As I mentioned earlier this week, Ubisoft recently addressed criticism about the political nature of their games by saying that while they don’t shy away from political tones, they try to keep things politically neutral. And I was so struck, so flabbergasted by how stupid that was, that I just couldn’t let that sit. So we’re gonna spend the next 1.5k words talking about why that’s wrong. In long, painful detail.
First of all: Ubisoft is an innately political company. From the second they released the very first Assassin’s Creed game and they showed off that disclaimer about how the series was made by a diverse group of developers, they had thrown their hat into the political realm, intentionally or not. As much as it pains me to say this: but going out of your way to say you are diverse and open-minded is very much a political statement these days, and it firmly puts you in one camp over the others. In a perfect world that might be a politically neutral statement to make, but we don’t live in that world: and if we did, we wouldn’t even need that disclaimer.
I mean, just look at Beyond Good and Evil 2. There is nothing ‘innately’ political about it: or rather, there shouldn’t be. But the fact that the majority of promotional artwork for the game has shown off a world infused with an Indian/south Asian style? That’s political by today’s standards. It’s taking time and energy to expose people to other cultures. It’s political in the same way the afro-futurist vision of Wakanda was. Any deviation from an expected white-Anglo-envisioned future, where white and white culture (if such a thing exists) is not the prominent or dominant feature, is considered a political commentary. Especially with the rise of nationalism and the subtle (and not so subtle) discrimination against other races happening in the US and Europe these days.
But it goes the other way too.
If you don’t want to click the video above, here’s the short version: The Division needed to have some kind of visual shorthand for “enemy”, as most games do. And in a startling lack of awareness, they settled on using hoodies: which, if you recall, was the article of clothing “blamed” for the death of Trevon Martin when white people were trying to avoid admitting that police still have a very real problem with racism and “shoot first, ask questions later”. A connection that was made even more uncomfortable considering how often the game will ask you to shoot unaware enemies - people who aren’t even doing anything wrong yet, but are signaled as ‘enemies’ by, yep, the hoodie.
It was an accident. A thoughtless accident. But it was political. Undeniably so.
But that brings us to part 2: for as political as Ubisoft is, it’s not nearly political enough, and not in the right way. And to go into more detail about that, let’s talk about one of their most recent games, and a game I’ve actually recently beaten, Far Cry 5.
A quick synopsis: you play a deputy who’s flown into Hope County, Montana in order to arrest a dangerous cult leader who’s prophesying the end of the world. You make the arrest, but then his followers go crazy, knock down your helicopter, capture your companions, and force you to join a militia in order to wrestle control away from this doomsday cult and rescue your friends.
Now, here’s the thing: I’m an unapologetic left-wing bleeding heart liberal. Anyone whose read my work won’t be surprised by that. I voted Hillary, I want free health care, open boarders, and most vitally for this discussion, I want gun control. And most games, it seems, are catered to people of my sensibilities. I don’t think it’s actually unfair to say that most media is left-leaning, and video games are no exception. So I was excited to play a game that would take me to a world where me and my breed were a minority, where I could experience another world entirely. In many respects, a conservative, nature-abundant county of Montana was every bit as foreign to me as Africa, the tropics, and Northern Asia.
And not only did I not get that, but I got close enough to getting it that it proved quite frustrating.
Case in point: if you pay attention there is an undercurrent of anti-left sentimentality through the NPC’s in the game. Characters talk about their guns with pride, and say “if the left didn’t take my guns, the peggies sure as hell won’t”. There are a few characters who are over-the-top caricatures of right-wing talking points, rallying against big government and regulation and “bleeding-heart liberals” like me. There’s even a companion who sort of broadly represents the “left”, and while he’s still a big fan of trucks and guns, he’s also kind of a wimp whose mocked by the others and makes slapdash, comedic attempts to be “politically correct” by not assuming gender.
But all of that stuff is just garnish. It’s flavor. It’s present but it’s not important to the story, and therein lies the problem. Whatever the game was slowing down to make us look at, consider, and re-evaluate, it wasn’t anything remotely that topical or divisive as guns, political extremists, or the growing interest in nationalism. Despite being announced around the same time as the Bundy Standoff, which was extremely topical and extremely representative of the modern political world, when push comes to shove the game has nothing to say about that, either for or against.
What it chooses to talk about instead is much “safer”. Now, a Christian-based (although they don’t say it explicitly, to my knowledge) extremist doomsday cult is topical. Not as topical as it could be if they decided to focus on race or liberty, but topical enough. Topical-lite, if you want. Or at least, it could be, except every chance they have to make it topical by making some kind of broad strokes conclusion or observation, they zoom in instead. They make it personal, about the villain doing the monologue. And while that’s not always a bad thing (having personal villains is good, by and large), it’s not appropriate for the scope of the story. These people are supposed to be this attuned, hyper-aware cult who look at the world and despair so profoundly it inspires those around them: and yet they almost never talk about the world except in the broadest of strokes.
“Do you see what they’re doing”, they might ask, but they never say what it is.
“Do you see who’s in charge?” They ask, without naming any names.
Ubisoft had done an excellent job getting a canvas ready, but when it was time to actually paint a picture, to tell a story, to make a point, they backed off and drew a little cartoon instead. And that’s the real problem we’re having here, Ubisoft. I don’t care if your games aren’t political, most games we play aren’t. A lot of the best games ever made didn’t have a dang thing to say about politics. The problem is that you use politics to draw people in, ushering in a curious crowd who are excited to see a game that has more to say and more to do, but then you don’t follow through.
And spoiler alert.
Seriously, spoiler alert.
Stop reading now if you don’t want spoilers.
…and the frustrating thing is that Far Cry 5 was clearly almost there. The ending of the game (which some called great, and others called terrible), shows that the doomsday cult was right. The bombs drop, the world ends, and you’re stuck in a small bunker with your arch-enemy, painfully aware that if it weren’t for you, hundreds more people might have survived the explosion. But instead, because of stubbornness, or because of justice, or just disbelief, it’s just you and a religious psychopath.
I, personally, loved this ending. But I understand why people hated it: the buildup wasn’t there. Apparently they hint at it on the radio sometimes, but mostly, it comes out of left field. And that could be a poignant message about how abruptly the world could end if those in power decided it was time to make that happen, but it wasn’t. The game didn’t have the grit to commit to the modern political commentary that would be needed to convince us that the end could actually be coming, it didn’t have the courage to stick the landing that it knew it was building up to, which left us watching the mushroom clouds in the distance with as much awe as confusion.
Look, Ubisoft. I get that you want to play it both ways. You don’t want people to be offended by your games but you still want to shock us and make us think. But the world doesn’t work that way, buddies: any statement that offends no one isn’t a statement at all. It’s just words.