The entertainment industry pities Africa. Hollywood makes touching ?lms about the continent’s pain; Vanity Fair devotes an issue to its problems. So much empathy seeps from our media that some Africans ask us to quit treating them—as Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard Law's Berkman Center for Internet and Society wrote—like a “basketcase.” But the games industry doesn’t have this problem. Games just want to blow the place up.
At this year’s Penny Arcade Expo, Clint Hocking of Ubisoft gave one of the ?rst public demos of Far Cry 2, the sequel to the impressive jungle-island shooter. The new game, for which Hocking is creative director, takes place in a ?ctional African nation plagued by warlords and mercenaries. In his demo, Hocking showed off the game’s intense, lush realism. Bullets rattle off the tin walls of a shantytown. Pick off a mercenary with a sniper ri?e, and you can watch through the scope as his comrade tries to carry him to safety. (In the demo, Hocking shot the comrade as well.) And one of the most effective weapons is ?re: set the wildgrasses alight and the ?ames will spread toward the enemy. In the Q&A, someone ?nally got to the point: “Is it possible to incinerate the entire game world?”
But Hocking doesn’t see Far Cry 2 as a callous shoot-’em-up: he wants you to feel attached to the game, and, specifically, to the people you meet in it. For example, one of your companions is Marty, a tattooed gunner whose life you save early in the game. Keep him around, and he’ll return the favor, saving you when you’re close to death.
Marty’s not alone. The Half-Life series’ greatest technological innovation is Alyx, the female co-star whose behavior becomes more nuanced with each edition of the game. As Lionhead’s Peter Molyneux rolls out his next game, Fable 2, one of the selling points he trumpets is emotional attachment—but instead of a person to work by your side, he gives you a dog. And this year’s almost-surprise hit BioShock is famous for the moral quandary at the heart of the game. You’re confronted with a once-helpless little girl who’s been transformed into a monster, and you have two choices: Do you try to save her? Or kill what’s she’s become—and reap a bigger boost to your stats?
As we learned all the way back to Pong, it’s easier to hook a player with points and tactics than with an emotionally compelling story. Games are inherently a sandbox, and your actions are desensitized by their lack of real-life consequences. When a kid in a racing game drives off the road or over a cliff, it’s not necessarily to enjoy a violent fantasy: the kid is also testing the limits of a fake simulation. And in that simulation, most of us do whatever it takes to win.
But nowadays, thanks to the industry’s ambition, imagination, next-gen consoles and high-end graphics cards, games look and feel like movies. They tell stories—and they want you to care enough to sit through the ending. It’s rare that anyone gets attached to the setting of a game; that’s just something to blow up. And the relationship between players and their own avatars is so complicated, mysterious and erratic that you can't count on how the player's going to feel about the protagonist—or what kind of a protagonist they'll choose to play.
But a dog? A child? An attractive sidekick with a sharp wit and killer aim? These are the kind of characters that keep players enthralled. You can't count on a gamer to care about the welfare of race cars, innocent crowds or even the whole of Africa. But give them a pal, and you might be able to inspire a change of heart—if only because said pal might drag you to safety. Or help you set things on fire.