Resting in the rolling valleys of Montana lays a small, picturesque farm. Armed men roam the farm picking at their skin, occasionally kicking cages that contain ravenous killer dogs. They chat amongst themselves, load and unload their rifles as a church hymn plays over a loudspeaker, followed by a dramatic sermon by one of the Seed brothers. This is the death cult at the heart of Far Cry 5 who are an alt-right flavoured fundamentalist cult running roughshod over the picturesque Hope County – the player finds themselves trapped in the grips of a civil war between Edens Gate and the colourful cast of American eccentricities that populate the local towns of Hope County. The unfortunate part of this intoxicating prospect is that it all happens amidst our fractured political realities of 2018 – Far Cry 5 brings controversial topics to the table but then seemingly refuses to comment on them. For players, this means the standard open-world tropes of wandering around a big map of squishy, explosive targets is simply given a 2018 lick of paint but does the players interaction with the playground of destruction mean anything? Does it ever marry with the proposed problems that the game challenges the player with?
But first, some historical perspective is needed. Video games in the 2000’s, culturally speaking, were pretty rough on players with more liberal sensibilities – Thanks mostly to the reckless foreign policy prevalent in the United States at the time, video games became a grey and brown washout of middle-eastern modern conflicts. Gamers would play the frat boy, jock soldier stereotype in dehumanizingly sterile portraits of warfare – Games like Call of Duty presented middle eastern conflicts almost like high-octane action movies where the villains were caricatures, foreign invaders, power-hungry Russians and occasionally (as is the case with Modern Warfare 3) savage 3rd world murderers.
Gaming has matured by leaps and bounds since then – Entering the 2010’s with games like Dark Souls, Journey, The Last Guardian gives players something to celebrate. Not just because it pushed away the Jarhead culture of mid-2000’s FPS’s but also because it injected a much needed cultural and artistic legitimacy that gaming seemed to lose at the outbreak of the war in Iraq. Realistically, however, the targets have merely been changed. The ideology remains the same: The people you fight are monstrous, dehumanized. They are caricatures, and there’s little room for nuance.
It’s a trope that Far Cry itself has cast aside itself. When it was released in 2013, Far Cry 3’s take on player interaction was genuinely unique: You played a pampered, privileged college kid thrust into a brutal fight for survival against a tyrannical private army headed by a charismatic and terrifying leader, Vaas. At first, the protagonist is uneasy with killing – his revulsion becomes a small stepping stone to overcome but as the deaths start to pile up the pangs of guilt are all but evaporated. Soon, the player rips through the island as a one-man wrecking crew where his enemies are mere numbers – dehumanized, uniforms fed to the player like cattle. But Far Cry 3 was also a brilliantly self-aware parody of macho shooter games where the player’s willing role in the circus of destruction is questioned and criticised. In presenting a deadly, cruel world where you have to kill to survive, the story draws full circle by holding a mirror up to the players own bloodthirsty trail of revenge and is forced to realize that they aren’t much better than unhinged lunatics like Vaas.
At the time, Far Cry 3 was a relevant piece of work. Gamers had weathered the storm of the mid-2000’s where the players’ moral choices were permanently switched off and they were commanded to rip through armies of foreign invaders, terrorists, Russians, and all manner of defacto state villains as judged by US foreign policy at the time. Maturing out of that, Far Cry 3 landed at a time when the constant forward momentum of Call of Duty and Medal of Honour was starting to grind the patience of gamers. It was both simultaneously a fun first-person shooter that entrusted the player with freedom of choice whilst still giving them what they want: a high octane, explosive action game. The meta-narrative was just the cherry on the cake – a perfectly satirical reaction to years of brutal US foreign policy.
Far Cry 3 was also ferociously popular – it wasn’t just a hip meta-narrative, it also had mass mainstream appeal. Far Cry 4 released a few years later and was, sadly, a copy-pasted clone of 3 in a new setting. Far Cry 5 has tried to change but the core experience is the same: It’s just 2018 flavoured. The aggressive private militaries might not be Call of Dutyesque Islamic fundamentalists and they won’t be shadowy private armies controlled by a charismatic villain just like in previous Far Cry games – They are alt-right themed American fundamentalists – separatists who want to disassociate from the liberal SJW agenda. They are the reams of Internet trolls from /r/The_Donald who suddenly picked up a gun and started taking people prisoner. In the wake of horrific mass shootings perpetrated by the kinds of people that would join Edens Gate in Far Cry 5, The concept is terrifyingly real. Ubisoft’s refusal to provide any meaningful commentary on our fraught times is both cowardly and insensitive. By playing up our real-world problems as mere pawns for the player to manipulate, Far Cry 5 reveals itself as yet another franchise that seeks to devalue and dilute its biting content in the pursuit of player fun.
As Far Cry 5 is released, the Netflix series Wild, Wild Country also coincidentally crops up. It’s a story about a vast, multi-million dollar cult headed up by a charismatic leader moving into a sleepy, small American town – the ensuing chaos is far too fascinating to spoil here but the comparison between Wild, Wild Country and Far Cry 5 isn’t as far-fetched as you might think. The former is a nuanced and strictly detailed account of small-town politics clashing with the high-minded pleasure seeking liberal elites to an almost devastating degree. It discusses racism, anti-intellectualism, anti-immigration, elitism, terrorism, murder and conspiracy. The depths the story goes to makes for flabbergasting viewing, one that proves that truth is stranger than fiction. Contrasted against Far Cry 5 which shares a similar, albeit 2018-flavoured theme and it’s painfully obvious that the writers of Far Cry 5 had no intention of doing a fascinating topic justice and merely co-opted the pain of our real world to create an exploding (albeit brilliantly designed) playground.
Far Cry 5 doesn’t want you to be informed. It doesn’t want its players to engage with the politics put on display. In fact, the politics portrayed in Far Cry 5 become meaningless iconography. The player’s course through the carnage and death is just an instrument for enjoyment. When the series was rebooted in 2013, who’d have thought that it, too, would soon fall prey to the themes it so deftly warned us about.
This isn’t just a problem with Open World games or a problem specifically with Far Cry – it’s problem within gaming itself. Morality is a concept that is often approached in blinkered, good/bad extremes. Take a game like Mass Effect, for example, which has a one-sided “good/bad” morality slider that changes as you perform good or bad deeds. Real human morality is a confusing, terrifying beast. Great people are capable of having dark hearts, and nasty human beings are occasionally capable of incredible beauty. Sometimes people are a melding of every good and bad trait anyone ever has and often, we as humans are just accident prone mistakes trying to chisel some form of logic and reason into the chaos of the natural world. Video games and it’s super fun open world playgrounds haven’t found a way to explore that, yet. Nowhere is that more evident than in the super fun, excellently designed Far Cry 5. A series that once questioned players role in the carnage has now become the carnage and even worst, it robs the player of any moral implication in it. It has, unfortunately, become what it warned us about.