He speaks with a familiar, unnerving sureness. “Men have this idea that we can fight with dignity, that there’s a proper way to kill someone,” says the arms dealer known as the Jackal, the central antagonist of Far Cry 2. “It’s absurd. It’s an aesthetic. We need it to endure the bloody horror of murder. You must destroy that idea, show them what a messy, horrible thing it is to kill a man.”
For all the gruesome, wince-inducing ways that virtual bodies have been designed to meet their demise, the idea that violence can create a bigger kind of mess is one strangely lacking in video games. Not so in Far Cry 2, which depicts the repercussions of killing on both micro and macro scales. Down an enemy in this open-world, first-person shooter, and they may not actually go down. Instead, they’ll convincingly writhe in agony before pulling their sidearm on you. Destroy an entire encampment, and another will simply take its place, respawning because so little—least of all conflict—can be solved with a gun. The world that Far Cry 2 presents, an unnamed African country ripped apart by civil war, is one in which violence seems to have its own libidinal energy. The only way out is to turn a weapon on yourself—to engage in an act of self-annihilation.
Released 15 years ago Saturday, Far Cry 2 is not an easy game to love. Its sub-Saharan setting burns with deep orange hues while also sinking into a swampy morass of muted greens and browns—evocative, if not straightforwardly beautiful. Neither is it a straightforwardly “good time,” but a brutal, sparse experience in which you’re suffering from the effects of malaria. In fact, very little is straightforward about Far Cry 2, a game whose simulationist mechanics paired with its hostile open world caused it to feel like a particularly intense fever dream upon arrival in 2008. It can be slow and tedious before then-cutting-edge fire technology, an AI friendship system, and reactive environments cause it to crackle into capricious life. Just as significantly, Far Cry 2 seeks to disempower the player rather than offer a soothing war hero fantasy, a point reinforced by the game’s grim, morally murky story. It’s as if every system in the game, including the story, is in a feedback loop with everything else. You’re caught in this maelstrom, just trying to survive.
Far Cry 2 boldly pointed toward an alternative future for the first-person shooter, a path that diverged from the jingoistic, popcorn spectacle of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare that had taken the world by storm a year before. For Austin Walker, former editor-in-chief at Vice Media’s gaming vertical, Waypoint, and now IP director at game studio Possibility Space, it was an “affirming” game—not only for him, he opines via video call, but for a cohort of “young critics and developers.” At the time of its release, Walker was 23 years old, living in New York, and working as a trademark researcher while attempting to make his way into games media. For him, Far Cry 2 was a watershed moment, imparting the “sense that you could do real thematic work in the first-person shooter that wasn’t just, ‘Rah, rah—I’m the guy with the gun.’”
This is 2008: Indie games were only just blowing up, and so any questioning of blockbusters was still mostly coming from the inside. “We [were] really bound into the triple-A space discursively,” stresses Walker. But here was Far Cry 2, whose propensity to provoke its audience aligned it more with the arthouse than the mainstream. No wonder Far Cry 2, the sequel to an interesting if hoky 2004 original, charted only 18th in NPD’s software-sales charts for October 2008, way below the likes of Fable II and Fallout 3. By 2009, the game had shipped 2.9 million copies, hardly a bust but far from the megahit that Ubisoft was perhaps hoping for, and which it had scored a year prior with the original Assassin’s Creed (which sold 8 million copies in a comparable time frame). As Walker says, “[Far Cry 2 didn’t have] many fans, but [it had] lots of interest from those fans. A real ‘everyone-who-heard-this-album-started-a-band’ kind of game.”
