Game * Ubisoft Montreal * Apocalyptic Hippy Drug Cult * 2018
Stories are hard. Game stories are really hard. Whenever I find myself being critical of a story in a video game, I have to remind myself just what the writers are having to deal with. I can’t think of a plot to save my life, let alone having to consider for player choice. It’s no accident that the best stories in games have so far been guided experiences. The more freedom you allow for, the more outcomes you have to account for. Most of the time, the compromise is to let the player do whatever, write your story, and if the two things are not compatible, whatever. That’s not ideal, but it’s something we can live with if the narrative is good. I’m beginning with this preamble so I don’t feel bad when I talk mad shit about the story in Far Cry 5, because it is just spectacularly bad. Like, aggressively bad. It’s one thing if the story was an afterthought, but the game is constantly shoving it (literally) in your face. It’s a good thing the rest of the game is pretty great, because otherwise this would be a total shitshow.
It would be remiss not to mention the issue of expectations surrounding the release of this game. One of the early trailers for the game presented the world and story as a super-serious take on contemporary America. Specifically, red state middle America. Far Cry 5 takes place in Montana, the first of the series to take place in the United States. The overall plot of the game concerns a large, violent cult that takes over a big swath of Montana. There is a resistance, of which the player is the spearhead. Personally, I think people got a little too excited over the pre-release footage. I’m not expecting insightful commentary from a fucking Far Cry game. Yes, it would have been impressive, but honestly, they need to actually create a functioning narrative before they worry about employing nuance and subtle social commentary, you know? Regardless, all that was a long time ago. I’m writing about what’s here, not about daydreams of a game that doesn’t exist.
The best part of the game is the setting. Montana is a beautiful state, and the game does a fantastic job of creating a video game version of it. There were plenty of moments when I’d be virtually hiking a trail with my dog buddy, cresting a mountain trail as the sun rose over a breathtaking river valley, a smattering of wildflowers at my feet. The environment is so evocative, those moments were triggering personal memories of hiking, to the point where I was thinking about how nice a mountain morning smells when the sun starts warming up the trees. Of course, the Far Cry version of Montana is a fantasy land. But it’s pleasant. You can fly fish in this game, and if you flick a fly out into a brisk mountain stream, you can count on landing a massive trout in about thirty seconds. Ah, if only. Also, this version of Montana is lousy with bears and shit. And no matter where you go on the map, even if it appears to be a remote, alpine lake, there are always people there, which is not how Montana works. Oh, and in addition to my dog buddy I would also roll with my pet cougar, named Peaches. Far Cry 5 is often a deeply silly game.
I like the silliness, personally. I know there are those who were hoping for a more grounded experience, but nah. It was clear pretty early on that I could just turn the sound down and listen to podcasts while zooming around the massive game world, getting up to nonsense, and have a pretty good time. The game gives you plenty to do. There are all the usual Far Cry things to get up to, so if you’re sick of the formula maybe pass on this. Otherwise, it’s a good time. Sometimes it’s fun to hop on a jet ski and race across a lake down a river, shooting at a baddie in a plane with grenade launcher and then jump off a sick waterfall, you know? But then the story happens, and the game makes sure you look at it. And now I’ve got to talk about it, especially the ending. I emphatically believe that the narrative as a whole is pointless, but if it’s something you want to check out, skip the next bit I guess.
I sketched a very brief outline of the story above, but to reiterate, Far Cry 5 is about a violent cult which has taken over a large region of what appears to be central Montana. At the beginning of the game the player, heretofore referred to as “Rook,” is travelling with the county Sherriff, a couple of Deputies, and a single federal officer, to confront the leader of this well-armed cult, Joseph Seed. He basically looks like David Koresh, yellow-tinted blu-blockers and all. Most of the generic cultists look like Charles Manson. Anyway, the idea is to arrest this dude. Yes, the megalomaniacal, charismatic leader of what appears to be thousands of deranged cultists who are armed to the teeth, is to be taken into custody by like five people. Look, there are plot holes, and then there are Far Cry 5 plot holes, which warp time and space and if you get too close will compress you into a singularity. So, you make your move and surprise, it all goes bad and your buddies all get captured by the cultists and you’re eventually saved by a grizzled member of the resistance who gives you guns and sets you loose on the world. Fine, whatever.
Since Far Cry 5 is a video game-ass video game, the world is comprised of three regions. Each region is led by a sub-leader of the Eden’s Gate cult (like the Heaven’s Gate cult, but more aggressive). These leaders are the brothers of Joseph and the not-actually sister. Each region has its own flavor (mountains, river valley, farmland) and each leader has their own quirks. One uses torture to convert people, another “culls the herd,” and Faith just douses everyone with psychotropic drugs to fuck with people. Once you get into the world, the idea is to wreck shit up until you’ve weakened the cult’s operation enough to flush out the leader. Take out all three leaders and you force the final confrontation. Again, all that is totally fine. I like watching gauges fill up and numbers getting bigger as much as the next person. Especially when the game gives you a ton of freedom to pursue these goals. You can do lengthy story quests, or smaller side quests, or liberate outposts, or just randomly blow shit up, it all fills the meter. The problem is, when Far Cry wants you to have some story, you’re gonna have some story, whether you want it or not.
