Earlier this week, Ubisoft released the key art for Far Cry 5 ahead of its full announcement today. The art showed the game's villains, a semi-religious cult who looked to be all white. Like the release of Far Cry 4's key visual, there was a spark lit in people. There was talking. There were takes. Some folks lost their damn minds.
It's not hard to see why, in the current political climate of the United States. There's a definite divide between Republican and Democrat, clad in the colors of red and blue. That divide has sometimes been defined as one between the diverse, liberal coastal cities and a whiter, conservative, rural America. With the Far Cry 5 art, some assumed players would be fighting a caricature of this rural America. 'A media attack on Trump voters!' some speculated.
Like the discussion around Far Cry 4's key art, the expectations don't conform to the game that Ubisoft has sketched out. Instead, the player is a local sheriff's deputy who's tired of this religious cult getting all up in everyone's America and decides to rally the locals, kill some cultists, and potentially tip a cow. It is, unsurprisingly, a Far Cry game.
Isn't This Different to Other Far Cry Games?
No, it's not. The connective tissue of modern Far Cry is an outsider thrust into a harsh open world where two or more factions are fighting for control. Into this mix, you throw a talkative villain who makes their presence known in flamboyant fashion. Add open-world action, lots of hijinks, a few explosions, and probably some crafting. This is the formula. Let's look how that's played out over the past few games.
Far Cry 3 starred Jason Brody, a young bro on vacation who finds himself trapped on the Rook Islands, a fictional location between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Jason becomes the primary soldier in a war between the local religious Rakyat tribe and pirates led by slave trader Hoyt and the talkative Vaas. This was the banner game, the one that set in stone what modern Far Cry would be. Unfortunately, some noted that Far Cry 3 adhered to the age-old White Savior trope for most of its runtime, even though it ultimately subverts that in one of the endings.
With that issue in mind, Ubisoft moved forward into Far Cry 4. This time instead of a full outsider, players were thrown into the life of Ajay Ghale, a young man who finds himself trapped in the fictional Kyrat, somewhere in the Himalayas. While Ajay knows nothing of the local conflict, he returns to bring his mother's ashes home, as she was a native. Ajay becomes the fulcrum in the fight between the semi-religious Golden Path rebellion and the Kyrat Royal Army, led by the flamboyant Pagan Min.
Then there was Far Cry Primal, which was a larger divergence from the classic framing. Players play Takkar, a Wenja tribesman who travels to the Oros valley with his people, only to find them scattered. Takkar must collect his tribe and defeat the others in the valley: the brutal Udam and advanced Izila. Religion enters the picture again through Tensey, a shaman who helps Takkar learn how to control animals by going on vision quests.
Far Cry 5 doesn't stray far from this formula. The setting is different, trading in an island in the Indian Ocean or valley in the Himalayas for the sprawling grasslands, rivers, and mountains of Montana. In the fictional Hope County, religion has spread to both sides of the equation. Your unnamed sheriff's deputy—you can choose a male or female character and your skin color—has to band together with the local citizens to take on the religious cult that has run roughshod over the area. And Far Cry 5's charismatic villain is likely the fictional preacher dead center in the key art, who narrates the game's first full trailer.
This is Far Cry through and through. The only difference is one of setting.
Isn't Far Cry 5 a Thinly-Veiled Attack on Rural America?
Not really. Far Cry is generally not a series that tackles deep issues head on. Of all the Ubisoft franchises, Assassin's Creed is the one with a bit more gravitas and heavy tone, and even that series generally saves the social exploration for small moments or expansions. Far Cry is far more about the explosions and crazy stunts. (Even Watch Dogs 2 explored a few issues in its runtime.)
This is a mass market game and even before the current political climate became a reality, Ubisoft was doing its best to thread the needle. Far Cry 5 is about rural America versus cartoonish religious cultists. People? Your deputy sheriff is a local and the people he relies on are blue-collar locals. What about Christianity, a religion whose imagery is used for the cult? A corruption of those values, with the upstanding Father Jerome standing as the proper religious figure.
The trailer presents the cult encroaching upon stereotypical images of mid-west Americana: a baseball field, a church, the local general store, farming equipment, the town machine shop, and folks hunting and fishing. The American flag features multiple times-on the wind vane, the general store, the home, and the church-to stand in as what's normal, before the black and white flag and stunted cross of the cult takes over.
