Far Cry 5 just hit consoles and PC, so how does the controversial cultist chaos fare in the politically hostile climate of 2018?
Not great, it seems.
While the lush landscapes and Montana scenery are enough to make even the most sceptical of eyes water on the elite consoles, there doesn’t seem to be enough backbone to support. I use the word backbone, because the entire experience is built around a controversial premise which gameplay desperately tries to ignore. In a game world dictated by a hateful group of radicalised, gun-loving Americans, there’s a bizarre amount of hush hush corner sweeping going on. As a faceless cop you’ve been dealt the task to destroying a cult of religious purists hellbent on shooting anything that moves. Their charismatic leader, Joseph Seed sits at the head of the “Project at Eden’s Gate”. Seed has been recruiting residents of Hope County into his fateful gang using less than pleasant means, namely that of an intoxicating, mind-altering drug known as “bliss”. All this is set against a backdrop of financial and political unrest, the sometimes challenging intricacies of free speech, and a number of topically relevant pain points of the decade – namely guns, drugs, and corrupt leaders. It’s difficult, then, to sit through an experience created so carefully so as to not push any of these buttons too forcefully.
That’s just the problem. The game is far too careful. While the storyline centres a cult around Christianity, every nod to the idea of religion is quickly swept aside. It feels like Far Cry 5 is intentionally vague about points it could offer meaningful commentary on. And that’s incredibly frustrating from an industry standpoint. After the title’s initial announcement, the world was abuzz with the controversy of the game’s setting, characters, and relationship with gun control. It was particularly exciting for those who have played smaller indie games that tackle real world issues – Papers Please and This War of Mine, for example. Finally, we had a massive studio willing to explore the potential of video games to act as social commentary in one of its most prolific franchises. Even the negative feedback from those who saw no place in cultural discussion within the video game medium was defended by critics. Far Cry 5 had the rare opportunity to bring social commentary gaming to the mainstream and it ducked out at the last chance.
Granted, releasing a politically challenging, social commentary game is a risk, even for a small studio. For Ubisoft that risk is amplified indefinitely. That being said, is no political or moral stance more dangerous than a staunch one? After all, the game justifies a murderous cult roaming free with a radicalisation get out of jail free card. At the same time, they allow the perceived good guys to gun down as many cultists as they can using the excuse that they’re drugged.
There are moments where the game seems to veer in the direction of commentary. From conversations surrounding a certain unqualified American leader winning elections using silenced votes, to the desperation that can follow financial difficulties in rural areas, Far Cry 5 constantly hints that it has something to say. It just never comes out and says it. Take, for example, the apparent dichotomy between the Project at Eden’s Gate cultists and those the game calls “Preppers”. Preppers have been (you guessed it) preparing for a time when they may have to fight to save their country. The cultists are actually attempting to take their country back from perceived liberalism. There’s an amazing conversation to be had here. After all, the ‘good guys’ are pretty similar to the ‘bad guys’ in this scenario, and the topic of reclaiming land surely hits home in American history. And yet nothing is said.
I’m reminded of a conversation I unfortunately overhead while studying in America. My roommate was classically naive and infuriatingly high pitched, and I recall snorting while overhearing her on the phone saying; “I mean, and this is just my personal opinion, but I just think abuse is reeeaaaallly bad y’know”. Of course abuse is bad. It’s abuse. What more do you have to say on that topic – is there no more depth you can apply to this situation? That phone call is Far Cry 5, and my roommate is their decision to dampen any form of conversation surrounding the issues they are tapping ever so lightly. Cults are bad. Gun laws are complicated. Religion can sometimes be taken to extremes. Drugs can change people. Well done, but surely there’s a more nuanced experience to be had here. I mean, you literally walk out of a scene where cultists are torturing someone for information and straight into another room where your guys are doing the exact same thing. And yet again, nothing is said.
These events are all in cut-scenes; structured story events in which developers have almost complete control over how characters are interacted with and represented. In fact, step out of a cut-scene and begin roaming the hills and lakes of Hope County and you’d be forgiven for forgetting the fiery turbulence you’ve left behind. There’s no doubt about it, this open world is stunning. With freedom to fish, befriend the local wildlife, and explore every nook and cranny of this idyllic setting, you can truly witness the potential we now have to create dynamic, immersive environments. It’s a bizarre dissonance that easily distances us from the main themes of the game, and represents the difficulty of an open world when housing a storyline as carefully muted as Far Cry 5. The issues of the main storyline, the lore of the world, and the unrest they have created in the towns, simply can’t be maintained across a sprawling traversable landscape. It’s too tight, too confined to its creators’ fears of controversy, and too carefully plotted to be allowed to infuse every experience of the game world. The result is a world completely incompatible with the story.
Ultimately, Ubisoft have taken the easy, narratological method of storytelling here, when we’re beginning to enter a wave of ludological storytelling in social commentary games. Relying on cut-scenes and not mechanics or gameplay, Far Cry’s storyline feels stilted at best, and cowardly at worst.