Over the past few years of writing deeply about Ubisoft games, I’ve begun to notice a recurring theme. This publisher, and the studios within it, seems to possess an uncanny ability to anticipate modern cultural and political trends.
Take Watch Dogs, a game about my beloved city of Chicago and also about the modern surveillance state. It told a story wrapped around themes of government overreach that, at the time of its release, threatened to lap the game entirely. Later, with Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands, Ubisoft created a failed state overrun by a militarized strongman. Its centerpiece was a fictional Bolivia, but it just as easily could have been about any one of a half-dozen real-world countries.
This ripped-from-the-headlines mentality, this gonzo-style approach to making games appeals to players — and writers like me — in a way that games from other publishers simply don’t. But these titles always seem to come at a cost to Ubisoft. As often as they hit the mark for timeliness, they lose the way with their tone.
There were those who thought that Tom Clancy’s The Division, for instance, was soft on issues of authoritarianism, or that it engaged in a kind of class-based shorthand for friend and foe. Wildlands got it even worse, with one reviewer calling the game “an appalling celebration of violent American interventionism.”
Ubisoft Montreal’s next project, Far Cry 5, could prove to be the most controversial title of them all. After a preview event last week in Los Angeles, it feels like the developers might actually be afraid of what they’ve made.
Not afraid of the game itself, but of whom they made that game about.
This land is my land
The main antagonist in Far Cry 5 is named Joseph, and he’s the leader of a cult called Eden’s Gate.
“He hears a voice,” said executive producer Dan Hay. “He has a mandate, and what he believes is that he has been chosen to protect people from the collapse, to save them, and he’s going to save them whether they want to be saved or not. ... They believe we must be prepared to be tested, that we’re going to have to harvest souls. And souls don’t harvest themselves.”
The iconography of Eden’s Gate is particularly sinister. It features a symbol akin to the Iron Cross. While no longer exclusively associated with World War II-era Nazism — in 2008, Germans voted to bring back the symbol for modern military decorations — it is nonetheless a symbol with a past. It figures prominently on Joseph’s belt buckle, and on the icons scattered around his pseudo-nation.
And that’s where things get dicey.
You see, Joseph’s cult isn’t holding out on a tropical island like the one from Far Cry or Far Cry 3. It’s not buried deep in the heart of darkest Africa like in Far Cry 2. It has taken over, via silent coup, a piece of rural America.
Far Cry 5 takes place in the fictional Hope County in the very real state of Montana — a state that, even today, is wrestling with issues like gun control, religious tolerance and citizen’s access to public lands.
The enemies in this first-person shooter are stereotypical rural Americans. Some of them look like my neighbors. That is, if my neighbors wanted to kill me for not believing in their religion.
“We actually went to Montana and we visited,” said Hay. “What was really interesting was what we learned there: this concept of freedom, faith and firearms.
“People from that region don’t necessarily trust the government. They don’t want to be fucked with. They want to be left alone. They have a pretty goddamn good bullshit detector. When we were there, they absolutely didn’t want to be lied to, and this resonating feeling of freedom, faith — and the firearms to protect those two things — came back again and again. So that’s what we’re doing. And we’re applying that to the Far Cry series.”
Press briefings like the one I attended in Los Angeles last week are usually pretty quiet affairs. There’s a slideshow, some samples of gameplay and, if you’re lucky, a little hands-on time with a demo. But I have never witnessed such a sober, somber, serious presentation about a video game as the one that Ubisoft gave in that room.
In fact, I’m not even allowed to share all of it with you.
“This is not theatrics,” cautioned Ubisoft associate public relations director Stone Chin. “There are actually real-world consequences that are involved” in sharing some of the stories that we in the press were told on background.
So I will tell you what I can.
You will be judged
“We weren’t sure that it was ready, that we were ready,” Hay said. “But since then, a lot has happened. The United States is vastly different than it was four years, five years ago.”
For the first time since the Cold War, Hay said, this country knows fear.
“When I was a kid,” he began, “what I remember very clearly is that these two titans up above, the Soviet Union and the United States, were embroiled in this battle. It left an indelible mark on me.”
In particular, Hay called out a TV movie named The Day After, a dramatic interpretation of nuclear armageddon. In it, cornfields and small towns across America erupt as outgoing intercontinental ballistic missiles leap from their hidden silos. Fifteen minutes later, Russian missiles rain back down, killing millions.
At the time, it was one of the most-watched television programs in history.
“It scared the shit out of me as a kid,” he said. “I just remember that fear, this feeling like everything was not OK and that I had no power over it.”
When the Berlin Wall fell, that feeling subsided — only to return, Hay said, with the Sept. 11 attacks.
“After that, I started to look at things that were happening in 2008, 2009. I was looking at the subprime mortgage collapse and the feeling of people in the world — and specifically in America — looking at their government and going, ‘Where the fuck is the government? Where are you guys? How are you protecting our legacy? How are you protecting our home? Who is driving this? Who has got their hands on the wheel?’”
Now it’s more than just an American feeling, Hay said. It’s all around the world, including among a continent still reeling from Britain’s decision to “Brexit” from the European Union.
