Far Cry 5‘s muddled political message is better for gaming than a perfect one.
Upon its announcement last year, Far Cry 5‘s political promise attracted the liberal gamer base (and disconcerted conservative gamers) as it seemed to be aiming strictly at the American Christian fundamentalism and rural conservatism that have been at the front and center of the country’s political discourse since the last presidential election. With the game’s release and the reviews rolling out, it’s clear that while it is, mechanically, a fun game to play, it doesn’t stick the landing in terms of cultural political commentary.
Instead of taking a hard stance on the current political climate, it tries to straddle the fence, to not take sides and, instead, treat the threat of fundamentalist conservatism as an exaggerated skin draped over the ludic need for opposing forces to attack the player. In this game, the cannon fodder is simply “crazy cult member”, similar to the shift Resident Evil made away from zombies to Othered, uneducated, Spanish, feral, rural villagers in the fourth game (which they doubled-down on in the fifth game by moving out of Spain and into Africa). They may have a different story and context, but they were basically just zombies to shoot down––targets to hit for a “higher score.” Despite oblique references to modern political situations (including a mission built around obtaining a “pee tape”), Far Cry 5 seems to play the politics off as a joke when it pops up at all.
The last few years have really seen an effort to fold political commentary into game narratives and, as it stands now, the results seem to be less than effective albeit provocative. From the nuanced existential dread of the indie darling, Papers, Please, to the hyperbolic but consistent Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, the efforts have been teaching us that developers, at the very least, are ready to tackle such subjects even if their hold on the language, narrative agility, or tools to effectively enact such commentary remains debatable.
This static speaks to the point that how to tell a good story in a game is nebulous at best as gaming is not––unlike books, movies, comics, and tv––a one-sided narrative act. Games are by their very nature interactive and, therefore, the success of the narrative quite literally falls into the hands of the players, be it their attention to the story as they play or the choices they make in-game and how they line up with the intent of the developers. Narrative is still a messy, complex, and delicate aspect of video games.
This results in a lot of “flawed masterpieces”––good games like Far Cry 5 that don’t quite stick the landing. The aforementioned Wolfenstein II offers distinct answers to the political problems it confronts, but can be undermined by its wildly shifting tone from the touchingly serious to cartoonish absurdity. Watchdogs 2 (also from Far Cry‘s developer, Ubisoft) was largely a success but dropped the ball in crucial instances that harmed the efficacy of its thesis. Most publicly, Bioshock Infinite had a huge backlash to its initial critical success as people ruminated on its message after playing the game and found a lot to be troubling. Mafia III, in contrast, seemed to have a strong, clear, and evocative stance on race in the sixties, but the game part kind of faltered. Similarly, Papers, Please had a strong emergent political statement that was powerful for those who played it, but its indie status and, perhaps, esoteric retro aesthetics (as well as limited availability) probably kept it out of the hands of many potential gamers.
Arguably, no game has hit the landing when it comes to political commentary. Something always comes along and taints the potential and lays the game down as a “flawed masterpiece.” If it were to happen, no doubt it would most likely be out of accident than design. Video game narrative is arguably still in a fledgling state, with detractors even stating that story is not wholly useful to the medium (which Andrew and I talked about in Episode 133). So, it’s important to keep in mind that the growth of the medium (of any medium) includes heavy-footed attempts and stumbles.
Narrative is still a messy, complex, and delicate aspect of video games.
As a whole, we are still learning how to tell stories in games. It’s problematic because the technology for game development continues to surge forward as well and the bouncing between the two often feels like a scrimmage rather than a handshake. However, the key word there is “learning.” The way we generally learn is through metacognitive reflection of what we have already done, examining our past missteps in order to make the next attempt better.
And that is where these flawed masterpieces are actually helping the community rather than harming the medium. When Far Cry 5, in this case, so overtly stated that it would be a game with something to say at its announcement, only to walk that back as quickly as possible, the final product’s failure to live up to that promise got the community talking about politics in games, much as games––flawed as they are––like Wolfenstein II, Papers, Please, and Bioshock Infinite did before. This conversation exposes the nuance in the medium and actually helps to establish a baseline of what the community wants, expects, and hopes for in the future. These missteps encourage the audience (gamers, critics, and journalists) to become part of the process instead of simply waiting for the developers to simply say what they want to say (or say what they think we want to hear) and wait with gritted teeth to hear if they got it wrong. While that very scenario was the impetus here, the resulting conversation seems productive rather than agonistic.
That the community is talking about how to tell a political story in a game narrative is generative and progressive for the medium and the culture. Even among gamers themselves, having a game act as the discursive crux around politics, gaming, and narrative shines a light of hope on a community that has done more than its share to darken the skies on those topics. Our culture has evolved us to a point where political discussion mimics sports fandom––picking a team and shouting at the competition. Productive conversation is less about right and wrong and more about looking at the successes and failures of an idea, pointing them out, and making decisions based on them.
More importantly, the community needs to have these conversations with itself more than it needs an effective political statement in a game. If a flawed game gets us to not only intelligently critique and what-if a game but also examine ourselves as a community––to reflect on our goals and diversity––then I would rather have that than The West Wing of video games.
The fallout from Far Cry 5‘s narrative failure will fuel more nuanced and interesting attempts (that will no doubt fail in their own ways) in the future, but the point is that those attempts will be better. What effect does a “perfect” statement have? What benefit comes from the community just sitting back in admiration? What happens to the knowledge we gained from the experience if we treat it as something that has been checked off of a list?
Perfection is boring. Gaming, like politics, always changes as time moves forward. The conversation about the successes, failures, and potential of a game serves as inspiration to be and do better next time be it from Ubisoft, a competitor, or an independent developer––as long as it keeps us talking.