Far Cry 5’s setting in the fictional Hope County of contemporary rural Montana —pointedly familiar, and not the exotic location we’d expect from the series — is a signal. Far Cry 5 is attempting to make a statement simply telling a Far Cry story in America. At least, that’s what Far Cry 5’s pre-release pitch would have us expect.
I’m not convinced it’s enough.
I’m worried that Far Cry 5 doesn’t understand why Far Cry settings are a problem, based on series’ history and remarks made by creative director Dan Hay. The Far Cry series isn’t controversial because its settings and villains are foreign to North American players. It’s controversial because of what those exotic settings, villains and narratives are used to achieve. Every gameplay and narrative element of the Far Cry series works to make sure we understand that each game’s villain doesn’t resemble anyone who Ubisoft imagines is playing the game.
If Far Cry 5 wants to critique the landscape of American culture, and that may not even be an important goal outside of the initial buzz of publicity the setting gave the games, its villains have to be us.
Interacting with local culture
Each Far Cry game finds its protagonist stranded deep in the interior of a country far from home. Every element of the new environment the player is thrust into is coded as alien. The player feels like a stranger in a strange land, overwhelmed by new information they don’t understand.
This strangeness extends to the new environment’s inhabitants and their culture. Far Cry 3’s Rook Island feature tribal iconography and hyper-saturated colors parallel to its culture’s “tatau,” tribal tattoos and evocations of ancient warrior spirits. Far Cry 4’s mountain temples and prayer wheels give the sacred rituals of the “Golden Path” a grounding in the material world explored by the player. You are meant to feel far from home.
And that feeling makes it easier to kill your enemies. An intimidating, impressive environment and culture parallels an intimidating, oppressive native enemy. The lands themselves have spit these men out, and it’s your job to at least try to make things right.
It’s easy to see why this gameplay template has been called racist, colonialist and guilty of perpetuating the myth of the “white savior,” even if the hero of Far Cry 4 himself came from Kyrat.
The Far Cry template is ultimately conservative: defeating the “Other” affirms the righteousness of the player. Far Cry’s plots have often stated that the things the player character does are monstrous, but even this plot construction makes the environment and antagonists seem different and inhuman.
How Far Cry 5 is changing things
Far Cry 5 takes place in the United States, and deals with a villain who is using religion and fear to grow a doomsday cult in Montana.
The Far Cry template could be applied to America in a subversive way, by making the new enemies just as unmistakably “homegrown” and American as the culture and landscape we see represented in the trailers. Far Cry 5 seems to be telling a story of yet another group of Others. These Others happen to be in America, but they aren’t necessarily — or at least, explicitly enough — of America.
When you think about the cult, our focus was on creating an environment and creating an enemy that was unique and interesting, and that we could make our own. So we are not modeling this after specific people in the world. What we are doing is, we are making this cult our own.”
Far Cry 5 may evoke a real environment and culture this time around, but it seems as though it’s stopping short of using that real setting to make its enemies into people we recognize. By “making this cult our own,” Far Cry 5 seems to be attempting to throw fictional Others into a real environment, instead of depicting antagonists as something that grew out of — and are native to — their environment.
This departure from previous Far Cry games, which were all too happy to make their antagonists personify the environments they grew out of, seems like it was designed to avoid controversy.
Far Cry villains have historically personified the otherness of the environment through their ideology. Far Cry villains Vaas and Min are both obviously driven by an all-consuming, zealous belief system, but that belief system is carefully kept beyond the player’s understanding. Far Cry villains possess the same ability to tempt and fascinate that cultists in an Eldritch Horror story do; the game suggests that they understand some horrible secret truth that makes them act the way they do.
Ironically, these “horrible secret truths” are important to Far Cry not just because they’re tempting to the player, but also because they’re safe. When the bad guys are driven by some unknowable, alien ideology, it’s easy to rhetorically and psychologically separate them from “humanity.” They are filled with knowledge or insight that makes them act the way they do. They are corrupted by the land, not by the weakness of their own humanity.
Far Cry 5 should make Joseph Seed’s cult of “the Project at Eden’s Gate” as domestic and recognizable as possible in an attempt to invert the familiar formula.
It has be obvious to the player that some part of the culture of Hope County in gave rise to Joseph Seed and his group of violent cultists, the same way Rook Island gave rise to Vaas and Kyrat gave rise to Min. Seed and his cultists must be an inextricable from the world they — and the player character — call home.
“They are going to hijack certain elements of different things that are out there in terms of religion, but it's all about one guy who believes that the end of the world could, in a very real way, happen,” Hay said during a presentation about the game. “And from the standpoint of what we’re building, we think that is our own and that it will be something that will be uniquely Far Cry.”
“Hijacked” is the operative word there. Seed and the Project at Eden’s Gate didn’t arise out of American culture; he “hijacked” the culture. Seed isn’t the result of the inherent evils inside American culture; he’s an interloper working to undermine good American values with evils he brought in from outside. It’s not an institutional or a cultural problem, it’s “all about one guy.”
Far Cry 5 will even see the main player organizing a resistance comprised of “real” Americans — including a priest, presumably representing “real” religion — to overthrow the Project at Heaven’s Gate and “take their country back.”
In light of the history of othering in Far Cry we can’t ignore Hay’s comments about portraying Far Cry 5’s antagonists as distinct from regular Americans. If the Project at Eden’s Gate is made incomprehensibly other, then they will become an outside evil to be excised, not an internal evil the player will have to reckon with.
When Seed and his followers are dead or deposed, players won’t come away reflecting on how the way Americans think about themselves could possibly lead to the creation of someone like Joseph Seed; they’ll be reflecting on how they drove the Others out and reaffirmed their own goodness at the same time.
Far Cry doesn’t have to fundamentally change if it wants to tell a story about America. In fact, it hardly has to change at all. The only thing Far Cry 5 has to do to make a truly subversive statement about contemporary American culture is to commit: Seed needs to be unquestionably, inarguably American. Far Cry 5 has to prove that a religious doomsday cult can’t just happen in America, it can happen because of America.
We shouldn’t be able to condemn the views espoused by Seed without at the same time uncomfortably acknowledging how it reflects America; how the same culture that raised so many Americans could also raise a monster. No one has to hijack anything to make religion or violence extreme in the United States, we’re comfortable doing that ourselves.
Other Far Cry games worked by making us comfortable killing people who didn’t seem like us. Far Cry 5 will only work if it makes us uncomfortable killing people who do.