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Far Cry 6 is a failed chance to put Spanish front and center

A missed opportunity

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Latin America isn’t a common destination in video games. In the few instances where digital landscapes have taken place in the region, results have been mixed. Characters often fall into the trope of saying random Spanish words during conversations to remind us of their nationality. Local socio-political issues are rarely handled with the proper nuance, while cultural portrayals can be hit or miss. Far Cry 6, the latest installment in the open-world series by Ubisoft, doesn’t do much to evade these problems. But interestingly enough, it’s the first AAA game set in Latin America that gets close to putting Spanish front and center.

Taking place in the Cuba-inspired region of Yara, Far Cry 6 is set amidst a clash of conflicts. The leader in power, Antón Castillo, who is voiced by Afro-Italian actor Giancarlo Esposito, rules over the citizens with a dictatorship. As everyone below the upper class is suffering under an abusive regime, protagonist Dani Rojas is tasked with uniting guerrilla groups to fight back.

Much like Far Cry 5’s elusive attempt at tackling white supremacy in the United States, it’s difficult to digest such heavy topics at face value in the context of the Far Cry formula. The games aren’t exactly known for their seriousness, as the core gameplay tends to lean on weapon experimentation and highly flammable objects in every corner to create your own The A-Team set pieces. Sadly, the Latin American culture that the game wants to evoke is intertwined with this, making it harder to ignore the dissonance of calling “Amigos” to help you in battle while you plan the next step to take down a dictator.

None of this took me by surprise, as I had arrived at the game expecting to see this conflicting clash of ideas. But I was willing to give Yara the benefit of the doubt. We hadn’t seen an open world setting in Latin America since Ghost Recon Wildlands in 2017, also from Ubisoft, which presented such a hurtful depiction of Bolivia that led the government to issue a formal complaint to the developer. I was curious to see, then, if any lessons had been learned at all.

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Right off the bat, the characters I met throughout the story did not provide me with hopeful signs. While often charismatic (if not overly cliche at times), it was hard to digest the uneven back and forth between English and Spanish during conversations. Dialogue is mostly spoken in the former, but characters are constantly replacing words without much coherence. Examples like president, dad, and revolution seem nonexistent in their vocabulary, replaced by presidente, papá, and revolución in 90 percent of the cases instead. This adds a certain welcoming touch, but when they frequently appear out of nowhere across conversations in English, it stands out.

Some cases are even more abrupt, where instead of one or two words, it’s half of a sentence. In a few rare moments, some exchanges are completely in Spanish, and the game goes as far as translating them in the captions. Now, it’s worth mentioning that Spanglish (in a lesser or higher frequency) is not uncommon. Latinx folks born in the US are a good example of a demographic that makes use of it, but each and every case varies. I’ve met people who, for a myriad of reasons, knew very little Spanish. Meanwhile, a friend of mine would constantly switch between both languages without realizing it, which felt surprisingly natural and easy to follow in person.

In Far Cry 6, however, it lacks authenticity. As of 2020, the only reported Latin American country with English as the official language is Guyana. This doesn’t mean that it’s nonexistent everywhere else, but in the majority of countries, Spanish is the leading language. This is the case of Cuba as well, which makes for a confusing presentation considering how the language is showcased.

One of the first standouts I noticed while navigating Yara is that every sign is in Spanish. Not just for transit purposes while you’re driving your car but also in stores; they have Spanish names and sell Spanish goods. Most of the graffiti carries that spirit on, too. This was enough of a surprise, but it went further from there. At any time, you’re able to grab your smartphone to take pictures or investigate reference images during missions. While not fully interactive, I found the phone’s UI to be entirely in Spanish as well.

These decisions help to create subtle, yet meaningful moments as one traverses the region. I was taken aback when I heard the protagonist singing over songs on the radio in perfect Spanish. Interestingly enough, this happened again on several occasions, but it also included songs in English. Moments like these are a great showcase of the plurality of cultures that intersect every day with the media we consume, and it’s extremely common for music in particular.

Sadly, the overall dialogue between characters is more uneven. There were some occasions during cutscenes where people spoke in full Spanish for a few seconds, but they all defaulted to the often exaggerated Spanglish I mentioned before. Screens scattered across the world often show speeches from Castillo on national TV, but while the presenter introduces him in Spanish, the speeches are always in English instead. Halfway through the main story, I couldn’t stop thinking about the missed opportunity to have the local characters speak their local language freely instead.

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Max Payne 3 is one of the rare instances where this idea was presented, with the townsfolk of São Paulo, Brazil speaking Portuguese around Max. The writing wasn’t stellar, considering that characters relied a bit too much on cursing to express themselves, but it was still a bold choice. Brazilians didn’t need a translation, but English-speaking folks have been on a mission to translate everything from dialogue to other environmental objects, such as TV shows and newspapers. When part of the background interactions and imagery aren’t translated, it leads to a particular sense of authenticity that wouldn’t be present otherwise. 

In one particular sequence in Far Cry 6, two characters broadcast a song live as you defend both audio and light equipment surrounding the stage. Interestingly enough, this set piece begins with a cutscene focused on the singer, and the song lyrics are fully captioned in English. The song is then repeated on loop without captions as you play the mission, but the context is established early. Whereas the lack of captions in Max Payne 3 toys with the idea of seeing the protagonist in a foreign country without knowledge of the primary language, there is no narrative to back this up in Far Cry 6.

Games that prioritize Spanish over English are few and far between

As a writer from Argentina who works for international outlets, I always play games in English. Pretty much all I’ve learned over the years has been from pure practice and exposition, whether it is from games, movies, music, or my work itself. Unlike Rojas, my phone isn’t in Spanish, but this comes from a place of being used to living through my second language on a daily basis. As I navigated Yara and encountered signs to read or dialogue exchanges that weren’t captioned, however, I was able to be on the opposite side for once, understanding the world and the people around me without the need for captions or a quick Google search.

Games that prioritize Spanish over English are few and far between, even when their settings are inspired by local cultures and regions. For small studios trying to break through internationally, this can vary greatly. The Game Kitchen, a team based in Seville, Spain, initially wrote the script for Blasphemous in Spanish. As the developers mentioned in an interview, months prior to the end of development, they decided to release the game in English. Budget constraints couldn’t justify having both languages, so they opted for the “right commercial choice” between the two. But these budgetary concerns aren’t the same for a conglomerate of studios as big as Ubisoft.

As I played through Lost Judgment during the past few weeks, a spin-off that comes from a series of games that have always been predominantly in Japanese, I realized how accustomed I’ve become to subtitles. Both Lost Judgment and Yakuza: Like a Dragon are recent examples of localization with optional English voice over as well. And I believe that option should be present for various reasons. But it’s strange to see a game set in Cuba with the option to select Latin American Spanish voice-over when it should be the opposite case.

During the latter half of the main story, Far Cry 6 introduces a Canadian antagonist who fails to pronounce Spanish properly during an interview with a local news channel. Then, after an encounter with Rojas, he mocks the protagonist by saying that there’s “surely a fiesta” waiting for them “with a piñata and everything.” It’s supposed to showcase an English-speaking person from the first world who is only interested in exploiting Yara for his personal gain and can’t be bothered to say the right verbs during a short conference. But it doesn’t come across that way because every Yaran character in the game talks like this.

I had multiple issues with the ways Yara and its inhabitants are presented in Far Cry 6. But what hurt the most was seeing the many ways the game could have put Spanish in the spotlight, defying the predominance of English in Latin American settings. Ultimately, that promise goes unfulfilled. Unlike Max Payne, we shouldn’t be tourists in our own countries.