Ubisoft might be on to something with Far Cry 6 in a way that its games historically haven’t been: It’s getting political. Or that’s the promise, anyway. And the promise is what matters for our purposes here.
A blog post from Far Cry 6 narrative director Navid Khavari, released on Monday, (which was also, notably, a very offline Memorial Day in the United States) laid everything out. It amounted to a hopeful look ahead and a tacit acknowledgment of Ubisoft’s recurring struggles with mixing games and politics — something the French publisher has repeatedly said it’s not interested in doing.
“Our story is political,” the blog post states right up front. “There are hard, relevant discussions in Far Cry 6 about the conditions that lead to the rise of fascism in a nation, the costs of imperialism, forced labor, the need for free-and-fair elections, LGBTQ+ rights, and more within the context of Yara, a fictional island in the Caribbean.”
He goes on to describe a development team that’s empowered to be “fearless in the story we [are] telling,” adding that “we worked incredibly hard to do this over the last five years.” There’s more to the post, and honestly, it’s worth the time it’ll take for you to give it a full read. (Don’t worry, it’s short.) If Khavari speaks for Ubisoft — and yes, he literally is a spokesperson here — this amounts to an ideological about-face, and a welcome one.
Not so fast though. For now, Far Cry 6 absolutely deserves the benefit of the doubt. It’s not out yet, and it’s therefore impossible to judge. But the promise of a hefty and meaningful story — and in this particular case, a political one — still needs to deliver. That’s where things get tricky.
I’ve seen scenarios play out countless times with other games, where hefty promises made during the pre-release phase aren’t borne out well, or at all, once said game is out. This has been a particular favorite play for Activision and the Call of Duty series, especially in recent years.
About four years ago, in 2017, I flew out to California for a studio tour and a first look at Call of Duty: WWII. The most fascinating part of the day for me came when I sat down with some of the game’s story team and I asked them, straight up, about past World War II-set games and their apparent ignorance of the Holocaust.
It was an emotional discussion that left me feeling encouraged. One member of the team told me: “We didn’t want to shy away from history. We wanted to be very respectful of it. … Some very, very dark things happened during this conflict and it felt wrong for us to ignore that.”
Later in the interview, he acknowledged that the game would tackle antisemitism and racism both. “It’s actually a very big part of our story, the fact that that stuff existed, it was real, and our characters deal with it,” he said. A few months later, a trailer seemed to carry echoes of that promising conversation I’d had.
“There are hard discussions in ‘Far Cry 6’ about the conditions that lead to the rise of fascism.”
Then, in Nov. 2017, Call of Duty: WWII came out. And for what it’s worth, the game did clear what I described at the time as the “wretchedly low” bar of acknowledging the Holocaust as something that happened. But in the end, that acknowledgment was relegated to text on the screen, and the word “Holocaust” never actually came up. Just a weak-kneed finale. The supposed big aspirations for this story to say and do something different never materialized for me.
The same thing happened again in 2019. During a trip to E3, I sat down with the Call of Duty game’s narrative director for that year’s release and it was a wonderful chat. The initial E3 reveal had included a tense sequence in which a small squad breaches into and clears a London flat suspected of hiding a group of (Arab) terrorists. It was uncomfortable both to watch and to play.
In the interview, I delved into that. I wanted to know how Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, as 2019’s release was called, would engage with the so-called War on Terror. I approached the conversation with more caution, memories of the 2017 interview clear in my mind, but by the end of it I felt encouraged that the narrative director and the team around him were aware of and sensitive to the issues they meant to tackle (and possible pitfalls they faced).
Then, as it was in 2017, the game came out and all the encouraging stuff I’d felt after talking about Modern Warfare at E3 disappeared. The “deft touch” that was promised had somehow transformed, in my view, into a gratuitously violent first-person shooter that seemed much more focused on delivering a “shock and awe”-worthy experience than one that made you think, and which itself had things to say.
To be fair, in both cases it was just Call of Duty being Call of Duty. Since at least its 2008 breakout with the original Modern Warfare game, the series has built itself around turning the FPS experience into a battle for inches that crescendos around massive, scripted set piece moments worthy of a Michael Bay blockbuster. I was disappointed in both games, but neither one surprised me.
My hope is that Khavari and his team are looking at outside examples like those as a cautionary tale. I’m already concerned though. For one, despite the promises that Far Cry 6 is taking a thoughtful and respectful approach to its Cuba-inspired fictional setting of Yara, it’s also cast Giancarlo Esposito, a Danish-American man born to Italian and African-American parents, in the central role of Yara’s dictator.
What’s more, consider the way modern games like these are built. Far Cry as a series has evolved over time into something decidedly weird and funny. It often starts with a serious-minded story before devolving into zany antics like combat dogs on demand and wild mushroom trips. There’s a balance that the development team has to strike here: The story can do and say serious things, but the game as a whole also needs to exist as a crowd-pleasing blockbuster release that’s true to its established identity.
Can we read Khavari’s “Our story is political” proclamation as genuine? Probably yes! Artist’s intent is an important thing to consider in these situations. I never got the sense that the Call of Duty people I spoke with were liars; it’s much more likely that their big ideas for tackling one issue or another crashed against the reality of crafting a game for everyone.
But I’m also not getting my hopes up for anything more than another wacky Far Cry game, and you shouldn’t either. There’s a playbook here. I focused on Call of Duty, but plenty of games have pulled the same type of stunt over the years. Big promises of a thought-provoking and conversation-starting plot that just go undelivered.
It’s a marketing strategy, ultimately. Ubisoft stands to gain financially by convincing prospective players that its dogged insistence on taking an apolitical approach with all its games (despite evidence to the contrary) is a thing of the past. So whether or not Khavari’s post is genuine, Ubisoft definitely seems to be on to something here.