Saturday, April 21, 2018

#118: The Dangerous "Lessons" of Far Cry 5

I make no secret of the fact that Ubisoft and I have an on-again, off-again relationship. Every now and then they create a game like Assassin's Creed: Origins, that I can easily sink 50+ hours into without thinking -- sure, it may have its flaws, but there's clearly a level of love and care imbued into the final product. Other times, they are liable to produce content like Watch_Dogs, which paints itself as a typical, by-the-numbers open-world revenge story that left me sour and disappointed. From my previous experiences with 3, 4, and Primal, I was expecting the fifth entry in the Far Cry franchise to be dumb but otherwise milquetoast: A decent open-world shooter with a story that brought up some interesting ideas that ultimately go nowhere.

Instead, what I received was one of the worst stories I had ever seen in an Ubisoft game. Even more than the villainous Aiden Pearce in Watch_Dogs, Far Cry 5 left me contemptuous and ultimately resentful of the direction the developers chose to go. There are some very dangerous implications behind the story, particularly the ending, and they need to be discussed. (Though it goes without saying, there are spoilers abound, so read at your own risk.)

For those of you who haven't finished the game, Far Cry 5 takes place in the fictional county of Hope, Montana, where a cult of doomsday-preppers has set up the mysterious ‘Project at Eden's Gate’, led by Joseph “The Father” Seed. After a video documenting recent abductions and a string of violent incidents involving cult members goes viral, , a warrant is served for Joseph Seed's arrest. The player assumes the role of ‘Rook’, a nameless, faceless deputy in Hope County, assisting the local sheriff and a US Marshall in executing the warrant.

Unfortunately for the player and their fellows in law enforcement, this event was exactly what the cultists were waiting for. Preaching that “God will not let you take me!”, Seed raves that attempting to arrest him is the “breaking of the First Seal” that sets in motion the end of the world as we know it. After the arrest attempt inevitably goes south, the deputy is rescued by a man named Dutch. Dutch claims that if the player wants to confront The Father, they will first need build up a resistance force by causing enough havoc to draw out and kill his three lieutenants, referred to as “The Family”.

Three dead commanders later, Joseph Seed invites Deputy No-Name to join him at the church where they first tried to haul him in. There, he reveals that he has used a previously-established magical substance known as “Bliss” to brainwash the resistance forces the player has gathered throughout the campaign, compelling them to hold the other three law enforcement officers who came with the player at gunpoint. He offers to let them and the player go if they promise to leave immediately and cease their efforts to imprison him, which the player can choose to do. If they instead make the only logical choice to fight on, the deputy rains a hail of bullets on their former allies so that they can revive them, turning them good again in one of the dumbest final boss segments I have ever played in a first-person shooter. Then, and only then, can The Father finally be defeated...

...or not. After the fight, Seed laments that “The Final Seal has been broken” -- and then a nuclear bomb goes off in the background. Yes, really. To which the whole cast hops into a truck and evacuates to Dutch's bomb shelter from the beginning of the game. Once again, things go poorly, and the player wakes up inside the aforementioned shelter to find themselves cuffed to a bedpost. Lying dead in a pool of his own blood is Dutch himself, with Seed watching over him, cleaning the knife that delivered the fatal blow. As the player awakens, they are confronted at knife-point. Blaming them for “breaking the seals and unleashing hell on earth,” the former Father says that were it not for the fact that no one else is left, he would gladly kill the player for what they've done. Then, credits roll. If you return to the main menu afterwards, the previously idyllic intro screen has been transformed into a nuclear hellscape.

At the time I finished the game, I had assumed that The Father was the one that called down the bomb that devastated Hope County. I believed that he detonated them out of spite, blaming me for the consequences of his own actions. While this annoyed me, it’s par for the course when it comes to video games pretentiously spouting fatalistic pseudo-philosophy in the hopes of sounding intellectual. However, a friend of mine mentioned that if one were to listen to radio broadcasts while driving in-game, there are talks of escalating global tensions leading to potential nuclear war. As it turns out, a foreign country had opened hostilities against the US at the exact time that the player defeated Joseph Seed.

This might be dismissed as coincidence, if it weren’t for the rest of Far Cry 5 itself. According to the rantings of both Joseph Seed and his Heralds, after smothering his just-born daughter (whose birth killed the mother), Joseph had a vision from god. He saw that once he was apprehended, bound against his will, the world as we know it would come an end, drenched in fire. Several events would precede this moment. The ones who would eventually bind him would fail their first attempt. They would then proceed to assassinate those closest to Seed, reject his charity, and only then would they finally emerge victorious, triggering the great calamity. Believing this to be inevitable, he created the Project at Eden's Gate to safeguard enough people that the human race could live on.

