"Then they came for the street artists, and I said nothing," the narrator intoned, and I felt my eyes roll inexorably into the back of my head. If Sunday's Ubisoft Forward event—intended to promote Ubisoft's biggest games for 2020 and beyond—showed anything, it's that it's business as usual for a publisher that has made a habit of co-opting highly charged political imagery for its games.
This time, Ubisoft made use of a famous World War II-era poem by a German pastor, in which he confesses to standing by and doing nothing amid the Holocaust. "Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me." Just the imagery you want to promote Watch Dogs: Legion, a game that vacillates wildly between showing a British granny kneecapping private security forces and terrorist bombings in London.
It was undoubtedly the most groan-inducing moment, though hardly the only one, in an event that saw Ubisoft play very much to type. Aside from Watch Dogs and the already-announced Assassin's Creed Valhalla, Ubisoft also revealed Far Cry 6, the latest in its series of open-world political romps. This one stars Giancarlo Esposito as the dictator of a failing autocracy, and I'm sure his story will be handled with all the grace and care that Ubisoft showed when it tackled Trump's America in the last main entry.
As Ubisoft Forward demonstrated, hot-button issues have become a favorite avenue of exploration for the publishing giant, and not in a way that I particularly enjoy. From Ghost Recon: Wildlands to Far Cry 5, Ubisoft has cheerfully used politics and real-world issues in the service of marketing its games, even as it has generally pleaded ignorance on the subject. Perhaps more than any other major publisher today, Ubisoft seems to subscribe to the old cliche, "There's no such thing as bad publicity."
The result has resulted in games like The Division 2, provocatively set against the backdrop of a new American Civil War, and Far Cry, which is "apolitical to the point of absurdity" despite hitting on guns, religion, and the opioid epidemic. In showing Far Cry 6 for the first time, Ubisoft juxtaposed scenes of a cold autocrat with protesters and toppling statues, no doubt fully aware of the emotions those images will invoke in the wake of last month's protests.
It's an approach that engenders a wearying sense of cynicism about Ubisoft's intentions with these games. It's natural to want to believe that creators are operating in good faith when weaving politics into their narratives, but one doesn't get that feeling when playing Far Cry 5 or The Division 2. Instead, it feels like the controversy is the point, and that Ubisoft is just trying to get some kind of reaction on Twitter or elsewhere to drive forward the marketing campaign.
For its part, Ubisoft publicly rationalizes its approach as a kind of neutral depiction of various events in which players get to decide for themselves who's in the right. "[CEO Yves Guillemot] has told us that our goal is to give players all the information we can, and then let them choose which sides of our game worlds they want to explore," said Ubisoft Vice President Tommy Francois in 2019 (Note: Francois was one of the two Ubisoft executives recently put on administrative leave due to the current abuse allegations). "We want them to decide what they like, what they don't like, and if and how to change their minds or the way they play based on that information. It's about more freedom for the players."
It's a strange argument by Ubisoft, as its games don't really seem intent on educating anyone about anything, at least when it comes to political issues (this is where I offer a favorable nod to the Assassin's Creed Discovery Tour mode, which is genuinely great). Instead, they tend to be more exploitative; a tacky attempt to cash in on the emotions created by real-world events. I can't say I'm super excited to have such intense images co-opted for a sandbox adventure that's more about harvesting bull testicles than political commentary.
Now we're on to Watch Dogs: Legion, a game about putting people in the "resistance" against a massive surveillance state, and the cycle is beginning anew. Will Ubisoft actually have something to say this time? In the most recent round of Watch Dogs: Legion previews, Kotaku analyzed its depictions of police brutality, pointing out how it's possible to use a drone to spotlight a security officer, causing them to turn violently on protesters. (Tellingly, all the baddies in Legion are private security and not actual cops.)
"Will [Watch Dogs: Legion] be precise and incisive, or will it dip a giant ladle into a bland stew of vaguely interrelated issues like automation, police (except they're not the police) violence, and offscreen xenophobia?" Kotaku writer Nathan Grayson wonders. "Will it engage with the issues it's gesturing in the general direction of, or will it take the standard Ubisoft 'not a political statement' route?"
Well, I'd like to believe that Ubisoft has something interesting to say this time around, considering its name-checked post-Brexit setting, but I don't have a lot of hope given its track record. And even if it does have some interesting commentary, it's being severely undercut by its marketing, which is busy mixing Holocaust references with quickcut trailers that don't feel far removed from Fortnite.
Now more than ever, it's hard to see Ubisoft's political themes as anything more than a marketing ploy. To the extent that these games make any use of their setting, it's almost always in the service of being lurid or shocking, as was the case with Far Cry 5's relentlessly awful ending.
