There was a… thing that happened once when I was in school. A thing that has stuck with me for a few years now. It was a discussion I had with a classmate in a literature class, the subject being Joseph Conrad’s lionized Heart of Darkness. I made the mistake of suggesting, in a public forum, this classic novel, that frequently refers to black people as inhuman, might be a bit racist. Someone didn’t take too kindly to this reading, and reminded me the writers of the Saw film franchise aren’t serial killers, or fans of murder. After rescuing my eyes from the upper reaches of my skull, I opted to explain the difference between antagonists and protagonists, and how contextual endorsement of ideas works in fiction. It was like suggesting a creative work might be… problematic flipped a switch in this person that made them send me a flimsy counterpoint almost as a matter of reflex. Now, I’m telling this story because I’m seeing similar sentiment in reaction to Far Cry 5 reviews.
The reviews for Ubisoft’s latest open world shootybang-slash-wacky villain simulator are far from a consensus. The scores range from the usual hyperbolic 9s and 10s, to more modest 7s and 8s. In our world of a four-ish point review scale that pretends to be 10 or more, that’s a pretty big disparity. Much of the lower-scored reviews still praise Far Cry 5 for many of the same reasons the glowing ones do, but are brought down by a severe reaction to the game’s storytelling chops (or lack thereof). Generally it boils down to the writer being intensely disappointed upon discovery that all the real world-influenced (or political) imagery used in the lead up to the game’s release ultimately leads to a narrative that doesn’t have a whole lot to say about the world we live in today.
This ostensible intellectual dishonesty turned these folks off to the tune of a few review points, and the game review-reading audience has seemed pretty upset over these reviews. Much of that response is fueled by an overarching sense of relief that Far Cry 5 doesn’t engage with the realities clearly evoked by the game’s setting and aesthetic. An armed, religious, militia-like group hunkering down and taking over a small piece of rural, middle America? Sure sounds a lot like the Oregon “Bundy Standoff” that happened in 2014, peppered a bit with some hard right talking points and extremely loaded promotional materials (yeah sure, nothing political about a bunch of bearded white men, armed to the teeth and reenacting The Last Supper in front of a modified American flag). But nope, it’s just a bunch of cartoon evil cult men and citizens influenced by brainwashing and drugs, which doesn’t even line up with how cults dig into people in reality.
Why is this such a point of contention for people? Why is it such a good thing for people to not have to actually think about anything while playing a video game? Is it really enough to have a really self-important but ultimately vapid story propel you along a bunch of action sequences, and that’s it? Is is really so bad to be disappointed the game doesn’t actually have anything to say? It’s like BioShock Infinite’s “both sides” cowardice or Deus Ex’s “Augs” Lives Matter” all over again. We’re afraid, no, completely terrified of ”politics” being a part of our big, video game stories. So much so that expressing distaste in a game exploiting American turmoil to drive buzz ultimately backing away from having anything interesting to say is somehow a bigger problem than, the actual thing.
This sort of mindset from both players and creators will continue to keep video games from being taken seriously in the grand scheme of media. When gamers yell at storied critics like Roger Ebert for suggesting games aren’t art, then turn around to yell at academic writers like Austin Walker for trying to engage with games like they’re art, well, it’s embarrassing. People want Far Cry 5 to be eligible for a spot in a museum because of how fun it is to shoot people and fill up the “Resistance” meter. Please. If we want games to continue to evolve, to grow up into something that can be held up alongside great novels and films, we need to stop screaming at normies about how uninformed they are and start holding ourselves to higher standards. Stop evaluating and consuming media at a surface level and use some damn critical thinking skills.
I’m just standing on a soapbox and yelling at a void, but this kind of stuff is important to me. I want to be able to pick up a big, blockbuster game that is fun to play, but also has something interesting to say about life. I’m sick of angry Internet denizens yelling at people in comments sections for the great crime of giving a crap and trying. For god’s sake, even superhero movies, billion-dollar blockbusters, are doing better than video games are at cultural awareness.
Does every game need to change the world? No, but rejecting the very idea of thinking while playing a game for the sake of escapism while aggressively shutting down others for suggesting otherwise is a big problem. You can't have your cake and eat it too. Unless you're just trying to play Pac-Man for the rest of your life and want to borrow from real life, you're going to have to engage with the material. Sorry.