His insane, absurdly specific prophecy about the end of the world, unlike the rantings of every doomsayer before him, is one-hundred percent unequivocally correct. And considering just how accurate every single detail of this account is, it would be absolutely mad to blame sheer happenstance. That, more than anything else in this entire story, is a problem.

Similar beliefs exist in modern America to a much greater scale than you might initially think. Even outside of relatively modern doomsdacults throughout the world, the idea that the end times are upon us is more accepted than it should be. Roughly 50 million people in America believe that they will be “raptured” away any moment now: That Christ will descend upon Israel and take the true believers with him to the gates of Heaven, leading to the literal End of Days. Some of the people in that group are very prominent politicians, many of them still in office today. Much of US foreign policy (particularly revolving around Israel), climate change policy, and other policies, are subtly or not-so-subtly influenced by the idea that we are living in the end times. Why bother tackling global warming when we know we humans aren't going to be around to feel its effects? Why should we attempt to bring peace to a region of strife when we fundamentally believe that very conflict is itself a sign that heaven is not too far away? Actual people who hold power over these crucial decisions go in with these thoughts.

I can't claim to know the minds and hearts of Far Cry 5's creative team. I wasn’t in the writing’s cubicle, where these decisions were being made. I can only speak to the content of the game they created. That said, to present Father Joseph Seed as “correct” in his prophecy is to give credence to these voices. Ubisoft and the dev team have chosen to validate those who abdicate responsibility to work towards a better world in faith that there will soon no longer be a world to improve. As Waypoint's Cameron Kunzelman pointed out in an editorial, there is no counterpoint to the cult's ravings: The protagonist is silent, and the resistance forces are too focused on removing the cult’s power base to talk about what they've done to the people of Hope County. The doomsayers are given even more power to spread their message in this game than they have in real life.

Even more aggravating is how the game treats the player for daring to oppose the rabid, murderous cult. Throughout the game, the Heralds all admonish Deputy No-Name for their violence. In my run, I had dismissed this as just another one of the franchises laughable attempts to address the nature of violent video games, much like Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4 before now. I distinctly remember shouting at my television “I wouldn't keep killing you if you didn't insist on shooting me on sight” during one of these speeches. It's annoying, but vanilla.

But it's tough to think of it in the same way given the full context of the game. After all, in this specific story, the cult is confirmed to be one-hundred percent correct about the coming of the end times. It makes sense for them to take hold of all the resources of this area, since they know that they'll need them to survive once the bombs fall. Of course they'd try to recruit everyone they can, even if it has to be through torture, drugs, and brainwashing. They're just ‘mercifully’ trying to save them from their impending fate. Since the end is coming, and not everyone can be saved, they simply don't have time to take less drastic measures. If only this player could understand how their selfish heroism is damning people who were otherwise going to survive.

Proving that the cult's prophecy was true, and that the world does end once those conditions are met, Far Cry 5 retroactively justifies every sadistic action performed by the Project at Eden's Gate. Conversely, it criticizes not just the player, but anyone who would condemn such actions, even in the real world. If you reading this are someone who actively works to protect people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and/or women from the many threats to their well-being, Far Cry 5 wants you to know that you might be wrong for doing so. After all, the crazies might be right. Your gay friends might actually be going to hell for loving another person of the same gender. Who are you to get in the way of their salvation?

These aren't questions that deserve to be asked. This is not a political platform that should be up for debate. These beliefs genuinely harm people of all stripes across the world, and very a tacit acceptance of them is not something I can take lightly. I felt uncomfortable just writing the above two paragraphs because I'm genuinely afraid someone might take that as praise for the game, excited that it's worldview aligns with their own. As a cisgender white male, I can't speak to the level of damage these ideas can cause, but I know that harm has been, is being, and will be done, and this game might further that.

As previously stated, I found it hard to believe Ubisoft intended this to be the underlying moral of Far Cry 5, given my long and storied history with them. That said, there was a whole team of writers who worked on this game. They should be able to think through the logical implications behind their own script. The creative leads for this project presented a statement in support of doomsday cults and against people who were earnestly fight to safeguard their fellows from those who would openly oppress them, whether or not they intended to. (And I honestly don't care which.) I expected Far Cry 5 to have nothing of substance to say. What I did not expect was to be left quaking in anger and disbelief at the choices made in creating this game. Taken holistically, Far Cry 5 is one of the most damnable games to be released in recent history.

No comments: