The Virtual Life – Far Cry 5 Pulls All Its Punches
Since its reveal, Far Cry 5 has been billed as a game that would boldly look into the dark fears that underlie the current geopolitical climate. Creative director Dan Hay has been frank in his conversations about the paranoia and armageddon nightmares that fueled Far Cry 5's inspirations, as per his interview with The Telegraph late last year:
I felt like the global village was being pulled apart, and we're starting to hear people talk about separation, people talking about "us" and "them." It really felt like we had taken a turn. I was in downtown Toronto and there was this guy who came around the corner wearing a sandwich board, and he was kind of disheveled and basically said "the end is near." I remember I had two thoughts from that.
Thought number one is "well that guy is probably right," and thought number 2 is "that's the first time I've ever looked at somebody wearing that sign while thinking he might be right." It dawned on me: we had taken a step closer.
Set in Hope County, a secluded community in Montana, the latest in Ubisoft's sandbox-shooter series finds players squaring off against a religious cult, called Eden's Gate, that's seized control of the area and is recruiting people against their will into its ranks. The leader of the cult, Joseph Seed, sees the end of the world bearing down on civilization and believes that God has chosen him to lead its survivors to endure what he calls The Collapse.
On paper, the premise sounds terrifying, something that could result in an unapologetic, bold portrait of American home-grown terror of modern times. A game that could look upon controversial subjects such as gun rights and the intersection of religion and violence with an unwavering, critical gaze. However, the truth is that the final version of Far Cry 5 plays it safe. There are hints of an apocalyptic vision and references to The End Times as the game forces you to sit through a monologue from each antagonist multiple times. The game certainly has enough grisly scenes around the county, with corpses strung up to make an example of those who don't join Eden's Gate. However, the problem with Far Cry 5 is that it doesn't do the groundwork for the terror and paranoia it supposedly seeks to inspire.
The game spends a large amount of time telling you that you should feel a certain way instead of actually trying to get you to feel that way. Take Joseph Seed, for example. At every turn, characters are telling you how charismatic and terrifying he is, and yet, there's no evidence of it. Seed's mostly just another David Koresh-type sporting a manbun instead of greasy overflowing locks. At the same time, there's the implication that Eden's Gate has taken advantage of the international fears of nuclear war and incompetent leadership to bring people into its fold and manipulate them, but there's never any scenes that showcase how such an extremist brand of religion functions in earnest. Instead of letting you see the means to which such groups trap people into their way of living, Far Cry 5 is content to rely on lazy tropes, like drugs being used as a way of mind control, sleepwalking the same, exact trails that BioShock blazed over a decade ago.
In truth, cults gain power from desperation. These organizations prey on people who are having a rough go of it, whether it's from substance abuse, being socially ostracized, not being able to keep down a job, so on and so forth. Cults give the downtrodden a sense that their lives have value in a way that they didn't before, that they are validated emotionally and spiritually. To explore that as a theme would be an arduous undertaking, one that could result in something genuinely compelling. That Far Cry 5 settles for anything less is a huge disappointment to me.
The cult followers you fight in Far Cry 5 are functionally no different than the pirates you fight in 3 or the fascists you fight in 4. They either run at you screaming, firing blindly, or they stick to cover and shoot at you. They'll insult you. They'll say they're giving their life for Joseph Seed, so on and so forth, the kind of barks you expect from all first-person shooters. You don't really get to know any of these people or the cultural symptoms that made them the way they are. You're just expected to believe what the game tells you: that these people, through one way or another, came to be a part of Seed's cult and now they have to die. I understand that the genre requires you to see these people as targets more than characters, but given the deadly serious subject matter, that Far Cry 5 doesn't bother to try and humanize the cultists, to try and make you understand why they've fallen under the sway of a madman, is a fatal flaw in the game's attempts to create an unnerving, bleak world.
Instead, Hope County is a strange, hollow playground. It's a land where, one moment, I'm looking up at a dead man hanging from a billboard, his guts spilling into the street, and in another, I'm cutting off a bull's testicles for some hick festival. Far Cry 5 wants to be wacky and fun, wants you to kick turkeys to death and ride ATVs off mountains while, all in the same breath, point a finger at America's decayed institutions and have some profound realization that never comes, because, again, the game hasn't done the legwork. My profound disappointment with Far Cry 5 isn't because the game is a complicated, moral mess or that it isn't fun to play (on the contrary, combat and exploration in Far Cry 5 are as fun as they've ever been in the series). Instead, my dismay stems from the fact that during my 23-plus hour stint in Hope County, I never saw, not once, something that could be described as an earnest attempt on the part of Far Cry 5 to engage with its dark subject matter at all. Not once. I find that astonishing.
To be clear: I do not mean that Far Cry 5 presented politics or ideology that I disagree with, and it bummed me out. Instead, Far Cry 5 has no stance, has nothing substantial to say about cults, religion, politics, or the world at large. It's simply a run-and-gun exercise through a poorly built nightmare world. To even call it cheap and cynical would assert that the game has a viewpoint in the first place. It doesn't. And that's more disheartening than any criticism I could levy against it for having a bad story or poor writing. It feels like a game with a bold vision that's been compromised in some fatal way. I can stand a piece of work that presents ideologies and philosophies I bristle against, but for a game to assert that it has something to say, something profound about modern ills in particular, and then not bother to take a stance feels cowardly.
There's a certain amount of cynicism when it comes to triple-A games doing experimental and bold things in order to tackle complicated issues. Players and critics often profess to feeling weary with how many games emerge from big-budget developers and publishers that attempt to take on complicated subject matter and often result in something that's not quite there. Mafia III, Spec Ops: The Line, 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, and Nier Automata are all recent games that come out hard, with strong beliefs, often at the expense of interactivity or systems, but they've got heart. They say something in the end. It may not be a philosophy you agree with, as a player, and the way they articulate these beliefs are messy but they are games with things to say. About love, violence, war, sex, race, so on and so forth.
By my measure, Far Cry 5 does not seem like such a work. It talks a big game. It boasts and promises to gnash its teeth and not go down without a fight. And then it looks into the darkness at the heart of America ever so briefly, and flinches.
For more on Far Cry 5, check out our review here.