Far Cry: Primal is an almost perfect marriage of mechanics and history

Anyone interested in making a game about history should take a long look at Far Cry Primal. Not because it’s historically accurate — it’s not — in fact, it isn’t even necessarily a great game. But Far Cry Primal does what few games manage: it uses game mechanics to convey its Mesolithic setting and incentivize the player to reenact historical behaviors. That’s a hard trick to play, and overall Primal pulls it off better than most games. It’s unfortunate, then, that the Far Cry mechanics which fit so well in the stone age also ultimately let the game down.

Despite the popularity of historical games, most games are actually just core mechanics with historical gloss. Take Assassin’s Creed, for instance. If the same rules — the parkour, open-world system, and stealth kills — can be ported to every period from the Crusades to World War II, are they really historical mechanics? Certainly not, which is why the same open-world system’s been used to depict everything from Lord of the Rings to Batman. Architectural changes impact the parkour traversals, of course, but the basic gameplay of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate has nothing to do with Victorian England.

In contrast, look at Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. Despite sharing a name and plotline with its parent series, Black Flag had mechanics specifically designed to evoke the time period. Players feared storms more than naval battles — as real sailors did. Designers added sea songs to fill dull stretches sailing from island-to-island, which was why those songs existed in real life. The economic system’s geared to make the player greedy for plunder, but also engineered so they blow everything the moment they’re ashore and have to go plunder again — a cycle recognizable to any 17th century pirate. Strategy games also occasionally reach this territory, with the Total War and Crusader Kings series presenting real historical problems like what to do with a shiftless, useless relative who’s expected to inherit power.

These games aren’t just set in historical periods, they use the gameplay to create historical context and present historical problems. Far Cry Primal ranks among the best of them — even though its mechanics are imported from games set in the present day.

The Far Cry series has become, from the third entry forward, a game about hunting and gathering. You run around striking environments collecting plants and stalking animals. Though conflict with human enemies is also an integral element, in Far Cry the environment is always the most hostile force. Throw a half-dozen enemies at a player and they’ll shrug and line up headshots, but plop a single jaguar in their vicinity and they’ll start running, guns blazing, for high ground. No caravan’s as dangerous as a pissed-off rhino, and no money cache is as valuable as a rare animal skin. Far Cry carries a back-to-nature theme, an idea that the character is returning to their natural state as a jungle predator. That’s why nature’s more dangerous than human enemies, and products harvested from the wilderness are the only way to upgrade equipment.

It requires three tapir skins to make a holster in Far Cry 4.

It requires three tapir skins to make a holster in Far Cry 4.

But these mechanics never fit in a modern setting. It doesn’t make sense, even in remote locations, to craft equipment out of animal products.

Trust me, having been to both Nepal and the remote Pacific Islands, you can buy bags there. Everest Base Camp has a teahouse within a few hours’ walk. You can buy Snickers bars there. Two years ago I drank Avengers-branded juice boxes and Johnny Walker Black in the middle of the Peruvian Amazon. Any place that has guns will also have ammo bags and pouches, or at least the ability to get local equivalents. There’s no need to brew your own medicine or kill rhinos and make pants out of their skin. We hand-wave it because it’s an interesting upgrade system, but it never quite fit.

Far Cry Primal has none of these problems. Takkar gathers plants to make medicine because that’s how you get medicine in this period. He hunts for animal products and gathers wood and flint because that’s how you make weapons. Bayer and Glock are a long way in the future, so crafting fits the setting. As a result, one of my long-time issues with the series — personal guilt over hunting — disappears almost entirely. Harvesting animal parts via spear and bow feels necessary and earned. Moreover, environmental cues about the Wenja’s animistic beliefs — they worship mammoths after killing them — minimizes the feeling of exploitation I often got from the Bait-Shoot-Skin cycle of earlier games. Turns out, conquest via technology is more palatable when the technology’s based on sticks and rocks.

Which is weird, because this emphasis on victory through technology is the total opposite of most Far Cry games.

Up to this point, the series emphasized gaining power by going back to nature — a sort of strength in primitivism. Every time the player clears a base full of armed soldiers with a longbow, it reinforces the theme that natural skill is superior to technology.

Primal, on the other hand, is the complete opposite. While the Wenja have a spiritual relationship with animals, their upgrade path takes them further and further away from an animalistic state. They conquer through physical and cultural advancement — stronger spears, larger villages, labor specialization, and domesticating animals. Not coincidentally, these same traits are what allowed ancient man to turn the tables on nature and go from prey to predator. As the player upgrades their village, the increasing population literally moves out of a cave and into hide shelters. As they upgrade equipment, their spear points start adding knapping, barbs, composite materials, and other signifiers of the Neolithic period. In many ways, the upgrade system in Primal mirrors the cultural, technological, linguistic, and philosophical development of society.

This theme of human advancement recurs throughout the game, especially in the three rival tribes. While developing Primal, Ubisoft made sure to create three culturally distinct factions — the Udam, the Wenja, and Izilia — representing different aspects of human development. This differentiation went so far that Ubisoft hired two University of Kentucky professors to rewrite all the dialogue in pre-Indo European, and invent two earlier dialects of the language. In the game, the Udam are a cannibalistic Neanderthal-like culture who worship stone Venus figures and have no written language. The Wenja are hunter-gatherers who use basic pictographs, and whose religion revolves around worshipping the animals that sustain them. Finally, the Izilia are a largely agricultural culture who worship the sun, practice ritual sacrifice, and create ancient structures like stone circles, burial mounds, and pit houses. Primal is, for all intents and purposes, a game where hunter-gatherers try to destroy the vestiges of their past and claw their way into the future.

