Malaria: The Invisible Wall of Far Cry 2

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The greatest enemy in Far Cry 2 doesn’t carry a gun. It doesn’t share the name of a 90’s film starring Bruce Willis as a guy who blows Jack Black to smithereens. It doesn’t head either of the factions that struggle for power throughout the course of the game. The greatest enemy in Far Cry 2 is merciless, cold and doesn’t discriminate between good and evil. To this enemy, all humans are equal regardless of gender, race or age. It cannot be beaten no matter how experienced you become, no matter how many guns you upgrade and no matter how many times you inject yourself with a syrette. Far Cry 2’s greatest enemy is invisible and highly lethal. It is known as Plasmodium and it is the parasite responsible for malaria.

Plasmodium is a single-celled protozoan spread to humans through the bite of the Anopheles mosquito. The saliva of the humble mosquito contains this parasite by the hundreds, and when it takes a blood meal, it unwittingly injects them with the parasite. The mosquito functions like a taxi: it arrives at the cab rank (human skin) and picks up a couple of Plasmodium. Specifically, the taxi picks up male and female gametocytes – sexually active forms of the parasite. The happy couple file into the back seat (the mosquito’s stomach), and procreate by fusing with each other. It’s all really romantic. It is this fusion that ultimately creates their progeny, sporozoites, which are the form of the parasite able to exit the taxi at the next cab rank.

Far Cry 2’s opening scene sees the player being taxied to his hotel in Pala by a local cab driver. Presumably, this man harbours no parasites. He is talkative, introducing the player to the nameless African nation and describing the civil war that threatens to tear it apart. Towards the end of the ride, as the cab approaches the hotel in Pala, the player begins to cough while holding a hand to his head. He steadies himself as the screen blurs at its edges, pulsating slowly. It’s as if the player’s head is pounding from the weight of infection. As you pull up to the hotel, and with the cab driver suggesting you look a little worse for wear, you faint.

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A pill a day keeps the Malaria away.

It is only when you awake, still groggy, that you are informed of your parasitic affliction. The notification comes from The Jackal, an arms dealer tied to both factions struggling for power in the civil war. He waxes poetic, but ultimately spares your life even after it is revealed that it is your mission to kill him. Then you faint again. This is Plasmodium wreaking havoc upon your red blood cells.

Once Plasmodium has departed the taxi and entered the human body, the long worm-like sporozoites first wriggle their way into a blood vessel. From here they can reach the liver and slip into a comfortable new home inside a liver cell. Then the fun begins. In an infected liver cell, the sporozoite matures into a schizont; essentially a carrier of tens of thousands of the red-blood cell-infecting merozoites. Think of a schizont like a Protoss Carrier and its merozoites like the Interceptors. The Carrier eventually explodes which leaves the Interceptors without a host so (unlike in Starcraft) they persist and travel to the bloodstream. Here they can readily infect red blood cells by slipping through their membrane.

This stage of the parasite’s life is where real problems start to arise for the host. The blood cell provides a perfect home, one that Plasmodium manipulates to avoid detection by its own enemies – the cells of the immune system. It also gains the ability to produce the gametocytes, as discussed earlier, and create more and more copies of itself that can perforate the cell, destroying it in the process. Massive loss of red blood cells leads to multi-organ complications and is the reason for a number of the symptoms characteristic of the disease.

far cry 2 shotgun men shooting Malaria: The Invisible Wall of Far Cry 2

Cue ‘take Malaria pill’ dialog box right about … now.

Malaria is the most constant threat in Far Cry 2 and the severity of the disease can be assessed through a simple entry that updates automatically in the Journal. At the beginning of the game, before any medication has been received, the sickness level is set to five. It details ‘shakes, sweating, fever and severe convulsions.’ Although only used briefly as a plot device, the malaria of Far Cry 2 is horrendously inconsistent with a real life Plasmodium infection and it cheapens the outcomes of a very serious and life-threatening disease, while also greatly tarnishing the incredible evolutionary feats of a deeply interesting organism. Essentially, the malaria of Far Cry 2 is a completely new organism.

Reduction of a disease to simple 1’s and 0’s is going to be difficult, especially if it is as well-studied as malaria is. Yet, it feels to me that the disease is utilised half-heartedly as something that only annoys the player, rather than truly limiting them. Symptoms of malaria are cyclical and are aligned to the destruction of the body’s red blood cells. As the parasite reproduce and destroy massive amounts of the critical oxygen-carrying cells, coldness and rigor sets in, as does a characteristic fever. For a game that heavily relies on the reality of bullet wounds, expansive landscapes and gun rust, it is a strange decision to distort the cyclic nature of malaria.

Randomizing malaria attacks is designed to remove control from the player and provide a boundary to exploring the vastness of Far Cry 2’s carefully crafted countryside. The rapid onset of a malaria attack is coupled with blurred, swirling vision and reductions in stamina, but symptoms can be quickly relieved through the use of an immediate-action miracle pill (seriously, if this pill exists, millions of people would love to know where it comes from, Ubisoft). Of course, the pill box eventually empties and the malaria attacks keep coming, which sees the player faint and return to one of two locations where they can acquire more pills. There is no harsh punishment for death, because there is no death. The parasite does not kill you, it simply stops you.

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Forgot to take your pills? Chances are you’ll see this.

Without a microscope Plasmodium is an invisible parasite, but in the game world, it becomes an invisible wall.

The quick-fix pill box renders the gameplay mechanic meaningless. It no longer becomes something that has to be micro-managed but something that becomes a frustrating distraction to the core gameplay. The mechanic itself is parasitic, damaging its host every time it randomly blurs the screen with a yellow tinge. If it was designed purely as a plot point, it should have been used as such. If it was designed to be micro-managed, then it should have been implemented with less abandon. For instance, utilising the cyclic nature of the parasite would provide a true micro-management system which would involve the player returning to a safe house for rest every 40-48 hours. Hell, it’d be like a Majora’s Mask FPS. People love Majora’s Mask! With the abundance of safe houses in the game world, this would have added an extra layer of realism that Far Cry 2 seems to be applauded for.

Ultimately, the malaria of Far Cry 2 is a different disease to the one that we have become familiar with outside of our digital worlds. Perhaps it is a completely new species of Plasmodium? Plasmodium ubisofteri, perhaps? In this nameless African nation, pills are readily available to alleviate our symptoms and death only comes at the hands of an enemy far less magnificent than Plasmodium.

That makes me feel a little cold.

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