Chris Remo, who was the editor-at-large of Game Developer (formerly Gamasutra) at the time, and would go on to codesign Firewatch and Half Life: Alyx, recalls how the game’s release coincided with the launch of the Idle Thumbs podcast. Idle Thumbs (which Remo cofounded alongside fellow Firewatch and Alyx developer Jake Rodkin, and which also often featured another Firewatch and Alyx creator, Sean Vanaman) waxed lyrical about the game for years, coining as close to a meme—“grenades rolling down a hill”—as you’re likely to get for the emergent design that Far Cry 2 trailblazed. In the anecdote, Vanaman relates how his AI companion died in a blaze of fire caused by the explosion of his own grenade. It’s emblematic of a game whose systems, says Remo, were “unusually good at generating moments of extraordinary serendipity, tragedy, success, or any sequence of these things, sometimes very rapidly.” What effect did this have on the then 24-year-old? “I felt energized by what it was attempting,” Remo says. “And that significantly outweighed the surface-level challenge of playing it.”
Remo and Walker were far from alone in feeling activated by the game. A new wave of young game critics excitedly interrogated the game’s marriage of politics, hostile design (like its famously jamming weapons), and systems-driven gameplay, subjecting it to the kind of scrutiny reserved for only a hallowed few. One of those select titles was 2007’s BioShock, a creepy sci-fi shooter that doubled as a heady meditation on Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism. Chief among the critics of that game was Clint Hocking, the creative director of Far Cry 2 himself, who in the years prior had built a reputation as a smart, considered public thinker on video games through his blog, Click Nothing. He referred to BioShock as a “disturbing” example of “ludonarrative dissonance,” arguing that its theme of Randian rational self-interest was at odds with its narrative, which charged you with helping another character.
Far Cry 2, then, was Hocking’s answer to the thorniest of conceptual problems, an attempt at creating a cohesive, unified vision of story and systems. In authoring this synthesis, he was putting his own critiques into creative practice (think video games’ own Paul Schrader), all while giving the most switched-on players an inside look at a medium mutating in real time.
BioShock may have been the title that allowed Hocking to articulate “ludonarrative dissonance,” but as he explains on a video call from Ubisoft Montreal’s office, the subject had long been on his mind. The creative director wanted to avoid any vagueness in a game that depicts “a particular kind of a conflict,” one that’s “pretty bleak and pretty sinister.” This was the mid-aughts: The battle of Mogadishu between the United States and Somali forces had taken place not much more than 10 years prior and the Iraq War was lurching from bad to worse, all while films like Hotel Rwanda, The Constant Gardener, and Blood Diamond explored, to various degrees, the effects of Western intervention on developing nations. “We kind of stepped into this,” Hocking says. “It was challenging because you don’t want to make disaster tourism, right? You don’t want to make a game exploring people’s misery and suffering for shits, giggles, and headshots.”
In March 2005, Hocking had just wrapped production on Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, a game on which he’d held three senior positions at once: creative director, lead level designer, and scriptwriter. He was broken by the process but nonetheless satisfied enough with the results to move forward (“I’ll never make a better one than this,” he recalls thinking). Ubisoft had published the first Far Cry and later acquired full rights to the IP, so Hocking switched franchises, assembled a small pre-production team, and started to hash out design ideas. “Very quickly, we decided we wanted to make an open-world, first-person shooter,” he says, stressing the scale of the challenge they were about to embark on: “That had never been done before.”
This genre hybrid—open-world, first-person shooter—became the foundational idea of Far Cry 2. The team looked to both 3-D Grand Theft Auto games and Bethesda’s landmark 2002 first-person RPG, The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind, for inspiration. But the task and design brief that Hocking and his team were wrestling with was unique, one that sought to go beyond the large, open, but nonetheless discrete levels of the original Far Cry and 2007’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. “Can you have a first-person shooter that isn’t a linear, authored, narrative, level-designed experience but that gives you the freedom of these games?” Put another way, is it possible to make a game that “has the momentum of a first-person shooter but takes place in an open world?”
