In his masterful 1945 book Names on the Land, the novelist, historian, and toponymist George R. Stewart describes the 19th-century debate over the area now known as Montana. Would it be called Idaho or Montana? Something else? Montana, deriving from the Latin montana (shouts to Livy) meaning “mountainous,” was the name of a defunct gold-mining town in the Pike’s Peak area of what was then the territory of Kansas and is now the state of Colorado. James W. Denver, the territorial governor of Kansas (and namesake of the city of Denver), remembered Montana and suggested it to Stephen A. Douglas, then the chairman of the Committee on Territories. Douglas never introduced a bill for a territory of Montana. But the name, according to Stewart, made an impression on James Ashley, a congressman from Ohio.
Ashley was a simple man who ran away from home as teenager and later worked as a cabin boy. He succeeded Douglas as the chair of the Committee on Territories. It was the perfect post for Ashley, who apparently loved naming things. His toponymical style, perhaps born of a desire to transcend his humble origins, was, according to Stewart, “high sounding and oratorical.” He also liked names that were, again, per Stewart, “at least superficially appropriate.” In 1863, Ashley introduced a bill “for the territory of Montana.”
The bill passed the House, but was stymied in the Senate where Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, after noting that the word Montana “had no meaning,” moved to call the area Idaho (a word invented by mining lobbyist George M. Willing which he claimed meant “gem of the mountains” in Shoshone).
James Rood Doolittle of Wisconsin countered that “It has a meaning. It refers to the mountainous character of the country.” And there the issue languished.
The matter was debated again in 1864, after citizens of the Idaho Territory requested that the most eastern area of that region be separated and named “Jefferson Territory.” Samuel Cox of Ohio argued against the name Montana, stating “I do not know if it is Spanish, French, or English.” A Mr. Washburne of either Maine or Illinois (the records differ) saw an opportunity to criticize Ashley, an abolitionist. Ashley wrote legislation to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia and played a major role in the creation of the 13th Amendment. “I suggest the gentleman from Ohio propose that it shall be called Abyssinia,” said Washburne. Ashley responded by essentially calling Washburne a traitor.
In the end, “Montana” won, though no one was quite sure what it meant besides “mountainous.” It was, at least, superficially appropriate considering most of Montana lies in the Great Plains.
Superficially appropriate is a good way to describe Far Cry 5, the latest installment in the long-running first-person shooter video game series. I mean that as a compliment. It is exquisite to gaze upon, the soundtrack is exceptional, and the story, at least superficially, is ripped straight from your Facebook News Feed. You know, the one based on algorithms which are increasingly understood to be playgrounds for those intent on rotting the social contract from within. Far Cry 5 gestures at deeper significance but always recoils when that’s within its grasp. It’s just a video game, and it wears “It’s Just a Video Game” like armor.
The game is set in the current day (or a future so near it might be next week) in fictional Hope County, Montana, where Eden’s Gate, an apocalyptic separatist religious cult led by charismatic tattooed preacher Joseph Seed, has risen to prominence. Seed’s siblings make up the cult’s inner circle: John, a self-help guru, is the lawyer for Eden’s Gate; Faith, a social media celebrity, is its beguiling public face; and Jacob, a military veteran, oversees its militia wing. The cult is organized, well-armed, and aggressive. As Eden’s Gate consolidated its hold on Hope County, the group graduated from menacing and harassment to drug manufacturing, kidnapping, and murder.
You play as a rookie Hope County sheriff’s deputy, part of an interagency task force sent to arrest Joseph Seed. It all goes sideways. The helicopter carrying Seed and the task force crashes. Seed escapes and takes the failed raid as confirmation that his visions are true—the end is nigh. He orders his followers to begin “The Reaping,” a terror campaign of kidnappings and brainwashing designed to bring the remaining citizens of the country under the cult’s control. The deputy flees the crash, cult members in hot pursuit, and the fight to free Hope County begins.
The audio-visual presentation is exceptional. The development team traveled to and researched Montana, and it shows. The hill and mountain country of Hope County is veined with streams and rivers. Fields and hillsides are covered with tall swaying grasses and wildflowers with stands of Douglas fir and pine and larch trees, all bathed in hard and white sunlight shining down from beyond the clouds in a vast blue sky. Pollen swims in swirling currents of air on the blacktop. The architectural design of the buildings relies on brick and concrete and wood, and the structures are two stories at most. Interiors are filled with the chaotic detritus of life—papers, pens, old magazines, pictures. Floors creak, the wind shushes through the grass and rustles the leaves. It looks and feels real.
