Games

Games such as Far Cry draw on colonial histories but seldom move beyond the imperial gaze. By Dan Golding.

Far Cry 6

An in-game shot of a roadblock ambush in Far Cry 6.
Credit: Ubisoft

After they tired of the space race, American would-be colonists moved on to conquering computers. “Space, the final frontier,” goes the Kennedy-esque beginning of Star Trek, but in the 1990s, without the Cold War to fund galactic empire building, the worlds inside microchips started to look a lot more appealing for the playing out of colonial desires.

“Cyberspace does not lie within your borders,” wrote John Perry Barlow in his A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace from 1996. “Our world is different.” It isn’t. Or at least, not when it comes to video games, and particularly not when it comes to the video-game world of the Far Cry series of first-person shooters from Ubisoft. If you have an appetite for encountering and conquering new spaces, then Far Cry has long been the video game for you.

Conquest is in Far Cry’s DNA. Tellingly, the first game in the series was created in 2004 to take advantage of software that was good at rendering long distances. In other words: here was technology that allowed computers to create long, empty patches of landscape, like a digital sextant or a new nautical chart. This geography could be filled with whatever or whomever game designers wanted: a Terra nullius for tech heads.

The sequel arrived in 2008, along with the gift of low expectations. Set in an unnamed, fictional East African nation, Far Cry 2 was creatively daring, uncompromisingly challenging and at least semi-aware of its colonialist impulses. You played a mercenary out to assassinate a Kurtz-like figure while surviving frequent bouts of malaria, guns that jam and dangerous wildlife. Manifest destiny made digital this was not: the world of Far Cry 2 was hostile and unconquerable.

Free from one colonial cliché about the consumption of an empty, God-gifted Eden, another took its place: taming the wilderness could make a man out of you. Since then, the Far Cry series has followed, like all major video-game franchises today, a theme-and-variations model that tries to outdo its predecessor while simultaneously asking you to forget it. The Far Cry blueprint is by now straightforward: encounter a new “exotic” locale in a moment of crisis, spend many, many hours traversing it and defeat a scenery-chewing antagonist.

Far Cry 6 makes no pretence of breaking the mould. This time, the locale is the fictional island nation of Yara – You Won’t Believe It’s Not Cuba – and the villain is dictator Antón Castillo (Giancarlo Esposito). Yara’s history is generalised from an array of Latin American nations: conquistadors, enslavement, revolution, military dictatorship.

Bad things happen to this corner of the world, Far Cry 6 tells us, and leaves it at that. Eduardo Galeano similarly opens his classic 1971 book Open Veins of Latin America by noting that “the division of labor among nations is that some specialize in winning and others in losing” – but he goes on to say considerably more about that than Far Cry 6. The game’s ensemble cast, speaking accented English with Spanglish ornaments, leaves no misconceptions about who the game’s audience is, and whether they might come from nations of winners or losers.

Players take on the role of Dani Rojas – a character who can be either male or female, and who inexplicably shares a name with one of Ted Lasso’s star footballers – who has been displaced by Castillo’s evil machinations and joins a group of guerillas. The island nation of Yara is fully explorable and, in keeping with the Far Cry tradition, enormous. Even with the game’s rich array of cars, boats, helicopters and planes, it will still take some time to traverse. Yara is divided into territories and it’s your job to win over the locals in the countryside before moving on the urban centres, something the game’s developers say was inspired by the actual Cuban revolution.

Yet much of Far Cry 6 plays out according to the franchise’s formula: find high ground to scout an enemy camp or stronghold, then either methodically or chaotically attack it. It’s a satisfying loop, but unless you’re new to the series, you’ve heard this one before. I found it lost impact quickly, along with the standard issue game design stuffed with side quests and collectibles – jobs to tick off a list.

Far Cry 6 also has that special video-game blend of tonal dissonance, wildly pivoting from seriousness to silliness. You will hear about the generational legacy of a 1968 revolution and a cycle of ideologically blunted violence. You will also give orders to a crocodile – Guapo, your “amigo” – in the heat of battle. Get good enough in Far Cry 6 and you’ll be able to use a gun that plays the Macarena while shooting compact discs – perhaps you’ll use this on your mission to rescue political prisoners.

This is not a deliberate strategy of camp, the kind of thing that plays almost cleverly in a game such as the Nazisploitation Wolfenstein games. In Far Cry 6’s case, it’s simply a symptom of being a big-budget video game made for all quadrants of a target market.

Such incongruence makes the borrowing of real Latin American context uncomfortable. The need for so-called exotic geography combined with a desire for exciting action gunplay means that the Far Cry series has mostly been a tour of parts of the world the Western imaginary thinks of as in perpetual crisis, including Asia, Africa and now Latin America. Only Far Cry 5 – released at the height of the Trump presidency in 2018 and set in a religious cult-controlled Montana – broke with this and dared to locate cataclysm in one of Galeano’s “winning” countries, although the result was bland.

Because the loudest culture surrounding video games is infantile, one of the longstanding charades we collectively play is that big-budget games that deal exclusively in war, revolutions and militaries are also somehow apolitical. Creative directors pretend that their games do not make “statements” lest they get eaten by the president of the board, and critics don’t point out the obvious lest they get eaten by their readers.

Refreshingly, Navid Khavari, Far Cry 6’s narrative director, has broken this strange pact and admitted that the game is political. “A story about a modern revolution must be,” he said. But admitting the obvious does not mean that the game’s politics are any more digestible – at heart, Far Cry 6 still asks the player to have a bit of fun with colonisation’s wake. “You want this. The rush of an ambush, the smell of sulphur,” one of the game’s mentor figures tells you early on. “It’s fun.”

Ultimately, a video game such as Far Cry 6 can depict the products of colonisation, but never take the next step and admit Galeano’s bigger picture: that the “losing” specialised in by certain nations is Empire functioning as intended. “Our defeat was always implicit in the victory of others,” he says.

In a globalised video-game market, it’s likely a new release video game such as Far Cry 6 will find its way to players in Cuba, and to the nation, history and people that it thinly draws upon. Yet there is still a stark divide between those who Far Cry 6 imagines as its audience and those whom it depicts. Far Cry needs its players to misdiagnose Latin American history as sadly but inevitably featuring revolution and violence, and the cynicism that comes with it. Otherwise we might not have quite as much fun.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 13, 2021 as "Terra nullius".

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Dan Golding is a writer, presenter and composer.