In pursuing this unprecedented design goal, Hocking and his team at Ubisoft Montreal devised a new, stranger form of momentum. This is what struck Tom Bissell, author of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter and a writer for both games and television (including Gears 5 and the upcoming Andor Season 2). Typically, Bissell explains, first-person shooters would follow an intensity waveform: skirmish, skirmish, big battle, skirmish, etc. “You play Far Cry 2 and it’s not like that,” he says. “Just because you made it through a battle doesn’t mean that two more jeeps aren’t just going to roll up. … Suddenly, there’s 90 seconds of the most fucking incredibly intense conflict you’ve ever experienced in virtual form.”
What’s striking about Far Cry 2’s development story, as Hocking tells it, is how quickly the fundamentals of the game coalesced. Africa wasn’t chosen as the game’s setting because the team necessarily wanted to make grand proclamations about colonialism and interventionist foreign policy (other options included the Appalachian Mountains and central China). Rather, they were searching for what Hocking calls an “iconic” setting, something as evocative as the original’s box art, which depicted palm trees, a sandy shore, and blue water. As for mechanics, the “first play” (an internal vertical slice) delivered to Ubisoft executives at Christmas 2006 already contained a working “buddy system,” a handful of missions, jamming weapons, a wound animation, and the player suffering from the debilitating effects of malaria.
The narrative, the glue to bind all these potentially discordant elements, came together even quicker. “I wish it wasn’t so—almost—cliché,” Hocking says. “Even before we settled on Africa, it was apparent that the story of the original Far Cry is The Island of Doctor Moreau—it’s just a retelling. And once we decided to go to Africa, we immediately realized that The Island of Doctor Moreau is almost the same story as Heart of Darkness. … It was an obvious leap, and then we were able to relook at Apocalypse Now and reread the book. It was a kind of map for us.”
For all the laudable grit that Far Cry 2 brings to its conceit—namely, its depiction of civil war as a wretched and oppressive phenomenon—treating Africa as a “composite … a mélange of different places” is the aspect that holds up least for former journalist Walker. He says the game parallels Western media’s portrayal of African conflicts, never really explaining what the heart of the conflict is about (“Oh, they’re both just basically warlords,” he quips). Walker, however, commends the game for the areas in which it was miles ahead of its time—for example, the way it lets you choose from a diverse cast of characters, all of whom hail from countries touched by the pernicious hand of colonialism. More importantly, Far Cry 2 brought unambiguous “cynicism” to the idea that the player’s “presence here could ever mean anything good,” Walker says. “That’s not a perspective we’ve often seen elsewhere. Far Cry 6 is about you showing up as an outsider and helping a revolution. At the end of Far Cry 2, you save some people—but your presence is endemic of a disease that anyone like you is here at all.”
For as long as Hocking had made games, he’d been fascinated by the interplay of virtual space and narrative. As a youngster, he experimented with the level editor of the 1983 platformer Lode Runner (“painting with eight different pixels,” he calls it), saving his work using the primitive Famicom Data Recorder. “There was a cassette drive which you’d put a cassette tape in,” he says. “I would take an old Billy Idol tape, put some masking tape over the songs, and write over it.” Soon after, he started programming, making a handful of games for the VIC-20 home computer before getting into Dungeons & Dragons. This introduced a more intricate matrix of elements: complicated rules; a more freeform experience; a stronger sense of narrative; play that could careen in any direction. It’s precisely this dynamic, almost volatile cocktail of elements that continues to hold appeal for Hocking—“a really expressive thing for me,” he says.
But Hocking wasn’t just a child of nerd culture. Born in 1972, he spent the first few years of his life in Southern Ontario before moving to Vancouver. Like a lot of Gen X kids, he was raised by his single mom, who worked during the day and attended school by night, eventually scoring a job as a production accountant in the film industry. Before that, Hocking grew up “pretty poor.” He paid his way through college, starting with an undergraduate course in visual fine arts at Langara College in Vancouver, where he mostly studied drawing. (“Not like comic book drawing, but open, freeform, messy, artistic drawing,” he says.) By his own admission, Hocking was “terrible” at it, but the degree gave him a crash course in taking criticism, invaluable for the BA in creative writing he obtained at the University of British Columbia, which served as a springboard to a master’s degree. Hocking maintained his omnivorous creative ventures while working as a copywriter for web companies during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. He was part of the Unreal modding scene, contributing a level to a mod called Strike Force (credited as “Clint ‘Cmdr_Greedo’ Hocking”). He made independent films. He even played in a punk rock band.
