The Silent Protagonist of 'Far Cry 5' Sucks


#1

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

Far Cry 5 is a game that asks a lot of the player. It asks you to be interested in the serious tone of its cult led by the religious and brutal Joseph Seed. It also asks that you be entertained by its open-world map filled with hand-crafted content and the kind of hijinks that start when NPCs like turkeys, drug zombies, and your allies all start running into each other. One of the ways it accomplishes this interest is by cutting out some of the narrative planks from the previous games and doubling down on the blank slate of its silent protagonist. This design decision, however, has some bigger (and likely unintentional) effects for the player.

Far Cry 5 is the first game in the series to let us play as a character of our own making. Unlike Far Cry 4’s Ajay Ghale or Far Cry 3’s Jason Brody, who are at least vaguely defined as having personalities in their worlds, this character is completely you. You choose their look, their gender, their clothes, all of it.

You’re called “Deputy” or sometimes “Rook,” literally just a shortening of your job as a rookie cop. Rook has no inner life or desires beyond what you ask them to do. Rook has no dreams, no beliefs, no feelings. Short of being dropped into a world where they are under threat and continually working to liberate that place, there’s nothing inside of Rook that the player isn’t putting there. Rook is a silent protagonist and a blank slate, always available for you to project into and through.

A silent protagonist solves a lot of problems for an open-world game like Far Cry 5. For example, it solves some critical problems are time and space. This game asks you to to travel to three different regions and liberate them from the cult lieutenants who serve as the major operators who are pushing the cult’s agenda forward. You can do these in any order, or you can flitter back and forth between them, doing a little of this and a little of that until you resist your way through the game’s content.

While the Far Cry games have always managed this kind of gameplay in the games with more developed characters, a silent protagonist means that the player can imagine that their desires and impulses are fully those of the character they are playing as. As Brody or Ghale, it sometimes made no sense that they’d pursue side missions like races instead of working towards the primary objective they spoke about so fervently. But Rook wants to travel all around the map destroying silos, fighting bears, and liberating prisoners because Rook is me. The order that things happen in the game do not need to be coherent with each other or in time because the game’s order takes place in my mind.

The designers mark change by changing spawn rates of certain enemies and giving new barks to NPCs, but these don’t often seem to relate to anything in particular. The world changes shape in time, but the stakes of that world do not. This slight augmentation as global narrative development just solidifies that there is no time of the world in Far Cry 5. There is just the time of the player and what they can hold coherently in their head.

You might call this flattening of the player and Rook “immersion.” Broadly understood, this is the idea that a player can become wholly absorbed in a game. Like jumping into a swimming pool of jello, the player sinks down into a suspended state of total coverage by the game. When immersed, you don’t say “you jump,” but instead you say “I jump.” You don’t say “the resistance leader talked to my character,” you say “they talked to me.”

It’s the moments when other characters are talking to me that have bothered me so much about Far Cry 5. When you create a silent protagonist that your player can identify with fully, you have to make sure that nothing happens to break that identification. You don’t want a player clipping in and out of being immersed. In the case of Far Cry 5, maintaining immersion means that Rook stays completely silent when people are talking to them. And there’s a lot of talking.

At various points in the game, either Joseph Seed or his lieutenants with capture the player to monologue about sins and belonging. These are moments of pure propaganda where the veneer of cultish religiosity wears thin. Faith, the drug-peddling lieutenant, uses these opportunities to explain how she came into the church. She also uses them to show you exactly how she is getting revenge on you for building a resistance to her cult. She explains what Joseph is doing, why he’s doing it, and what kind of good he’ll bring to the world.

Joseph also does this. In one vision, also facilitated by Faith, he monologues at length about how the end times are upon us. He tells us that the leaders of the United States are complete fools, and a giant mushroom cloud billows up into the sky behind him. He explains that the world is spinning off its axis, and he’s the only person who can help put it right. Obviously this is wrong. He is the villain. He is the leader of the cult. So is Faith, and so are the other lieutenants in the game. Rook is the hero, and we control Rook, so we need to get rid of these people using violence and all of the other means at our disposal.

