About halfway through Far Cry 3 (which I'll review this week), you rescue a character who, we are made to understand, has been raped by his captor. The victim has been imprisoned in a dingy basement just feet from a busy road; the sequence, which ends in the murder of the rapist, is an obvious allusion to the famous male rape-and-revenge scene in Pulp Fiction that gained a lot of its neo-Gothic horror from the fact that it took place in the back room of a store on a bustling Los Angeles street.
As far as I know, this is the most prominent treatment rape has received in a major narrative game, and it has barely been mentioned in the release coverage. This, to me, is nearly shocking. This medium endured a months-long controversy over a hidden-in-code, R-rated depiction of consensual sex; why isn't this a big deal? Rock Paper Shotgun more or less clucked their tongues today, and they had a fair point: the revelation feels trivial and isn't really examined. Why bring up such a difficult subject and immediately dismiss it?
I'm trying to figure out why this discovery, which is far less graphic than the scene in Pulp Fiction, bothers me so much more. Certainly games should have the liberty to depict any aspect of the human experience; that is the promise of representational media. I want to say that it treats the subject irresponsibly, but it's no more irresponsible than the Pulp Fiction scene, which is pure exploitation.
The scene in Pulp Fiction serves a very powerful narrative and structural function. It allies the Bruce Willis and Ving Rhames characters, who have previously been on the verge of murdering each other. It also sets up a powerful audience expectation for retribution; we want to cheer when the battered Willis decides not to leave Rhames behind and returns to save him with a katana. The audience feels, in a way, violated; we give our permission for further brutality. The "I'm gonna get medeival on your ass" moment is one of the great applause lines in modern film. In a way that's incredibly perverse, right? I mean, we're cheering on the brutal crime lord because he's going to torture the weird racist hillbilly who just raped him. But it also feels, somehow, justified, because it addresses really powerful feelings that the story is structured to make us feel.
I think the reason the implied rape in Far Cry feels weird and a little wrong is because it doesn't really serve a narrative or a structural function. We haven't met the victim before in the game; the first time we meet him, we find out he has been raped. The player has no attachement to the character, and frankly, we have not seen the act itself. We already want to get the victim out of captivity; the rape doesn't change that. It didn't make me want to kill the perpetrator any more - you'll want to kill him for other, more trivial reasons already (he sends you on a series of pretty pointless sidequests, and yes, that should tell you how strangely flat the "rape" revelation falls). The player is not meant to feel the outrage and anger associated with the act itself. You're only frustrated that it's taken you so long to get to this point.
A lot of movies treat rape somewhat cavalierly, and I don't think Far Cry is totally irresponsible or wrong for writing the subject into the game. I do think that in narrative - and if you look at notable examples in novels and movies from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to Deliverance - rape tends to generate extremely strong structural momentum. In Far Cry, rape is brought up and quickly dismissed, an afterthought. Ultimately, I think that is why the rape in Far Cry sits so uneasily; it simply is at odds with the way our narratives usually treat it.