It’s tempting to read an abrasive energy similar to punk rock’s running through Hocking’s often confrontational work. The opening level of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory contains a distressing torture scene. In Watch Dogs: Legion, released in 2020 (Hocking’s first game for Ubisoft after returning in 2015 following a five-year absence), you learn that migrants in the game’s dystopian version of London are being sold into slavery and harvested for organs. Hocking might be employed by Ubisoft, wholly embedded within the studio system, but he has a propensity to ask contentious questions through the two elements that have captivated him since he was a child: virtual space and narrative. Yet Far Cry 2 is different from these games: It rouses intense, physiological reactions—prickling hair, a rapidly quickening heartbeat, a thin film of cold sweat—through long-form play rather than discrete moments. More than any other game of Hocking’s, it’s holistic—and the noise it generates is often overwhelming.
When Far Cry 2 was released on October 21, 2008, it received admiring if not unanimous praise. For Eurogamer, Christian Donlan wrote that “Far Cry 2 is unforgettable rather than perfect; brilliant, frustrating, somber and comical.” Chris Dahlen asserted for Variety that “gunfights are brisk and unpredictable, but the mission framework falls short.” In an 8-out-of-10 review for Game Informer, Matt Miller said that “Far Cry 2 is one of the most ambitious game releases in years. … Sadly, it’s also plagued by a combat system that rarely elevates itself past basic gunplay.” Fifteen years later, Remo echoes the critical consensus, albeit more generously: “In a lot of ways, Far Cry 2’s reach exceeds its grasp,” he says. “But I think its reach is so interesting and compelling that even the ways in which its ambitions were not fully realized are themselves interesting. And when those ambitions are realized, it’s almost sublime.”
Bissell, who would go on to work on three Far Cry games for Ubisoft in the early 2010s (all of which were canceled), believes the criticism Far Cry 2 received upon release was tough for the development team to stomach: “I was explicitly told not to bring up Far Cry 2 overmuch when talking to my superiors [because]—and this is my read on it—the studio really loved what they’d made.” Bissell says Far Cry 2 was a “dirty word” within the studio, but not because the game was perceived as a creative failure. Rather, he suggests, the studio was suffering from “collective trauma” knowing it had made a game that was “special” yet wasn’t received by the majority of its audience “with anything that resembled recognition of its greatness.”
Still, Far Cry 2 was received rapturously by a small stratum of people. Another of its early champions was Ben Abraham, a 22-year-old critic who took it upon himself to play the entire game with a single life in response to one of Hocking’s blog posts. It was, Abraham explains, an exercise in getting into the game’s “headspace” more intensely, akin to “speedrunning for narrative.” He recalls how “scary” the playthrough was at first, but that he mediated the experience by utilizing “degenerate strategies”—long-range rifles, explosives. Thus, a sense of “boredom” began to set in, at least until Abraham hit the brutal difficulty spikes of Act 2. How did the intrepid critic record this endeavor in the era before Twitch and the video game live-streamer? Abraham wrote a nearly 400-page novelization called “Permanent Death,” which has been downloaded close to 30,000 times. Hocking described it as a “complete oddity.” For Bissell, the document stands as a “breathtaking exercise in taking love for a single game to an almost maniacal place.”
