For much of the general public, video games are still sadly seen as little more than throwaway entertainment. Thanks to its simplistic and innocent origins, much of the older generation wrote off the medium as little more than glorified toys back in the ’80s. Yet, in the three decades since, the art form has begun to offer far more than the basic thrills of Pong and Pac-Man.
With games constantly growing in size and complexity, the medium’s storytelling chops have thankfully also matured along with them.
It was surprising then, to see this year’s announcement of Far Cry 5 met with a sea of anger from certain corners of the internet. What triggered this torrent of anger? This modern shooter dared to step away from the realms of exotic locales.
Instead of setting this anticipated sequel in a dangerous and remote part of the world, Ubisoft Montreal opted to put gamers in an unexpectedly familiar but equally hostile setting — America.
Far Cry 5 puts players in the fictional town of Hope County, Montana, where a crashing economy and rising social tensions have allowed a dangerous Christian cult to thrive and seize control.
Instead of suave looking foreigners ruling ‘exotic’ lands, this time around, the baddies you had to defeat were white Christians. Predictably, the entitled alt-right felt personally attacked.
Within hours of the game’s announcement, death threats against the developers had been tweeted, petitions to boycott the game had been launched and all the metaphorical toys had been thrown out of the pram.
Yet, with games taking years to develop we were keen to find out how much of this was intentional. Interested to hear more about the real world influences behind this ‘controversial’ new game, we sat down with the game’s director, Dan Hay, and talked Far Cry 5‘s relationship with the real world.
“It’s in some ways a mirror to what’s going on. The question I get sometimes is ‘How did you know?’ and the answer is …we had no idea. I think the truth is that, you know, globally we have a lot of shared experiences.
We live through the same trials and we live through the same situations where we feel like the global village is kind of threatened by different things, and we don’t even realise, we don’t really understand what it is.”
“And so, as a result, you see that in entertainment, in the media and all these different things some of the same throughputs and the same themes and the same stories come up. Nostalgia and the want for times past, safety, family, purpose. The cult and a leader of a cult just sort of made sense.”
While this is a perfectly reasonable answer, Hay was hesitant to address the online backlash at all. Yet, despite Hay being unwilling to alienate a potentially lucrative conservative audience, the game’s director didmention that he was keen for his team to capture that sense of unease that has been brewing in the real world for quite some time.
“When the subprime mortgage collapse happened in the United States, what was terrifying about that time .. was that it was the first time I can remember hearing people say ‘Where’s the government? Where is everybody? Where are the people at the helm? Who’s taking control of this, who’s running the show?’
And there was open frustration with the leadership. There was open, people saying ‘You’re not protecting my future’.
And it really reminded me of when I was a kid. I remember kind of looking up at the world and looking up at the fact that the Soviet Union and the US were locked in this titanic struggle, and there was this feeling like we were this close all the time for years.
And we were just thinking, people in the ‘80s were spending money like there was no tomorrow. I think the reason was some of them believed there wouldn’t be.”
With our world leaders seemingly on the brink of nuclear war once again, we asked Hay more about how current events and the rise of Neo Nazism had influenced the game’s development.
“Over the last five, six, seven years I’ve been kind of having that feeling again. When it first happened, I didn’t recognise what it was, I didn’t understand what it was, but then I started to watch what was happening around the world and I started to get a sense that everything was not quite right, and it felt like we were kind of headed towards the edge.
And what worried me was that we may not know it when the time comes. Right?
One of the bad parts about always being at the edge is that you never know [it], you always assume you’re going to be able to pull back.”
Despite these stark parallels to the real world, however, Hay is keen to stress that from his perspective, Far Cry 5 is a piece of entertainment first, and not a political statement.
“I think when we built our game we really focused on making sure that people understand that it’s a form of entertainment, right?
We know that it’s entertainment, and what’s interesting about the time right now that we’re in is that games and film are for the first time really becoming into parity.
I think when we talked about exploring certain themes and the fact that films have been able to do this for a long time and that television has been able to this for a long time, we wanted to be able to make it to say ‘Look, let’s build our own world. Let’s make sure that Hope County is not a place you find on the map.
Let’s make sure Eden’s Gate is not a place that exists, it’s our own, and that the father and what he believes is our own’.
With the game’s development starting three years ago, it’s clear that the idea of a Christian cult and disillusioned American State were being pursued by the team long before current events unfolded. Yet with the writing being on the wall even then and the game quickly becoming prophetic, it’s a shame to see Ubisoft Montreal not proudly standing behind its clear desire to tackle real world issues.
As Hay says himself, movies, books and TV have long presented their audience with difficult topics, and dared to use their respective medium to tackle real world issues. Yet, despite his willingness to acknowledge this, it’s clear that he’s hesitant to fully commit to the game’s obvious stab at social commentary.
“It’s absolutely born from some of the ideas in the real world and it feels real, because we want it to feel like a place that you could go and all of your reflections and all of your actions and all of your intuitions would still work, but it’s still our [ficitional] place. “
It’s frustrating, as what we’ve seen of Far Cry 5 so far looks highly promising, yet this the symptom of a much larger problem in gaming.
While the current state of the world has clearly been a huge influence on the team, Ubisoft Montreal’s insistence that this is simply “entertainment” actually does the medium a huge disservice. In order for video games to continue to grow as an art form, developers and publishers shouldn’t be afraid to take the same approach that TV and movies do and create art with a strong message. While games can (and should) always be able to offer mindless fun too, there is no reason why inhabiting a virtual world shouldn’t be able to make us think about our own too.