Open-world shooter Far Cry 5 is coming out on 27 March, transporting the series’ chaotic action from Himalayan mountains and Pacific islands to Montana in the modern-day United States. In the fictional Hope County, a militaristic doomsday cult has taken over, and it’s the player’s job to root them out.
With the domestic setting comes a new scope for social commentary, and much has been made of the game’s backdrop of American anarchy in the context of recent US politics. We spoke to Dan Hay, executive producer at Ubisoft Montreal, about exploring social questions through video games, imitating reality, and hunting for animal testicles.
To what extent are games able to interrogate political ideas and systems in a way other artforms cannot?
I think the interesting thing about games is that we live them. When you listen to a radio drama, or you watch a television programme, or you sit in a theatre and watch a movie, you are a passenger. You don’t necessarily live it. You live it through the eyes of the people in the play, in the TV show or the radio drama, but it’s not you.
I think what’s really interesting about games is that, as they explore different themes, tones and ideas, they ask you to actually live it. Yes, it’s digital, but you are running through that world, informing what that character does. You are making choices that have an impact, moment to moment. I think that’s an incredibly powerful thing.
What questions did you set out to ask about America when you decided to make the game?
The decision to go to America was not specifically about a given question. It was more about what it was like to put a Far Cry in America; what could be a conceivable reality to a story; what would resonate with people based off the themes that we see in the world today?
“There’s definitely this palpable feeling of the world being on the edge”
On a larger level, the game is not specifically offering a political commentary but perhaps maybe a social one in asking questions of – when you look at the news, when you listen to what’s going on the radio, if you watch things happening online, there’s definitely this palpable feeling of the world being on the edge. I think the question may be globally that, if we’re on that final edge; that cliff, where this is the time humanity may go too far, would we know it?
Do you think that big-budget games are reluctant to tackle social issues in a way other media are not?
I think the trick is not to use the word ‘tackle’. I think the word you want to use is ‘explore’. Not offering a prescription of what people have to think about a given subject, but offering characters that perhaps make players look at things in a different light. That’s an opportunity for people when they’re exploring an open world to explore different ideas in a way that is not forced down their throats.
To what degree has the formula of open-world games changed in the past few years? How does Far Cry 5 move the genre forward?
There’s no question that when you build an open world you get new ideas based on what you’ve been playing and seeing [at the time]. I think the truth is the technology is now allowing us to make our digital worlds to feel much more real. What’s really cool about that is it’s based off the emotions we have; based off the world and the habits we have. The closer you can make your game to what people already know, the less you have to tutorialise it. I think the opportunity we have to make our worlds feel very real makes our games powerful.
What films, novels, visual art did you pull inspiration from for Far Cry 5?
We did a tonne of research. We’re not specifically calling out which films, novels or characters in the real world that we borrowed from or thought of, but I can tell you we did a great [amount] of research on cults, on people with magnetic personalities.
“If you’re going to build something that feels real, you’ve got to make sure you understand the nuances”
We went and got boots on the ground. We got people to Montana to meet people. The key thing for us is that, if you’re going to build something that feels real, you’ve got to make sure you understand the nuances. The devil is in the details. Until you’ve spoken with somebody who really understands cults; the vernacular and language each cult has, or have been to Montana and had a beer with somebody and heard a great story, you can’t really build a world that’s convincing.
What does it mean to be a Far Cry game?
When I think about what makes a Far Cry game, I really harken back to when I was a kid and watching The Twilight Zone. I think one of the strengths Far Cry has is that a lot of other brands are restricted by – your game has to be about this, or the themes you explore have to be about this. They can be kind of locked in a box.
Our brand is flexible. When I think about watching The Twilight Zone as a kid, that brand was remarkably flexible. There were still themes and idea that would run as a thread through each episode, but it was very cool to watch and know it could talk about different things, and that one episode to the next didn’t have to have an idea locked inside a box.
What is a very, very, very small detail in the game that you take great joy in?
There are a lot of things floating around in my head. If I just take the first picture that pops into my head… it’s getting bull testicles for the ‘Testie Festie’, and hearing a very specific type of music come on in the middle of that mission. I just can’t get it out of my head.