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Far Cry 5 wasn’t a game for the Trump era, but it tried to be one anyway

Far Cry 5 wasn’t a game for the Trump era, but it tried to be one anyway

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Far Cry 5 is a game crippled by its potential for social relevance. Ubisoft’s open-world shooter series usually involves fictional conflicts in nonexistent countries, far away from America’s shores. But the latest installment, released last week, is set in rural Montana. Players are fighting an enemy that’s much closer to home: a gun-hoarding cult whose imagery evokes separatist militias and fundamentalist Christianity.

The general consensus since the game’s release is that Far Cry 5 completely screws this up. Ben Kuchera at Polygon writes that Far Cry 5 gestures toward serious issues like religious extremism or gun culture but gets nervous and pulls its punches, stopping short of being either entertainingly apolitical or seriously timely. GQ’s review described it as “a video game for cowards.” The Verge’s own Andrew Webster called it a game that “creates the illusion that it has something to say, then stubbornly refuses to say anything.”

But, intentionally or not, Far Cry 5 doesn’t feel like a failed attempt to explore far-right separatism. It feels like a game that started out loosely based on then-contemporary politics and right-wing splinter groups; got derailed by the real world’s hard, sudden turn into political catastrophe; and ended up as a mess of “topical” buzzwords.

The game feels made for a world with different priorities

All fiction draws from the world around it, and for Far Cry 5, that feels like a world with very different ideas about what was important and controversial. Creative director Dan Hay started writing the story in response to events that ranged from the 2008 financial crisis to the January 2016 Ammon Bundy siege in Oregon. But it was conceived before militia members marched with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and “small-town America” calcified into hackneyed shorthand for “hardcore Trump Country,” and before a feeling of unease turned into outright panic in 2017. Much of Far Cry 5 feels less like a game about a modern world in crisis, and more like a stock conservative fantasy about the triumph of small-town America.

Contra most of Ubisoft’s pre-release hype, the group that bears most resemblance to a conservative militia in Far Cry 5 isn’t the Eden’s Gate cult. It’s the resistance movement that players create to fight the cult in fictional Hope County, Montana, a town already full of gun enthusiasts and members of existing militias. As you proceed through the game, blowing things up to raise your “resistance meter,” cult leaders will periodically accuse you of being too violent, evoking the standard first-person shooter “both sides are bad” trope. But the cult is so ridiculously monstrous that it’s just obvious hypocrisy. When a resistance member impliedly tortures a cultist at one point, it’s played as a quirky offhand detail, while the cult engages in over-the-top monstrosity like making children eat their own parents.

Far Cry 5 is peppered with on-the-nose references, like a corrupt politician who wants to “make Hope County great again” and a side quest that involves the apocryphal Trump pee tape. But its most straight-faced and important storylines are generally about pastors, veterans, farmers, and other positive rural American archetypes protecting their way of life. I recruited one companion by defending war heroes’ graves from cultists trying to “erase our history,” and gunning down dozens of enemies yelling things like “Destroy the monument!” It also makes more sense that nobody in the resistance is using their literally infinite planes and helicopters to go find the National Guard if it’s a conservative militia; there’s a long-running animosity between Northwestern survivalists and federal law enforcement after incidents like Idaho’s infamous 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff.

‘Far Cry 5’ is about guns and religion the way women-in-prison films are about criminal justice reform

The members of Eden’s Gate obviously hoard guns, and they’re theoretically Christian — they scrawl the names of various deadly sins on every available surface — which is why many reviews have criticized Far Cry 5’s cult for not drawing on real Christian Fundamentalist or neo-Nazi ideology. But if you disregard Ubisoft’s interviews and marketing, you get the sense that the game isn’t avoiding these topics. It’s just not interested in them.

Despite Ubisoft’s solemn PR campaign, Far Cry 5 isn’t a serious narrative game about political extremism hampered by shooter mechanics or controversy-shy executives. It’s the ludic equivalent of a trashy exploitation film, with a core of ultraviolence dipped in a shiny coating of social commentary. Far Cry 5 is “about” guns and religion the way ‘50s women-in-prison films were about criminal justice reform. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s not surprising that consistent political messaging takes a backseat to firefights and explosions.

If you disregard the surface-level imagery, many elements of Eden’s Gate feel less like a right-wing cult and more like a fever-dream rendering of the Manson Family, which is a prime conservative example of radical left-wing violence. It’s a sadistic “peace and love” collective with a surface-level adherence to apocalyptic scripture, full of drug addicts who are — as an actual game mechanic — controlled with rock music. The game’s “bliss” plant, a hallucinogen that irreversibly turns cultists into murderous zombies, is an easy way to make players feel better about killing cultists. But it’s also reflecting the broad cultural trope of LSD-fueled cult brainwashing. (Incidentally, one of the many anti-Barack Obama conspiracy theories involved Obama being controlled by ‘60s radicals — something that’s much less relevant today.)

Austin Walker at Waypoint floated the notion that players in Far Cry 5 are “the agent of the broken status quo,” working for conservative conspiracy theorists and defending an hyper-individualist culture of personal bunkers against a collectivist threat. Walker quickly dismissed the idea, but it’s the most coherent interpretation of Far Cry 5 that I’ve seen — except that in this world the status quo isn’t supposed to be broken, and the conspiracy theorists were right.

Ubisoft’s pre-release hype is basically at odds with the game itself

I doubt that Ubisoft intended this reading of the game. Again, Hay was inspired by the 2016 Bundy occupation of an Oregon wildlife refuge, which implicitly makes Eden’s Gate the anti-government extremists. And your character does ask for help from a government official, who offhandedly remarks that fighting violent extremists would be “a handout.” This is Far Cry 5’s approach to direct topical politics: awkwardly dropping buzzwords into characters’ mouths like a neural network trained on an infinite loop of Fox & Friends.

Under a Clinton presidency, Far Cry 5 might have looked like the original Deus Ex, which cast militant anti-UN conspiracy theorists as heroes in a stylized sci-fi story. Fictionalizing something like the Bundy standoff would have been political, but probably not as explosive as it (and really, everything) seems now. It would have been easier to accept a story that threw together a lot of ambient tropes about cults, rather than committing to seriously exploring 21st century separatist militias. Rather than a deliberate political statement, it would seem more like the obvious path of least resistance for a “topical” but meaningless video game story pieced together by hundreds of people over the course of several years.

When a character today preaches about the apocalypse, though, it feels frighteningly close at hand, and Far Cry 5, an entertainingly absurd game where cultists fly fighter jets and you have a pet bear named Cheeseburger, seems adrift in this climate. Several people have unfavorably compared the game to last year’s Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, an equally outlandish but more narratively incisive shooter. Wolfenstein recognized and adapted to a world where shooting Nazis was suddenly controversial. Far Cry 5 tossed references to Trump, fake news, and gerrymandering into what is essentially an updated take on Red Dawn.

It’s no surprise that the results sent critics looking for another Wolfenstein, and found Far Cry 5 wanting. Ubisoft spent months hinting at a political message that’s at odds with the game’s actual plot, at a time when people are desperate for stories that will help make sense of contemporary America. Far Cry 5 wanted to play with controversial issues, instead of seriously analyzing them — but in the current political moment, that just makes it seem irrelevant.