“Gone is the language of the ‘global village,’” Hay said. “Now we’re starting to hear words like ‘us’ and ‘them.’ I was talking to the team about that, and they said, ‘Well, yeah. But we’re not seeing proof of that. We’re not seeing that in the world.’”
And then in January 2016, a group of armed extremists occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Leading them was Ammon Bundy, a man who had previously organized another standoff with government officials at his father’s ranch in Nevada. Surrounding him were armed men and women claiming to be affiliated with militias and other anti-government groups.
“When I saw on television that a militia in Oregon had taken over a wildlife preserve and basically held the [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] and the FBI at bay for 41 days,” Hay said, “I was like, ‘OK. Now this makes sense.’”
Not peace but the sword
The leader of Eden’s Gate, Joseph, isn’t alone. Just like the Bundys, he came with followers. Members of his family wield the most power.
There’s Jacob, his oldest brother. He’s a former U.S. Army soldier with “some very specific expertise,” Hay said, and a chip on his shoulder about the government. Faith is the peacemaker in the family. She wears flowers in her hair, and keeps the congregation quiet and unified in its purpose. Finally, there’s Joseph’s youngest brother, John. He’s the money man.
“All of the times we looked into how cults work,” Hay said, “we tried to understand, from our cult experts, how it is they get control over a region. Quite often they have a lawyer, they have a fixer, someone who comes in and will buy a whole bunch of crappy land and then drop 1,500 people on it.”
When a cult arrives in an American town, property values tend to drop. That’s when a cult spreads, buying up cheap land and bringing in more believers. Hay likened it to a cancer.
“We were asking about the volume, about how much control a cult could have. We said, ‘How believable is this? How real is it?’ And our cult experts said there are people and cults in the United States that have compounds and space that’s large enough to put Far Cry 3, Far Cry 4 and Far Cry 5 inside their space.”
Again and again during the presentation, Hay returned to the idea that this could all really happen. If Ammon Bundy could raise a small army, then Eden’s Gate could as well. It was not only plausible, it had already happened.
During a one-on-one interview later that day, I asked Hay point-blank: Aren’t you worried about the people who you’re making into the subject of your game getting pissed off about all this attention?
“We are building entertainment,” Hay said. “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.
“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. 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.”
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.”
There but for the grace of God
The most moving part of the presentation for me came when Hay introduced us to the player’s allies in Far Cry 5, to the people who would be there to fight at their side against Eden’s Gate.
First came Pastor Jerome Jeffries, a black man in black vestments and a black bulletproof vest. A man who believes that if he can no longer be a shepherd of men, then he must hunt them instead.
Then there was Mary May. Pretty as the girl next door and devoted to her family, Mary is a business owner holding onto what little bit of normal she has left. But she will only be pushed so far. Those aren’t bottles of booze that she’s filling on the rail behind that bar.
Finally, there was Nick Rye. A third-generation pilot, he comes from a military family. For his whole life he’s been blessed with peace, and now he’s willing to fight to bring that future back for his young family.
I know these are just vignettes, sizzle reels surgically designed to tug at my emotions. But I felt them deeply as I watched them for the first time last week.
Whether you live in a red state or a blue one, these monologues speak to the dissatisfaction and anger coursing through our country today. These emotions are real, and just like the Iron Cross, they, too, have a history. It’s up to Hay and his team to steer a clear path between Far Cry 5’s fiction and modern-day America’s reality.
I asked Hay if there were any pitfalls, any minefields that he and his team specifically tried to avoid along the way.
“It’s a big question,” he said with a sigh. “It’s not necessarily about steering around stuff. It’s about having an idea and standing behind it, and moving through it in a way that’s mature and that’s thought-provoking.”
Hay said that first and foremost, his team wanted the player to be able to put themselves into the shoes of the main character. Others on the Ubisoft team strongly hinted that both male and female avatars would be available, but for Hay it meant something more than the physical.
“You go into the world and you have your experience,” he said, “and then we wanted the people that you meet in the world to be credible, and to feel like they had reflexes that made sense — that they were real people.
“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.”
The short snippet of gameplay that we were shown included Far Cry’s now-iconic style of open-world gameplay.
There were muscle cars, pickup trucks and 18-wheelers with players firing guns through broken windshields as they drove. Ubisoft showed attack dogs on both sides of the fight, with one wrenching an assault rifle from an enemy’s hands and bringing it back to the waiting player. There were aircraft as well, including pontoon planes, P-51 Mustangs and WWII-era bombers.
“We built a beautiful world and we fill it filled with unique characters,” Hay said, “and then we give you a shitload of toys to go out and build your resistance.” Exactly how much fun those toys are is anyone’s guess. Compared to the lore and the storyline discussed, the snippets of pre-recorded gameplay all flashed by very, very quickly. With luck, we’ll be able to play it next month at E3.
Far Cry 5 is scheduled to be released Feb. 27, 2018, on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One. That’s when we’ll find out if the action in the game fits the tone of its storyline, and if Ubisoft Montreal can get the balance right.
Otherwise, there could be hell to pay from the people, the politicians and the other unique groups that call Montana home.