Player agency in Far Cry 5 *SPOILERS*


I finally finished Far Cry 5 last night and I have a lot of thoughts about what I consider to be one of the best endings in video game history.


The Far Cry games are murder tourism: you travel to remote parts of the world and start killing whatever evil force has asserted itself there. In Far Cry 3, it was a group of pirates that had taken over a tropical island. In Far Cry 4, a garishly dressed white guy leads a militia that takes over much of Tibet. The protagonist, though you remain voiceless throughout, has always been a white man, which has caused a significant amount of consternation as video games become more socially conscious and aware; that it took a white man to save a group of indigenous people by killing a lot of Bad Indigenous People always stunk of tone-deaf imperialism.

Far Cry 5 is set in rural Montana, the first time the series has traveled to the US and the first time that you could customize your character. The antagonist is a cultist who goes by the name Joseph Seed and who believes that he is a prophet for the end of the world (The Collapse, as it’s called). Because of the setting and timing, many believed that the game had an obligation to address the current political climate in the United States. Far Cry 5 doesn’t do this and never attempts to, despite the fact that it alludes to these issues in passing. Therein lies what Far Cry does spectacularly: break the 4th wall.

In 2007, Bioshock revolutionized video game storytelling when its central narrative was as much about player agency (or lack thereof) as it was about the actual story. You spend the entire game listening to the directives of a disembodied voice being broadcasted over radios. The voice would ask, “Would you kindly [do something]” framing most objectives until you come face-to-face with the man behind the voice, the antagonist Andrew Ryan. You realize that every decision you made was guided by someone else. You did not have the agency that you thought you did in video games; you are following orders.

In the first 10 minutes of Far Cry 4, you come face-to-face with the antagonist Pagan Min (these one-on-one encounters are emblematic of Far Cry games at this point). He’s captured you and brought you to his palace for tea–and maybe torture. He has to get up from the table at one point, and he asks you to wait for him. As the player, you have the choice to sit there or escape. If you sit there long enough, Pagan Min returns, thanks you for waiting, takes you to his gun range where you shoot targets together, and then the game ends. You’ve befriended the antagonist. It was a fun gimmicky story technique that the game employed and something that you’re unlikely to come across unless you know about it beforehand.

Far Cry 5 gives you a similar option. The game opens with an arrest attempt of Joseph Seed. When you’re prompted to put the cuffs on him, you can do so or walk away. The latter ends the game. If you cuff him and escort him out of the building, the arrest goes awry, he escapes, and you spend the rest of the game trying to find and arrest/kill him. Joseph Seed arrogantly claims “God will not let you take me”, as your fellow Marshalls implore you to put the cuffs on him. Once you do, the screen goes black and you hear him say “Sometimes the best thing to do is to walk away”.

This is the first allusion the game makes to your lack of agency, or the idea that you’re making the wrong decision. As Far Cry 5 progresses, Joseph Seed’s lieutenants frequently admonish you that you’re making a mistake, that your sins will eventually be exposed. They prattle on about the end of the world. Typical video game stuff. But the more you hear it, the more obvious it becomes how important this concept is to the game.

At one point, you encounter a friendly NPC that bulldozes the 4th wall. This character explicitly starts talking about Far Cry. He’s a movie director and he’s complaining about how difficult it is to make Far Cry games. He mentions that he’s heard all of the critiques about imperialism and morality and that they’re problematic.”I’d rather put my balls in a vice than listen to everyone with their fucking opinions about world building and player motivation and believability. I’ll kill myself I swear to fucking god,” the NPC says. Even for a game as self-referential and wacky as Far Cry, this seemed important. It wasn’t until I killed one of Joseph Seed’s three lieutenants that it really struck home.

Faith Seed is the only female antagonist in the game. Her role to the cultists is that of a mother figure. Her role in the cult, however, is a drug peddler, the person in charge of intoxicating and controlling the many followers. When you finally kill her, she tells you that Joseph Seed will give you two options, but no matter what you pick, you’re going to prove him right. Which brings us to the final moments of the game.

You eventually encounter Joseph Seed, and you’re once again offered the option to cuff him or walk away. This is the decision that Faith was talking about. If you walk away and let him continue to rule the land, you feel worthless. Instead, you resist him and after a protracted battle, finally put the cuffs on him. The moment you do, an atomic explosion happens in the distance. Joseph Seed was right. He is a prophet for the end of the world. A frantic chase scene has you driving away from fireballs and explosions before your car crashes, knocking you unconscious. You get brief glimpses of the world as you’re dragged into a bomb shelter. You wake up tied to a bedframe with Joseph Seed staring you in the face. He tells you that all of your sins are exposed and that he was right. He is your father and you’re waiting for the nuclear fallout to clear so you can surface to a new world (Eden as they call it). Roll credits.

Now, people HATE this ending, and I can understand why, but it puts all of the 4th-wall-breaking in perspective. The Far Cry series is criticized constantly for lacking moral fortitude and insight. The games are supposed to be fun, exciting adventures, but moral readings of the story are problematic, and I think the Far Cry writers were a little sick of hearing that the thing they created was morally objectionable. So they made that discussion the central story of the game: it turns out you really are a monster, ushering in the end of the world and killing people and animals in the name of righteousness. You’re not a hero. You’re the catalyst for the end of the world.

After beating the game, I was playing co-op with a friend who wanted to kill a bunch of buffalo in order to reach a milestone. I felt awful doing it, knowing that I am not preparing myself to be a super soldier in the name of good. I’m fucking evil and I’m doing evil things. The entire game, you’re being told that what you’re doing is wrong, but you’re being told that by drugged out cultists who are taking over large swaths of Montana and torturing the townsfolk. You’re given ample opportunities to walk away. Far Cry 5 is a Schrödinger’s cat of sorts: if you never play the game, the world never ends. It is a truly spectacular take on player agency and perception.

The end of the game hints towards a sequel, something the Far Cry series doesn’t really do. A post-Collapse world could hold all kinds of horrors and adventures. Hell, it might even be the kind of plot point that hints at Far Cry existing in the larger Ubisoft universe (is this Collapse related to the doomsday scenarios in The Division, for instance?). Far Cry 5 has one of the most ambitious endings in video game history. It challenges the entire concept of player agency and, for one of the first times in the medium, righteousness. Despite the game’s faults (AI wackiness and an over reliance on a few storytelling mechanics, are most prominent) it is a modern masterpiece that should be remembered for how it toys with player perception.


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