Desperately trying to get Ubisoft to talk about Far Cry 5's controversial US setting
See our friends, see the sights, feel alt-right.
Far Cry 5 is the first game in Ubisoft's franchise to be set in the US. After more than a decade, the series which has defined itself by inviting players to explore various weird and wonderful locales will next look inwards.
And what a time to do so. Since Far Cry 5's announcement in May there have been numerous think pieces mulling Ubisoft's choice of locale and antagonist (a magnetic cult leader named the Father who gathers followers to preach a doomsday ideology).
For a series defined by its sense of being a stranger in a strange land, some have argued the present day US is more than strange enough to fit the bill. Others, albeit a small internet-dwelling minority, have said they do not wish to play a game in this series with a white, American enemy.
Ubisoft has been asked about this all before, of course, and has always pointed to the fact the game's development cycle began three years ago - long before the world was gifted President Trump's daily Twitter tantrums and the rise of the "alt-right" movement. But games are not made in isolation - those making them do not live in a bubble.
So, last month I sat down with one such person making Far Cry - the franchise's boss, Dan Hay, who was in town to give his excellent and thoughtful BAFTA talk on game design (which is well worth a watch). It's clearly a difficult issue for Ubisoft, which wants to release a game that is a piece of entertainment first. But if you're releasing trailers which have clearly evoked the current state of America, is it fair to do so without then going on to say something?
Rather than skirt the issue, Wolfenstein 2 has confronted it head on - and I have wondered for a while if this wouldn't be a better tack for Ubisoft, which enjoys a reputation for being a little more outspoken and human than some other triple-A publishers. What will Far Cry 5 say about America? I tried my best to get Hay to answer.
You've spoken a lot about how the inspiration for Far Cry 5's US setting came years ago. Since then, obviously, various things have happened in the US. It's easy to become desensitised when watching the news, when it often feels like we're seeing a hyper-real version of the US play out. How do you make sure Far Cry 5 competes with that?
The first thing I would do is look at the word compete. I don't think we do. One of the things we say is 'reality is far stranger than fiction' and that's definitely true. If you tried to chase things which were actually happening you'd run out of energy as things are moving so quickly. The genesis for the idea [for Far Cry 5] came from when I was a kid during the Cold War - looking at America and the Soviet Union locked in this titanic battle and feeling like we were close to the edge. So when we started to kick around the idea and the themes of this central character in the game who believes the end of times is coming, and believes the ends justifies the means, that theme is born from being afraid as a kid. But in terms of ever being able to prognosticate what's happening now - this is stuff we came up with three years ago.
It's a bizarre thing. Typically when you're working on a game you'll go out for lunch and hear the conversations going on - and you're making a game about dragons or space or whatever else - and you never hear anything that's linked to your game. What's bizarre on this game is you go out for lunch and you hear the conversations that are going on around headlines which sound very, very similar to what's going on in the game. But I don't think it's by design.
Right, but games, like anything in creative development, will evolve over time. Some of the imagery in the game's marketing, in particular, flirts with the idea you'll be making some kind of statement on modern day America, as that is unequivocally the setting. And if you aren't, do you understand why some people might feel disappointed?
It's an interesting thing when you build a world this big - what we want is for people to play the game the way they want and experience a host of different stories and characters. If you make the game just about one thing, you're going to miss a lot of opportunities for players to express themselves. We're trying to build characters in the world which have stories, beliefs, maybe political views. We're trying to build variety.
So, there will be moments in the game where characters will talk about stuff and there will be moments where others won't. But the goal is to create it so you can author your experience and if you walk in and meet a character who has a certain view, or certain opinion, they're going to feel real. But you can say 'nope, that's not for me' and you can go off and do this, or if you want to just run off and blow up stuff and have a good time, you can.
There's also been a response from the other end of the spectrum - the end associated with the alt-right - from people who have said they do not want to play a game where the bad guys are also Americans - and specifically, white Americans. Your team must have seen that sentiment - how do you react when you see that?
Our focus has been on the game and - three years ago - [our original] idea. I know the world is moving quick, and there are headlines that are very hard to read, situations which are very tough. But what we try to do is stick to that [original plan] and make sure we create this story which is compelling, with characters which are compelling.
So what does Far Cry 5 say about America?
In terms of the specifics - 'is there a metacommentary on it'? I'm really interested in reading the forums to see what people have to say about the different characters and experiences you have. But because the game allows you to go in any direction and meet any character in any order, it'll be interesting to see what different experiences people have. Some people are going to walk away from the game having never met what I feel is a key character, having never experienced a part of the story that's something we want to show and tell. They may write that Far Cry 5 is about 'this', because their experience is completely different. It will be interesting to read that feedback and see what the different takeaways per person are.
Have you adjusted the game at all in response to any recent events? Tweaked it, dialled it back?
The nature of the question is 'how much do you chase what's going on in the world, how much do you react to it?' And the truth is I can't sit here and say nothing in the real world effects what we do - that we're stoic, and... you wouldn't believe it. For sure there's going to be moments where we hear something and we think 'that's crazy' or maybe touches us a bit and influences us. We're human beings and it's impossible for it not to. But the truth is we had this idea - about the Father, that character - and we didn't adjust on that much at all. In terms of the rest of the game, what other characters believe, we tweak, we adjust, we play with it to make it feel believable. But we have an absolute vision on what we want to make and communicate to the player.
I don't think anyone's expecting you to necessarily reference something specific - like in Watch Dogs 2, which was much lighter in tone, where you could get away with parodying Martin Shkreli for laughs. No one is expecting a fun nod to some awful event. But tensions in the US are heightened now, as opposed to three years ago, and I wondered if you acknowledged that.
I think that's why we made this in our own location, in a fictional county. It's why we made Hope County with our own characters, why we made the cult, so we made something which might feel real but which avoids something happening which would then feel like we were inspired by that event, or paying homage to it.
Far Cry 5 is the first game the series to let you create your own character - is that tied to the setting at all?
There's something I hate when I play games - you're sitting in your living room and there's a moment where you say 'holy shit!' but on screen your character's like [posh voice] 'oh my gosh!'. It's not your experience, you don't believe it. In far Cry previously we had moments where the character on screen did not echo the voice in your head. So, we did it to let you build your own character, to make it so the character is as thin as possible, as close to you or what you make as possible, without a prescription for who you are playing as.
That's interesting, because Far Cry 3 protagonist Jason Brody was someone who began as something of an avatar for the player but developed into something very different, to the point where it was fascinating to see his character and thought processes diverge from how I thought while playing. Did you consider that for 5?
Yeah - I think when we were making Far Cry 3 we wanted to make sure that character would grow, go from zero to hero, so that when Jason really showed up... when you've built your tattoo, even your friends are telling you you've changed, it's a powerful moment. We definitely want to look at that as we build our characters - and not just your avatar, but characters in the world have to be believable too, so they know what you're doing, they may not agree with what you're doing, they may not care, but at the very least when they look at you they recognise the fact you are changing. And the person you are at the start of the game is not the person you are at the end. And from that you get a real sense of character progression and coming of age.