Many commentators have said Far Cry Primal lacks a story, but that’s wrong. The Wenja’s development is the story — a retelling of human survival that incentivizes the player to act like an early human.

Mesolithic 'microliths,' or small stone tools

Mesolithic ‘microliths,’ or small stone tools

Take the sections of the game where Takkar gathers allies — this reflects early humans’ tendency to trade and assimilate. As he gathers the scattered Wenja and organizes them into a community, Takkar builds them from individuals to members of a collective industry centered on turning animal and plant parts into useful, tradable goods. This is broadly correct, since whole groups of people around this time were known for producing specific styles of advanced tools and even trading locally. Likewise, assimilation of other groups — an act that happens later in the game — makes the Wenja stronger through cross-cultural exchange. This reflects the local trading and exchange relationships that existed during the period, some of which even crossed species lines. New evidence suggests that we didn’t just breed with Neanderthals, we influenced each other’s culture as well.

Even the beast master system, which feels like a natural extension of the Far Cry mechanics, symbolizes a major development in human society. Domesticating animals was a major turning point for humanity, who now had dogs to warn of threats at night and help them while hunting. It’s no accident that the special skill canines provide — warning the player when an enemies draw near — was the original use for kept animals. No one, however, rode sabertooth tigers.

These elements are pointing toward a very specific time and place: the Mesolithic.

The Mesolithic was a transition period between the Paleolithic era of hunter-gatherer tribes, to Neolithic societies that relied on agriculture. This middle period was one of slow advancement, a point where humans went from living off their environment to bending and shaping that environment to their will. It was a period where some societies continued the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle while others experimented with living in huts or walled enclosures. Humanity started taking the first shaky steps toward agriculture and the domestication of animals. It was a time of high conflict, when competition for resources pitted groups against each other — in certain parts of Denmark, 44% of Mesolithic remains show signs of violence. In other words, it’s the period Primal depicts in Far Cry’s typically over-the-top manner. There are counter-factual details all over the game. The Izilia’s stone circles, for example, are thousands of years too early, and the Udam are visually designed as Neanderthals or Neanderthal-like, though in 10,000 BC that species was 20-30 millennia dead. While the details themselves aren’t accurate, it’s exaggeration for the sake of effect — if the differences were subtle, players might not see the difference between the tribes. It’s a gratifyingly detailed spectrum for what could’ve just been a game about bashing lions with a club. Ubisoft went beyond recognizing that the mechanics fit the period, and actually said something with them.

But as perfectly as most Far Cry mechanics fit Primal, a few outliers do spoil the soup. The most prominent is Hunter Vision, an ability that feels far too technological for the back-to-basics game.

Now, I have sympathy for the design team here, because without Hunter Vision, Far Cry Primal is basically unplayable. Detailed landscapes tend to conceal animals that have natural camouflage, and make collectable resources fade into the background. Furthermore, real life hunting and gathering tends to rely on a range of senses — like smell, touch, directional hearing, and taste — that visual mediums have a hard time expressing. Real-life wild boar tracking, for instance, requires listening for moving brush and sniffing out their distinctive musk. To put that in a game either requires adding dialogue (“I smell wild boar”), or adding visual indicators that communicate non-visual information. Primal wisely chose the latter.

The problem is that players associate these visual filters — faded background with neon highlights — with technology. It’s analogous to the heat-vision in Predator, or infrared goggles, and never feels natural. Further, it forces the player to spend half the game looking at its colorful landscape in greyscale.

The same issue exists with the owl gameplay. How exactly does an owl communicate that there are five men, two with heavy weapons, in the camp ahead? How does Takkar get the owl to attack the right person, or carry such a payload of bombs? While it’s technically possible to ride a bear, the owl is absurd, and impossible to think of as anything but a drone. Yet it’s there because this is a Far Cry game, and in Far Cry games you need an analogue for the binoculars and tagging system.

This pattern plays out throughout Primal — without fail, the mechanics that don’t fit the period are transplants of, or replacements for, series-standard elements: Hunter Vision, owl tagging, and a world map. These are all necessary mechanics that allow the Far Cry template to work, but they don’t have any precedent in Mesolithic society. They break the spell Primal casts with its pre-Indo European dialogue and oral history introductions. The result is that the game’s most Far Cry-like elements — capturing bases via stealth kills — are by far the weakest and least interesting part.

Don’t misunderstand — it still hooks you. The Cry Assassin: Bat Raider of Mordor template can still dole out the dopamine (oh hello, 3:00 AM, here so soon?), but its familiarity undermines the illusion. It’s the same problem The Revenant struggled with — actor and character never merged. Despite DiCaprio’s virtuoso performance as Hugh Glass, some part of your brain is always thinking: I’m watching Leonardo DiCaprio eat buffalo liver. Familiarity is its own distraction.

And that’s where Far Cry Primal stumbles — no matter how suited to the period, it’s hard to think about the mechanics as anything but Far Cry. For this series, slipping into the Stone Age was like buying an off-the-rack suit — most of it fits perfectly, but the parts that don’t detract from the whole.

Which is a shame, since Primal’s otherwise a standout example of conveying history through mechanics. In fact, it’s such an brilliant pairing of setting and gameplay that I’m inclined to overlook a crooked hem here, or a bulge there.

Given the choice, I’d rather have an inspired but imperfect historical game than none at all.