The most charitable reading of Far Cry 5 involves believing that the people who made the game never asked for this. A game like this — featuring a sprawling, detailed frontier environment populated with landmarks and wildlife and heroes and villains — takes years to create. To try to make a game that touches the Zeitgeist three years in advance is almost never going to work out. But as generous as I can be — as understanding — I can’t help but feel vaguely insulted by Far Cry 5. It’s a game that spends much of its time referencing American culture in very specific ways and then refusing to actually take anything resembling a stance on any of it.
Far Cry 5 has found itself in a particularly unique situation. When the game was announced last May, four months after Trump’s inauguration, it set off alarm bells. Its cover art features the game’s villains, the four Seed siblings, who run a brutal paramilitary cult that has taken over the fictional Hope County, Montana. Front and center is cult leader Joseph Seed, sitting in front of an American flag whose stars have been replaced with a cross symbol that alludes to hate group iconography like the Iron Cross and the Celtic cross. You don’t have to read between the lines to see the kind of villain that Ubisoft’s marketing department was trying to fashion.
Understandably, Ubisoft walked some of this aggressive positioning back as the game’s launch neared. They stressed the villains as cult leaders, dangerous regardless of political orientation, and stressed player choice — the game’s politics are what you make of it. Ubisoft’s reluctance to participate in American political discourse in 2018 makes sense, particularly as a company that still counts “core gamers” as a significant chunk of its customer base. Anger gamers and you run the risk of going to market DOA.
That’s why you have a villain who gives nothing monologues like this:
You judge me. You judge us. The things that we’ve done. People say … that I’m crazy. But when you wake up in the morning you look at the same news that I do. Do your eyes not fill with horror? This is the world!? This? This is the world we built for our children? Communities being torn apart. Walls being erected. Because leaders are too impotent to act. Bullies are too addled to lead righteously.
Joseph goes on like this for a while, and at length, many times throughout the game. His siblings do, too. The world is bad (in nondescript ways), people are weak (for unmentioned reasons), leaders are too wimpy to act, so they build walls. Who has been crowing about a wall for years now? It’s anyone’s guess. The problem with the Project at Eden’s Gate, as the cult is known, is that it stands for nothing except paranoia. They worship and congregate in a church, but religious extremism is never addressed. Its members make no mention of any social, economic, or political issues — they only assert that everything is bad. The lone exception to this that I remember is another Seed brother, Jacob, recalling his time in the Gulf War, where he learned that war can be bad. Good observation.
The vagueness of Far Cry’s villainous quartet — they’re crazy and vicious! Who cares why? — wouldn’t stick in my craw as much if the rest of the game didn’t go out of its way to include a wealth of explicit references, allusions, and dog whistles to current American culture. At one point, a congressional candidate asks you to recover his campaign truck, Nancy (“named after the greatest First Lady to ever serve”), so that he doesn’t get made fun of by “Obama lovin’ libtards.” Far Cry 5 isn’t just set in the U.S. It’s set in Obama’s America.
Or rather, it’s set in Unnamed Leader’s America. An early side mission has a man in a fedora (the trademark hat of conservative luminary Matt Drudge) asking you to procure a compromising VHS tape for a high-value target. Upon securing the tape from a guy with a vaguely Russian accent, a one-sided telephone conversation reveals that your handler has been promoted to “chief of staff.” Who could the person on the other end of the line be???????
At another point, the libtard-fearing candidate asks you to “do some extreme voter suppression and eliminate as many cult members as you can from his district.” A submachine gun available to you is described as able to “burn through bullets faster than a fake news story gets shared.” The main gauge of game progress is an interface called the “Resistance Meter,” for which you earn “Resistance Points.” This stuff doesn’t happen by accident.
The game makes no judgment on whether the trends and talking points it’s referencing are good or bad, and worse yet, it doesn’t allow you to decide for yourself either. The game’s “view from nowhere” philosophy asks you to make the call, but player choice is nowhere to be found. There are no ways to solve problems except for the one the game demands (almost always: killing). You have no option as to which allies you do or do not want to side with.
This would be less galling if the veneer of choice didn’t hang over the game. There are three types of narrative choices: right, wrong, and useless. Make the wrong choice, and the narrative dead-ends and resets until you make the right one that the game’s story requires. In the useless category, there’s your player identity: In the game’s menus, you can customize your character’s gender and appearance, but the game is played from a first-person perspective, so you never see the clothes you’ve picked out. All of the dialogue is written gender-neutral, addressing the silent protagonist as “Deputy” or “Rookie.”
The game knows that its lack of acknowledgment of the player’s identity is lazy. A character named Hurk says this when you first meet him: “Aw, hey, man, I’m sorry. I don’t wanna go on assuming nobody’s gender or nothing. I don’t mean no disrespect. I just call all my homies dude or bro or man regardless of vagitalia or … penilenessness.” How graceful. Far Cry 5 is a game built around interlocking combat and movement systems that can dynamically respond to what you do, but its narrative content is frustratingly static in contrast.
There are hints of irreverence in Far Cry. One mission asks you to gather bull testicles for a food festival — a juvenile quest that works by steering into the skid (“Sexual Healing” plays as a bull mounts another cow). A mission to recruit an ally with a flamethrower plays “Burn Baby Burn” for no reason other than that I guess the designers thought it’d be funny. One particularly inventive mission has you racing to deliver a woman in labor to her midwife as a series of escalating traffic obstacles get in your way. There is a fun game tucked inside Far Cry 5, hobbled by an unjustified need to be self-serious.
In the long view, is this game any more tonally fractured than past Far Cry games, a series based around dropping you into exotic locales to kill the people who live there? Probably not. (In fact, it’s probably worth interrogating at some point why I have a stronger reaction to this game’s failings than those of past games set in foreign lands.) But translating that philosophy to an American setting results in nothing more than a cheap trick, a frustrating uncanny valley of things you know and recognize and can do nothing but roll your eyes at.