'Far Cry 6' - How Bad Video Games Are At Politics
The political discourse surrounding video games is like Kenny G: inexplicably ubiquitous and comically crappy. I had a hard time articulating exactly what it was about political gaming discourse that rubbed me the wrong way until I played a little game called Far Cry 6. Then, all at once, I realized exactly why the conversation around the politics of games is so, so awful ...
What’s Wrong With Far Cry 6?
Perhaps you're unfamiliar with Far Cry 6, possibly because you enjoy games that are good. Allow me to give you some context. Far Cry 6, like previous games in the series, sees you, the player, slowly liberating an exotic location from pirates or drug smugglers or mutants, generally by utilizing the diplomatic power of a machete to the neck. Despite (or maybe because?) these games are mostly big dumb power fantasies, I generally really enjoy them. In particular, I think Far Cry 3 was a high-water mark for the series and had some interesting things to say about subverting level-up systems in games, the seductive narcotic of power, and the impossibility of reclaiming a lost, more innocent self after being proximal to hideous violence.
But Far Cry 6 decided to try a different tack. In addition to the unspeakably awful decision to remove the RPG level-up system in favor of a Destiny-style system where abilities are determined by gear, it also decided to take place on the island of Yara, a Cuba analog so obvious it sometimes felt like a caricature.
Unlike previous games, you're not fighting an occupational force of invaders; you're fomenting a revolution to overthrow Gus from Breaking Bad, a villainous dictator who is almost completely disconnected from the plot of the game. He mostly just shows up to do some mustache-twirling now and then. He's a brutal dictator whose master plan is to poison the island's tobacco with a toxic chemical that turns their cigars into a drug used to fight cancer, which he'll then sell to industrialized nations to make Yara wealthy. This plot is especially weird since Cuba actually does have a cancer-fighting vaccine, which, as far as I can tell, they aren't actually selling but instead giving out freely, like Timothee Chalamet and vague 19th-century lung disease.
The important word to keep in mind here is "sell." The villain wants to sell the cancer treatment, so our hero stages a revolution in what is obviously Cuba against a corrupt capitalist dictator—a Cuban Revolution if you will.
So what was the online reaction to Far Cry 6? Well, sewer-dwellers decried the "wokeness" of the "leftoids" who made a game where you can play as a woman who "says words." Yes, in Far Cry 6 you can play as a man or a woman, both native Yarans and therefore not white. There was a collective screech of rage from certain dark, jizz-sock strewn corners of the internet at the mere thought.
Far Cry 6 also includes a fairly minor trans character. We don't engage with this man's journey, or his struggles, or what he's faced in a country that is explicitly stated to be strongly Catholic. Nope, he's just some dude. I think it's mentioned he's trans exactly twice. His career as a DJ is given much, much narrative heft, and if there was any justice in this cruel world, the object of scorn for this character would be that he's an adult man pursuing a career as a DJ. But of course, that's not what made people mad: no, the mere implication that a trans person might have the audacity to exist—in a videogame, no less—was enough for people to start condemning Far Cry 6 as an unabashed leftist manifesto in videogame form.
Basically, Super Marxio Bros. Or, wait, no: Little Red Book Redemption. Okay, okay, one more: Shin Megami Trotsky.
The point is, Far Cry 6 had formed a united front of the worst types of people. Racists. Transphobes. Alt-Right reactionary weirdos. People who wear shoes inside the house (no evidence for this one, but a strong suspicion nonetheless).
The Problem With "The Problem With Far Cry 6"
That being said, here's the thing: Far Cry 6 is Not A Left-Wing Game. It's barely even a liberal game. This embodies my overall point: The Overton Window has shifted so, so far, that it's become nearly impossible to discuss their political ramifications in a sane way.
Let's break that down piece by piece. "Overton Window" might sound like the name of a conniving-yet-charismatic orphan-about-town in a Dickens novel, but it's actually a political term regarding what ideas are considered acceptable.
Consider gay marriage. Within my lifetime, gay marriage has gone from a laughable absurdity on par with letting dogs vote (when it was outside the Overton Window), to a widely discussed social issue, to something commented on by mainstream politicians (as opposed to hip indie politicians—you've probably never heard of them), to legally protected right. Now, as far as I know, even the most diehard right-wingers trundling the Senate like that one monster from Pan's Labyrinth in a suit don't dare talk openly about overturning Obergefell v. Hodges.
Warner Bros. Pictures
In addition to the academic definition, the Overton Window is also used informally to describe where political positions get assigned on a spectrum. A policy like Medicare4All gets Bernie Sanders labeled a freedom-hating bald-eagle-eating communist by One America News Network and Facebook Boomers, but the same policy would be considered a regressive center-right position in the vast majority of industrialized nations.
