I’ve recently been playing Far Cry 4, because I am an extremely dedicated gamer who plays only the latest games (this is a joke: not only did Far Cry 5 come out last year, but a new standalone game based on FC5 recently dropped). All told, I’m enjoying the game—even 5 years later it looks gorgeous, the missions are interesting (would be better in co-op, but for some inexplicable reason only sidequests are open to co-op), and the gunplay feels good—but there’s one thing about the game that irks me. The karma system.
Now, when I say “the karma system” I am sadly not talking about a deep and detailed system whereby the game tracks your actions and intentions and provides different outcomes based on them. That might be par for the course with a decent RPG, but this here is an open-world shooter that uses various hallmarks of Indian and/or Nepalese culture (for instance, the coloured dusts of the Holi Festival of Colours are a recurring motif) but with any and all serial numbers filed off. No, when I talk about the karma system I’m talking about a second pool of XP points (literally “Karma Points”) you earn or lose for various actions. Spin a prayer wheel, earn yourself some karma. Rescue some locals from the evil government militia, earn yourself some karma. Accidentally shoot a local that you’re trying to rescue, lose yourself some karma. Kill an animal so you can turn its hide into a bigger grenade pouch, earn yourself some karma.
And it’s this final point that really sticks out to me. I mean, sure, we could debate the merits—the karmic balance—of killing a soldier if that soldier likely had bad intentions for some friendlies, but killing animals will earn you karma, regardless of whether you use the meat or skin, and regardless of whether the animal was attacking people or just minding its own business. Killing the animal “cleanly” will also earn you double the animal hide to use in crafting, but the “cleanliness” of the kill is defined only by the type of weapon used—bow & arrow versus gun or explosive. (I have yet to discover if I can turn an Asian Rhino into a pincushion to earn a “clean kill”. The ornery bastards require heavier artillery than that.)
Karma is, apparently, common to Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, but of course the game doesn’t explicitly tell us which form of karma we’re receiving points for—because, remember, it won’t even commit to using a genuine Himalayan nation for a setting. I’ve also yet to find any cows in the game, which is unfortunate because a hastily-thrown grenade would tell me whether we were in Hindu territory or not. At this stage, the only religion I’m willing to rule out is Jainism.
Car Fry 4 is an oddity in 2019. In 2014, prior to the game’s release, people were concerned that the cover art was racist, or that playing a white saviour would be racist (the player character, however, is not white), but according to Wikipedia at least, no one thought that taking a central tenant of these Eastern religions and reducing it to a shallow and unnecessary gameplay mechanic was at all problematic.
But it got me thinking—what other religions could we reduce to gameplay mechanics? Because apparently this is not at all problematic. Not at all.
Here are some ideas:
Buddhist reincarnation – story-driven RPG where the player must stop the evil villain from attaining enlightenment and becoming all-powerful. Every time you die, the game tallies your actions and you are reincarnated as a different creature depending on your score.
At one point in the game you have the choice to either defend a village from the villain’s army, knowing that one of your companion characters will die, or to flee and leave the villagers to their fate. If you choose to let the entire village be wiped out, you come back as a cockroach. This is not game over, however, and in fact the cockroach is akin to a different character class. Low strength, high constitution, great stealth.
Catholic sin – 3D shooter in the DOOM/Hexen/Heretic mold. Kill as many enemy soldiers as you want, but between fights, make sure you track down a confessional booth to absolve your sins. Otherwise, if you die you will find yourself in hell.
This isn’t a cool DOOM hell, though, instead you’ve got no weapons, your controls randomly invert themselves, the screen is constantly strobing, and the only sound you can hear is constant screaming. There are no respawns, and no way out of hell. You can’t even start a new game – the whole game is hell now.
Jainism – open-world survival game, but you can’t kill animals for food or clothing, and must rely solely on rocks, wood, and ore.
Or Jainism as an open-world GTA-like. You can’t hurt people, and in fact you can’t even drive as cars kill countless insects. You are on foot and barefoot, wandering around a massive recreation of a city pushing a rough broom ahead of you, being careful not to cause harm to any living thing – not even stepping in puddles lest you hurt the microbes that have gathered there. I guess your entire purpose is to commit good deeds? And help animals that have been injured?
Islamic prayer – point and click adventure game with a full day-night cycle. Five times a day, the player must stop what they are doing, wash, and pray. As the player character starts the game with amnesia, knowing only that they are Muslim and devout, but not knowing what city they are in, the first thing they must do is work out where they are and what direction Mecca is. To do this, they must first escape the city’s morgue by tricking the attendant using a lab coat, a mop, a balloon, a length of string, and a piece of cheese (to lure the rats).
Jehovah’s Witness – a visual novel following a family’s harrowing experience of watching a loved one slowly die in hospital.
The writing in this game is beautiful and heartbreaking, with three adult children and two parents reconnecting, exploring old trauma, and healing deep wounds, all while they sit around a hospital bed of the eldest sister/daughter, watching her die. She was the one who always brought and held the family together, and this could be their last chance to mend decades of past hurt before she dies. At any moment the player can disregard the family’s beliefs and save the daughter with a blood transfusion, but in doing so they will miss out on the full experience of the game, and the deeply-felt catharsis.
If any of this seems... flippant, or problematic, well, I guess that’s the point I’m trying to make. Who at Ubisoft thought Far Cry 4’s karma system was a good idea? Or alternatively, if they were determined to use karma as inspiration for their game, was a second, redundant pool of XP really the best they could come up with?
NB: I am available for video game consulting work.