This verisimilitude gives Far Cry 5’s frenetic violence a kind of thrill. When characters assault (or in the parlance of the game, “liberate”) enemy outposts, a Far Cry series staple, Far Cry 5’s reward system incentivizes stealth. But going in loud, thus allowing the separatists to call in backup, means the player gets to bang it out with more separatists, which is much more fun.
Ubisoft Montreal made two notable changes to the series’s gameplay. In past Far Cry games, players had to climb towers, taking part in a kind of vertical puzzle, to unlock areas of the map and reveal missions and points of interest. In order to progress, the player had to tackle these first. This locked players into a specific gameflow—locate a tower, climb it, whittle away at newly discovered side quests until ready to take on a story mission.
In Far Cry 5, the entire map is open to you from the start, and progression is predicated on exploration and interaction. When the player liberates an outpost or rescues a hostage, you’ll meet characters who might tell you about a mission or the location of a cache of gear. Signs along a trail tell a player where certain animals can be found. The decision to make the forging of relationships with Hope County residents an integral part of the game is smart design. It feels more organic in the flow of play, supports the theme of homegrown resistance, and makes traversing the world engaging instead of a grind.
The second addition is the prepper stash—hidden caches of money and points you can use to upgrade your character. The player learns about the stash locations through conversations with other characters. These troves are hidden underneath houses, in caves, and so on. They act as mini-puzzles. Accessing them leads you to explore the personal space of some late resident of Hope County, making the gameplay feel more poignant. One of the highlights of my playthrough was realizing that the stash I was in belonged to the previous owner of Boomer, my in-game dog and personal scout.
In the end, Far Cry 5 feels vacant. This shouldn’t be the case, given the subject matter—a separatist group defying the government, society fracturing along political and class lines—feels depressingly plausible. Dan Hay, the game’s director, drew from events like the subprime crash of 2008 and rancher Cliven Bundy’s clashes with federal authorities.
“I started looking at things that happened after 2008 and 2009,” Hay told Venturebeat last May, “looking at the subprime mortgage collapse. And the feeling of people in the world, and specifically in America, looking at the government and wondering where the fuck is the government? How are you protecting our legacy? How are you protecting our homes? Who is driving this? Who has their hands on the wheel?”
The reason Far Cry 5 feels empty is the game’s aesthetic. Realism creates an expectation of realism. Because Hope County looks like it could be a real place in Montana, because the character models and motion-capture animation of humans and animals alike are so lifelike, it’s jarring when Far Cry reminds you, Oh yeah, you’re playing a video game. Characters often repeat the same lines over and over. The deputy can enlist non-playable characters as followers. Each come with their own signature quip. I hope you find these witticisms amusing, because you’re going to hear them again and again, ad infinitum. (Until you do the correct thing and pick Boomer the dog as your gun-for-hire; all he does is bark.)
Just as shallow is the depiction of the Eden’s Gate separatist group. First-person shooters are explicit power fantasies. A player might kill hundreds, if not thousands, of enemies over the course of a shooter. Thus shooters pick unambiguous Other archetypes—Nazis, zombies, terrorists, aliens, actual demons from hell, and so on—to allow the player to feel heroic while gunning them down by the bushel. Previous entries of Far Cry pit players against mercenaries in a fictional Micronesian archipelago, various factions in a fictional failed state in central Africa, pirates, and soldiers on both sides of a civil war in the fictional country of Kyrat. Far Cry 5’s decision to make the enemy other Americans (albeit drug-addled cultists) is, in and of itself, a bold one. It’s also one loaded with obvious political meaning which the game works hard to make meaningless.
Groups like Eden’s Gate—gun crazy (before it was cut out of the game, the cult’s motto was “Freedom, Faith, Firearms”), militantly religious, nationalist to the point of hostility—are, by now, familiar. Bundy, an inspiration for the game, said that black people “abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton” while addressing his supporters in 2014. He went on to note that he was surrounded by white faces and wondered why minorities weren’t present to support him. “If they’re not with us, they’re going to be against us,” he said.
If Eden’s Gate, a right-wing separatist religious sect based in Montana, actually existed it would be as a white nationalist group. Ubisoft Montreal, however, portrays the cult as racially diverse. Which I get. Ubisoft is a publicly traded company in the business of selling product. It did $1.7 billion in sales in 2017. It makes sense to design games so that they appeal to the widest demographic and piss off the narrowest. People like to see themselves reflected in entertainment. But only when they’re the good guys.
Far Cry 5 feels like an opportunity squandered. And what a doleful sign of the times that a first-person shooter video game could even be in the position to comment on the political climate of the country, of who gets to do violence to whom and why. Because first-person shooters are power fantasies, and because of its story and setting, Far Cry 5 players might’ve explored their own notions of what violence signifies. If only the game’s choices were more than superficially appropriate.