I just liberated a cult outpost high in the mountains. It was an abandoned radar facility, so there were a few dilapidated towers with still-functioning dishes and whatnot, but it was perched among the rocky pinnacles of the mountains. It took me a while to clear out, too, because the cult’s fucking planes kept spotting me and I was trying to be sneaky. Well, I eventually made it happen, and my intention was to celebrate by climbing up above the outpost, jumping off, and seeing how far I could wingsuit across the map. I was betting it would be pretty far! The thing is, I didn’t notice that I had filled my “resistance gauge” past a little pip, which triggers the next story scene. So here I am, innocently gliding along, hundreds of feet above the valley floor, free as an actual bird. But the game says: no. This you will not do, because it is story time. So, mid-glide, the screen gets swimmy and fades to black. The conceit is that two or three times per region, the cult uses its drug-guns to capture you. Because they want to convert you or whatever. Instead of doing the cool thing I wanted, now I have to sit through whatever boring nonsense the game thinks I need to have. It sucks.
Since Far Cry is a first-person game, the story unfolds in a first-person viewpoint, which doesn’t necessarily have to a problem, but it is. Every single character in the game is a close talker. Every single cut scene is a long, drawn out shot of someone looking straight into the camera and explaining why they’re going to break you, or thanking you for saving them, or whatever. This means every scene feels like a shot from an early-90s FMV game featuring B actors hamming it up. None of the characters are in any way interesting, so listening to them talk at you is tedious at best. Every scene is over the top, but it seems like the writers were still trying to take the story seriously. I guess? Mostly it’s a mess, and nothing makes any sense. Everyone has planes and helicopters, but nobody thinks to like, leave to retrieve backup. Some of this has to do with the ending, which I’ll get to shortly, but mostly it’s just confusing. It’s like the writers watched Red Dawn and said, let’s do that but with cultists instead of Communists.
Okay, speaking of Communists, one more thing that sucks before we get to the ending. Let it be known that politically I lean pretty far to the left. I’m convinced conservatives in this country have lost their collective way, and that in the pursuit of winning elections they have eschewed what used to be core values. That said, Far Cry 5 trades in a lot lazy stereotypes. There are multiple sidequests which task you in finding beloved pickup trucks. There’s a whole subset of mini-missions called “prepper stashes,” and while the actual game elements of these are some of the most creative fun to be had, the idea that every hillbilly in the West has a bugout bag and a bomb shelter is annoying. On the other hand, everyone swears a little too creatively and there’s less casual racism than I would expect from the rural West. I have mixed feelings. And in the interest of full disclosure, I live in an area of Oregon which is extremely purple, politically speaking. There are old hippies and young liberals and salty old ranchers and young dipshits with lifted trucks with charming stickers which say things like “fuck your feelings, snowflake” and “a towel is not a hat.” On second thought, maybe the game isn’t too far off the mark in this aspect.
If Far Cry 5 could be subtitled “Plot Hole: The Game,” I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that the ending is completely unearned and jarring. In retrospect, I get it. They were going for a meta-commentary situation like Spec Ops: The Line or Bioshock in which the game challenges the notion of player control. The problem is, those games put in the work to earn their story, and Far Cry 5 does not. You spend the entire game taking down this cult little-by-little, despite the fact that the cult can seemingly abduct you at will, and at first the final confrontation seems to go as you’d expect. Joseph Seed has effortlessly kidnapped all your friends (despite the fact that his operation is supposedly greatly weakened by your ongoing efforts) and has used his drugs to turn them against you. Then you get a choice: resist or walk away. Obviously, I resist. I proceeded to save my friends by shooting Joseph in the head twenty times, which does not kill him. Then, when he’s finally handcuffed, uh-oh! A fucking nuke goes off in the background and suddenly the world is being obliterated in a hellstorm of nuclear fire. It’s the end of the world, Joseph Seed was right, and everyone is fucked.
The game sets next to no groundwork for this ending to pay off. Oh, every once in a while, after a story beat or a liberated outpost, your character ends up near a radio. Most of the time, the radio is an afterthought because I was rarely in a vehicle long enough to hear even the first third of “Stranglehold.” Anyway, I’d occasionally catch a snippet of news and I did notice that the radio was telling me that the world situation was getting bad. These snippets were super vague, short-lived, and quickly forgotten, however. Other than that, nope! Actually, as the car zooms away from the atomic fireball, I assumed that Joseph set them off. His three lieutenants had their base in old missile silos, after all. Whatever, though, because in the end you find yourself under Joseph’s control. Because as a motherfucking nuclear explosion is going off in the background, you still, for reasons that don’t exist, pick up the handcuffed evil cult leader and take him with you. Then, when your car gets K.O.’d by a tree, Joseph is the first to regain consciousness, and of course he wants to gloat. Which he does by handcuffing you underground and staring deep into your eyes for the fiftieth time and telling you he was right. Bad guy wins.
And I don’t care. The entire story is so poorly handled from the very beginning that I could not possibly begin to feel any kind of way about any of these characters. And to be fair, I don’t really know what the answer is. I mean, other than leaving the evil cult leader behind to get vaporized because that it what literally anyone would do! Ugh. Anyway, it’s not like a good-faith effort wasn’t made to create striking characters and situations. But none of the villains are even remotely sympathetic, which makes them incredibly shallow and one-note. Same for your allies, who all have a single distinct characteristic and little else. The player character is a completely empty vessel. Here I thought we were moving away from the silent protagonist, but I guess not. That’s a big reason none of the characters land. They’re always talking right up in your face and you never say a word. The narrative is disappointing, and the way it’s forced on the player is frustrating, but at least now I’m free to parachute out of a float-plane and machine gun a moose on my way down. At least Far Cry 5 lets me have my own fun when it’s story is mercifully over.