It’s been over a week since the release of Far Cry 5. The general impression on the game was that it was pretty good, an overall positive incremental improvement on the series. My official review, which you can read here, was no different. I liked it, but didn’t completely love it.
What is curious is the reasoning behind the more vocal criticism. Most claim that the developers did not commit to a cohesive and vibrant statement throughout its constant commentary on current events. That it was a sign that publisher Ubisoft wanted to push a game with a political opinion while trying not to offend anyone to maintain broad market appeal. And failing on both counts. There have been claims that the game winds up endorsing less desirable attitudes through its inaction or game mechanics. Some have critically slammed the game for not demonizing elements they didn’t agree with. One of the most negative reviews, courtesy of Ben Kuchera of Polygon, claims that the game’s murky themes and serious tone just doesn’t gel at all with the goofy, over-the-top setting. All seem to be unified under one continuous idea: Far Cry 5 wanted to say something, got on to a soapbox, then awkwardly backpedaled while mumbling into its sleeve.
It’s a reading that I do not agree with. Far Cry 5 does send a clear message with its gameplay and story. Through its many flailing attempts at social commentary, its exaggerated characters, and its religiously insane villains. A message that has a clear and irrefutable exclamation point slapped on it when it comes to the final moments.
And it is not subtle at all.
First, it must be understood that Far Cry has always been a series that expresses itself in broad strokes. The games have made their home in throwing the player into exotic locations with some overwhelming conflict and keeping the plot to a simple question of how they will survive. Far Cry 2 had you trapped in the African Savanna during a drug war, but it had you more concerned with not dying of malaria than making poignant commentary on the real world African drug trade. Far Cry 3 at its heart, once you ignore the embarrassing cultural appropriation of Polynesian Island culture, was the story of a bunch of college party animals getting trapped on an island trying to get a ride home. Even the prehistoric spin-off, Far Cry Primal, was about a caveman separated from his hunting party in unknown territory.
If these games had a mantra, it would be “Have fun and don’t think too hard.”
But the crucial differences that Far Cry 5 displays are explicit right off the bat. It’s not set in the Himalayas or some remote islands, but in the middle of the American Midwest. The civil war threatening to tear the place apart is right in the middle of a global superpower. The faction of radical psuedo-Christians’ influence has risen to the point that any and all outside help from the FBI or the National Guard is greatly hampered. You are not a milquetoast protagonist, but a Sheriff’s Deputy tasked with bringing some level of order back to a town that has completely lost its mind. And the only reason why the main heroes have any chance of fighting back is thanks to the forethought of paranoid and dangerous far-right leaning doomsday preppers armed to the teeth with explosives, guns, and body armor.
Thankfully, the developers were self-aware during development when it came to just how many different ways that scenario can be read. Not just in the mild commentary by characters in the game itself such as the “Make Hope Great Again” side mission, but when it came to the project as a whole. In a published interview with Waypoint, Far Cry 5′s director, Dan Hay had this to say:
“When you see a game like this and you set it in America and people get first blush look at it, everybody looks at it through their own lens. And the point is, that’s why we’re so happy to bring people the game and play it, to see it for what it is.
When we talk about the question of tone: We’re like, “Look, we know we’re bombastic. We know we’re earnest.” And we know we have those two things together, and we think it still makes something great for players to be able to discover and play the way they want. To give you the tools to assemble your own narrative. For sure.”
This is all true. The Far Cry games have always marketed themselves more as open-world playgrounds where just about everything can happen. It’s an anecdote factory, it’s built into the franchise’s soul. It’s half the reason why the Far Cry Arcade level editor is taking off.
However, a narrative needs to have an ending. It must ties everything together. It is the last thing that will stick with us and it is how the whole thing will be remembered once the dust settles.
And this is where after multiple paragraphs of build-up I must finally issue a spoiler warning for the ending of Far Cry 5. You have been warned.
