On Far Cry 4: How the plight of Kyrat’s people taught me the importance of protection of religious freedom

FarCry4The following may contain mild spoilers of Far Cry 4’s plot.  For the hypersensitive, consider yourself warned.

I grew up in a very unreligious household.  There was no anti-religious sentiment – after all I was only a generation removed from the anglo-christian upbringing of my grandparents in Europe – but there was certainly a dearth of religious text and learnings in the house.  In fact that’s pretty commonplace in Australia, a country where I know more people that have never been to church than those who have, and where religion isn’t something that defines us for a society.  It’s an upbringing that I’m proud of in some respects, but one that in other ways, has left me with a significant hole in understanding of the world around me.  Religion is derided in many corners of the modern world, but it would be remiss of anyone to admit to its importance as a building block toward the modern freedom and civil obedience we en masse enjoy in the western.  And in some parts of the world it’s still an enormous part of their culture and identity.

In the current global climate it’s a difficult thing to understand, and as someone who has no point of reference, I find it slightly unnerving the unwavering devotion of one’s self to religious idealism and beliefs.  When manifested in its physical form, as a proponent of the protection of human history, I understand the outrage at the irreversible destruction of ancient religious artefacts and places.  But protection of these very same places as the destruction of spiritually relevant landmarks with personal and intrinsic value is not something I can understand. Australian society may place significant value on the intrinsic (and monetary) value of places, but we lack the sort of spiritual connection to land and places that many societies have, including the strong inbuilt connection our own indigenous people have to this country.  We may sympathise but I’m not sure we’ll ever empathise.  It’s just the nature of modern western society.

My time in Far Cry 4’s Kyrat, a place steeped in religious connection to the land and to the people, opened my eyes to spiritual devotion.  It’s no secret that I think Far Cry 4 offers an interesting insight into other cultures, but that vein of rich world building runs deeper than it appears, arguably overshadowing the amazing action experience the game delivers.  Kyrat is a world of political oppression, of dictatorship, but more importantly one of religious persecution.  It’s not uncommon for tyrannical leaders to use religion as a tool to indoctrinate or persecute populations, and the charismatic Pagan Min is no different.  He holds onto power by outlawing religion, by disempowering the population, and through military might through those that oppose him.  For a man that has so little air time in the game itself, Pagan Min is one of the most defined video game characters in recent memory, mostly due to the brilliant ambient and environmental storytelling.  Everything from the notes found around the world, to the Government sanctioned ramblings of religious prohibition permeating the airwaves, Kyrat is an oppressed society and its people have lost part of their spirit.

And conversations with Golden Path leaders Amita and Sabal reveal a people that are fighting not only against a maniacal dictator, but are fighting to protect their own religious identities and their own spiritual connection with Kyrat.  And it’s the missions that revolve around the latter that really hit the fact home that religion is intrinsic to the social fabric of Kyrat.  Nothing hit that home like watching the destruction of age-old religious icons, the sleeping saints, at the hands of Pagan Min’s military, as they watch with glee at crumbling statues.  Or desperately repelling the attack on the Chal Jama monastery against waves of heavily armed men intent on destroying the home of the nation’s polytheistic religion.  The plight of the people Kyrat already provided the motivation to fight for freedom, but nothing compared to the desperation protecting the nation’s religious identity and spirituality evoked, or the sense of satisfaction at succeeding to do so.  It wasn’t just fighting for a thousand year old statue, or an ancient place of worship, but rather it was protecting the spirit of the people and their connection to the life they live.

And it was at that moment I understood, perhaps not empathised, but at least understood the plight of societies where religion is intrinsic to their identity.   It gave the fight meaning, it gave the fight context, but most of all it gave the world a level humanity I’ve seldom experienced in a video game.  I’m not a religious person, and in all likelihood will never be, but it’s amazing that a game that prides itself on being a shooter above all else could give me a greater insight into the importance of religion in the fabric of some societies.  I’ll always remember the charismatic Pagan Min and his sprawling battle with the Golden Path rebellion. But for me Far Cry 4 will always be about fighting to protect the freedom of the people of Kyrat and the importance of protecting religious freedom, both in the game, and in real life.

