As a reporter, I was always looking for what I called “the headshot”. In Red Dead Redemption, the headshot was the Strange Man character, who antagonised John Marston over his past mistakes and doomed future. In a story I wrote for Edge about 343 Industries, and how this new company was taking over Halo from the old, it was the “Halo Museum”, an expansive room that 343 maintained on its site and used to showcase materials and artefacts from the series’ history—like action figures, Game of the Year awards, and behind-the-scenes photographs. The ethos of the headshot was simple: when dealing with potentially abstract subjects (a 100-plus-hour, open-world revisionist Western; the employees of a videogame development studio, who under multidirectional pressure are attempting to maintain the standards of a product worth billions of dollars, the custody of which they’ve just inherited), look for a single, unifying image, an incident, anecdote, scene, or sound which on its own syncretically, self-explanatorily, binds and expounds on the story—something describable and inviolate, an unmoving part that encapsulates whatever’s being discussed. Anne Barnard found it in a barbecue; Evan Osnos in a Chinese action film. When I was being paid to find meaning in often vague artwork, or for making communicable sense out of fleeting, dislocated moments, scoring the headshot was what I prayed for. The headshot didn’t just make the job of reporter (or critic) easier; it made it possible.
I’m not making a joke about its idiocy, nor its directionlessness, nor lack of self-regard when I say: Far Cry 5 doesn’t even have a head. The idea of discussing this game using any conventional kind of critical apparatus that I may have developed over the years is absurd. And if other critics are frustrated the game doesn’t have anything to say, or balks at making any sort of committed statement, I understand that. But I think they’re expecting this game to meet them on discussional terms that its creators simply don’t accept, or appreciate as necessary.
To what I attribute Far Cry 5’s particular, let’s call it “style” of meaninglessness varies depending on my personal cynicism and paranoia levels: either it’s the abominable apex of the genus of videogame that’s been festering for more than a decade at the bottom of the swamp, or it’s a concerted effort by its makers to undermine game critics’ confidence, to paralyse, render them mute and make them second-guess opinions they might have on future Ubisoft titles. Either way, Far Cry 5 recalls to me the title of Adam Curtis’s documentary on the war against information: HyperNormalisation. The experience of playing Far Cry 5 is so beguiling and overwhelming, its plot and aesthetic so blatantly, acknowledgingly contradictory, I’m forced to wonder if I’m missing something; if I’m playing it right; if it’s possible, or even fair, to have about this game a singular, cogent opinion. The job of the critic is to make evidenced assertions. It feels there is nothing about Far Cry 5 that is intractably true nor false. It is gelatinous, in the sense there’s so much of it, and spectral, because it never settles on, or even establishes, a corporeal rubric. It is the anti-headshot.
During what is directed and acted like a foreboding opening cutscene, whereby my character and his friends try to arrest arch antagonist Joseph Seed, I’m offered a prompt telling me my “weapons will be available to purchase in Shops after liberating Dutch’s Island”—this, before I’ve collected a weapon, or met any character called Dutch, let alone visited, let alone liberated his island.I’ve no idea at this point what I could even be liberating Dutch’s island from. Minutes later, while I’m being pursued by some of Seed’s acolytes, further words appear on-screen, like “Grouse Hunting Spot Discovered”, “Holland Valley,” and “The Warrant: Completed”. These granular, pullulative messages are accompanied by the rapid manifestation of icons—flashing yellow markers with increasing and decreasing meterage, tiny images of cut diamonds, and symbols connoting “explosion”. These tiny images, as if they’ve been waiting in an off-screen queue, flood Far Cry 5 one-after-another; like a troupe of Dervishes they roll out, and whirl, the result, a flurry of abortive and enervating, raw information. And so Far Cry 5 continues. Exponentially, in fact. Notices about hunting spots (“Hare”; “Bison”; “Pronghorn”; “Ruffled Goose”) accrete, palimpsestic, over notices about unlocked perks, which appear over notices about newly unlocked AI comrades, which appear over notices about discovered locations, which appear over notices about what guns are available now, which appear over notices about hunting spots. There is a vast amount of Far Cry 5, and it’s incontinently disclosed—its information cascade reaches a bizarre pinnacle when I complete a mission for Dutch and during his radio transmission congratulating me on a job well-done, another transmission, also from him, starts to play on top of it, so that I’m listening to two Dutches, the first explaining what Far Cry 5 content I’ve just obtained, the second where I should go so I can obtain more.
The effect of this: I start to sense there is so much here that I could never comprehensively, resolutely criticise it, a kind of paralysis wrought by the uncertainty of one’s analysis. Far Cry 5’s pop-up, image, message, and general videogame material salvo, it creates the impression that no matter how long I play, how much I do, what I experience, there will always be something that I fail to witness, a possibly central, maybe headshottish part of the game that I haven’t played, and by my having not played have disqualified myself from talking about the game authoritatively. Far Cry 5’s magnitude implies infinitude, and it’s extremely difficult to encyclopaedically describe or discuss infinitude; I struggle to justify or to find the conviction for resolute assertions when the game itself is so irresolute that within ten minutes play-time (not an exaggeration) it can introduce three, or four, or maybe five characters, pivot from an animal hunting simulation to a virtual parachute jumping experience to a first-person shooter versus people, wolves, then zombies, and issue contradictory diktats to check my Perk Menu for Perk Points, and that John Seed’s weapons convoys need to be ambushed, and have I tried Far Cry Arcade yet? It’s like what the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard called hyperreality, a quantity and incongruity of images and information, such that it becomes difficult to ascertain what, if anything, is true. When there’s so much Far Cry 5, I can’t help but doubt whether, I, critic, would be right in definitively telling anyone what Far Cry 5 is.
