In several of my articles, I’ve mentioned the perils of putting the outside World in the game. Even though there are books which integrate both aspects well, there hasn’t been a case where I could point my finger at something and say definitely, “This is where something is lacking because the author didn’t talk about the outside World or events.”
In most books or stories I’ve read with Two Worlds, the majority of the book takes place in what I call the “In World”. A decent example is The Princess Bride, where the outside World is a grandfather telling his grandson a bedtime story, and the inside World is the story of a young man falling in love with a princess.
The trick is that the outside World has to do two things. The first is it has to explain In World events, characters, and settings. The second is it has to not actively contradict anything happening In World.
Most authors tend to screw this up. They tend to put useless information that doesn’t help us understand the characters in the In World, and just adds bloat, or they do things that actively contradict the In Game.
I haven’t found too many stories where the Out World really does much to help explain the In Game, except for Travis Bagwell’s Awaken Online series.
But after I beat Far Cry 5, I finally found the perfect example of a story that absolutely requires the outside World in order to make any sense. So before we go further:
Far Cry 5 is a gaming gem, if we’re talking about just the gameplay. Much like Horizon: Zero Dawn, if we are talking about gameplay, both of them are amazing. However, if we’re talking narratively, both have huge problems. The problems of Horizon: Zero Dawn are similar to other “Protagonist without a fault” stories, so you can read “Why Hollywood Can’t Write Women” and apply most of that critique to the game’s writing.
Far Cry 5s problems are far more typical of most authors and books, so that’s what we’ll focus on for this article.
In Far Cry 5, the plot is simple. You play a brand-new US Marshall called “Rook” or “Deputy” occasionally, who is called in as part of a team to arrest a cult leader in Montana. Upon attempting arrest, the cult leader escapes and kidnaps your team. You get rescued by one of the state natives (Dutch) in Hope County who tells you what’s going on and gets you started on your first missions.
The first problem is that the game lets you choose your character. Normally, a Far Cry story tells the story of the protagonist with the player maneuvering the character throughout their unfolding arc. As such, what the character does is what matters to the character in the game, not to the player. For any linear story, this is a necessity. When you play Geralt of Rivia in the Witcher series, your choices are constrained by things that Geralt would or would not do, and all characters interact with you in the context of things that Geralt has done in his past.
However, Far Cry 5 lets you choose the look and gender of your character, which means you expect some player agency. This means that characters should interact with you based on the choices of you the player. This is often very difficult to do in a video game story. So Far Cry solves it by ignoring it.
This is a huge missed opportunity for a couple of reasons. The first one is that there is no counter-narrative. So the bad guy (Joseph) has his apocalyptic vision of the World, in which the weak will be culled and everyone should begin getting themselves right with God and preparing to survive the apocalypse. Who has a counter-narrative to that? No one.
Games with the tabula rasa protagonist like Fallout: New Vegas let you craft a character by giving that character options. The final choice of FNV are based around the choices of the player throughout the game. The New California Republic are the good guys, but they’ve also grown so fast and gotten so power hungry that they can’t protect caravaners and have a clearly tiered rationing system for food, water, and supplies. Caesar’s crew are a group of various raiders that Caesar united under Lex Talionis. They’re brutal and vicious, but they’re also incredibly fair.
Whereas the NCR has some hypocrisy, Caesar brutally enforces his laws and treats everyone the same under them. You can also give control of the city to an elusive billionaire, or you can give control to a sentient AI.
Even more, the sub-choices you make with each faction influences the game. You’re presented with a morally grey World and you get to choose what vision of it you want based on your actions. The game reacts to you in the context of the choices you make as the player.
In Far Cry 5, no such thing happens. You just listen to people monologue, you never pick any options, and you never have any choice about it. Because of this, you never have anything to fight for. What’s the alternative vision of Montana that the people are fighting for? No one has any.
That leads us to the second problem this lack of a agency causes. There’s a tonal problem throughout the game. It can’t decide if we should view the people of Montana as good, American citizens or if we should guffaw at them and laugh at their idiocy and bumpkin ways. We help everyone out the same whether they’re spewing nonsense or completely level headed.
Compared to the way FNV handled this, you can’t craft your own version of Montana or at least pick the version of Montana you think should prevail. In the end, you’re fighting for nothing.
Outside from the lack of agency and tonal problems, the biggest problem occurs at the end of the game, and that’s what we’re really here to talk about.
Far Cry 5 features three endings. The joke ending is like Far Cry 4‘s joke ending where if you do nothing at the start, the game will end. We can discount that one. Then there’s a second ending where you can walk away, and get blown up in a nuclear blast. We’ll discount that ending as well.
The real ending is that the cult leader was right the entire time. The entire World is being engulfed in nuclear war, and all of the prepping that Joseph and the Seed family did was correct.
This ending comes completely out of left field. There’s no indication narratively that anything is wrong in the rest of the World at large, and with the Seed family and the preppers of Montana being presented as a bunch of kooks, it doesn’t bolster the case that the entire World is on the brink of nuclear war. This is why the lack of agency and the tonal problems work against the narrative of the story.
The outside World is never presented to the player or the character in the game. Which creates an immediate problem. So, for example, assuming the cult controls the entire radio-waves and you can’t call in for help, why can’t the character get in one of the dozens of planes lying around and fly off to get help?
Because the outside World is never established, there’s no honest answer for that question. There’s no answer for why he can’t call for help, or send a mail or fed-ex package to the home office, or anything. He’s just running around Montana gunning people down because… um… the game says to?
How should this have been script doctored?
What should have happened is that when Rook began the mission, he should have been able to call for help at the home office. Home office says, “We’ll prepare another team, but it might take a while. Try to rescue your team on your own and keep giving us status reports.”
You call back after your first rescue mission, and they tell you “Good work! We’re sending help, hang tight.” In later missions, you call the US Marshalls office and you get voice mail. Then it doesn’t go through. Then it goes through and they promise that yes, help is really coming.
All of this create a sense, without directly telling the player, that things aren’t going well across the nation. This should have been reinforced outside of cut scenes: little notes about calls not going through, cell phone towers losing reception, shipments not arriving on time, tv reports of ongoing conflicts, etc.
That’s where the outside World needs to come in, when there’s key information that the viewer needs to understand the in-World game (or the bubble-World around Hope County, Montana in Far Cry 5s case).
Without this information, we don’t know if we should view the preppers as pessimistic rationalists or wacky nut jobs. We don’t know if Joseph Seeds insanity has a spark of truth to it.
Combining the lack of agency, the tonal shifts, and the lack of any established outside World, Far Cry 5 is a game that thinks it has something to say, but just ends up being a loud fart. Because the outside World is never established in Far Cry 5, the inside World of Hope County never fully clicks, and comes apart at the seams in the ending.