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  1. Fascinating. Thanks for writing. It’s interesting to compare the emerging narrative world of video games with the traditional written medium, especially novels, which according to this recent article have been generally devoid of “faith” for nearly a century. As the author says, that’s not true across the board, but on top of Marilynne Robinson and the other writers she mentions, I would add magical realism, the kind of stories in which “spiritual” dimensions and entities are not separate from the world but part of it.

    In other words, you could say that magical realism goes a step further than Far Cry 4 because it includes not only authentic religious expression, but also gods, ancestors, and demons — not just as “religious objects” but as full-fledged characters/actors in the story world.

    (Recommended: the stories of Nalo Hopkinson and Nnedi Okorafor.)

    So, I have a question: is there much magical realism happening in video game narratives? What kind?

    1. So some of that is in Far Cry 4, visits to Shangri La in hallucination type sequences, also a feature of Far Cry 3 where mysticism was a big theme throughout. Outside of the fantasy genre though it’s not a particularly pervasive theme in Western developed video games.

      In the east though its a more common theme. Games like Warriors Orochi mix both three kingdoms period China abd Edo Japan with eastern mysticism, for example.

      There also seems to be an incredibly fine line between the divine ‘celestial’ being in Japanese developed games – games like Okami were beautiful interactive takes on Japanese folklore where the real and the fantastical exist in the same place.

      While the west seems to not feel particularly comfortable juxtaposing mysticism (or what you call magical realism) against any sort of reality, eastern developers tend to embrace it.

      1. Interesting. In the social-science study of religion, people describe a lot of this stuff as altered states of consciousness. They also observe that, historically, it’s only post-enlightenment Western societies in which those states have been sidelined — which I think helps explain the “East-West divide” you’ve noticed. The divide between real and fantastical is a Western invention.

        Some recent magical realism I’ve seen is annoyingly contrived (sorry, Life of Pi) but it’s a pretty ancient way of storytelling and seeing the world: lots of the Bible could be called magical realism for example, especially the big slabs of narrative in which YHWH (God) is cast as a character.

        I’m not sure we’re seeing a “resurgence” of magical realism, but stories like the ones I mentioned above (by Okorafor & Hopkinson) are definitely a way of bringing “spiritual” understandings into Western consciousness. Actually, they could be great video games: e.g. dystopian Toronto ruled by voodoo; alien landing in Lagos, Nigeria…

  2. Great post. I’m often frustrated by many in the UK’s holier-than-thou attitude towards religion (see the recent vid of Stephen Fry’s rant about God for example). It’s this claim that because they feel they have it made, everyone should be exactly like them. Messed up.

    Anyway, it’s a pleasant surprise to hear that Far Cry 4 would approach the topic in a different way like this. Since another commenter mentioned literature, I may as well mention a book that had a big impact on me in this area: The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer. Compared with other novels I’ve read that deal with “religion”, let alone Islam – the “controversial” one in the West – this felt miles apart. It’s not forced, sensationalist, shoe-horned. It’s actually subtle, and it manages extremely well what Far Cry seems to do too – it shows religion as part of a lived social fabric in a specific time and place. No more, no less, and I really appreciate that.

    1. Let me get this out of the way – I don’t like Stephen Fry. Now I feel better.

      But with that out of the way, I think more intelligent discussions of religion that paint it as a key fabric of society across many cultures, is needed across all mediums. It’s easy to look at everything through this Judeo-Christian lens that – whether people like it or not – are what the foundations of most western democracies are built on, but that doesn’t anyone has the right to discredit the beliefs of others. Religion is so much more than believing in a higher god, it’s interwoven in the values of society, and from that perspective its ridiculous to isolate in order to criticise it. Without criticising the broader culture and way of life of the people that observe it, anyway.

      And Far Cry 4 tackles this almost perfectly

      Thanks for the comment!

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