After spending north of twenty or thirty hours of roaming across Hope County, Montana, building up your resistance army and systematically murdering the underbosses of Joseph Seed’s cult, he challenges you to a final encounter at his compound. The entire supporting cast comes in along with the rest of the members of the cult, and Joseph asks for you and your people to leave, leading to a moral choice. Choose to take Joseph in, and it triggers one final boss fight.
After the final encounter, the police finally cuff Joseph Seed and get ready to put him away. But at the climax of Joseph’s rambling monologue, a bombastic reciting of the Book of Revelations no less, a nuclear bomb goes off in the distance. This triggers a chaotic and horrific car chase sequence where you desperately drive through Hope County as it is being torn apart by nuclear fire, looking for a fallout shelter. All while multiple other nuclear blasts are seen and heard.
But this search is in vain. The sequence ends with you ramming the car into a tree, killing everyone. Support characters you spent so much getting to know, fighting alongside, and starting to enjoy the company of, all gone. You pass out behind the wheel.
The final scene is you waking up inside a bunker. The previous owner is dead on the ground in a pool of his own blood. And over his body is Joseph Seed. As he gives one final unsettling speech about forgiving you for all the stuff you did to his people because he at least saved someone from the end of the world, everything fades to black.
Far Cry 5 ends with the world destroyed, and you are stuck in a fallout shelter with a religious madman who got the date right.
In addition to this ending being a gut punch shock, it carries with it a harsh message about the state of affairs. Because of the chaotic nature of the world, the fatalistic attitude of those involved, and the continuous loss of trust of those in power, we are doomed to burn together.
My first reaction to seeing this ending unfold was unbridled fury. I was enjoying the company of the blue collar supporting characters, how earnest they were in wanting to help take back their home. Settling into the game’s mix of goofy and serious as I went back and forth between helping a conspiracy theorist find alien artifacts in a cornfield and rescuing some poor souls from being executed in the road. The murky uneven swipes at social commentary starting to become indistinguishable from how actual discourse happens in real life. Then it all blows up in some edgelord’s idea of insight?
But after some time to let the ending digest, I was reminded once again that this a Far Cry game. Their appeal was never its narrative like Bioshock or anything by Telltale Games, and to expect more is a recipe for disappointment. Yet, the game practically begs to be taken seriously as a product of the moment. Like Invasion of the Body Snatchers during the 1950’s and how it reflected the fear towards the rise of Communism.
We reached out to Ubisoft regarding the Nuclear ending to the game, wondering if they could provide some insight as to why this ending was chosen. They sent us this simple but telling response:
“The nuclear ending is hiding in plain sight. Joseph Seed continually says that the end of the world is approaching. The radio news broadcasts hint of a larger problem unraveling outside of Hope County as the game unfolds, like increasing tensions and a world in chaos, stating that nuclear war seems imminent.”
This should not be any means diminish the work put into Far Cry 5. I even claimed that when it’s firing on all cylinders it plays like a scrappier riff on Red Dawn with some proper names changed. It also cannot be understated that Ubisoft Montreal and Ubisoft Toronto are large studios with hundreds of talented programmers, artists, writers, and coders working on the project. With that many people involved, there was bound to be influence by personal opinions and biases. It’s part of the creative process no matter how much it is mitigated.
But much like the aforementioned sci-fi classic, just because there was no concerted effort at commentary by the creators, that doesn’t mean that any should be be ignored. For all of the claims of the developers and accusations by multiple pundits in games press, one of the most underrepresented elements of Far Cry 5 has been its ending and how it cements itself, however dubiously, as a game that captured the anxiety and uncertainty of this very moment in time. A time marked by leaders making dangerous and unsettling decisions for seemingly no reason other than shallow provocation. A time where everyone has become socially fractured, and the very access to information doesn’t guarantee an informed public.
And it’s message is as clear and as frightening as a mushroom cloud on the horizon. If we cannot get a hold of ourselves, as a people, as a country, or as a planet, we will cross deadly lines that cannot be reversed.
It might not be the most elegant or insightful commentary others may have wanted, but for something that usually has nothing to say, it’s a step forward.