Far Cry 5: Big Bombast, Scant Soul

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[Contains spoilers]

Far Cry 5 was born in controversy long before it was released. The original promo art caused a bit of a stir and was accused of both provoking and encouraging some kind of vague alt-right sentiment and/or being an indictment on the state of American society. This backlash against it died down pretty quickly in the aftermath (as such things often do) and was mostly forgotten by the time it actually did release, a few weeks back. Having recently completed the campaign of FC5, the first thought that comes to mind is--if only it was indeed intending to tackle and sustain such a thorny and timely topic on any but the broadest of lines. Now that I’ve experienced it firsthand, I have a number of items to discuss, so let’s pile into the pickup and get to it.   

First thing I’ll state upfront: I found FC5 to be fun, funny, and greatly satisfying as a game to play. But what I found most interesting was analyzing its plot points as they unfolded. Perhaps in order to avoid invoking the dreaded ludonarrative dissonance label, I’ll just say it was instead a story that alternated between intriguing and outlandish, eventually settling on splitting the difference 50/50. Before I get to the meat of that though, I want to spend some time going over the gameplay side, as I think that’s certainly FC5’s strongest aspect.

At its best, FC5 excels at providing a possibility space rife for enacting spectacular emergent gameplay moments. As tired as that phrase may be now, nevertheless it describes the situation quite accurately. Ubisoft has at this point probably perfected the core gameplay loop and mechanics to such a degree that they’re the tightest they will ever be. Many of the familiar elements are in place (crafting/hunting/gear expansion/exploring) but streamlined by stripping away some of the more outdated models. There’s an early lampshade made about not having to climb radio towers. And that’s fine, it shows some self-awareness on Ubisoft’s part and a willingness to let go of a least a few of their former touchstones in that department.

Various other improvements contribute to making it as I said the best use of their standard template. The buddy NPC system lends itself to impromptu moments of joyous mayhem (some of the companions are highly entertaining to listen to as well) and is a layer that was absent previously. FC5 is arguably the most purely enjoyable game Ubisoft have ever made, due to the impressive (borderline overwhelming) selection of options/mechanics available to interact with (read: totally fuck up) the open-world environment itself. It’s all damn solid stuff and an absolute blast to play around in.

Having said that, let’s delve into the tangled topics of its narrative. The backdrop of rural American Midwest outdoors enthusiasts in a struggle against a quasi-messianic doomsday cult is largely in keeping with Far Cry tradition. While it may not be an ‘exotic’ locale such as Africa or the Himalayas, it retains the staple spirit of the series. An outsider is thrust into a hostile land in the process of being overrun by nefarious forces led by a dangerously charismatic figure, creating an atmosphere immediately fraught with tension. What it does (or rather doesn’t do) with this specific framework is where it stumbles.

An early warning sign was having the player character a silent protagonist. Immediately there is a loss of investment, since a blank slate character de facto has no stake in the tale. (Granted, you can choose male or female models and have some minor customization, but since this is an FPS, all the cosmetic clothing options are glorified money sinks.) At least Jason Brody and Ajay Ghale from FC3 and 4 respectively had a personality to impart and interact with the rest of the cast. In FC5, we play as a nameless and mute rookie deputy who par for the course after a disastrous opening, is the only character left in a position to literally take up arms against the menacing Eden’s Gate cult leader Joseph Seed and his ‘family’ of fanatics. Still, it sets up a respectable conflict. . . until you start to meet the menagerie of other characters/quest-givers, and realize you’re in a Rockstar/GTA-like universe with all that entails.

FC5 proceeds to park itself firmly between campy over the top action tropes vs. more somber musings and refuses to budge an inch the whole rest of the game. It straddles but never fully embraces either its serious or satirical aspects, mixing them in haphazardly without measured precision. Occasionally it veers towards some self-referential parody (see the radio tower example above along with a sidequest that calls back to Blood Dragon) while other times it seems entirely lacking in self-awareness and perhaps taking itself much more humorlessly than it can come across as. One could say this is an attempt to both not potentially offend a lot of the audience (because of money, dear boy!) but simultaneously wanting to ride the legacy of FC3’s deconstruction of hero fantasy game tropes. By choosing neither, what ends up happening is it winds up in the classic cake-eating situation, and all the audience is left with is the storytelling equivalent of bread instead.

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One of its strangest moves, as also pointed out by others, is that acquiring enough 'resistance points' in each main area triggers encounters with the Seed family figureheads. These sections entirely halt any mischief you were currently up to, yanking you into lengthy cutscenes with the main villains where you’re forced to listen to them spout scripture mashups and pontificate about their vague end of the world plans. Portions of these grandiose speeches are actually decently written and well voice acted, but at the end of the day are full of so much sound and fury, signifying nothing. They also come with the tacit effect of having the cult capture and release your deputy PC (who is ostensibly the one person causing them the most trouble) multiple times. It is one of the most searing cases of the narrative-gameplay divide, one that falls completely flat.

