Far Cry 5 appears overtly political–almost too on-the-nose. At a presentation and interview last week, creative director Dan Hay downplayed such comparisons, noting that it centers on a doomsday cult and has been in development for three years, preceding current events that would otherwise appear to have inspired it. While the game may shy away from confronting the modern political landscape, its tone and tensions clearly come from the same place, and interpretation is just as important as intent.
Ubisoft is no stranger to real-world settings that ruffle feathers. Earlier this year the company was embroiled in controversy with the government of Bolivia, which was dismayed by its use of the country for the setting of Ghost Recon: Wildlands. It's easy to understand why, as the premise for Wildlands was a fictionalized Bolivian government cowed by drug kingpins into allowing a de facto narco state. It's a depiction that has an element of truth, skewed just past recognition.
Similarly, Far Cry 5 is a flight of fancy, but only just. Hay's research trips into Montana found residents who, in his words, just wanted to be left alone. This attitude, marked by distrust for government authority, personal autonomy, a spirit of isolationism, and deep ideological divides, is the key element that political pundits missed in their prognostications about the 2016 election.
Ubisoft Montreal's depiction of the region has been stretched to the point of apolitical. Having gotten a brief description of the key characters in the Eden's Gate cult, I doubt many of them would have voted at all, for any candidate. But we know that the region that inspired those characters actually did vote for President Trump, by a 20-point margin, because it is subject to those factors as tested against the real world. The signs of distrust that Hay and his team saw during their research has been pushed further to make the game marketable as an entertainment product, but it comes from a kernel of truth that's hard to disentangle from the fiction.
Far Cry 5 doesn't appear to be attempting any specific political observation or assertion, but it is using those elements to shade its commentary regardless. The motto of the fictional Hope County is "Freedom Faith Firearms." This proud declaration of fundamental values is virtually a call-and-response to former President Obama's 2008 campaign gaffe, in which he said many people in rural areas grow bitter and "cling to guns or religion." Whatever he may have intended, the statement was widely regarded in red states as a message of liberal condescension. It caused such controversy that nearly a decade later, it's still found on bumper stickers as a rallying cry.
Even now as I write this, I'm watching the returns come in from the Montana special election. It's hard to imagine how Ubisoft could have planned a better media flash-point to precede its announcement of a game set in that very state. A major party candidate allegedly assaulted a reporter on the eve of an election, and yet he won. Pundits will come up with myriad reasons for this over the next few days, not least of which because a significant portion of the votes were already mailed before the assault ever took place. But reporting on the ground found many residents either unfazed or even actively cheering it. These deep divides can make violence seem acceptable or even heroic.
Hay and his team saw this simmering in the heartland before the rest of the country took notice, and built a game world that responds to that spirit. Far Cry 5 is not a direct answer to the era of President Trump, but the tensions that it magnifies and skews are the same ones that led to his surprise victory in November.
Whether or not it intends to make a statement, of course Far Cry 5 is political. In our current social climate, it can't not be.