The fact that Rook never talks, though, means that the monologues of others are the only opinions that we hear in the game. The villains speak, unchallenged, for minutes at a time. Our allies have the same opportunity, which is why doomsday preppers and people who are on the lookout for “eye-talians” suck up all the rest of the talking time in the game. The only people who get to make a case for their worldview being right and just in this world are the villains that we’re meant to extinguish, and every other moment for talking and reflection is dominated by allies with abhorrent or ignorant opinions.

And so the final narrative product looks a lot like a promotion for cultish, nationalist worldviews. Put simply, the silent protagonist means that there is no positive force in the world of the game to talk back to the longform, clear arguments being put forth by the antagonists.

Many critics have pointed out how Far Cry 5 either disappoints or fails to deliver on the narrative promise the the trailers and the press tours hinged on, and I think that the inability to deliver is as much about who speaks in the game as much as it is about tone, mission design, and a lack of seriousness.

Other than a nebulous “winning,” there is nothing for a player of Far Cry 5 to latch onto other than the long monologues of the villains. Despite a number of allies, side characters, and guns for hire who all bark the same lines, there is not a vision of the future in the game other than what Joseph Seed is presenting. There is no imagination of what Hope County could be if Seed was taken down and brought to justice. Instead, we’re told that this deep rural area was just fine the way it was and that it needs to be returned to how it was before the cult showed up. It’s a nihilistic, hopeless visions. There’s no demand for something new or a bright future for Hope County. There’s just “all that old stuff, without cults.”

This is a moment where the basic rules of good fiction writing and the basic rules of good narrative design are smashing into each other in an unproductive way. Good fiction writing says that we need to have believable characters with motivations and reasons for doing what they do; good video game narrative design says that we need to center the player and their experience at all time to keep them engaged as players. In Far Cry 5, those have been combined so that we eliminate any characterization for Rook and we only spend time developing the stories of the people we’re here to kill.

Far Cry 5 asks players to work with a paradox: The only people to care about and get to know in this game are the people you’re there to kill. The game doesn’t do anything with this, and it doesn’t even seem to recognize that paradox. The commitment to a silent protagonist that does not talk back in a game that deals explicitly with the political issues of our time means that no one can talk back. The only response from the fully immersed player is to shoot their gun and play in that big AI playground, and that creates a ceiling for what the game can ever do with the narrative content that it brings to the table.

So I agree with the critics who suggest that the uneven tone and goofy characters hurt Far Cry 5. The game is also hurt, though, by the design decisions it made around immersion and talking. One can imagine a Far Cry 5 that features a voiced Rook who argues with Joseph Seed and plants doubt in the heart of the cult leader and his lieutenants, or who tells Hurk Sr. that he and his campaign truck can fuck off.

While this kind of game would still always go to the gun in the end, it would at least provide some kind of drama. Instead, we have a game that asks us to learn about the cultists who monologue their lives to us before executing them ruthlessly. Immersed, or trapped, inside the eyes of a protagonist who couldn’t argue if they tried.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/mbx738/far-cry-5-silent-protagonist

#2

This is a good critique, and the silent protagonist is definitely a step back for Far Cry I think.

That said, I don’t think I agree that “final narrative product looks a lot like a promotion for cultish, nationalist worldviews.” True the villains get most of the monologues, but at those times it is cryyyystal clear that these are the Bad Guys. So their thoughts (which, let’s be real, are little more than rambling buzz word diatribes than any sort of focused message), are very much contextualized as “this is bad”. You hear a lot of it, for sure, but I would argue that someone is not likely to come away from the game thinking that the game’s “lesson” is that the cult and anything they (kinda sorta vaguely) stand for is good.

There’s is definitely no real positive counter argument given from the player’s perspective, as Cameron explains, and that’s a HUGE narrative misstep in a game full of narrative missteps. But that doesn’t mean that the explicitly negatively contextualized views of the cult become the promoted message of the final product.

Or am I just hitting the Bliss too hard?


#3

This is a good article with good points, but I can’t stop thinking of that part in Far Cry 3 where Jason literally looks at his hands after doing a bad thing and says “what have I become?” I’ve never wished for a silent protagonist more in my life


#4

I feel like this article takes a rather narrow definition of ‘talk’, because a silent protagonist can technically convey plenty of counter-opinions without using words. Of course, I don’t know in which way the FC5 devs have put that into the protagonist, but it’s definitely possible. If they haven’t I feel that they should’ve looked at 2016’s DOOM. Doom Marine is completely silent, but from many of his actions you can feel the hatred and disdain for both demons and UAC. The executions, the way he dimises the antagonists’ monologues more than once, the way he just destroys those things Hayden commands him to keep intact, it all speaks volumes of what the Doom Marine thinks. But it does so silently. And I think that leaves room for the player to interiorise that. It’s like a middle ground, in a way, and it works wonders for both the character and the game.

