Far Cry 5 is an interesting experiment in trying to appear topical, but falling short in every aspect. I’m not here to reiterate the much discussed toothless politics of the game; that’s been done plenty. What I would like to highlight however, is that while I enjoyed it at first, I’ve stopped having fun about ten hours in. Initially, the quest to stop the Project at Eden’s Gate cult intrigued me, and their leader Joseph Seed gave the initial impression of a captivating antagonist. Their talk of end times and gun-hoarding and how that affected the followers, the “Peggies”, interested me too, and I wanted to learn more. Now though, I’m not sure I want to continue. The game seems to have lost its soul, if it had one at all. There is nothing gluing it together, it’s just a mess of objective checklists and requirements.
It took me awhile to figure out why I felt this way, but I believe I have it pinned down: I don’t care about the protagonist, and thus have no stake in the story. This may feel like a weird complaint to hang my hat on. How can i judge a whole game based on that? I only need to point to the character creator. Because Far Cry 5 lets you create a character it was my belief that the developers planned to do something with it. Anything. Something preferably meaningful to justify having the creation tools at all. But they don’t have any meaning, and they way they’re presented is a little bizarre.
When you first begin the game, a choice appears between two mannequins. There is nothing else on the screen except the option to choose between a vaguely feminine figure, and a somewhat masculine one. The reason is implicit: to choose the protagonist’s gender. It might as well be asking which one is more expensive on The Price is Right though, because the game doesn’t bother to explain the choice or why it’s there. Either you know exactly what it wants, or not at all. It’s a binary choice.
The rest of the character creator doesn’t appear until after the opening of the game. The choices from body type to race to clothing are all pretty standard, if not amazing, and I managed to create a version of my usual character that I can be proud of. By this point, I was still intrigued. The opening, where most of the politics and story in general reside, set up the game quite well. I felt ready to take down outposts, find weapons caches, team up with pockets of the local resistance, and liberate the land from control of the Peggies.
Except, as it quickly became apparent, none of the character creation stuff matters, because you never see the protagonist in the game. Only in menus and online co-op can you even try. In another game, like Pokémon, all it takes is the simple satisfaction of seeing your character move around the world as you designed them, but when you’re in first person that’s not possible. This might not be so bad, if there was something else compelling about the main character to make up for it, but there isn’t. The protagonist remains silent, and their story aside from being a Junior Deputy, isn’t even mentioned.
What became more surprising than this though, was that as I ran around the world and helped the locals in need, there were a few instances where the game tried to remain as gender neutral as possible so it didn’t have to deal with the fact that I chose to play as a woman. I am all for inclusivity for different genders, sexualities, and other traits, but do any of those options matter when allies are just likely to scream things like “help ‘em out!” and “get ‘em out of there!” while others give the “I call everyone a Dude” speech? It further diminishes the importance of the game’s character creator and, coupled with everything else, basically makes it irrelevant and useless.
I gave Far Cry 5 the benefit of the doubt, though. I thought, maybe I was suffering from open-world fatigue, and was just looking for an easy target. To check, I popped in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, another Ubisoft production, and suddenly everything got put on hold as I raced through that game again, not only beating the story, but collecting plenty of side objectives too. I destroyed Borgia towers, completely restored Rome, collected all the feathers, and much more. Going back to Far Cry 5 after this four day vacation, was like going back to a boring, dead-end job and deciding to eat ramen at your desk to express your feelings. Many systems in Brotherhood have equivalents in Far Cry 5, so theoretically I should have just as much fun, but that’s not the case.
The difference is that in Brotherhood, I was playing as a character I knew a lot about. Ezio Auditore is charming, and his life is fully explored, meaning you know the ins and outs of his many friends, family, and enemies as you might some of your real life friends. There’s even Desmond Miles, who’s experiencing Ezio’s life right there with you, and while he may be a bit of a mystery in his own story, he also has a personality and motivation. He even changes as the game goes on.
While it’s true Brotherhood and Far Cry 5 are ultimately trying to achieve different goals in a similar framework, I just don’t think the latter works as well. There’s a time and place to combine a character creator and a silent protagonist with a first person shooter, but this is ultimately not the place for that. With a story that’s fundamentally charged by politics and religion in our world, it would seem appropriate for the protagonist to have some kind of opinion about it. Maybe a few words telling us what they’re feeling, and if those feelings change over time. Especially since there are several story missions where you’re kidnapped by the Peggies and drugged up to the point of hallucinating. Having the protagonist express how they feel about the experience would help a lot, and reinforce the player’s motivation to be there with them and help liberate the area.
Part of this is because, even though the protagonist’s job is to liberate Hope County, Montana from the cult, there’s no reason to stay, once you reach the edge of the world. Why not just climb over the mountains that border the area and run off? You can go report to the officials what happened, and they can help you do the work faster. On a smaller scale, it’s tempting to not bother at all and do something benign, like fishing or hunting. Yet, this isn’t Shenmue, where the game is designed from the ground up with giving you the option of engaging with the story or not. You have to engage with the story, or at least the Peggies, in some capacity. Even if it’s when they’re shooting you for crossing the road.
Minecraft can get away with a silent protagonist because it is primarily a game about creation and being as aggressive or passive as you wish. The Legend of Zelda and Metroid also have silent protagonists most of the time, but even then Nintendo works to find ways to give these protagonists some sort of personality and sense of agency. In Metroid Prime, Samus updates her suit with new objectives, weapons, and data all the time. She’ll take fall damage and let you know it hurts. When combat gets crazy and your visor is foggy, you can sometimes see her reflection staring back at you. In Wind Waker, Toon Link’s personality comes through his reactions to different events, along with the relationship he has with his family. These are just small things that can be put into a game to help the player become more in-sync with the character, so their goals become yours.
This comes back to the idea that the game wants to be topical, but just fails at it. It wants to be a political game, but the politics evaporate after an hour. It wants to be a game about giving people a voice to rise up against tyranny and cultists, but fails to give the protagonist a literal voice to do so. You as the player can create whomever you wish, within the game’s parameters, but you ultimately have to shut up and do as the NPCs suggest, because that’s the only way to get anywhere near completing the game. And you can only see the fruits of your labor when you’re not actively engaging with the game. You have no agency or motivation to do it yourself.
Many people can deal with that, and I believe they’ll have just as much fun here as with other open world games. For me, when I play, I start building a set of expectations – and giving me a character creator tells me I’m going to have some say in the story here, and the story from the first hour or so looks like it’ll be an interesting space to wreak havoc and be myself. But this all evaporates after that first hour, and it’s like those enticing hooks might as well not be there, because they’re misnomers. It’s like attracting you with the promise of a full plate of beef, but saying by the time you arrive that all that’s left is the chuck and rump roast. You’ll still enjoy eating it, but it’s small beans compared to the tenderloin and ribs you felt like you were promised.