That's how Ubisoft is navigating this narrow gap. Rural America is the hero. The underdog, not the enemy.
So Ubisoft Is Okay on This One?
This is a real fine balancing act. To hit a mass market means having to hedge a bit. Ubisoft can't overcommit in any one direction. The cultists in the key art were all white, pointing to shades of white supremacy, but the trailer and full key art shows a number of cultists with a darker skin tone. The same is true of the town, which is a mix of folks, including Father Jerome, the unnamed brown-skinned farmhand, and potentially, the main character.
"I just think that when we were conceiving the game and coming back to it, looking at the frontier mentality, looking at people who choose to live there... People who want to be separate, people who don't want to be tread on, who don't want to be pushed on by the government," Far Cry 5 creative director Dan Hay told USgamer. "They really are passionate about their freedom. They really are passionate about what they believe and what they think of. And in a lot of cases, at least in some of the cases we looked at, they were passionate about their right to be able to protect themselves from anyone."
It's a bit of shaky ground for Ubisoft. Far Cry 5's cult definitely recalls fringe elements of American history: the Reverend Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple; the Waco siege with David Koresh and his Branch Davidians; or Charles Manson and the Family. That's safe territory to work with. But the quote above could be seen as lionizing separatists, including the Ruby Ridge conflict, the white supremacist takeover of Leith, North Dakota, the 2014 Bundy standoff, or the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by the Bundy family and others. That could rub some the wrong way.
Ubisoft is doing its best to carve out the right position here, but it's a hard road to travel. Ubisoft Montreal wants to use all of the imagery involved because it's compelling—probably the most interesting Far Cry yet—but it can't be seen to say anything concrete about that imagery and its real-world counterparts. That could turn off prospective players.
So Where Is The Right Spot?
According to Hay, this game had its genesis a few years ago, which makes sense from a game development perspective.
"We came up with this idea three years ago, and it's just been really interesting to watch as things have kind of aligned," he explained to USgamer.
Ubisoft has had to watch as the political climate ended up in a spot where its game could be considered a very touchy subject. This is one of the issues with long-term entertainment development. Recent television shows like Mr. Robot, Hannibal, and Supergirl have had episodes moved in response to real-world events.
Sometimes that can work out in a positive direction, making a creator look prescient. Activision lucked out with this year's Call of Duty going back to World War II. Fans took it as a response to the reception of Infinite Warfare, but Call of Duty: WWII began development years before Activision even knew how fans would see the 2016 entry.
When you commit to making entertainment for a year or more, you're rolling the dice on whether the culture and community you launch into is willing to buy what you're selling.
Given when development started, I'd say one likely inspiration was the television show Justified. Running on FX from 2010 to 2015, Justified followed the story of disgraced deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, who was assigned to Lexington, Kentucky and its Appalachian surroundings after dealing too much frontier justice in Miami, Florida. Givens' new jurisdiction includes his hometown in Harlan County.
The show changes protagonists, but many are local, beginning with the criminal Crowder family in the first season, the Bennett family in the second, and a host of others following. Walton Goggins was amazing in the show as the born-again white supremacist criminal Boyd Crowder, with his relationship with Timothy Olyphant's Raylan Givens being one of the show's linchpins.
While there's a contingent of other U.S. Marshals, most of Justified is about Givens and others handing out local justice to the malcontents in their own towns and cities. The bad guys are all bad, the good guys try to be good, but sometimes are bad as well.
Another good example from television is Banshee, a Cinemax show where an ex-con assumes the identity of a local sheriff in Pennsylvania Amish country, dealing out local justice as he attempts to hide out from a crime lord. Both shows had a solid balancing act of charismatic villains and flawed heroes, while sidestepping any potential political realities. They're all about action and character interplay. Far Cry 5 could exist comfortably in that niche, providing what is essentially Justified: The Game.
As it stands, we're still in the early days of what we know about Far Cry 5. We have no real concept of how well Ubisoft will navigate any of these potential issues. We don't even know if your choice of player character will factor into the game at all. Will it stumble like Far Cry 3 did on racial issues, or find a new path forward?