Wait, I Think I Had A Point I Was Trying To Make
Within the world of Far Cry 6—a game that, remember, has been accused of being so deeply leftist as to be unpalatable to the average American—you join a revolutionary group. Their revolutionary aims? Their bold Utopian vision for a new country?
Free press? Free expression? Paying the serfs? Really shooting for the stars, huh? What's next, means-tested student debt forgiveness up to a maximum of 5% of debt remainder pursuant to opening a successful business in Special Economic Zones, as defined by local community boards?
Look, all the goals listed are good, but when your game's setting is a revolution in not-Cuba-but-c'mon, maybe there should be some lip service paid to abolishing the landed aristocracy, or giving the means of production to workers, or rejecting American imperialism, or a stronger social safety net, or materially increasing the quality of life for every citizen? Or at least a program of selling T-shirts to trust fund college sophomores trying to piss off daddy?
I'm not saying the game needs to endorse the Cuban Revolution, which certainly wasn't all roses and drum circles. But maybe this game could have even one even vaguely leftist idea? The game's politics were carefully constructed to offend no one and say nothing while using a veneer of revolution to trick the audience into thinking what it's saying has substance.
Isn't this game made by Ubisoft? Aren't they French? You'd think they'd be a little more ballsy about supporting revolutionary politics, but I guess all that marital infidelity keeps them busy.
Is There Leftism In Games?
I'm not one of those people who thinks a work has to align with my personal politics precisely to have value or be unproblematic or whatever. I'm not even sure there are any games that espouse a socialist democratic society with Marxist leanings where every bald dude gets a jetpack. I like plenty of stuff with terrible politics! I've read and loved nearly all of Yukio Mishima's novels, and he was a fascio-monarchist who wanted to reinstall the Emperor using an army of sexy nubile samurai hunks. The issue isn't the politics of the games; it's the way the politics of games are discussed.
Although it does raise an interesting question: If games with lukewarm Reaganism are derided as leftist agit-prop, are there actual leftist games? The more I thought about it, the more I struggled to come up with examples ... By the way, did you know that prior to 2011, if a videogame wanted to include a real-life firearm, they had to have an agreement with that weapon's manufacturer that the gun would only be portrayed positively? That's just a fun fact that popped into my head for no reason.
Surely there are left-wing games. Maybe BioShock? You could join a communist faction in The Outer Worlds, does that count? What else, what else … Maybe Red Dead Redemption 2? There's a lot of critiquing of America going on there. The same is true of the Fallout games. Maybe Tetris? Since it was made in the Soviet Union?
To be honest, I can't think of too many examples of leftist games. Games seem to largely fall into the trap of capitalist realism—that is, the inability to even conceive of an alternative to capitalism. There are two things about the Mass Effect series, a series I love deeply, that always bothered me. The first thing is that there's an unreconciled-with undercurrent of dystopia in that universe: They have technology that's like magic, but there's still gross income inequality? There's still poverty at all? Every single citadel species just happened to believe in laissez-faire capitalism? The second thing that's always bothered me about the Mass Effect series is that if, as we learn at the end of 3, it's all been a story an old man is telling his young grandchild, that means that kid got to hear about all the times Shepherd totally railed a hot alien broad. In meticulous gyrating, sweating, pulsating detail.
The only games with truly and explicitly leftist politics I can think of are Disco Elysium and Night in the Woods—both of which are hilarious, thought-provoking, utterly fantastic games. Both came out in the last five years, and both of them are indie games.
Both those games contain non-leftist politics too. The point isn't that those games are good because they'll convert people to an ideology I like. The point is those games are good because they're able to challenge players with any real political idea at all.
So why are mainstream AAA leftist games such a rarity? The unfortunate answer is the same as why Hollywood's leftist reputation is hot nonsense: there's simply too much money involved to make a statement. They need to alienate as few people as possible for the sake of the bottom line.
But there's reason to be hopeful. In the past few years, there's been a lot more attention drawn to "crunch" and all the other horrible working conditions that are common practice in the game dev industry—practices that even the cruelest of Circus Chimp Whippers would take objection to. It seems like change is on the horizon. In fact, the first-ever video game studio union in the history of the continent was formed today with Vodeo Games. I don't mean today is the anniversary of the founding of the first videogame game union: I mean the first-ever game union in North America was founded less than 24 hours ago as I write this.
As pro-labor and pro-union ideas become more common in videogame workplaces, I think we'll see more leftist ideas reflected in the games they make. The future is bright, and to me, that's what leftism is all about: building a better future.
And maybe they can make video games with skippable tutorial sequences while they're at it.
William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter, a Nicholl Top 50 Finalist, and a professional game reviewer looking for more review work (and to get staffed or be a writer’s assistant on your show!). You can also view his mind-diarrhea on Twitter.
Top image: Ubisoft