Virtual Worlds

Official Screenshot for Far Cry Primal showing the main character in the landscape
Official Screenshot for Far Cry Primal showing the main character in the landscape setting.

My guilty secret is that I’ve been playing on my son’s Playstation Four. Those in the know will guess that the motivation for this is the release of Far Cry Primal. Far Cry Primal is, to quote the blurb an ‘open-world sandbox set in the Stone Age era’. It is a video game where the violence relates to three competing ‘stone age’ tribes and their environment. It is fascinating.

The world in which the player finds themselves is highly realistic, making use of the best quality graphics. It is a world of forest and high mountains, impressive glaciers, rivers, marshlands and waterfalls. This world is populated by a myriad of animals, from mammoth to flies, all set into a rich and detailed vegetation. Day turns to night and back again. It is possible to wander off and explore everything in high resolution. There is plenty of information online about the game, but essentially the creators say that while their inspiration is drawn from authentic prehistoric research (they win my heart by actually using the word ‘Mesolithic’), it was not their intention to recreate a particular time or space. There are, thus, idiosyncrasies for the archaeologist, but it is important to remember that we are in the world of fantasy here.

The time is given as 10,000 BC yet we can move through a diversity of environments from Ice Age to Boreal. There is considerable variation between the tribes, from a Neanderthal-like skin-clad, muscular people, to smaller folk wearing more elaborate and tailored clothing. Much of the material culture is recognizable from earlier prehistory (including the Venus of Willendorf), but it sits alongside some sophisticated pottery and buildings, including defences. Cave dwellings are interspersed with timber structures and even the odd standing stone. There is an impressive tomb-like structure that owes not a little to reconstructions of Newgrange.  All characters speak, with three versions of language, drawing on linguistic advice from the University of Kentucky; one language is translated using subtitles, in order to give an idea of the ‘foreignness’ of others. A lot of time and money has gone into this.

What interests me is not the research, nor the accuracy. It is the use of landscape. It strikes me as ironic that today, in a world where we bewail the way in which ‘young people’ no longer engage with the outdoors, we are taking so much time to create highly realistic versions of landscape to be viewed on screen. This use of a detailed setting is a common feature of many video games. In many cases, however, this landscape is merely a passive backdrop to the action (reflecting, perhaps, actual twenty-first century experience). This is where Far Cry Primal is different. Players have to engage with the setting as they move through their fantasy world. Tools and weapons are not bought, they are constructed of resources that have to be sought out and collected. Food is hunted. The landscape can aid and it can challenge. You have to learn it to succeed.

It is too soon to assess the impact of this. At one level the game seems to be encouraging players to realize that landscape is more than a passive background to the supermarket. At another level I wonder how many people will simply see this as a quirk of the game – will they realize that it actually relates to the realities of the world in which they live?

It is the privilege (or doom) of the academic to deconstruct and assess everything they come across. For now, Far Cry Primal is a fun trip into a virtual world. It is a bit violent for me, but in general we experience nothing of the violence and stress that our ancestors must have known. I’m never going to be a great gamer. But this has certainly opened up a whole realm of exciting possibilities, even education. How about something set at the Mesolithic/Neolithic transition? Or a Medieval romp? I can think of plenty of periods of stress that would lend themselves to gaming, all within highly authentic landscapes. I’m happy to consult!