Anarchy in the USA.
This article, originally posted on March 5, 2018, has been republished to amplify black voices in GameSpot's support of Black Lives Matter. Donate to the effort to fight systemic racism here.
Far Cry 5's setting of an American county under siege seems to become more provocative as the days go by. Moving away from the tropical jungles of the South Pacific and African savannas, the series now dips its toes into the US setting of Hope County, Montana for its action-packed fish-out-of-water story. With the new locale, the series also looks to break away from the standards that past games have set, which includes a more open world to explore, deeper co-op, and a custom character to create.
But with the move to North America, it definitely has chilling parallels to real life, whether that's the developers intention or not. During a press event for Far Cry 5, I had the chance to experience the early hours of what looks to be Ubisoft's most eye-opening entry in the series, and how unsettling several of the game's moments can be.
In Far Cry 5, you take on the role of an unnamed Deputy--your created character--who accompanies federal marshals to arrest Joseph Seed, the leader of the Eden's Gate cult that has occupied the isolated mountain community of Hope County, Montana. With a large following of heavily armed residents at his command, Seed, "The Father", instills them with the belief that the end times are coming and only he can save them. Once you've placed him in handcuffs, things quickly go south and you find yourself outmatched against Eden's Gate. But in traditional Far Cry fashion, the Deputy finds allies in the form of the Whitetail Militia, a group of citizens who've taken up arms to resist The Father's influence and dismantle the Seed family's control of the county.
The set-up is familiar when compared to other Far Cry games: you'll be able to explore a vast map and retake enemy bases, hunt animals, stealth-kill enemies, take part in co-op, and steal an assortment of vehicles, which includes planes for the first time in the series. But because all that carnage now takes place in the US, Far Cry now carries a similar unnerving sense of uncertainty and also absurdity that feels common in today's political climate. Extremism is often rooted in isolated communities where interactions with outsiders are few and far between, and Far Cry 5 takes place in such a location. While the game features several characters of color, including some of the common enemies, its leadership and the majority of its cast are predominantly reflective of a mostly white region of America.
The distortion of American iconography isn't exactly new, and FC5 also comes at a rather interesting time for that discussion to happen. However, what made my time spent with the game more interesting was experiencing it as a person of color, with my created character reflecting that. This added an extra layer to the game. Far Cry 5's setting is already a powder keg, so playing as a person of color feels especially poignant--if somewhat appropriate. Making a person of color the central character in this absurd and equally unsettling situation created some higher personal stakes for me, while also adding more tension to minor encounters.
During one interaction with my character meeting Hurk Sr.--the father of the series' traveling side-character Hurk from Far Cry 3 and 4, and also a hard-nosed conservative--he quickly goes into a diatribe about "Obama-loving libtards" and how they'll ruin his run for Senate. He eventually tasks the Deputy with tracking down his campaign truck; standard Far Cry side-mission hijinks ensue. While this encounter is the same regardless of what character you make, experiencing it as a character of color makes it an awkward and uncomfortable talk, especially with further lines about protecting his land as a "red-blooded American gun-owner" from outsiders, which most definitely includes you.
There's a number of ways to look at this scene, but it's clear that both Hurk's dad--a confident and staunch conservative--and Far Cry 5 are a product of their respective environments. Granted, Hope County exaggerates many of America's greatest fears to the extreme. While there are plenty of moments that feel empowering for the type of character you make, it's still surprising to see how often Far Cry 5 rides the line between being unsettling and celebrating cartoonish action. There are many genuine interactions with side characters, including Jess--one of the Guns for Hire--who talks about the torture she's witnessed from "The Cook," a sadistic member of Eden's Gate. But there are also moments where you and Cheeseburger the Bear--another Gun for Hire--fight off cultists in one of the nearby lumber mills, making for an encounter that's too bizarre to take seriously.
On the surface, these ridiculous gameplay scenes would seem to weaken or trivialize the more profound moments I experienced, and in some ways they did, mostly due to how jarring some of the transitions between comedy and the more dramatic moments are--made a bit worse by some odd bugs and the general videogamey-ness of it all. However, the Far Cry series is a power fantasy as a whole, and playing as a person of color in a setting where someone like that would be marginalized--especially in a community filled with trigger-happy religious extremists--does give it some added some weight behind the generous amount of agency the game gives you to explore the landscape and leave your mark on it.
As an outsider, you'll quickly need to learn the ins and outs of Far Cry's new setting. Hope County is a sprawling environment filled with small towns, lumber mills, cattle ranches, and mountain resorts nestled within a large, dense wilderness. The rural farmlands and tiny communities are a clash between modern buildings and the old-fashioned architecture of a generation once or twice-removed, all placed within the pocket of a mountain valley. While the previous games had a fairly standard, if repetitive gameplay loop--find the tower, fill out the map, and finish the nearby objectives peppered on your display--Far Cry 5 takes a more organic approach by removing scouting towers almost entirely.
With the largest open world of the series, there's a greater focus on letting you do your thing. It's a refreshing change of pace to be able to explore at your leisure, and be rewarded for your curiosity. I was impressed with the game's scale, and exploring Hope County offered a lot of moments to learn the history of the region and many communities trying to survive in a cult-occupied county--all while trying to unify the many sane individuals left.
While it's easy to make a relatable story with a westerner in a foreign country (think Jason Brody in Far Cry 3), telling that sort of story in America--with an American protagonist--has potential for something that feels relevant and powerful. Even during those early hours, Far Cry 5--despite its more familiar setting--was still a fish-out-of-water story. The Deputy, however you make your character, is framed as an agent of change to combat the cultists in a land where American religious extremists have taken hold of an isolated town and where opposing ideologies come to a violent clash.
When Far Cry 5 gets ridiculous, it does so in bizarre yet oddly endearing ways. Despite its heavy themes, it still presents a number of dynamic systems that inspire fun and engagement. Yet that doesn't take away from the strange and disconcerting encounters that recall imagery and phrases from our current day, whether it's intentional or not. I've been an admirer of the Far Cry series for some time, and I feel like I'm more interested in seeing how the narrative turns out this time around.
Having said that, Far Cry 5 is undoubtedly a product of Trump-era America and will be viewed through that lens. Whether it succeeds in telling a story that says something interesting with its highly evocative setting, or if it just results in a story about the good heavily-armed militia beating the bad heavily-armed militia, remains to be seen. While the main story is about you dealing with The Father and Eden's Gate, the player-story you create--with your own version of the deputy--has equal relevance. Hopefully, Ubisoft will be able to tie it together in a meaningful way.
For more info about Far Cry 5, be sure to check out our interview with lead writer Drew Holmes and lead actor Greg Bryk about the making of the game, along with some videos showing off the more ridiculous and over-the-top moments of action.