Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Far Cry 3's Citra Is Straight From the Freakshow

Robert Rath | 28 Feb 2013 12:00
Critical Intel - RSS 2.0

This article contains spoilers for Far Cry 3

There are many admirable things about Far Cry 3. Fearless and fun, I've expressed my appreciation for both its roaming animals and its healing animations. However, there is one aspect that casts a shadow over the whole experience: the game's problematic depiction of the Rakyat, especially during the "Join Citra" ending. Though the writer, Jeffrey Yohalem, claims that the game is a satire that subverts the stereotypes it presents, the Join Citra ending plays into narratives about the Pacific Islands that come not from the real world, but from the racist narratives of the Victorian freakshow.

Before I launch into this critique, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am not accusing Jeffrey Yohalem of being a racist. Though he uses racist narratives in the plot of Far Cry 3, I believe that he was either unaware of their history, or that in using them he hoped the to critique the culture of excess and stereotyping prevalent in many videogames. If it's the former, he should've done his research, if the latter, his reach exceeded his grasp.

As a reminder - or if you didn't play Far Cry 3 and don't mind if I "ruin" the ending - the game begins with Jason Brody and his vacationing friends held captive by a band of pirates. Jason alone escapes into the jungle then passes out, only to awaken in a Rakyat village to find Dennis Rogers tattooing him. Rogers then enlists Jason in the fight against the pirates, bringing him to the licentious priestess Citra who favors Jason, sends him of on a vision quest, sleeps with him and allows him to earn warrior tattoos as he fights the pirates. With the enemies of the Rakyat defeated, Citra offers a (drugged) Jason the chance to stay with her on Rook Island and get the final tattoo - but only if Jason mounts the temple steps and kills his rescued friends and girlfriend with a ritual dagger.

If the player chooses to join Citra, the game moves on to a graphic first-person sex scene that climaxes when Citra stabs Jason to death as part of a ritual to release his spirit and create the ultimate offspring from Jason, the ultimate warrior. "You won," she whispers.

It's ... well, for now let's just call it provocative.

Since the game's release, Yohalem granted several interviews where he tried to contextualize this ending. In all cases, he's stated that the Join Citra ending is a subversion of the Rescue the Princess plotline. "Citra doesn't need to be saved," Yohalem told the Penny Arcade Report. "It's all Jason's idea! Jason conjures up this whole idea that Citra needs saving and he's gonna save her, when in reality it was all a ritual she created to find a sperm donor, and she kills him ... It's like if Princess Peach Stabbed stabbed Mario." Thus, according to Yohalem, Citra is taking revenge on Jason for his misogynistic belief that she's powerless. In the same interview he explained that the game as a whole plays with the "white savior" trope used in movies like Avatar, but while Jason thinks he's the heroic leader of the tribe, in reality he's a political tool for Citra. "Jason is basically a gun, that is upgraded by the natives on the island," Yohalem told Rock Paper Shotgun.

This ending, theoretically, vindicated the extravagances of the rest of the game - reversing the power dynamic and proving that Citra and the Rakyat are in reality powerful and capable, rather than the noble savages Jason perceived. Except it doesn't do that. In fact, it reinforces old, hurtful, and repulsive narratives about Pacific Islanders that have no place in modern media. To understand why, we need to go to an unexpected place - the smoky tents and clapboard frontages of the 19th century freakshow.

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, the display of "human oddities" became a staple of American entertainment. P.T. Barnum, and a host of exhibitionists fashioned in his image, traveled the country selling a glimpse at acts ranging from contortionists and conjoined twins to "pickled punks" - human fetuses preserved in formaldehyde. A "Tattooed Man" was usually part of these exhibits, standing shirtless onstage as a carnival barker hawked the terrible origin of the ink that swirled on his body. The story was always the same, borrowed and adapted from the first professional Tattooed Man, the English sailor John Rutherford. Rutherford first displayed himself in 1828, spinning an exaggerated and ludicrous story of shipwreck, capture by the Māori, forcible tattooing by village women, compulsory marriage to the chief's daughter (or daughters, the story varies), years of captivity and eventual escape back to civilization. The story was a complete fabrication, but it set the mold for other Tattooed Men throughout history. A few years later, an Irishman named James O'Connell cropped up in America telling a similar story of capture and forced inking by savage maidens, but he also upped the ante by selling his fraudulent origin story as a pamphlet. "The third beauty then produced a small flat piece of wood with thorns pierced through one end," O'Connell faux-remembered, "this she dipped in the black liquid, then rested the points of the thorns ... on my hand, and with a sudden blow from a stick, drove the thorns into my flesh."

Sometimes the tattooing was stated to be a forced initiation, but more often it was cast as a form of torture or punishment. Chinese or Malay "barbarians" were commonly cast in the role of torturer, drawing the process out months. Besides cruelty, there was always a sense of ownership and slavery inherent in the narrative. In O'Connell's story this was explicitly stated: the The woman who marked him with the final tattoo thereby married him without his consent. Some scholars have pointed out that the Polynesian tattoo narratives were about the horror of men being unable to protect the integrity of their own body, and a gendered power reversal that casts the captive man as a woman, and the tattooing as a form of symbolic rape. Such narratives played well to British and American crowds who were anxious about the rise of early feminist thought and the effect it might have on the gender landscape. The portrayals were highly racialized as well, both scandalizing and titillating the antebellum public by making them imagine "black savages" keeping white men as slaves. In all cases, the captive white men would eventually escape onto a passing ship - but only after witnessing cannibalism and fathering children ("demi-savages," O'Connell called them) who are fast-tracked into chiefly line of succession due, it's left unstated, to their "superior" white blood.

Comments on