How, then, to assess the legacy of Far Cry 2 beyond the straight line that exists between the game itself and the criticism it inspired? It’s been argued that the plausible, simulationist mechanics of Far Cry 2 left their mark on the survival genre that exploded in the 2010s with the likes of DayZ. Another possible vector of influence is battle royale games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, which seem to embody something of Far Cry 2’s tense, fraught, and emergent approach to combat (“the battle royale is a ‘grenades-roll-down-the-hill’ genre,” Walker suggests). There are also a few games that seem to more closely share Far Cry 2’s systemic, open-world DNA: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain; The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild; Death Stranding. But this might just be a case of convergent evolution—there are, after all, a lot of ways to arrive at expansive, systems-driven gameplay. Viewed from another angle, the game’s influence can be said to extend to players for whom it crystallized what they wanted out of a game. Walker loves Breath of the Wild partly because Far Cry 2 “pushed” him in that direction.
We can be more specific, however, and point to Far Cry 2’s influence on the work of a few designers. Harvey Smith, creative director of the Dishonored series, enthused about the game for Penny Arcade in 2012 and described the recently released open-world shooter Redfall as “what you’d get if you blended the Arkane creative values with Far Cry 2.”
Remo, meanwhile, is unequivocal about the effect that Far Cry 2’s “uncompromisingly first-person nature” had on his own Firewatch, a first-person drama set in the hills of Wyoming. Take, for example, the map in Firewatch that works just like the one found in Far Cry 2. Your character pulls out and holds in-game objects in such a way that they take up the vast majority of the screen; the game doesn’t pause; the map is diegetic, not viewed inside a menu. Firewatch’s walkie-talkie dialogue system works similarly, with conversational decisions playing out on the fly as you traipse about the wilderness. Remo declines to call the approach an overarching “philosophy.” Instead, he describes it as a “method of design thinking” intended to ensure the game remained “grounded.” The goal was simple yet strict: refrain from breaking the player’s “immersive viewpoint.”
But Firewatch and Redfall are edge cases, rare attempts at internalizing and developing Far Cry 2’s experimental design principles. It’s the opposite of a slight to say that the game remains one of the most daring titles ever made at blockbuster scale. “What I like about Far Cry 2 is that it tried to create a bunch of its own conventions,” Bissell says. “What’s interesting is how few of them, despite being elegant, interesting, and audacious, caught on in the wider design community of games. That is an achievement in and of itself.”
Not even the Far Cry series itself (which boasts in excess of 50 million unit sales since Far Cry 2) has run with many of the design ideas laid out by the second installment, beyond the open-world, first-person-shooter structure. Each of the four subsequent mainline entries, none of which Hocking worked on, has “sanded down” the spiky, subversive magic of Far Cry 2, says Walker, as if Ubisoft asked itself: “How do we make this our Modern Warfare? How do we make this our huge breakout first-person shooter?” It would do so by forgoing the disempowerment part of the power fantasy. To play a recent Far Cry is to engage with a clear upgrade path and enjoy supersoldier-esque powers, like the ability to tag enemies (thus basking in the knowledge of their location at all times). When you open the map, the game pauses, and when you set a waypoint, giant holographic arrows show up in the virtual environment, leaving practically zero chance of getting lost. Crucially, says Walker, the narrative has shifted from one where you play as a “morally questionable, bloodthirsty mercenary” to an “average Joe who’s gotten swept up in something bigger than themselves.”
For better and worse, the series has come a long way, and its current identity is best summed up by Sandra Warren, the new vice president and executive producer of the Far Cry brand (who also worked as lead animator on Far Cry 2). “We want you to go on holiday and basically throw away all the travel books you can think of, get out of the touristic landmarks, and discover the eeriest things a location has to offer,” she writes via email. “It will make you adventurous, uncomfortable, free, afraid at times. And no matter what, if you survive, when you come home, you will have absurd stories to tell your friends.”
In these terms, the Far Cry series has metamorphosed into precisely the “disaster tourism” that Hocking set out to avoid. In Far Cry 5 and 6, real-world issues like the rise of fundamentalism in the U.S. and revolution in Central America are mobilized in service of something that curves closer to conventional video game “fun.” Certainly, we’re a long way from games that show players “what a messy, horrible thing it is to kill a man,” and not just because the death animations in these games lack Far Cry 2’s macabre eye for detail.
