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Far Cry 5 Image: Ubisoft

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Far Cry 5 highlights the contradiction at the heart of the series

Can a big, fun game still tell a serious story?

The Far Cry series has always felt at odds with itself. On one side, the first-person shooting games are a wide-open free-for-all, where you can do everything from riding an elephant to creating intricately planned explosions. That’s the fun aspect of the game, the part that keeps players coming back. But Far Cry also wants to be serious, to tell an emotional, cinematic story — though it can be hard to feel heavily invested in a narrative when you just spent 30 minutes fishing with dynamite.

With Far Cry 5, which launches next year, developer Ubisoft Montreal is building a game that’s more contemporary and provocative than any other title in the series before it. Set in Montana, it deals with a militaristic doomsday cult run by a devoted preacher known as the Father. After he takes over the rural community and starts preparing for the end of the world, you take on the role of a young sheriff who has set out to arrest him. There are some new wrinkles here, compared to previous Far Cry games: for the first time in the history of the series, the enemies you face are American citizens. And while there’s serious subject matter at hand, players will have the freedom to spend as much — or as little — time as they want exploring it, with all manner of side diversions to keep them occupied.

According to Ubisoft creative director Dan Hay, the sometimes contradictory nature of the series may be necessary for a big-budget game like this. “If you were making a movie, and you only had an hour and 56 minutes to be able to have a conversation with the viewer, keeping the tone consistent is probably incredibly valuable,” he says. “But as games get bigger, and as players are playing for 20, 30, 40 hours, and they’re able to choose what it is they want to do, we have the ability to put multiple tones. That’s something that games give us.”

Far Cry 5 Image: Ubisoft

Montana might seem a comparatively tame location for a game in the Far Cry series, which has ventured to fictionalized versions of everywhere from Tibet to prehistoric times. The idea was originally pitched back in 2013, and since then the team has spent a good deal of time and resources trying to paint an accurate picture of the region. Designers and artists went on multiple trips to the state, capturing reference images to bring back to the studio, as well as interviewing locals to get an idea of how they speak, think, and live. Hay says this kind of research was necessary so that the game “doesn’t end up being a cliche.”

“At first we didn’t really know much about Montana,” explains lead programmer Raphael Parent. “But the more we discovered what it was, the more it felt like the best idea in the world. We had everything we needed over there. The environment, the people… everything that we wanted in a Far Cry game was actually right there in Montana.”

Far Cry 5 Image: Ubisoft

To make their depiction of the fictional Eden’s Gate cult more accurate, the studio enlisted the help of Rick Ross, a cult expert who claims to have deprogrammed more than 500 former cult members throughout multiple countries. Ross says he taught the team about the dynamics of how cults operate and grow, using real-world examples to show how these groups function on the inside. “A lot of the things that have happened historically not everyone is aware of, so I think what Ubisoft wanted to do was make sure that the cult in the game had a basis in reality so that it really had resonance,” explains Ross. “They did their research.” Many of the tactics that Eden’s Gate uses — such as driving down property values so that they can purchase more land and spread through the region — are pulled directly from the way many cults operate today.

The game’s weighty subject matter has become even more significant over the last year. 2017 has been filled with a seemingly never-ending stream of conflicts, particularly in America, where heavily armed white men have used violence as a way to espouse racist and nationalist views. While the game is focused on cults and their impact on communities, its characters and imagery have echoed real-world events. This was particularly true of the first piece of art for the game, which depicted a group of cult members around a table, much like in the Last Supper, with an alternate version of the American flag as a tablecloth and copious amounts of guns. The crux of the game, meanwhile, involves the primarily white group using extreme force to create their own society distanced from the rest of the country.

While the parallels to recent events are obvious, Hay says the team isn’t trying to make any explicit commentary on current issues surrounding white supremacy or the rise of violent hate groups. The focus remains the fictional cult at center of the game’s story. “I don’t think you’d believe me if I said, ‘Oh that has no effect on us,’” he says of the swath of recent violence on American soil. “Of course it does. We’re human beings and we have conversations and we go home and turn on the news. Things that we never imagined would happen are happening and it affects us. There’s always room for ‘What does that mean?’ and ‘How does that impact things?’ … I think the key for us is that sometimes if you try to make something for everyone, you make nothing. And what we want to be able to do is make something that’s interesting and unique, and stays true to [the concept of Eden’s Gate], that one idea of the Father. It hasn’t changed our focus.”

One of the problems with creating a game that tells a potentially divisive story is that blockbuster titles take years to complete and cost millions of dollars to produce. In order to recoup those costs, developers need to appeal to as wide an audience as possible — and that includes not alienating the substantial player base that loves screwing around in Far Cry. It’s why you so rarely see big-budget games taking a hard political stance.

Far Cry 5 Image: Ubisoft

Talking to the Far Cry 5 team in Montreal can sometimes feel like speaking to two different groups working on two different games. Part of the group seems focused on crafting a serious, believable narrative, while another spends its time making all kinds of cool virtual toys, and finding ways for players to have fun with them. And the latter team is attempting to make the experience much more flexible to the desires of players.

The series has long revolved around a concept called the “golden path,” a sort of ideal that leads you from the beginning of the story to the end. You can stray from it and have some fun, but in order to progress you need to return. Far Cry 5 does away with that altogether. As soon as players complete the opening sequence, they’re free to follow whatever path they choose. “We didn’t want to put boundaries on the player,” says Phil Fournier, associate producer on the game. “There’s no more linear thread that you have to follow.” If you want to focus entirely on ridding Hope County of the vicious cult, you can do that, or you can spend 10 hours fishing in the county’s plentiful lakes. The developers don’t want to push you toward either side of the spectrum.

It’s impossible to fully know how the two sides of the game interact until playing Far Cry 5 when it launches next year. But the conflicted nature of the game also belies a truth about how most modern blockbuster games are made: no matter how well-researched and planned, the story is almost never the driving focus. Just as the game doesn’t force you play one particular way, Far Cry 5 also isn’t trying to persuade you with a specific message. Instead, the setting, characters, and political overtones are a means to an end. And that end is giving players something fun to do. As Fournier explains it, “We provide a playground for players to experience whatever game they want to make.”

Far Cry 5 launches on February 27th on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.

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