What is Going on With Far Cry 5?
It’s more than just a setting — there’s a lot to unpack here
The trailer for the newest Far Cry game has been out for a while. Released in late May, it set off waves around the gaming world with its beautiful graphics and interesting setting in rural Montana. It has also raised many collective eyebrows with its thematic choices — blending twisted forms of Christianity and American Patriotism in a frightening tableau of violence and death.
I’ve linked the trailer here, because it’s worth watching. The game looks stunningly beautiful, and the cinematography is impressive as well (though be aware, it’s intended for mature audiences because of its violent content):
At the start, this game checks several boxes for me. I love games set in the wilderness/the American west. I also love games with huge open worlds, games with interesting characters, and games that use religious themes. But there’s something intentionally unsettling about the way the newest Far Cry game uses religion and patriotism. Most specifically, it hits close to home because of just how these ideas are used. Through the rest of this post, I want to explore some of these themes.
The first thing that struck me about this video is that the language of the cult leader (Joseph) sounds eerily like the rhetoric that players find in Bioshock: Infinite’s city of Columbia. Columbia is explicitly cult-like, and is built upon the ideals of hero worship and unquestioned loyalty. The leader of the city, Zachary Comstock, encourages his followers to subscribe to his viciously twisted form of Christianity, and presents his religious messages in a truly jarring way.
What’s interesting about Columbia though, is that when players arrive they see only messages of forgiveness and relief. The opening sequences of arriving in this city feel almost like a church service. Of course, things go off the rails quickly, but the promises that Comstock articulates through his initially-welcoming followers are meant to hide the evil lurking below the surface of his cult. Look at this image below: it’s truly beautiful.
From the trailer and the entirety of Bioshock: Infinite, it’s clear that these two men are similar in many ways. Most specifically, they both head cults that promise forgiveness and redemption but depend on violence and twisted forms of both religion and patriotism. Both appear to share fanatical followings as well, an essential ingredient for any maniacal leader. Infinite’s story happens near the beginning of the twentieth century, but the themes suggest quite similar cults and leaders.
But the Bioshock games take place in fantastic locales and impossible underwater cities. Far Cry 5 takes place in Montana. Montana is real, unlike Columbia and Rapture. I’ve never been there, but it’s very much a part of the country that I live in. And this thematic choice — to situate a game with terrifying plot elements in a very real place — seems both bold and reckless. Quite literally in a geographical sense, this new game is going to hit close to home for a lot of people. And I think that can be both good and bad.
Perhaps even more importantly, events like the ones Far Cry 5 will be about aren’t unheard of in American history. From the colonial days, this country has had a history of armed resistance and uprising, and this is a legacy that has continued to the present. Remember Ammon Bundy in Oregon? Americans haven’t been afraid to provoke an armed standoff over land (or really, almost anything).
Ubisoft is well aware of the history that they are provoking with this game. In fact, it looks like they’re welcoming these comparisons. Polygon’s Charlie Hall wrote a fascinating piece where he spoke to the game’s developers. Hall wrote:
I pressed him again: Hadn’t this exact scenario already taken place in this country before? Were we really far enough away from the 1993 standoff with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas — a siege that ended with the death of 82 cult members and four federal agents — to tell such a similar story in a video game?
“Video games have come a long way,” Hay said. “And I think that when you look at them as a medium — when you look at what people can do in movies, you look at what people can do on television, then you look at games — I think that we’ve matured enough to be able to start to touch on some of those subjects.”
Another write from Polygon, Brian Crecente, was explicitly skeptical of Ubisoft’s choices, though. In late May, he wrote:
When the worst fears born of cults, militia and extreme views of Trump’s America become little more than an entertaining playspace for the latest video game, perhaps its time to reconsider how we judge entertainment.
I’m still trying to make sense of all this. I understand the concerns people have about Far Cry 5, and I share them. I’m also a little uncomfortable with how religion, specifically Christianity, is being treated so far. Crecente is right to voice concerns that this game could potentially take a host of challenging issues and shove them under a gameplay tableau of guns and explosions. It’s a video game, after all, and that’s often how they operate.
My ultimate conclusion is this — I think the setting and themes are interesting choices, and I’m fascinated to see how Far Cry 5 tells its story. Because of the volatility inherent in portraying a cult in Montana though, there is a huge potential for failure. If the writers and storytellers behind Ubisoft’s project don’t tell this story with the appropriate respect and nuance, it’s easy to see it careening off the rails in the middle of a firefight.
Auditory excellence can be just as meaningful as beautiful presentation in gamesmedium.com
But the trailer showed an undeniable amount of promise, and there’s also the possibility that this game ends up as a great story told phenomenally well. In a world where game sequels often repeat the same environments to death, I want to commend the Far Cry creators for taking a serious risk with the newest entry in a proven series. If this game hits all its notes right, we could easily see something special emerge. Risks like this one are often worth taking.
There’s one more quote from Hall’s piece that I thought was interesting. Asked about some of the the potential minefields in this game, a developer said:
“When we went to Montana and we met some of those folks, they weren’t heroes. They didn’t have a huge agenda. They were just regular people and we imagined that, if you put them under a little bit of pressure, they might respond in a certain way. So when you’re out in the world and you meet these people, we want you to have a credible experience. We want you to be able and go and enjoy a classic Far Cry — running around and doing a bunch of crazy stuff — but at the same time, be able to invest in a story that’s interesting, that’s thought provoking and is more than just a shooter.”
This quote interests me. Obviously, any developer is going to sell every aspect of a game as much as possible, and any game with an interesting setting and themes is going to try to tell a great story. But the focus on realism and storytelling in this quote is still interesting, and gives me hope that this game could end up being worthwhile. If the game focuses on its narrative as much as this quote suggests it will, that’s a great sign.
Stories in games often follow one or two paths. There are stories with little development or growth, and these usually serve only to take players from one firefight to the next. For players and developers who want minimal storytelling in favor of gameplay and excitement, that’s perfectly fine. Not all games have to be The Last of Us.
Other games feature deep, well-written narratives that elevate gameplay sequences to something greater. When one hears the phrase that a game is “more than the sum of its parts,” a strong story is usually one of those parts. And it’s up to Ubisoft and the Far Cry developers to make sure that this newest entry follows the second path. I hope they do.
The plot lines, themes, and similarity to actual America demand focus, depth, and respect. If Ubisoft delivers on that front, it’s easy to see Far Cry 5 being a success. If the story is just a facade to string actions sequences together though, then everyone involved in this game may be guilty of treating important issues with less respect than they deserve. So from that perspective, I’ll hold my judgement on this trailer, and everything that goes along with it, until the game releases. I will say this, though: I’ve never played a Far Cry game before, and I’m really excited about the potential for this one. If the developers pull off this difficult accomplishment, they may have a new fan on their hands.