The Silent Protagonist of 'Far Cry 5' Sucks

'Far Cry 5' doesn't have a hero. It has a blank slate that lets its hateful enemies have the last word.

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Mar 30 2018, 9:03pm

All Far Cry 5 images courtesy Ubisoft

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

Far Cry 5 is a game that asks a lot of the player. It asks you to be interested in the serious tone of its cult led by the religious and brutal Joseph Seed. It also asks that you be entertained by its open-world map filled with hand-crafted content and the kind of hijinks that start when NPCs like turkeys, drug zombies, and your allies all start running into each other. One of the ways it accomplishes this interest is by cutting out some of the narrative planks from the previous games and doubling down on the blank slate of its silent protagonist. This design decision, however, has some bigger (and likely unintentional) effects for the player.

Far Cry 5 is the first game in the series to let us play as a character of our own making. Unlike Far Cry 4’s Ajay Ghale or Far Cry 3’s Jason Brody, who are at least vaguely defined as having personalities in their worlds, this character is completely you. You choose their look, their gender, their clothes, all of it.

You’re called “Deputy” or sometimes “Rook,” literally just a shortening of your job as a rookie cop. Rook has no inner life or desires beyond what you ask them to do. Rook has no dreams, no beliefs, no feelings. Short of being dropped into a world where they are under threat and continually working to liberate that place, there’s nothing inside of Rook that the player isn’t putting there. Rook is a silent protagonist and a blank slate, always available for you to project into and through.

A silent protagonist solves a lot of problems for an open-world game like Far Cry 5. For example, it solves some critical problems are time and space. This game asks you to to travel to three different regions and liberate them from the cult lieutenants who serve as the major operators who are pushing the cult’s agenda forward. You can do these in any order, or you can flitter back and forth between them, doing a little of this and a little of that until you resist your way through the game’s content.

While the Far Cry games have always managed this kind of gameplay in the games with more developed characters, a silent protagonist means that the player can imagine that their desires and impulses are fully those of the character they are playing as. As Brody or Ghale, it sometimes made no sense that they’d pursue side missions like races instead of working towards the primary objective they spoke about so fervently. But Rook wants to travel all around the map destroying silos, fighting bears, and liberating prisoners because Rook is me. The order that things happen in the game do not need to be coherent with each other or in time because the game’s order takes place in my mind.

The designers mark change by changing spawn rates of certain enemies and giving new barks to NPCs, but these don’t often seem to relate to anything in particular. The world changes shape in time, but the stakes of that world do not. This slight augmentation as global narrative development just solidifies that there is no time of the world in Far Cry 5. There is just the time of the player and what they can hold coherently in their head.

You might call this flattening of the player and Rook “immersion.” Broadly understood, this is the idea that a player can become wholly absorbed in a game. Like jumping into a swimming pool of jello, the player sinks down into a suspended state of total coverage by the game. When immersed, you don’t say “you jump,” but instead you say “I jump.” You don’t say “the resistance leader talked to my character,” you say “they talked to me.”

It’s the moments when other characters are talking to me that have bothered me so much about Far Cry 5. When you create a silent protagonist that your player can identify with fully, you have to make sure that nothing happens to break that identification. You don’t want a player clipping in and out of being immersed. In the case of Far Cry 5, maintaining immersion means that Rook stays completely silent when people are talking to them. And there’s a lot of talking.

At various points in the game, either Joseph Seed or his lieutenants with capture the player to monologue about sins and belonging. These are moments of pure propaganda where the veneer of cultish religiosity wears thin. Faith, the drug-peddling lieutenant, uses these opportunities to explain how she came into the church. She also uses them to show you exactly how she is getting revenge on you for building a resistance to her cult. She explains what Joseph is doing, why he’s doing it, and what kind of good he’ll bring to the world.

Joseph also does this. In one vision, also facilitated by Faith, he monologues at length about how the end times are upon us. He tells us that the leaders of the United States are complete fools, and a giant mushroom cloud billows up into the sky behind him. He explains that the world is spinning off its axis, and he’s the only person who can help put it right. Obviously this is wrong. He is the villain. He is the leader of the cult. So is Faith, and so are the other lieutenants in the game. Rook is the hero, and we control Rook, so we need to get rid of these people using violence and all of the other means at our disposal.

The fact that Rook never talks, though, means that the monologues of others are the only opinions that we hear in the game. The villains speak, unchallenged, for minutes at a time. Our allies have the same opportunity, which is why doomsday preppers and people who are on the lookout for “eye-talians” suck up all the rest of the talking time in the game. The only people who get to make a case for their worldview being right and just in this world are the villains that we’re meant to extinguish, and every other moment for talking and reflection is dominated by allies with abhorrent or ignorant opinions.

And so the final narrative product looks a lot like a promotion for cultish, nationalist worldviews. Put simply, the silent protagonist means that there is no positive force in the world of the game to talk back to the longform, clear arguments being put forth by the antagonists.

Many critics have pointed out how Far Cry 5 either disappoints or fails to deliver on the narrative promise the the trailers and the press tours hinged on, and I think that the inability to deliver is as much about who speaks in the game as much as it is about tone, mission design, and a lack of seriousness.

Other than a nebulous “winning,” there is nothing for a player of Far Cry 5 to latch onto other than the long monologues of the villains. Despite a number of allies, side characters, and guns for hire who all bark the same lines, there is not a vision of the future in the game other than what Joseph Seed is presenting. There is no imagination of what Hope County could be if Seed was taken down and brought to justice. Instead, we’re told that this deep rural area was just fine the way it was and that it needs to be returned to how it was before the cult showed up. It’s a nihilistic, hopeless visions. There’s no demand for something new or a bright future for Hope County. There’s just “all that old stuff, without cults.”

This is a moment where the basic rules of good fiction writing and the basic rules of good narrative design are smashing into each other in an unproductive way. Good fiction writing says that we need to have believable characters with motivations and reasons for doing what they do; good video game narrative design says that we need to center the player and their experience at all time to keep them engaged as players. In Far Cry 5, those have been combined so that we eliminate any characterization for Rook and we only spend time developing the stories of the people we’re here to kill.

Far Cry 5 asks players to work with a paradox: The only people to care about and get to know in this game are the people you’re there to kill. The game doesn’t do anything with this, and it doesn’t even seem to recognize that paradox. The commitment to a silent protagonist that does not talk back in a game that deals explicitly with the political issues of our time means that no one can talk back. The only response from the fully immersed player is to shoot their gun and play in that big AI playground, and that creates a ceiling for what the game can ever do with the narrative content that it brings to the table.

So I agree with the critics who suggest that the uneven tone and goofy characters hurt Far Cry 5. The game is also hurt, though, by the design decisions it made around immersion and talking. One can imagine a Far Cry 5 that features a voiced Rook who argues with Joseph Seed and plants doubt in the heart of the cult leader and his lieutenants, or who tells Hurk Sr. that he and his campaign truck can fuck off.

While this kind of game would still always go to the gun in the end, it would at least provide some kind of drama. Instead, we have a game that asks us to learn about the cultists who monologue their lives to us before executing them ruthlessly. Immersed, or trapped, inside the eyes of a protagonist who couldn’t argue if they tried.

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