As I lurk through the dense foliage surrounding one of Far Cry 5’s signature outposts — a bundle of concrete masses nestled in the curve of a mountain trail — scouring the scene with my binoculars, marking targets for my silent entry, I can almost find myself forgetting about the death cult, about Montana, about this bizarre version of America. I command my pet cougar, Peaches, to attack an unlucky sap wandering around the exterior. As she tears his throat asunder, I go to work with my silenced sniper rifle, picking off the poor brainwashed cultists one by one as they sprint blindly into the undergrowth, looking for me.
They grow closer, and I switch to a silenced submachine-gun and throwing knives to cinch the deal. Eventually, one catches a glimpse of me, and calls for backup, the whine of the klaxon overwhelming the subdued banjo strings of the ur-American soundtrack. Pickup trucks full of my bloodthirsty prey thunder down from the summit, spraying the hillside with machine gun fire, but I don’t return fire. Instead, I hide behind a rock and call in my redneck stereotype of a pilot buddy, who emerges from the ether within seconds in his biplane and strafes them into oblivion.
For those moments, out of the nonstop barrage of misjudged satire and off-key rural stereotypes, I can fathom the deeply stupid, deeply compelling core of the Far Cry experience, the winning shoot-’em-up-your-way formula that first propelled Ubisoft’s franchise to prominence almost a decade ago. But a second later, my allies roll into view, dumping the cult’s junk into a ravine, burning their banners, and stringing up Old Glory back up on the flag post. One of the cult leaders starts shouting at me again over the radio, and I feel the empty fun I just tasted creeping away, caught in a deluge of unfettered, unexamined Americana.
For many of us, video games are cultural objects that signify nothing but hedonic excess, a tool for blasting our pleasure receptors until their scorched ends can’t handle another pop of a headshot, or another riddle of the platforms. It shouldn’t surprise us that most big-budget games that portray some version of reality typically attempt to jettison all traditional notions of political context or nuance at first blush, instead aiming for the thought-free pyrotechnics of machismo-oozing escapist art like action-blockbusters or James Bond films.
But Far Cry 5 isn’t willing to wade in the shallow end of the pool with the Uncharted series. Instead, it wants to venture out into the deeper waters of doomsday cults, colonialism, and Trump’s America, all the while towing the open-ended, thrill-a-second schema of the modern open-world game. Unfortunately, while there might someday exist a “triple-A” video game deft enough to make it across that channel, Far Cry 5 finds itself floundering in the deep for nearly every moment of its twenty-hour span.
Previous Far Cry games carefully waltzed on the edge of political relevance for the sake of provocation, with 2013’s 3 employing a wide variety of tired and offensive devices to justify its white frat-bro protagonist saving a fictional island full of Black natives from themselves, including a magical tribal tattoo. By setting this latest entry in the real-fake world of Hope County, Montana, Ubisoft seemed to gesture at a uniquely contemporary set of issues based on the changing political climate in the U.S., reflected through “prepper” and survivalist culture, radicalized sects of popular religion, or perhaps even political groups themselves, such as white supremacist organizations, all of which have a palpable footprint in real-world Montana.
Far Cry 5 is a missed opportunity, a time capsule for the current moment of gaming, where even the biggest developers feel the surge of powerful cultural forces rippling beneath them.
Any hopes of subtlety are quickly dashed by the game’s phenomenally ill-considered opening sequence, which casts you as a tin-star deputy accompanying your sheriff and a U.S. Marshal as they attempt to arrest Father Joseph Seed for kidnapping. Seed is the leader of a doomsday cult called the Project at Eden’s Gate that appears to worship the typical Hollywood conception of Dangerous Religious Sects more than any coherent doctrine itself, complete with miraculous drugs called “Bliss” and a hat full of malevolent phrases drawn at random from the Book of Revelation.
Once you take Seed out of his chapel, his parishioners crash your helicopter and pull assault rifles from behind their tractors as their prophet announces that “The Reaping” has begun. Why exactly these officers of the law would choose to reenact the exact events that famously befell the Branch Davidians at Waco over two decades later is left ambiguous — like many of the obvious questions that Far Cry 5 leaves in its wake, the game just throws another truckful of crazy goons at you and hopes that you forget about it. After you’re rescued from the ensuing chaos by a stalwart “prepper” — whose penchant for placing cameras all over the rugged landscape of the county is mentioned once and never examined again — you find yourself on the video game warpath, building a resistance against Joseph’s three “heralds,” who each control one of the regions of the county.
While each of these figures are clearly meant to reflect different aspects of how cults lure and entrap their victims — a traumatized ex-veteran who gives Manichean monologues about the strong devouring the weak; a photogenic talking head who speaks only in self-help mantras; and a broadly-sketched young woman who can only be described as a “drug temptress”— for all their endless speechifying, you come away from each of their sermons with very little idea of what Eden’s Gate actually stands for, besides a vague notion of a coming “collapse.” Ubisoft dances around concepts like God, or scripture, or even Christianity itself. Thus, the cult that is so successful that it managed to conquer an entire county of the good old USA remains strangely free of doctrine, ideology, or even a coherent message.
One would be tempted to simply tune out the game entirely, then, to simply drown out the nonsense with the screech of rockets propelling across the sky, or the roar of a machine gun. But you can’t do even that — as you engage in the gleeful mayhem that Far Cry does so well, the game rips agency from you again and again, your enemies capturing you no less than a half-dozen times over the course of the plot, with the contrivance of a drug-infused bullet or magic arrow as your only explanation. As the Herald of the Week or Joseph himself screams minute after minute of inane gibberish at your mute, featureless protagonist for the ten-thousandth time, or you jaunt your way through yet another trip through Drugland, you begin to realize that Ubisoft has mastered a form of control even less subtle than Bliss: unskippable cutscenes telling you Why You Should Care.
Moreso than anything, Far Cry 5 is a missed opportunity, a time capsule for the current moment of gaming, where even the biggest developers feel the surge of powerful cultural forces rippling beneath them. While most choose to ignore them entirely, or use them as fodder for cheap jokes, some are beginning to learn how to harness those forces for the right project — see the cathartic Nazi-mangling of Machine Games’ Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus for a crash course.
But while Wolfenstein took a strong stance against the late resurgent of the far-right, even going as far as to drop in the occasional hood-toting Klansmen as cannon fodder for the player to eviscerate, Ubisoft continues to subscribe to the South Park theory of the case — both sides are bad, so let’s laugh about it. While the megacorp’s attempts to commentate on the moment ought to be applauded in some conceptual sense, they still need to learn that it takes more than just draping Old Glory over the gleaming machinery of your blood-and-guts Disneyworld to actually say something about the America of 2018.
Then again, even if they accomplished that impossible dream, what would it say about us? Even in this imperfect form, maybe we should be a little concerned that the escapist fantasy of today is a vision of the hellworld of tomorrow, complete with bunkers, unlimited ammo, and an excuse for wanton murder. Far Cry 5 might not mean anything, but its continued popularity speaks volumes about a certain kind of murder fantasy — and there’s nothing more American than that.