You can read as much or as little as you like into Ubisoft's Far Cry 5 announcement trailer. The game, a sandbox adventure set in fictional Hope County, Montana (due Feb. 27, 2018 for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One), pits players, in the guise of a law enforcement deputy, against a doomsday cult led by a figure who intones aphorisms like "My children, I am here to tell you that suffering is a choice, and you can choose a better path." That sounds Buddha enough, but watch the trailer for the rest.
I spoke with Far Cry 5's creative director Dan Hay a few days ago about his ambitions for the game. The conversation turned briefly to growing up in the 1970s and 80s, before glasnost and perestroika. My pre-adolescent terrors of nuclear armageddon, exacerbated by first strike assumptions based on my proximity to an air force base thought to be prime among targets, were such that every blood-red Nebraska plains sunset seemed to portend the premise of The Day After, a 1983 film about a full-scale Soviet-U.S. nuclear exchange. Hay cites it as among the cultural artifacts (as well as WarGames) shaping his own childhood sense that ruination was ineluctable.
But then it suddenly wasn't, the curtain fell, the wall came down, and it felt like we'd somehow cheated extinction. (As if.) "In 1989, when the Berlin wall came down, I think everybody just breathed this collective sigh of relief, that they weren't going to get nuked," says Hay. "And there was this sense of 'It's over, the cataclysm isn't going to happen.' And the point that I made to everybody on the design team, was that I haven't had that feeling for a long time." Here Hay pauses, then adds "Until recently."
Hay relays a story from a few years ago, when he was strolling through downtown Toronto and saw a guy emerge from a subway wearing a sandwich board bearing the words "the end is near." "I remember I had two thoughts," says Hay. "The first thought was, 'Wow, maybe he's right, maybe he knows something we don't.' And the second thought was me thinking about that first thought and realizing every single person I've seen in my life like that has been 'They're crazy', but at this moment, I had to think about that for a bit."
Jump to Far Cry 5's contemporary cult of believers, who've been biding their time in Montana's hinterlands, waiting for an end they never stopped believing was coming. That it hasn't—that a kind of extreme out-group has been subsisting in perpetuity on an anticipatory razor's edge—has become a problem unto itself.
As to how that resolves over the course of Far Cry 5's events, who knows. But, in gameplay terms, it has obvious parallels with Far Cry 4's rebel yells. After the cult takes over the county, players take part in resistance efforts to liberate the county and themselves. This time, in addition to the change of venues, that involves planes (dogfighting), muscle cars, big rigs, ATVs and boats. Also: guns, grenades, melee weapons (sledgehammers, baseball bats), and the option to recruit mercenaries as well as wildlife like bears and cougars. If none of that sounds terribly novel, Hay spoke of other foundational changes that I'm not allowed to talk about yet, but that in theory do sound transformational. (Look to E3, I assume, for more on the latter.)
Some forms of cult behavior are obvious, the cognitive dissonance larger than life. Others are less so, pathological strains of irrationalism hiding in plain sight. Moral confusion can happen along any facet of the political spectrum. Far Cry 5 seems poised to grapple with the gonzo side of apocalyptic dissidence, the sort that involves larger than life patriarchs guiding congregations of the fatalistic and disillusioned, the game's storytellers conflating anecdote with caricature in service of player-centric gameplay.
A clear parable for our political times it's probably not, though again, who knows. Sandbox games with sprawling completion times can juggle an entire TV series' worth of character arcs and story threads, and play by definition destabilizes authorial preachifying. The most subversive stories aren't the ones that take straightforward positions, but instead know how to slip past our defense systems—or as the poet Emily Dickinson put it, "Tell all the truth, but tell it slant."