FC5 holds the possibility of exploring the following: the culture of violence and gun glorification, the current political climate, police/military interventionist practices, and the insidious nature of how cults exploit people through various means. The crux is it doesn’t provide anything of substance on any of these fronts. And even if it does sometimes approach a serious commentary, that’s almost instantly cancelled out by the ridiculous absurdity on display at any moment’s notice. As evidence I offer this microcosmic scenario: In the middle of hearing a character harrowingly relate her experiences as an Afghan veteran and how it relates to the current situation, I can turn around to set fire to the woods before launching grenades at drugged up cultists, while in the background a cougar mauls one of the distressingly disposable randomly spawning friendly NPCs, seconds before they too are blown away by an airstrike from off screen. Its tonal shifts will induce whiplash because of how the overarching framework/characters etc. clash so jarringly with the brand of wackiness baked into it in general. It frequently and bizarrely switches mood, because of the unintentional hilarity that the player can instigate and/or just happen upon. The result of which is that one can witness/cause all of sorts of carnage that, while highly amusing, undermines any possibility of the plot imparting anything substantial about its core material.

It’s like Jack Johnson vs. John Jackson in a Futurama bit. FC5 could have said something about the divided/fractured mindset and state of America/society/the world etc. but instead of making any waves or raising any real points, it treads water, agreeing with everything and nothing simultaneously. Perhaps depending where exactly one stands on the issues, the implications will be different. For example, does the existence of a "good" militia faction whom the player by default allies with to fight the "evil" armed doomsday cult exonerate it from employing essentially the same tactics to combat the designated enemy? One NPC appears in cutscenes and can even be visited in her home base, where she is shown casually torturing a captured cultist. Can one in fact fight fire with fire, and if one battles with monsters, does one become a monster in turn? It’s not a novel moral dilemma to be sure, but since FC5 doesn’t attempt to take a stand, it’s reduced to background noise; contained in the course of events by rote. It’s all there as basically set dressing because that what we’ve come to expect in a game like this by now, like some kind of contractual obligation. FC5 goes through the motions of taking scattered potshots at all sides of the debate, and offers glimpses of deeper thematic explorations and how they may reflect contemporary society, but quickly snaps back to the status-quo so as to let the player enjoy the (very well-designed) open world ecosystem without having to think too hard about anything aside from visceral digital murder, which in and of itself is in no way specific to this game at all.

And so now we’ve arrived at the much-derided endings (other outlets liked to employ the hyperbole of "worst ever!") I would point out however, that both are 100% in keeping with everything mentioned above. I’ll summarize them below (not counting the secret/gag ending which is an easter egg at best and ala FC4 can be arrived at in the opening 30 minutes of the game) and then I shall explain why they are both valid and moot at the same time.

[Second spoiler warning]

 

Ending 1: A Dr. Strangelove rip-off which even fucking plays "We’ll Meet Again" as a nuclear catastrophe conveniently occurs directly after the final boss battle. The justification for said event being an offhandedly hinted at background detail that could’ve easily been missed. Following that, we’re railroaded into one more compulsory car chase-crash sequence, the only survivors of which are obviously the deputy PC and the big bad Joseph Seed, who end up trapped together in a bunker. Seed then delivers a hasty final "I told you so" speech. Credits.

Ending 2: A BioShock rip-off that leans on a plot point that, while it was introduced previously, was presented as something we supposedly overcame, to explain the last minute ‘twist’:  After leaving Seed alive and alone, we’re asked to buy the fact that we actually really had been implanted with Manchurian candidate programming, and so would you kindly activate your cult sleeper agent brainwashing and kill the original friendly NPCs. Credits.

Neither are particularly memorable, or for that matter original, but nor are they too far off from what anyone should be expecting anyway by the closing curtain. They are, if not satisfying, also not the most disappointing thing in the world. Certainly there’s been much better, and worse. FC5 ends on a middle of the road note in either case. But I must impress my view that the entire narrative of the game has been nothing but that. That’s FC5’s most egregious misstep and its greatest sin (har har)-- with all it has available to draw from, it proceeds to waste so much narrative potential that the end result is simply nothing more than a tease that it was leading somewhere, but always stops short of committing one way or another. There really is no other term to describe it besides lazy. Being such equally flagrant copouts, both endings are indicative of the unwaveringly neutral stance FC5 takes on its facets from beginning to end, eschewing all nuances contained therein, and are thus completely interchangeable, unimpressive, but ultimately fitting.

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I declared at the onset that FC5’s gameplay is the best it’s ever been, and I stand staunchly by that. (Check out Arcade mode too.) Conversely, its story is in every sense the safest to date; broad enough to appeal to a wide swathe, but blunted enough to not step on any toes or take any risks. During the course of writing this article, I entertained the idea of arguing the case that perhaps that is the real meta-point of FC5. It could be taken such that since spectacle supersedes substance in the minds of the masses, all of its explosive extravagance is an extension and representation of humanity’s fascination with apocalyptic fantasies and escapism. Any attempt to force us as players to reflect upon the current reality would be like, a total bummer, dude. If I felt that was truly the case, then maybe everything else could be forgiven. It would make FC5 a stellar Take That! against itself and its target demographic. But as it stands, I cannot escape the strong inkling that nothing of the sort was a consideration at all. FC5 decides to punt on making a statement, leaving us with finely-tuned gameplay that is devoid of consequence. You can enjoy the hell out of playing it by all means. I certainly did. But by the same measure, it’s deeply disappointing in that it fails to contribute to the cultural discussion in any impactful way via its narrative.

-Scott Thurlow

Scott Thurlow

As far beyond monsters as they are beyond you.