Playing Prehistory with Far Cry Primal
by Daniel García Raso, Independent Researcher
The past has always been a great source of inspiration for different cultural and artistic genres such as cinema, literature, television and, of course, video games. We can always find mistakes or inaccuracies from a strictly heuristic point of view (after all, the number of works that accurately reflect the past can be counted on the fingers of one hand).
In video games, Prehistory and History have been the starting point for numerous titles and, unlike other games in which the past has been used as context, it has occasionally been represented in a more than acceptable way (for example, in the Age of Empires series or in the saga Assasin's Creed). However, most titles present a stereotypical portrayal of Prehistory where, to begin with, even dinosaurs appear! A work like Far Cry Primal, by the French producer Ubisoft, was necessary.
The game puts us in the skin of Takkar, a member of the Wenja tribe, who is forced to regroup its members in the land of Oros. All names are invented, but the place and time of the story is most probably Central Europe around 10.000 BC, during the Mesolithic or the transition period to the Neolithic, according to current dating for that European region. Along with the Wenja, there are two other tribes in Oros: the northern Udam, rough cannibals; and the southern Izila, slender and worshipers of fire.
This is a very promising starting point that then becomes genius when we start completing the missions. Takkar must go gather the members of his tribe scattered around Oros to build a village. The construction of the village was very Mesolithic, since at that time the sedentary lifestyle, more permanent than seasonal, was beginning to be the norm. In addition, in his mission he needs specific characters for the proper development of the economy and the organization of the new settlement, such as expert hunters, expert collectors and a shaman. Far Cry Primal, thus, puts the accent on one of the most important characteristics of human groups during Prehistory: the importance of the survival of the group, and of the collective versus the individual. What matters is the ‘us’, not the ‘me’.
But there is more, of course. Much more. With our character, the collection of resources (through hunting and gathering) is the main plot while advancing the game. We must collect wood and stones of different types and hunt animals to make our weapons and other utensils. There comes a time (near the final chapter of the game) when we have already collected and hunted so much that it is no longer necessary (because we have kept it in containers), although it is always possible that we are left to hunt an animal whose skin is required to make a weapon or a garment. The relationship between humans and animals during the proto-domestication period is also present, although it is represented in quite an imaginative way, since Takkar can tame the fiercest animals and get them on his side, obeying all the orders given to them to attack their rivals Udam or Izila. You can even ride them!
Of course, as already mentioned, there is always a ‘but’, and in Far Cry Primal there is more than one. Takkar, at a certain moment will also get a hook (of metal!) that allows him to rappel and climb the cliffs of Oros. Also, in one of the missions, one that is supposed to be a premonitory dream of Takkar, we must hound a giant Venus of Willendorf. I repeat: a Venus of Willendorf in the Mesolithic (as if we had to hound Takkar himself today).
But the truth is that if we put aside these tiny flaws, Far Cry Primal is a game that not only excellently reflects what life was like in Prehistory but also points to the exact moment of the Mesolithic and the transition to the Neolithic. Judging from the interactions with the shaman of the tribe, Tensay, the importance of these interactions for the tribe, as a spiritual as well as a political axis, acting as Takkar's counsellor, manifests itself. Shamanism, as well, is reflected with the importance it held during Prehistory, as ethnographic evidence accumulated by Anthropology suggests.
Another flaw? Perhaps the exaltation of war. It is true that there are ethnographic testimonies that attest tribal conflict, but perhaps not to the extremes in which it is reflected in Far Cry Primal, where tribes are portrayed as savages, as if killing with machine guns or bombs were more human than with a stone spear. An example that deserves special mention is the Udam, the rough and cannibal tribe of the north, who look like Neanderthal and not Homo sapiens sapiens, the only human species that existed on earth since the Upper Palaeolithic.
Carrot and stick. Because another aspect worth highlighting in the effort made by Ubisoft in moving the player to Prehistory and the Mesolithic has to do with language. Thus, in Oros, everyone speaks a language invented by Dr. Andrew Miles Byrd and Dr. Brenna Reinhart Byrd, of the University of Kentucky, experts in Proto-Indo-European and linguistics. He himself has recognized that language was invented taking the Proto-Indo-European as a reference. Perhaps the dates do not coincide, since experts estimate that Proto-Indo-European was spoken in central Europe during the Neolithic period, but nor is it theoretically unreasonable, especially if we consider how the figures ‘dance’ from one area of Europe to another. In addition, the main objective in creating a language inspired by Proto-Indo-European is to contribute to the setting and context of the game, and it has certainly succeeded in that aspect.
Finally, one of the final moments of the game should be highlighted; that is when Takkar kidnaps one of the members of the Izila tribe and takes him to his village to teach them the secrets of his people. Takkar wants to learn how to handle fire and be able to create weapons with it, but he is taken by surprise (and us too) when the Izila tells him: “I can bring seeds and teach you how to plant them. You and the Wenja can have all the food you want”. It is communicating nothing more and nothing less than Agriculture, which perfectly reflects the moment of humanity right before the Neolithic. Ubisoft dares to deal even with theory, by opting for a diffusionist model.
Far Cry Primal has its drawbacks, details that could have been handled in a more credible way, but we should not forget that it is a videogame, and if it risks being too real it can end up being boring; and a boring video game is synonymous to failure. All in all, Far Cry Primal is to video games what Quest for Fire or The Clan of the Cave Bear were to Cinema and Literature.