Just Cause 3: On Belonging

So I’m playing Just Cause 3, and there’s a couple of things I’d like to talk about. I’ll start with a quick overview, but I won’t repeat it for the second article – I’ll link through and just assume everyone’s read it. We’re economizing here because in order to talk about Just Cause 3, we need to talk about Just Cause 2 as well. In Just Cause 2, you play a CIA agent (Rico) who’s busy interfering in the fictional Southeast Asian country of Panau. There’s an evil dictator, an island nation, and you have to go in and chuck him out so the USA can control the oil. Russia, China, and Japan are all also after the oil; they’re trying to overthrow the dictator by backing various criminal gangs. Ultimately Rico kills the dictator, but also destroys the oil reserves, largely freeing Panau from all the foreign interest. Got it? Okay. 

So basically Just Cause 2 deals with a bunch of imperial issues. For example, all these economic powers want control of the oil, such that Panau itself is essentially just a pawn. When the oil gets destroyed the superpowers largely disengage, although the Americans obviously install a new pro-American president before they go. So it’s not a clean win for Panau – they don’t really end up with much self-determination, and they’ve also lost a fuckload of natural resources and potential economic development in the destroyed oil. To some extent Rico is working against American national interests by destroying the oil; it also protects the inhabitants of Panau from becoming victims in further military conflict, as there’s nothing left to interest the superpowers. However, the mechanics of the game are still broadly invested in the same imperial themes that it’s riffing on in the plot.

In terms of mechanics, you basically drive around blowing shit up. It’s easiest to compare JC2 and directly here: in Just Cause 3, each region has a bunch of cities or military bases, and you have to destroy X amount of stuff in each settlement to free that settlement and ultimately the region. It’s very nodal – the cities/bases are basically nodes, locations that you go to and everything you need to do is in that space. When you’ve cleared a city, the bad guys all leave, and you don’t see them there again. Just Cause 2 has a much more sprawling approach. There are bases and cities and so on, but clearing them doesn’t necessarily remove the baddies. There’s also heaps of tiny villages that need clearing, and often just random little fuel tanks that you’ll stumble on scattered around the wilderness. It’s way less focused on clusters or nodes, in that sense – it just sprawls. There’s shit littered around everywhere.

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That sprawl is one of the most exciting things about Just Cause 2 – you load it up, go for a drive, and see what you come across. You’ll probably never 100% it, but that’s fine – you’re just off on a little island holiday in Southeast Asia. You explore, travel, and sometimes blow shit up. Just Cause 2 is much more of a tourism game than Just Cause 3. In JC3, there are settlements, and you go there, and everything is there. In JC2, you just travel and see what you find. In real Southeast Asian countries, the tourism industry has been criticised as a form of Western cultural imperialism; the tourist-oriented design of the game therefore has clear links with the economic imperialism that sees these superpowers chasing after the oil. And it comes through in the game’s mechanics: if you run a Panau civilian over, it doesn’t really matter. There are no repercussions. If a local gets caught in a fuel tank explosion, again – it doesn’t really matter. You can steal their cars and fling them around the map and accidentally blow them up and basically just treat the locals like shit, and there’s zero consequences. The game encourages a who-gives-a-shit attitude to the locals, and it’s hard not to see an element of cultural imperialism in all of it – even, to be frank, a direct element of racism. Who cares about these little Asians, the game says. Don’t worry about their lives; just drive on and enjoy your travels.

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Given all of that – you can probably see why I don’t want to repeat it all again for the next article – but given all of that, what’s weird about Just Cause 3 is that you go to Rico’s home, the fictional island of Medici in the Mediterranean. The same mechanics are there: you can still run over locals and throw them out of cars, but now Rico’s trying to free his own homeland and his own people from the grip of a dictator while also fending off American interests as much as possible. Looking back at JC2 makes JC3 give off really mixed messages about whether or not it wants you to care about the locals. It seems like it should be a tourist game, because it’s gorgeous and lush and worth touring around, but it’s ostensibly your homeland, so that doesn’t make a lot of sense. It also doesn’t encourage a tourist travel attitude in the same way as JC2. It also has a narrative of freeing your countrymen from the grip of tyranny, which is very noble but also makes me feel bad about stealing their cars and accidentally blowing them up, even though the game doesn’t care if I do. The game mechanics follow JC2 in not really caring about people other than the protagonist, but the game narrative tells you that you have a special connection with these people. It’s a weird experience.

Anyway, it got me thinking about other sandbox liberation-type games, particularly Red Faction: Guerrilla. It’s interesting for what are essentially mechanics that reward suicide bombings, but it’s also interesting because it has a bar measuring your support and popularity. If you die, you might lose ten support points or something, and if a member of the resistance dies, you might lose one. It’s not a heavy punishment – it influences the level of resistance support you might get in different missions or when you attack specific buildings. But there’s a sense that the lives of the resistance are important, and a sense that you’re really fighting for someone. It wouldn’t necessarily have worked in Just Cause 3, but it’s interesting to see how the mechanics of belonging are worked into things. At core, I think that’s the problem with Just Cause 3: it tells you that you’re home, but there are no mechanics of belonging.

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