Far Cry is a series that takes players to the far corners of the globe, where they encounter both the beauty and the brutality of local cultures. Now that the games have explored Oceania (twice!), sub-Saharan Africa and the Himalayas, the developers have decided to turn inward. In Far Cry 5, the franchise’s critical eye rests on none other than the American heartland. With its guns, religion and political ideology, it’s not nearly as safe a place as it might appear, the game implies.
I attended a press briefing to discuss the latest Far Cry title, but it didn’t have the jovial atmosphere of most gaming events I’ve been to. As I sat down, watched the footage that Ubisoft had prepared for us and listened to executive producer Dan Hay recount his experiences researching the game, I couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy. Far Cry 5 may be pure video game fantasy, but there’s a germ of something sinister from real life in it. If it works, it might not just be a good game, but an important one.
Far Cry 5 takes place in the fictional community of Hope, Montana, and it pits the player against an idiosyncratic and ruthless cult known as Eden’s Gate. Hay said he and his team first discussed a rural-America Far Cry near the end of Far Cry 3’s development, but in truth, the inspirations go back much further than that.
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Hay, a Canadian, grew up during the Cold War, and cited a period from 1982 to 1987 when it seemed that the threat of nuclear war was not only credible, but inevitable. In 2007, the subprime mortgage crisis demonstrated that American civilization’s economic foundations were not as rock solid as they had appeared to be. Under the right circumstances, it seemed like the United States could skirt an uncomfortable line of lawlessness.
Even as Hay worked on the game in 2016, the political climate kept shifting. An armed militia in Oregon seized a government building and occupied it for more than a month. Brexit demonstrated an “us vs. them” mentality in the United Kingdom. And the U.S. presidential election made Americans feel more divided than ever.
From the political confusion in American society today, Hay hopes to create both “beauty and chaos” in Far Cry 5.
Anatomy of a cult
Hay said there are three things,that define rural American disaffection and isolation: “Freedom. Faith. Firearms.” Tell a certain strain of Americans that their liberty — particularly their religious liberty — is under threat, and they will ready themselves to defend it with guns, he said.
Far Cry 5 takes that attitude to its logical extreme in Eden’s Gate: one part apocalyptic Christian cult, one part reactionary militia. To make the group into a credible threat, Hay and his team researched real-life American cults such as Heaven’s Gate, and consulted with experts in cult psychology.
While the popular conception of a cult is a group united under one authoritarian figurehead, Hay explained that in real life, power and responsibilities are more often divided among a handful of leaders. Each one serves a different purpose. In Far Cry 5, those leaders are Joseph, who believes he is a prophet sent to save a sinful Earth; Jacob, his steadfast eldest son; John, his overeager youngest son; and Faith, his mollifying daughter. Each antagonist fills a specialized role in Eden’s Gate, and each will present a unique obstacle for the player.
While the Far Cry series has never shied away from political, racial and religious themes, there’s no denying that Far Cry 5 promises to speak to some very timely fears about American society.
Although the setting is what will probably define Far Cry 5, for better or worse, Hay wanted to emphasize that the franchise’s signature open-world first-person-shooter gameplay will still take center stage. You can explore Hope in its entirety, from its bars and shops to its water towers and armed militia compounds. How you tackle the game — even the order in which you liberate some of the areas from the cult leaders — is up to you. Naturally, there will be a variety of weapons, vehicles and allied nonplayer characters to help you do it.
I spoke to Hay about the delicate balance between openness and difficulty. After all, if you can go anywhere and do anything right from the beginning of the game, how can the game still feel challenging later on if there’s no defined progression?
“It’s a dynamic game that pushes back,” he said. “The difficulty ‘ramp’ feels right.” He explained that in a typical mission, you might have to solicit information, build up your resources and gather allies before mounting an assault. As such, enemies in the game will learn a thing or two about your capabilities, and other parts of the world will respond accordingly. Hay didn’t want to dive into specifics just yet, but it doesn’t sound like Far Cry 5 will be boring.
We didn’t see too much of Far Cry 5’s gameplay at the event, but what was there looked pretty familiar: explore big, open areas; gather up an arsenal of weapons; rally friendly characters to your side; and take down crack-shot enemies who make ample use of vertical terrain.
Big Sky Country
Just how much of Far Cry 5 is based on real life, and how much is conspiracy-thriller fantasy? Hay told me that his research into cults and militias had made a profound impact on both his viewpoints and his lifestyle. Hope, Montana, may be a fictional place, but groups like Eden’s Gate are very real. Whether they will ever erupt into violent conflict is anyone’s guess, and depends a lot on how the American political climate shapes up over the next few years.
“It’s difficult to say how much modern events influenced Far Cry 5,” Hay told me. “The game is not specifically about who’s in power. It’s about a feeling, here and now, that something is wrong.”
An unsettling thought — but who ever said that video games had to be reassuring?
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