Now, the franchise features snappy, feel-good gunplay of the Modern Warfare school, while its tongue-in-cheek storytelling is firmly rooted in the postmodern mode popularized by Grand Theft Auto. One can understand Ubisoft’s swing for a broader tone in its pursuit of the sales that make the economics of these hugely (and increasingly) expensive entertainments feasible. During his short stint at Ubisoft Montreal in the 2010s, Bissell caught a glimpse of the monumental labor, and thus the monumental stakes, of such productions. “It’s the only game studio I’ve ever been in that had a Starbucks in it,” he says. “It was so big, even then, it didn’t seem possible. I looked in the Assassin’s Creed room and there were 500 fucking people.” At that moment, Bissell saw the direction of blockbuster game development—the way it was becoming “potentially unmanageable.” It would only get more unwieldy: “What seemed like big teams at the time just became colossi of largeness.”
This is precisely the environment Hocking works within today. He lists some of the elements that make up a modern open-world blockbuster: collectibles, skill trees, inventory management, a small country’s worth of non-player characters to talk to, main quests, side quests, vehicles. “It’s just fucking enormous, and so to build on top of that, to progress that forward, you have to have templates that you build with,” he says. “It’s challenging for me because I’m a person who would prefer in an ideal world to always cut everything from full cloth. But that’s just not a reality of modern, triple-A game development. You don’t cut anything from whole cloth.”
Far Cry 2 was made just before this blockbuster horse truly bolted. It’s the product of 150 people rather than 1,500; it took three years to make rather than six; it was made on a single continent rather than many (and without any outsourced labor). Hocking is upfront about the kinds of games he enjoys making (those with “big reach and big budgets”), and the upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Codename Hexe (reportedly set in Central Europe during the 16th century) may be his highest-profile game to date. He has little choice, then, but to adapt to the new, supersized conditions of production while noting, with a little wistfulness, the passing of an era in which blockbusters could take “chances and risks … when you could really bring a high concept to a triple-A game.” The year or two surrounding Far Cry 2’s debut brought the releases of Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto IV, BioShock, Dead Space, and Mirror’s Edge, games of both considerable ambition and a system of production that was yet to spiral out of control. At the risk of indulging in regressive nostalgia, there’s perhaps a case for thinking about these years as something of a golden age for innovation in blockbuster video games.
On X, Hocking refers to himself as “usually the most cynical person in the room,” but there is no doubting his sincerity when talking about what he and his team achieved with Far Cry 2. “I sometimes lament privately in my darkest hours that it may be the best game I ever make in my life,” he says. “I’m very proud of it. I think it’s a very good game. I think it’s an important game.”
Perhaps more significant than even the game itself is the nature of the conversations it’s sparked, the back-and-forth between audience and creator that Hocking holds dear and that’s been the invisible lifeblood of the projects he has steered at Ubisoft for the best part of 20 years. “That’s what I need. I guess some people get their reward from having sold 50 million copies of something, and that’s great, but having only sold 50 million copies doesn’t mean anybody liked it. It doesn’t mean that the game changed anybody’s life or their perspective. It doesn’t mean that I’ve communicated.”
“Communication goes two ways,” he adds. “If it’s just broadcast—I make a thing and 50 million people play it—I can just fucking chuck my game into the sea and say, ‘Look, there it is.’ But it’s when it comes back to you, and you understand how people felt, and not just, ‘That game’s fucking wicked: 10 out of 10.’ If they can talk about what was important to them, what moved them, what changed their perspective about the world, this kind of conflict, these kinds of people, or this kind of play experience, that’s what matters. It’s the echo, right—the feeling that you’ve meaningfully contributed to someone’s experience. That’s why we make things.”
Lewis Gordon is a writer and journalist living in Glasgow who contributes to outlets including The Verge, Wired, and Vulture.