Far Cry 5’s violent civil unrest is a much-needed reality check for games

Video game-makers usually distance products from politics. Ubisoft might help change that by rooting its new title in the fear and loathing of Trumps US

There is an all-too familiar response when video game developers are asked if their latest project has any real-world meaning: hey, were just making a game, were not making a statement. Its a media-trained kneejerk defence against potential controversy, a line dragged out time and time again when a producer or creative director is asked about seemingly clear parallels with genuine wars, events or issues.

Last year, for example, video game site Killscreen spoke to the makers of The Division, a game about an apocalyptic terrorist attack on New York City. When asked if 9/11 had in any way inspired the setting and narrative, associate creative director Julian Gerighty seemed aghast at the comparison and at the connection between the game and an actual incident. At the end of the day, its a video game, he said. Its an entertainment product Theres no particularly political message with it. This is a game in which soldiers are given the authority to shoot civilian looters in order to restore governmental control over a stricken city and theres no political message?

With this history of evasion in mind, Ubisofts recent announcement of Far Cry 5, the latest title in the publishers successful series of open-world action games, gives some cause for hope. Set in a contemporary depiction of rural Montana, the game deals with a violent religious militia group named the Project at Edens Gate, which is terrorising the inhabitants of the fictitious Hope County into joining its movement. Their aim, it seems, is to bring about some sort of national apocalyptic uprising and its the players role, as a local police officer, to do something about it.

From the start, its an interesting setup. Mainstream video games especially violent ones have tended to avoid recognisable contemporary settings, preferring instead, the (to some extent) politically nullifying contexts of fantasy, science fiction or history. Activision set its Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series during an indistinct near-future to avoid correlations with real-life US foreign policy, while Grand Theft Auto has always neatly divorced itself from the reality of depicting armed bloody chaos on US streets by using fictitious settings only loosely analogous to real-life states and cities. Far Cry 5, however, is unapologetically using the modern United States as its backdrop.

And while this brilliant series has always used recognisable locations for its chaotic adventures, those have, until now, been far flung and exoticised: an unnamed central African state, a Pacific island, a Himalayan town. In this way, the makers have sought to authenticate each setting while simultaneously divorcing player-led actions and troubling narratives from any immediate political context. Even though the last three titles toyed, however unknowingly, with disturbing colonialist themes and ideas, its always been set far enough away to let most gamers relax guiltlessly into their killing sprees. Far Cry has, in some ways, treated its western audiences like the readers of 19th century explorer adventure yarns, distancing them from the violence they relish by othering the antagonists as dangerous natives in the name of thrilling entertainment.

Far Cry 5, though, is being discussed by its makers as a direct response to world events. I began to get the sense that America was ready for a Far Cry, said producer Dan Hay during a recent press event. All I know is that, in the last year and a half I got that feeling back like were riding a wave and something is going to happen. Like theres going to be a calamity and going to be a collapse.

Far
Far Cry 5 uses classic images of the rural US dusty roads, grain stores, pick-up trucks to establish the games grounding in reality. Photograph: Ubisoft

In the brief trailer for the game, we see armed militia terrorising local civilians, dragging them to a river for baptism, darkly patrolling the dusty streets. The group gathers under the edict Freedom, Faith and Firearms which is so close to the language of pro-gun religious right firebrands it cannot be coincidence. Furthermore, during the press event, the 2016 armed takeover of a federal building by a civilian militia in Oregon was even name-checked as an influence, tightening the games connections with the modern US, with civil unrest and unease, and with the intricate connections between religion, politics and gun control.

This is a good sign. Video games have been clawing at the door of mainstream culture for decades, looking for affirmation and acceptance, celebrating every accession, from Momas games collection to the Bafta video game awards. But in order for games to take part in the wider cultural landscape alongside films, books and the visual arts their creators must be willing to interact with and portray the world we live in. It is not possible for a valid artform to constantly absent itself from the meaning, consequence and influence of what it portrays. All games, no matter how escapist in design or intent, are byproducts of the political, social and cultural frameworks from which they emerge; there is no such thing as apolitical art, or apolitical entertainment, because everything produced by a culture tells us something about its beliefs and assumptions.

Its a realisation that is slowly being made by the industry. Indie titles such as Papers Please and This War of Mine, have of course been operating in this knowledge for several years. But now, big Triple A titles like Mafia 3, which explores racism in a fictionalised version of 1960s New Orleans, and Watchdogs 2, which looks at the politics of hacking, surveillance and data gathering in a real-life San Fransisco, are merging the action and environment of video games with real-world themes, problems and concerns.

This isnt just about cultural validity, its about the meaning and value of entertainment. The politics of Trumps US and Brexit Britain are fascinating cauldrons of fear, uncertainty and division the very stuff of good storytelling. Its no coincidence that some of the finest television brought to us in this golden era The Wire, House of Cards, Westworld, The Handmaids Tale has rooted itself within the immediate sociopolitical concerns of the viewing populace. Fear and truth make great, compelling art and the idea of a game steeped in the complex politics of the modern US is hugely enticing.

Whatever
Whatever Ubisoft says in its marketing, the depiction of armed action against US civilians will surely be controversial. Photograph: Ubisoft

Of course, theres a chance Ubisoft will drop the ball, and it is already taking steps away from broader controversies. By making the antagonists a combination of a David Koresh-style religious cult and a Bundy Brothers militia movement, the game muddies its depiction of both, lifting away from direct commentary. And by framing the group as a crazed sect, rather than a plausible conservative rightwing operation, the game distorts any sense of true representation.

Also, as Austin Walker, editor of the gaming site Waypoint considers, itll be interesting to see if the game includes any racial angle in its narrative of dispossessed white extremists. The player can choose the gender and skin colour of their protagonist but will the latter have a bearing on how theyre treated in the game? As he writes: I am curious, to say the least, to see how (or if) the games skin colour and gender choice is taken into account and I hope it is, since debuting a black preacher with a bombed-out church [in the games trailer] suggests a willingness to leverage the history of racist violence. The games industry doesnt have a great record here: BioShock Infinite wanted to be, in part, an exploration of slavery, racism and civil rights, but ending up suggesting a hackneyed equivalency between the violence of suppression and the violence of resistance.

In her excellent essay, Video Games Are Boring, designer Brie Code despairs at a medium that continues to hide in its own self-made magic circle, its own hermetically sealed, trope-led retreat from public discourse. Theres nothing wrong with escapism, theres nothing wrong with games where you fight dragons or space monsters (and they can certainly be filled with allegorical meaning), but mainstream games have to come out and look at the world once in a while. As Code writes: On all sides of the political spectrum, weve stopped listening to each other, and I fear we are all leaning toward fascist thinking. We should be using this medium to help us adapt to our new, interactive lives. This is how we become relevant.

Video games have a unique and amazing capacity to immerse viewers within events to elicit empathy through embodiment, to encourage the exploration of spaces and ideas. Whatever happens with Far Cry 5 it is at least a tacit admission of something important. We cant, with a straight face, claim that video games are the storytelling medium of the 21st century, unless were telling stories about our real lives, our real fears and the very real monsters around us.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jun/02/far-cry-5-games-civil-unrest-trump-us-reality-ubisoft