Far Cry 5’s Nihilism Examined

I barely noticed when the credits rolled after completing the final story mission in Far Cry 5. After nonsensically gunning down my former allies and reviving them during the game’s climactic battle, then driving through the flaming hellscape that was formerly Hope County, my next series of inputs was the repeated mashing of the escape key. Joseph Seed talked a good game about delivering his adherents to Eden. But I secured my own deliverance from the psychic apocalypse of the game’s ending by tapping a key while I looked down at my phone.

After the radioactive dust had settled, I found my mute Deputy standing atop a radio tower, once again surveying a lush and green Hope County. No nuclear hellfire. No blaring klaxons. No charred and burning forests. Just the sound of the wind and the rushing river below me. It was as if the finale had never occurred at all– something the game’s map confirmed. My allies were still alive and the in-game map obliviously pointed me towards a bunch of other collectibles and side quests. I still wanted the elite fishing pole, damn it, and I could still get it.

I’m not averse to grim endings in the media I consume. The Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men has perhaps one of the bleakest endings in modern cinema. Every time Tommy Lee Jones starts that final monologue describing his unhappy retirement and his departed father, my heart swells. Emotions stir and, more often than not, dust particles find a way into my eyes. That extraordinary scene doesn’t compel viewers to punch the air and go “That was awesome!” The final moments of No Country just kind of slam into you, simultaneously instilling hope and dread, then giving you a quiet moment to contemplate it all. It is, in my eyes, a masterfully executed ending.

And then there’s the ending of Far Cry 5.

For the uninitiated: You spend the bulk of the game killing doomsday cult members and liberating Hope County, Montana, one location at a time. You rescue and join forces with colorful characters. At the climactic battle, the big bad kidnaps all of said allies, asking you to either walk away or arrest him. If you arrest Joseph Seed, the world literally ends courtesy of several conveniently-timed nuclear strikes.

You end up in a bunker with the now-vindicated villain, where you presumably spend the rest of your days, while your friends and everyone you worked to save are reduced to ash. If you choose to instead walk away from Seed, you end up killing all the people you saved via a subliminal radio transmission, Bioshock 1 style. Either way, everything you’ve worked towards throughout the game and your final decision amounts to nothing.

The final message of Far Cry 5 is effectively: “Nothing matters because we’re all going to die anyway.”

Dark endings are a hallmark of the series. Far Cry 2 takes place in a nightmarish fictional African country. None of the characters are remotely likable, yourself included. But at the end of the game, you at least save fleeing civilians and expose the horrors of the conflict to the outside world. Far Cry 3 offers more freedom, with you either being stabbed to death and producing an heir (it’s complicated), or saving your friends and being forever scarred by the havoc and murder you engaged in.

By my measure, Far Cry 4 has the strongest ending. You successfully liberate the mountainous country of Kyrat from a murderous dictator’s rule, but must choose between allowing rampant drug production or reinstating the country’s tradition of children brides. They’re both awful choices but they’re made on your terms. I didn’t feel good about allowing Kyrat to devolve into a narco state, but could sleep better knowing children weren’t being raped.

What I’ve always enjoyed about the Far Cry series is that it acknowledges its players are infatuated with the wanton havoc they inflict. Sure, you’re pulling a trigger on a controller, not a real gun, but you’re still putting a bullet into someone’s face. You’re obsessing over and unlocking colorful skins for your murder tools and blowing up rhinos with dynamite to make pouches from their skins. Far Cry tries to acknowledge that the primary interaction in the series is snuffing out human life, and I appreciate that.

But Far Cry 5’s finale veers so deeply into nihilism that I cannot forgive it. The game’s writers opted to give the last laugh to a religious fanatic, child-killer (he suffocated his newborn daughter because God told him to), and possible rapist (his “sister,” Faith, is actually a rotating set of women who are plied with drugs and manipulated into becoming spokespeople for the cult).

“You know what this means?” asks Joseph, referring to the nuclear holocaust in the game’s final moments. “It means the politicians have been silenced. It means the corporations have been erased. It means the world has been cleansed by God’s righteous fire. But most of all, it means I was right.”

It’s that last sentence I find most galling, probably by design. My interpretation is that, by even trying to help Hope County, you doomed it. You would’ve been better off letting the Seeds run amok, enslaving the locals, literally crucifying resisters, and herding them all into their bunkers. This is confirmed in the game’s now-standard “secret” ending.

If you never arrest Seed in the first place, you peaceably leave the cult’s compound and the game fades to credits, no bloodshed required. Like a twisted reading of 1983’s Wargames, the only winning move is to not play at all. Literally. It’s a strange note to end on for a game with a season pass and microtransactions that, you know, depend on people wanting to play the game well after its conclusion.

What I find so ugly and unforgivable about the game’s final message to its players is that, at least at the time I’m writing this, the world is awash in such an attitude: Elections are rigged. Democracy has failed. Helping others, be they refugees or the impoverished, hurts me. Protestors are paid actors. Mass shootings are false flag attacks. All journalists are liars. People who don’t look like you only succeed when you fail. Other people’s suffering makes me happy. And so on.

That Ubisoft Montreal chose to base the bulk of their game’s narrative on such a hopeless and negative foundation is disheartening. While the argument could be made that such a plot is just a reflection of the world at this fraught moment, it does nothing to make me feel good about my time investment in the game.

I know that I’m a hypocrite. I know I should feel at least a little guilty about mowing down hundreds or thousands of polygonal cultists and innocent woodland creatures in my free time. I revel in silently eliminating an entire outpost of enemy fighters. I love buying dumb paints and skins for my weapons. Firing an arrow into an enemy’s skull at point blank range is satisfying as hell. I welcome the scrutiny these games level at me as a player of violent video games. But for them to throw all of that out the window and argue that, no, you’re a bad person for trying to make any kind of difference in Hope County is too bitter a pill to swallow.

To be clear, I didn’t want a squeaky clean, hopeful ending. In my naive way, I was hoping that Far Cry 5 would weigh in on the version of America spurned by Obama and Nancy Pelosi. The gun-toting, bible-thumping Real America that feels as though the world is moving on without them and are the last bastion of white greatness, family values, and morality. Ubisoft was correct in assuming that part of America would be a great setting for a Far Cry game. But instead of remarking on that setting in a meaningful or thought-provoking way, they chose to rub our faces in the fact we even played the game at all.

By most accounts, Far Cry 5 was a financial success for Ubisoft. Despite critical outcry about its ending and story, it was found by most outlets to be a solid open-world shooter. It’s entirely possible that, as time goes on, I’ll soften on the game’s writing. We’ll look back at the title and see it as nothing more than another symptom of a world in crisis.

But right now, in the midst of the storm, I just see another black hole of nihilism. One more Facebook post proclaiming that everything and everyone is corrupt and the world is a miserable, shitty place. Another Fox News commentator staring into the camera and telling us that we are all in danger from forces just out of sight. Another tweet urging race wars and the subjugation of women as “just a joke.” If Far Cry 5’s writers wanted to make their audience feel worse about a world that seems like it’s on the brink, they’ve succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

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