By Harold Goldberg
To me, Ubisoft’s Far Cry series can be compelling because each edition has a demented genius somewhat inspired by the evil, omniscient Green Beret Col. Walter E. Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” The Kurtz character is a riff on the ivory trader of the same last name from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” one of the most brilliant and compelling postmodernist novels ever written. Some argue that the Kurtz character was based on the real-life Leon Rom, a bearded, Belgian soldier.
While that’s a discussion for the ages, to me there’s no argument that the beginning of the new edition of Far Cry is cumbersome in a few ways. It’s not that cult preacher Joseph Seed, a riff on the Kurtz character, stymied me immediately. He’s nuanced. And yes, it’s jarring that the opening moves oddly from documentary-style townspeople interviews to a military-style infiltration. But that’s not exactly it. It’s that the trope of flying in on a helicopter, military style, has been used too much in Call of Duty and Tom Clancy games to feel new and unusual here. Being called “Rookie” made me feel I had enlisted in one of the armed forces. Also, the idea of the one woman character on the helicopter being completely silent gave me pause. Surely, she had something, at least one thing, to say. And yes, I admit I almost didn’t want to play more. I’m one of those people who avoids military-oriented games, unless there’s horror or great mystery involved immediately.
When I talked to serious but affable executive producer Dan Hay a year ago, I mentioned Damon Lindelof’s and Tom Perrotta’s “The Leftovers” HBO series as a kind of Bible for the cult idea. Here, Justin Theroux plays Kevin Garvey, a cop that is thought by some to be the second coming of Christ. Amid dark satire and fear of a kind of Sword of Damocles tragedy, Garvey eschews the Messiah idea like the plague. That’s why “The Leftovers” worked so well. I also mentioned “Big Love,” in which Harry Dean Stanton plays Roman Grant, the a cult-like leader of the Mormon Juniper Creek compound. There’s no satire here. Roman is pure evil born of power lust. Stanton reigns supreme but knows power is fleeting more than it is eternal. And he’s haunted by it.
If I recall correctly, Hay didn’t know these shows well. Researching what’s been well-reviewed in popular culture isn’t needed to make a great game, of course. In fact, some eschew what’s been beloved in order to craft their art without interference, judgment or pressure.
Yet I feel that a reliance on too-usual tropes begat the opening of Far Cry 5. I get it. It’s a way to pump up the chaotic volume, the violent movement, the fear-filled pulse rate, so you feel you’re in an action movie. The spinning. The diving. The crashing. The ensuing plane fire. The horror. The horror.
It didn’t work for me. But I’m glad I gritted my teeth and dealt with it because the next few hours of Far Cry 5 were exciting indeed. It becomes much about what Hay and I discussed: the perils of surviving — alone, when need be. I mean, nearly every deed I did in a mission or during exploration was worthwhile (except for riding that awful ATV). That missed opportunity in the all-important opening just goes to prove that narrative is still an issue in games. I think, if Far Cry 5 had a similar opening that kept the helicopter and that military trope – but a different tone and different words and at least a word from the woman character – I wouldn’t have had this visceral feeling of dislike.
In any case, I’m still indulging, and when I finish, I’ll update this story.
Author/journalist Harold Goldberg is the Founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle. and the New York Game Awards.