But all of that, it’s more like opaqueness than obfuscation. Far Cry 5’s bewildering aesthetic doesn’t belong exclusively to Far Cry 5. Games like it, which submerge your rationality, your direction, your sense of sense, are extant. Recalling the company’s work of the past decade, I’d describe the way Far Cry 5 looks as Ubisoftian. But even if there’s no intent, on Far Cry 5’s creators’ behalf, to obscure, what I might file under innocent, even endearing “gameisms”, or the idiosyncratic products of a form that is by its nature experienced subjectively, still have the same result, i.e. to effectively bar Far Cry 5 from cogency.
To which point: Far Cry 5 misdirects, misinforms, and basically lies. Within condensed, sometimes minutes-long game sections, in relation to things like characters, and narrative and dramatic stakes, it openly contradicts itself, presenting one fact then following shortly with a converse, antipodal other. For example, in one mission I’m told that the Seed cult has stolen and is holding under armed guard a biplane belonging to Nick Rye. This plane, Nick Rye’s, is the only plane in Hope County to which the Resistance has/had access, so its recovery and preservation, with regards to successfully defeating the cult, is essential. I kill the guards. I take the plane. Nick Rye contacts me by radio, ecstatic that I’ve reclaimed his pride and joy; the plane is named Carmina, and is apparently one of a kind, and has been passed down the generations of the Rye family. After I complete Rye’s mission, an information pop-up appears: Carmina is now available for me to use any time. So I get back in the plane. I fly it around for a while. I return it to the airfield. And parked there, next to the runway, is another one. Another Carmina. Another one-of-a-kind Rye family heirloom, invaluable to the Resistance. Kim, Rye’s wife, even calls me on the radio: “if you need another plane, just head on back to the airfield”.
A short time later, I complete one of Far Cry 5’s Cult Outpost side-missions, whereby I storm the ranch belonging to secondary villain John Seed, kill the disciples guarding it, and claim it for the Resistance. After I’ve raised a flag on the roof, a short cutscene plays, showing Resistance members arriving in technicals, unpacking boxes of weapons, and setting up shop. When play resumes, I can talk to them, buy things from them and use the Seed Ranch as a base and fast-travel point. Bearing in mind that the game directed me to do this—a radio message from one of the Resistance characters explained something like “if we capture John’s ranch, that’ll really fuck up his operation”—less than half-an-hour later, during the quasi-climactic mission where I kill John Seed himself, after a shootout at a chapel John’s men bundle him into a pick-up and shout into the radio: “Get John back to the Ranch! He’ll be safe there!” And so I have to follow John and his men to the ranch I captured not thirty minutes ago, the ranch that belongs to the Resistance, the ranch that John personally called me on the radio about, saying how angry he was I had captured it, the ranch that was still available as a shop, base, and fast-travel point when I checked the map seconds before the chapel shootout, the ranch that John’s men said “get him to the Ranch, he’ll be safe there” about. And I have to fight John’s men at the Ranch and capture the Ranch for the Resistance.
John escapes in a plane; I shoot it down, using a Carmina, and he flees into the woods, wherein he’s promptly attacked by one of Far Cry 5’s AI animals, a honey badger, the mauling from which triggers another cutscene with John lying on the ground, covered in bullet holes, proselytizing me, the Resistance, and the modern world. I’m not being flippant or trying to make you laugh when I say: I find it deeply weird that neither he nor my character mention the honey badger.
And eventually the game ends, in one of two ways: either everyone apart from my character and Joseph Seed dies, and nuclear bombs explode in the background, implying the cult was right all along and that the entire United States has been destroyed, or my character and his Sheriff’s Office friends leave Hope County, only for my character to become hypnotised by a cult hymn playing on the car radio, suggesting he’s been indoctrinated, and will never escape Seed’s influence, and is about to kill all his friends. In one of these endings, the entire country is blown up. In the other, my character is recruited into the cult. Either way, Seed and his ideology prevail, and his cult is not defeated resolutely.
But then the credits end and I’m placed back into Hope County, and it looks exactly like it always has, and a pop-up tells me “Joseph Seed has been defeated and the county is free from the cult’s influence.” Everything I’ve done, everything the game has been building towards, every narrative, thematic, interactive, subjective experience—everything—is wiped out, rendered untrue, by another untruth. I’ve just seen that Joseph Seed has not been defeated, and the county is not free from his cult’s influence, so this message is a blatant lie, but also it’s a blatant lie that reframes everything preceding it a blatant lie. It’s a lie because what I’ve just seen directly contradicts it. Yet what I’ve just seen is a lie, because this message says so. But this message is a lie as well.
Once again it might be argued that all of these things are merely standard, permissible, typically “of-videogames” conceits. And that argument might even develop, grow remonstrative, counter-argumentative teeth. After defending aesthetical contradictions as just formal, natural, allowable goofs, it might be contested that moments like John Seed being killed by a wild mustelid are exemplary of games’ distinctive appeal, their formal predisposition towards wackiness, unpredictable, subjective experience, and a rejection of dramatic codes. But then a lot of critics, the vanguards of taking-games-seriously are frustrated by Far Cry 5’s equivocal presentation, its ineffectiveness. If there remains an ongoing bewilderment as to why videogames still don’t rank alongside movies, et al, on mainstream culture’s ladder of prestigiousness, it could arguably be because there are a lot of games like Far Cry 5, whereby the moment-to-moment action and drama, and the overarching plot and point, are declared—by and within the games themselves—to be disregardable. The aesthetic and thematic standards of Far Cry 5, common and de rigueur as they are, are precisely what render it to be without substance; headless.
Ed Smith contributes to Edge, Rolling Stone, Paste, GamesTM, and PCGamesN.