Dan Hay, creative director and executive producer of Far Cry 5, is standing in front of a TV displaying the word pressure, written out in all caps. PRESSURE. He's telling a room of games journalists about the game he's wanted to make since the 2008 recession, one that engaged with the rise of rural, American militias during Obama's presidency. What if, Hay said, one of these groups so dedicated to preparing for the end days of America decided to actively push for it, instead.
But he couldn't find enough support for the game: the core premise seemed "unrealistic." After all, the world—the western world, it is implied—was "a global village."
In my pocket, my phone buzzes in a flurry as texts pour in from friends discussing the last few days of Washington politics: President Trump's seeming-admission of obstructing former FBI Director James Comey's investigation into his campaign; the assigning of Robert Mueller as special counsel. It has been a busy week.
I ignore the buzzing and scribble down key phrases as Hay speaks—"dissatisfaction," "don't feel safe," "Oregon wildlife preserve," "the return of us vs them"—but I'm still thinking about "pressure."
Far Cry 5—slated for a Feburary 27, 2018 release—takes place in the fictional Hope County, Montana. It is a region under the slow, yet steady siege of an ever-growing cult, the Project at Eden's Gate, and its attached militia force. The player is a rookie junior deputy—whose gender and race the player can determine, in a series first—who arrives just as the Project at Eden's Gate become more aggressive in their goals, and who must join up with the locals of of Hope County to form a resistance movement.
The group—whose creed is the charged "Freedom, Faith, Firearms"—has tendrils throughout the county, and this is (partly) what Hay means when he says "pressure:" a creeping presence that can not be easily tracked, with reach that exceeds your expectations. A constant awareness that however familiar the environs, you are not safe or in control.
It is a goal for Ubisoft Montreal to convey that pressure not only to the player, but to show that the fictional citizens of Hope County feel it too.
Though the game's "key art" and first teaser trailer focus only on the cult, Hay's presentation (and many of the assets that Ubisoft sent to the games press for today's embargo lift) additionally evoke a more mundane, almost idyllic Hope County: Bait shops. Main street bars. Little league fields. Two bedroom homes with flags out front. Taken alone, these parts of the FC5 press blast read like a love letter to the "fly over states" like Montana.
Responses to that key art over the past few days has been mixed, including arguments that FC5 will simply be about killing stereotypical, white "rednecks." This response (and Far Cry's own history) shows why this focus on "everyday" Montana is necessary. Far Cry as a series has always labored over transforming beautiful, distant places into chaotic playgrounds—these are even the words Hay uses to describe the series, "beauty and chaos"—and it has often done so with limited or mishandled interest in the inhabitants of these places.
Civilians existed in Far Cry 2 only as refugees in the game's intro and locked behind closed doors, waiting for the foreign player character to arrive with the paperwork they need to flee the war zone. Far Cry 3's locals were ineffective, desperate for an outsider to save them, and devoted to an underdeveloped, "exotic" faith of tattoos and magic. Far Cry 4 took steps in the right direction, first by including the player character as a member of the game's culture, and second by giving the primary faction a more active role in their own liberation (and multiple, competing perspectives on how to achieve that.)
But across all three, there was little attention paid to the daily lives of civilians. Given that history—and the series' focus on villains who sway between charismatic and raving—it's easy to imagine FC5 as a game that sketches the residents and enemies of Hope County in the classist model of rural American caricature.
Instead, though, Ubisoft is promising pressure. And to have pressure, you need to sell not only the terror of the villain, but the humanity of the victims, too. You need to show people at work and at rest, but never able to be at peace.
At this point, it's hard to know whether FC5 will nail that, but at the very least, Ubisoft Montreal is smart enough to foreground Montanans as average Americans (and their own incredibly pulpy saviors) in the debut trailer and a set of series of character vignettes that released today. We get mechanics working on engines, and an old man sitting with his dog. We get a local, no-bullshit bartender whose family was targeted by the cult, and the crop duster who has reason to consider a vigilante use for his planes. And we get a Black preacher—the first positive image of faith in the game's PR push—pining for vengeance in a bombed out church. Pressure.
"Gone is the language of the global village," Dan Hay tells us, speaking with intensity and surety that walk the line between practiced and genuine. "Over the past few years, this scenario has become much more believable." He changes slides, and a political lawn sign is revealed. It says "Remain," and I feel like I know why it doesn't say "Trump," or even "Brexit." It's the first bit of hedging I've seen.
Hay tells us that growing up at the tail end of the cold war, he felt vulnerable. "I remember this feeling that everything was not okay," he says, but that through the remainder of the 80s and 90s, that fear dissipated. It came back for him after 9/11, but only really arrived over the last decade, with the rise of extremist groups like the sovereign citizen militia which took over Malheur National Wildlife Reserve in 2016. "I didn't feel safe anymore," he tells us.
And sitting in that room, I suddenly realize that there has been a quiet disconnect for me: For Hay, as for Far Cry 5, the pressure is new. It appears when the world is less at ease. It fills your mind with possibilities of violence. This is what the game's trailer does, as it mixes a touch of Seven with a splash of True Detective season 1: People are pulled from their homes, driven from their churches, forced into baptism, threatened with violence. These are the dark thoughts of the pressure, the fear that something terrible could happen at any moment.
But I do not remember a time before the pressure.
If the rise of militia movements in the years of the Obama presidency is one line on the chart of growing national unease, another is the public conversation around the killing of black and brown folks by police (and by vigilantes like George Zimmerman). I say "the public conversation" because the rate of killings isn't new, only the attention is.
The pressure is being taught at a young age exactly how to address police officers to best control risk. It's being escorted out of stores as a thirteen year old under empty accusation of shoplifting. It's guys with baseball bats threatening you for walking too close to a white woman. It's working and resting as an American, but never being at peace.
Living under the fear that a wrong movement, unlucky association, or fearful reaction could lead to death or violence is the pressure, and that pressure is not uncommon, waiting to be unbottled. It's an ocean tide, ebbing and flowing but never receding completely.
As Hay speaks, I feel like Chappelle in SNL's Election Night skit. "Word? You ever been around this country before?"
As Hay finishes his presentation with a gameplay reel that looks pretty much just like Far Cry—explosions, headshots, pitchfork throwing, dog fights (with planes), dog fights (with dogs)—I don't know where all this leaves me with Far Cry 5.
I am curious, to say the least, to see how (or if) the game's skin color and gender choice is taken into account—and I hope it is, since debuting a black preacher with a bombed out church suggests a willingness to leverage the history of racist violence. I'm curious, too, about whether the fundamental structure of FC5 will change in any way, the way Watch Dogs 2 shifted away from Ubisoft's tired towers and side mission bloat. As my phone continues to buzz with news about Trump and his administration, I also wonder where the political climate will be in February of 2018, when FC5 releases.
But despite everything, there is also a real feeling of excitement that would be unfair to deny. Far Cry 5 may not be a great game in the end, and it might bungle all of its potential, but a decade ago it wouldn't be being made at all. It didn't have the promise of the exotic in it, it contended too much with what were "fringe" fears. But in the age of Trump, Brexit, and the Bundy standoff, those fears must seem realer to the people greenlighting projects, so AAA games are finally more interested in engaging with them. That is a step in the right direction.