The worst part is that it seems to be working. Far Cry 5, by far the most controversial Ubisoft game in several years, was also the fastest-selling entry in the series to date. And as yesterday's event showed, Ubisoft is showing every intention of doubling down on its strategy into the next generation and beyond.
All I ask is that people stop asking that Ubisoft provide meaningful political commentary in the process. If history is anything to go by, that's clearly beside the point. After all, when you have an effective marketing strategy, why change?
Major Game Releases: July 13 to July 17
Here are the major releases for the week of July 13 to July 17. Want to see the complete list? Check out our full list of video game release dates for 2020.
- Ghost of Tsushima [July 17 for PlayStation 4]: Sucker Punch's sword-swinging samurai adventure is almost here. If you're a fan of classic samurai movies, Ghost of Tsushima has everything you need: Serene, stark landscapes, deadly foes, and a seemingly perpetual blizzard of cherry blossoms. While that's all great, but what really matters is you can pet the foxes. Look for our review very soon.
- Paper Mario: The Origami King [July 17 for Switch]: The latest Paper Mario game will slide under your door this week. It's not a direct follow-up to the beloved Thousand Year Door for the GameCube, but it's still a fun adventure packed with humor and puzzles. Look for our full review this week.
- Death Stranding [July 14 for PC]: Hideo Kojima's Death Stranding was a hit on the PlayStation 4 last year. Now, PC players can experience the joy of hauling packages and babies across a post-apocalyptic landscape. That's only if you can wrap your head around such an outlandish concept, of course. Ha ha, sure, an invisible threat is going to drive humanity indoors, and couriers will be our sole means of acquiring vital sustenance. That's some imagination you've got there, Kojima.
- Rocket Arena [July 14 for PS4, PC, Xbox One]: Final Strike Games's 3v3 arena shooter arrives on console and PC this week. Published by EA, it's got that Fortnite look to it, but it's apparently pretty fun to play, combining Rocket Arena with a bit of Smash Bros. Expect our review on Thursday.
- Ooblets [July 15 for PC and Xbox One Early Access]: Ooblets, an adorable life sim/farming sim crossover, is coming to early access this week. It's been in development for a long time: Senior Editor Caty McCarthy tried it back at 2017's GDC, and she loved what she played. "I walked away from Ooblets on cloud nine; wishing child-me could see this now and what she would think."
Five Things You Should Know Heading into This Week In Gaming
- Assassin's Creed Valhalla is flat. No, that's not a crack at the latest entry in Ubisoft's long-lived series. Reviews Editor Mike Williams went hands-on with Valhalla, and discovered there are precious view vantage points ("Ubisoft Towers," if you will) to scramble up the landscape. Mike points out he only demoed a small part of the game, and the final product might have enough tall structures to make us as happy as cats in an arboretum. Still, for a series that defined the "Ubisoft Tower," it's a concerning development. We'll find out when Assassin's Creed Valhalla comes out on November 17.
- Allegations of misconduct and harassment have led to some huge shake-ups at Ubisoft. There was another purge of senior staff over the weekend, and it probably won't be the last. Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot has promised "profound changes" in the wake of the allegations.
- Ubisoft didn't bring up the aforementioned charges in its Ubisoft Forward 2020 presentation, which aired on Sunday. We have a roundup if you missed the show. We didn't see anything too mind-blowing, but the reveal trailer for Far Cry 6 looked intense. Then the pre-order bonuses for the game—a disc-throwing gun a la Revolution X and a half-mechanical dachshund named Chorizo—reminded me Far Cry has some issues with tone.
- Gosh, but Microsoft Flight Simulator looks amazing. It's also barring access to some major airports unless you buy the $119.99 USD "Premium Deluxe" edition. What the hey? News editor Eric Van Allen and I wondered how a price gate like that might work at a real airport. Imagine having an emergency and not being allowed to land at Heathrow because you neglected to pay a Premium Deluxe toll. Guess_I'll_Die.jpg.
- I'm desperate for news about Final Fantasy 7 Remake part 2. I'll take any scraps of information that happen to fall on the internet's floor. Thankfully, today started with a treat: Tifa's motion-capture artist shared a picture of her on the job, wielding a sword. This seemingly innocuous tweet riled up Final Fantasy 7 fans who know what happens right after Cloud and his friends leave the steel city of Midgar. And that's all I'll say about that.
Axe of the Blood God for July 13, 2020
Axe of the Blood God is our official RPG podcast releasing every single Monday. You can find subscription info here. We also put out an Axe of the Blood God newsletter every Wednesday, which you can subscribe to here.
Close to a decade after its original crowdfunding campaign, CrossCode is finally on console! Kat and Nadia are joined by Staff Writer Hirun Cryer, who explains why this beautiful indie RPG is worth your attention. Plus, Kat explains why she's still digging into Pokemon Sword, and Nadia reveals her thoughts on Paper Mario: The Origami King.