After spending a few weeks with Far Cry 5, I’ve come to the regretful conclusion that there are way too many black people in this game.
It’s not that I dislike black people, in fiction or in real life (full disclosure: I am black). It’s just that for a series that prides itself on realism, my experience of constantly bumping into assault rifle–toting black people in the forests of Montana just seems unrealistic.
Far Cry 5’s premise is that you’re a local deputy sent to arrest the leader of a doomsday cult that has been taking over fictional Hope County, Montana. But for some reason that’s never explained in-game, a large proportion of the cultists are black.
According to the 2016 census, black people make up just over half a percent of the population of Montana. There are only about 6,000 black people in the entire state. Does Far Cry expect me to believe that all of them moved to Hope County?
The developers have tried to explain this by saying that the cult that appears as the main enemy in the game has gotten everyone — regardless of color — to join. But that doesn’t account for the fact that even non-cultists are disproportionately black.
Stranger still is that you can go through the entire game without running into a Native American. At 6.6 percent of the state’s population, Native Americans represent a much larger community than black people, and inclusion of a prominent Native character or two probably would make it feel more like Montana.
The strained “diversity” of the cast may just be a sign that Ubisoft, like a lot of the game industry, is starting to make some (occasionally awkward) efforts at inclusion.
In the past, the Far Cry series, which at over 40 million units sold is one of the most popular first-person shooter franchises, has generally involved traveling to an exotic land and shooting its exotic inhabitants. In “Far Cry 3,” for example, you play as a white man who fights his way out of a fictional South Pacific island. This story format has led to a lot of gamers criticizing the series as being racist (and perhaps spurring the concern among some white gamers that Far Cry 5 would give white people the “violent savage” treatment).
Creative Director Dan Hay is aware of the criticism of the past Far Cry games. “There were some folks who were basically communicating that, ‘Hey, this is like the Great White Hope going in and saving these folks,’” he said in an interview with VICE News.
“I think what we did is we looked at that and we said to ourselves, how do we as a brand make sure that, as we go into the future, we're building it so that the main character is not just a proscribed character? How do we make it so that we're actually making it so that you could build the character yourself, and that it could be you if you want?”
This ended up, he says, with Far Cry’s new approach to plot and worldbuilding. Instead of being forced to play as a specified character, you make your own avatar. You can customize your protagonist’s gender, hair, and skin color. In theory, it should make Far Cry 5 much more immersive.
The problem with this immersive experience is that occasionally breaks down if you don’t pick a white avatar.
At one point in the game, you come across a woman who looks you up and down and asks if you are "Eye-talian", insinuating that Italians are thieves.
But I had customized my avatar to be a woman with dark skin and a short Afro – not really an appearance that would scream “Italian” to a rural Montanan. It's as though the writers assumed that most players would pick a white character, and anyone who didn't would just nod and accept that gap in storytelling logic.
It’s a frustrating oversight, because Far Cry 5 does otherwise make an effort to immerse the player. Your avatar does not have a name; instead, other characters call you “Rookie” or “Deputy.” Characters refer to you using gender-appropriate (and occasionally gender-neutral) pronouns.
This makes the “Eye-talian” line all the more annoying, because it makes it clear that the developers did have the topic of racism on their minds when they were creating the game. But instead of taking it seriously, they used it for an arbitrary joke. In this context, slapping a bunch of black characters into the game without explanation feels not only like tokenization, but also a deliberate avoidance of a real element of American life — one that might have made the game more interesting.
This weakness in Far Cry 5’s worldbuilding is especially disappointing because its predecessor was so much braver — and funnier — in its approach to American sensibilities.
2014’s Far Cry 4 takes place in the (fictional) South Asian country of Kyrat, which has been taken over by a bloodthirsty dictator. As the game progresses, you realize that American interference caused the country to fall into chaos in the first place.
Then there’s direct jabs at American foreign policy, courtesy of a pirate radio DJ (played by Hasan Minhaj) who jokes about then-President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize despite ordering drone strikes “like they’re going out of style.”
After that level of sauciness, Far Cry 5 comes off about as spicy as an oatmeal sandwich.
This isn’t to say that Far Cry 5 isn’t fun. It is. And the fact that Ubisoft is listening to, and considering, the criticism they have gotten in the past is worthy of some praise. But their effort to address this criticism just falls flat.
Far Cry 5’s ham-fisted appeal to “diversity” via dumping black characters onto the screen is not offensive, per se.
But it is symbolic of a deeper issue: Ubisoft’s seemingly low estimation of the kind of “America” that gamers are willing to see. In all of the press for the game, the Far Cry developers have stressed how much time they spent in Montana in order to make it authentic — going fishing, looking at the landscape, having beers with locals.
But anyone who has lived in America would recognize the country that appears in Far Cry 5 as inauthentic. It’s disappointing that realism in this video game was not limited by graphical limitations or writing talent, but by timidness.
Cover images: Ubisoft
Photo illustration: Leslie Xia