The image being used to promote Far Cry 4 is one of a light-skinned blond person about to kill a brown-skinned person while defacing a religious icon. The blond is sitting on a statue that resembles Buddha, with his foot on its disembodied head. When I showed this to my mother, a scholar and professor of post-colonial literature, she reminded me that she taught me never to step on books when I was a child, because the feet are the lowest part of the body, and we mustn’t offend Sarasvati, the goddess of learning.
This is where I must, of course, begin to explain how I exist. If you’ve read other pieces of writing where I’ve identified as black, I’m sorry to ruin this racial myth for you—my mother is an Indian woman. She was born in India, to an Indian mother and father. She moved to California when she was seven. She met my dad, a black man from Selma, Alabama, in college. You know, where people meet. I identify as black because my father is black. I identify as Indian because my mother is Indian.
The two cultures aren’t completely divorced from each other, though. My parents ended up where they were when they met through colonialism and the ways in which the desire for empire has shaped the world. My father would not have been born in Selma had Africa not been stripped of its natural resources and its population not been sold as chattel. My mother would not have met him had her father, born under British rule, not moved to America to liberate himself. I am the human embodiment of “the other,” the boogeyman of the Western world. Turns out, the other has as many strong opinions about videogames as someone from the Occident.
I’m sure that the character pictured in the Far Cry 4 image is meant to be a villain, but the way he is portrayed still romanticizes imperial power. Colonialism, the practice of conquering countries and economically exploiting them, and imperialism, the ideology driving that practice, are things that weigh heavily on my mind whether I want it to or not. In this image, I see a gross attempt to appeal to a modern desire for a return to empire. Ubisoft Montreal’s design approach to Far Cry 3, as modeled off the Assassin’s Creed series from the same studio, lends itself neatly to an imperial metaphor. You chart and map this island, from outpost to outpost, gazing upon it, declaring it your own. Thus, when I look at the Far Cry 4 box art, I don’t feel as if I am being challenged to take down an oppressor. I feel as if I am being challenged to replace his empire with my own. The blond man, who Creative Director Alex Hutchinson has assured us is not white in a tweet, engages the viewer in a gaze that almost challenges them to a duel, sitting on a self made throne over a panoramic view of the Himalayan mountains. From this vantage point, he himself is taller and grander than them. This image isn’t about liberation—it’s about conquest. Videogames, particularly first person shooters, deal in a visual language of power fantasies. To own an empire is to power fantasies as Miles Morales is to Peter Parker—the ultimate form.
I do appreciate Hutchinson’s tweet for its sentiment of appeasing the outraged, although the nature of Twitter makes it easy to read passive aggressiveness into almost anything. Saying “just so it’s clear for those jumping to conclusions: He’s not white and that’s not the player” doesn’t read as hostile, but seems a little defensive. It’s a pretty easy conclusion to jump to that a character is white when they are fair-skinned and blond. In fact, his status as a person of color is something that will have to be clarified in narrative—as a still image, that animated person reads as white. Most likely, Hutchinson is trying to clarify as much as he can when the game is so far away from release, and I understand that there is no way that they can give us much more information than they have given. And yet, this is an image clearly meant to provoke. I have been provoked. Getting defensive about creating a reaction when you clearly want one is dishonest.
But moreover, Hutchinson’s declaration that this man isn’t white seems a strange detail to add. While my mother thinks, “you’d either have to be a newborn or lobotomized to believe it,” I have a little more faith. That guy, I guess, could be a person of color. It’s just that I think it falls into an Orientalist trap if he is, in actuality, not white. In a summary of his own work, Edward Said writes in The Nation, “The general basis of Orientalist thought is an imaginative geography dividing the word into two unequal parts, the larger and ‘different’ one called the Orient, the other, also known asour world, called the Occident or the West. ...It is interesting that even when the Orient has uniformly been considered an inferior part of the world, it has always been endowed both with far greater size and with a greater potential for power than the West.” The image I have gone to great lengths to describe repeatedly is uncomfortable if the man pictured is white, but something else completely if he isn’t. The only information we know about this blond is that he is “a despotic self appointed king.” It’s a clumsy and tone deaf handling of a colonialist narrative if that king is a white guy, but if he isn’t white it’s yet another narrative of the Eastern world producing horrors that could not have arisen anywhere else. He is yet another fictional feudal despot from the Orient. He’s Fu Manchu, he’s Marvel’s Mandarin, he’s Ming the Merciless, he’s all the evidence that the West needs to prove that the Orient is inherently “other”: Inferior and savage, a powerful threat to the enlightened West. At this point in time, the narrative that is presented by Ubisoft, and the few bits of information they’ve given us about this game, present a narrative that is well established as Orientalist and harmful. To paraphrase Joseph Conrad, we must exterminate the brute.
Apparently we now live in a post-colonial world, although we should probably mention that to Puerto Rico. However, that doesn’t mean that colonialism and imperialism doesn’t affect us anymore, especially not in North America. We should, of course, deal with this uncomfortable fact in fiction. That is a function that fiction serves—helping us deal with the things that don’t make sense, helping us experience places that we have never been and things we have never seen. It’s just that Ubisoft Montreal’s presentation of the way they plan to deal with those themes is poorly handled at best, and a clear example of Orientalist thinking at worst. The world looks different because of the quest for empire, and I wouldn’t exist if it didn’t drive my ancestors to be displaced from their ancestral homes. But what I am saying is this: it does a disservice to those touched by colonialism to use this image to advertise your game, to those related to the oppressors and those related to the oppressed. To tread, yet again, down into a tale of the horrors of the Orient does a disservice to us all.
Gita Jackson writes at xoxogossipgita.tumblr.com and her Twitter is @xoxogossipgita.