One of the most fascinating problems facing big-budget game makers is how to address real-world issues without seeming to exploit them. Indie developers have no trouble setting themselves against the woes of the world, and having something valuable to say. But this level of political engagement has largely eluded the big games companies.
Earlier this week, I visited Ubisoft. I was there to play a demo of Far Cry 5, and to interview one of its creators about this subject.
You can watch me play here. Long story short, it’s exactly what you’d expect from a Far Cry game. Lots of spaces to explore, enemies to kill, different ways to kill them, side missions, non-player characters and a central story. It’s set in beautiful Montana. It’s big, complicated and fun. I had a good time.
During my visit, I also wanted to talk to Ubisoft about the game’s story — the way it borrows from a current political climate in order to present both a story and an action-adventure game.
As is often the case with the games in this series, Far Cry 5’s main villain is a deranged, powerful, charismatic man who has come to power in a remote part of the world. He has many fanatical followers — part of a cult called Eden’s Gate — whom the player is invited to kill.
The main difference between Far Cry 5 and its predecessors is that its location lacks the (to Western eyes) remote exoticism of previous settings, like the Himalayas or a Pacific island. The villain, Joseph Seed, is recognizably part of our political culture, albeit exaggerated.
He is a guns-and-Bible demagogue who cites scripture often, and speaks in apocalyptic terms. As I write this, the news headlines are full of Roy Moore’s refusal to concede his defeat in the recent U.S. Senate election in Alabama, warning that “immorality sweeps over the land.” Crucially, Moore exploits racism as he appeals to followers on the Christian right.
All games are political, to some extent. But Far Cry 5 is clearly inserting itself into the zeitgeist. (The notion that the game has been in development for a few years and just happens to come at a time of nativist populism is not convincing. We’ve been living with such things for a long time.)
It’s been stated before, not least here on Polygon, that Far Cry 5 looks like a game that is ready to capitalize on current events but isn’t willing to engage in the issues it portrays. This is something I’ve written about before regarding Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. In visiting Ubisoft, I wanted to find out what the company’s execs had to say about this issue.
I’ve spent many years interviewing games company execs, and, to be frank, I did not expect to get much in the way of clarity. So it proved. In the 10 minutes I was allotted with the game’s director, Dan Hay, I was unable to get satisfactory answers to my questions.
What I heard was a collection of prepared statements, most of which have been reported before. They had previously been trotted out when the game was last given a publicity push at E3. If you search “Far Cry 5 interview,” you’ll see these same stories, again and again.
When I asked if Far Cry 5 exploits political controversy without grappling with underpinning issues, I was told that I need to play more. This a fair response, up to a point.
The final game will certainly offer a narrative thread in which characters reveal their own anger, and why they were tempted (or not) to join the cult at the center of the game. But based on what I’ve seen and the conversations I’ve had with Ubisoft representatives, I don’t believe that Far Cry 5 will seriously address the issues that are core to the game’s visual and cultural language.
According to Ubisoft, the player can judge the cult’s leader and his beliefs for themselves. On the face of it, this seems reasonable. Death cults do not spring from vacuums. There are always social and political reasons for them. But there’s an undeniably fascistic quality to Eden’s Gate, one that Ubisoft was unwilling to address during my interview.
The media has spent much time in the past year inviting us to understand fascists as ordinary people, why they vote for hate-mongers, why they march, why they despise people who are not like them. These articles are often derided as making false equivalencies that pander to hate. Do we really need a video game to help us understand the motivations of fascists?
Ubisoft argues that Eden’s Gate is not a white supremacist group, and that the cult gathers adherents from all sectors of society. From playing the game, I can tell you that the bad guys are not all white. And yet, this feels like a useful way to exploit hate politics without facing tricky ethical questions.
Here are two images of flags used by the members of Eden’s Gate. Bastardized crucifixes are not entirely the realm of Nazis, but if you showed me these images, with no context whatsoever, I would assume them to represent an American white supremacist group with quasi-religious leanings, probably preaching the impending doom of the white race.
If you search for “white supremacist flags,” you will see lots of similar styles.
If you then told me that the group bearing this Iron Cross-like symbol is based in a remote part of the United States, that it cleaves closely to anti-government rhetoric and religious argot, I’d be convinced that this was a group that embraces white supremacy.
I asked Hay why Ubisoft had co-opted the iconography of racism if it wanted Eden’s Gate to be inclusive, and not a bunch of Nazis. Many religious cults use logos that do not remind people of Nazis. He said that the cult is an amalgam of cults that add up to something new and “not something you can find in the real world.”
When I asked how he reacted to political discussions about the game in the media, he said that people enjoy playing the game because it has lots of things to do.
So, with a few months to go before Far Cry 5 comes out, I’m concerned that it is using extremist politics as a marketing tool, rather than as an opportunity to address real issues. At a time when people are being marginalized, silenced, deported and killed as a result of nativist politics, this seems like a morally dubious exercise.
People around the world are angry and frightened by the rise of nativism, and acts of violence and murder perpetrated by far-right terrorists. It seems a shame to me that Ubisoft is ready and willing to create a cult that looks a lot like a bunch of modern-day American Nazis, without the inconvenience of facing this political phenomenon head-on.