandatorily ends with the betrayals, murders, and suicides involving every major character.
Now we can return to our original question: does Feagin's theory still hold?
For the most part, yes.
At the moment the player realizes his mistake, he feels an immediate sense of shame. He looks at the pleasure he derived from his violence and he feels disgust. At the same time, he transforms into the tragic hero. He does take disgust with himself for his actions, and in that sense he feels a certain amount of pleasure. There is, at least for a split-second, a meta-meta-response.
Where Feagin's theory does not work so well though is in attempting to understand a game like Far Cry 2 as a moral or immoral work.
Far Cry 2, despite exploring moral themes, is ultimately amoral. Though it may seem immoral in many respects--it does after all reward the player with diamonds for causing chaos--it never approves nor disapproves of the player's actions. The only moral influences that we might detect lie in obscure references to Nietzche and Joseph Conrad's 1899 novel The Heart of Darkness. But like Far Cry 2, neither have a moral message. Judgment is left to the player.
Far Cry 2 is really just a giant sandbox with moral elements that can be used to construct a morally significant narrative. Patrick Redding expresses the point clearly:4
So when we say, yeah, we want to make a game that's about one man's journey down the proverbial river into the heart of darkness, into the mind of a madman, what are the things that we can put in the game, what are the ingredients we can put in the game that support that? What are the kinds of characters, the kinds of environments that we want to try to create that will help support that?
Ultimately at a certain point we have to be willing to let those things go and kind of give control over those things to the player. But I think one of the things we did is we said, "Well, one kind of overriding question we want the player to be asking themselves is, 'How far are you willing to go in order to do the right thing?'" In other words, how much bad stuff are you willing to do, how much of your soul are you willing to sacrifice, in the pursuit of a larger good?
And it's important to say that we're not trying to take a position on that. We're not trying to say, "Oh, the trouble with people today is they're not willing to do really terrible, evil, monstrous things in order to accomplish the greater good." This isn't like some neocon wet dream, right? The idea is that we don't pretend like we know the answer.
We just say, let's take the player as close as we can - or an analog of the player - put him into this really, really difficult position, a terrible situation that probably most of us would like to avoid if we could, and try to get him to make decisions in a way that will help him survive, that will help him pursue his larger goals, that will allow him to potentially change those larger goals if he decides that he doesn't believe in them anymore, and to be able to deal with characters and situations on a case by case basis. In other words, give him the freedom to fuck up, give him the freedom to have a moment of triumph, or a moment of weakness, or moments of regret.
As a brief aside, the role of amoral art is an interesting one. If we accept the premise that art has a role in moral education, it would seem that Far Cry 2 has done something entirely novel: letting its subject derive his morality from first-hand experience.
Unlike a horror movie, where one may feel disgust for empathizing with the killer as he kills his victim, Far Cry 2 lets us feel the emotion directly, requiring us to pull the trigger. Resulting feelings are not only different, but they require less imagination and can be more real.
Furthermore, if we accept that Far Cry 2 truly immerses the player, that the subject does in fact believe he is the character he portrays, then we can see that video games have the potential to evoke emotions in players that other artworks cannot, namely, shame and its opposite, pride. Arguably, Far Cry 2 has pioneered what could become a new method of moral education.
And despite being an amoral work, we nevertheless can see that it leads to proper moral education. Assuming morality is defined objectively, one can be taught by simply being given the opportunity to experiment in a safe environment.
Susan Feagin's solution to the Tragedy of Paradox still appears useful despite the emergence of entirely new forms of narrative. We have seen this by exploring a modern work by Ubisoft called Far Cry 2, which uniquely sets its subject up to create a tragedy where the subject is the tragic hero. Though Feagin would be unable to classify the work as either moral or immoral, it is undeniable that Far Cry 2 has demonstrated video games can have a unique role in future moral education.