If FC5 hasn’t done that, because I haven’t played it, then I feel like that was a really useful route the developers could’ve taken. Even something as simple as, say, the main character spitting on Joseph’s shoes in the midst of one of those monologues would say enough; get fucked with your bullshit. I think that’s a way to bridge that gap between good game design and good narrative design.

As for not portraying a ‘grand future’ beyond returning to the status quo, I feel like that’s a rather unfair criticism. I don’t see why the game should do that, why that should be a part of this narrative. Maybe a lot of the characters are content with it returning it to the way it was. I don’t see what’s necessarily nihilistic or hopeless about that.

And as a side-note, it’s funny that to me that that vagueness of time and how that relates to a game’s narrative and what that’s supposed to do for the player has the complete opposite effect of me than the developers intended; it’s a huge detriment for my immersion. Of course the opposite, like FC3 but also The Witcher 3 did, is also kind of detriment for my immersion. Because yeah I’ll be ignoring pretty much all side-content that isn’t narratively tied into the main plot, because it makes no sense from a narrative perspective. That feeling will always nibble at me when the game is trying to make me do side-content.


#5

Yeah, going with the silent protagonist was a bad decision, and I could see it in the game’s first 15 minutes. The Marshall leading the arrest attempt leaves the player character for dead twice in the first mission, and she doesn’t say anything.

There’s a later mission where you are rescuing someone who’s been kidnapped by the Peggies (btw, so far I’ve been asked to rescue 12 comic books, 12 lighters, three animals, two trucks, one plane, and one person). You get the captive free and they’re disoriented. They attack you, knock you down, and try to stab you, and you say absolutely nothing. Then they get up, tell you their plan, and say “you can help me or get out of my way.” What the fuck do you think I’ve been doing? But again, silence. It is so goddamn annoying.

She does give the occasional fist bump or pat on the shoulder, but I honestly think that may be even worse. Either let my character interact or don’t.

By the way, I’ve decided my character’s name is Deputy Michelle Rooker. That way, when people call me Rook or Rookie I can just pretend they did actually bother to learn my name, they’re just using a nickname. It’s not quite the same as naming my Shepard “Commander” but it’s something, I guess.


#6

I like the article but don’ t exactly agree. I love silent protags, and love far cry 2 (silent protag), so i’m unlikely to see that as a problem.
To me, the fc5 narrative structure works like this: the BAD cultists are interesting, have some interesting ideas, but they are TOO SERIOUS. The resistance good guys may be a bunch of disorganized idiots, but their sense of humor is a saving grace. Moral of the story: don’ t lose your sense of humor.
To me, the narrative problem w fc5 is’nt the silent protag, but that this narrative structure is so shallow and simplistic.
When so many gamers/consumers reacted negatively to fc2, ubisoft tried to dumb the franchise down for them and succeeded commercially with fc3. Now far cry is attempting to please both audiences at the same time…the fans of thematically serious fc2 and fans of the juvenile, absurdist fc3.

My biggest problems with 5 are gameplay related. Too mission reliant instead of dynamic open world gameplay reliant. Also, i hate how there are no boundaries on the map…i can pretty much travel from anywhere to anywhere in a straight line. In fc2, the map was sectioned off by unscalable cliff structures which added so much to the strategic complexity of the open world shooting…


#7

I think this exaggerates Cameron’s point. They didn’t really say anything of a “grand future”, simply:

The issue at play with not presenting any vision of something different for what comes after defeating the cult is that it treats the cult as an isolated incident. There were no conditions that produced the cult and its followers, they were simply anomalies, something that won’t simply reemerge after the leadership is defeated and the area reclaimed.

It’s the classic modern hero’s tale, in a way. Every “bad thing” can be defeated simply by defeating the embodiment of “bad thing.” However, any wiser narrative would recognize that it’s not so simple. One of the real ways to overcome atrocities and transgressions is to acknowledge what led to them in the first place.

In Far Cry 5’s case, this could have been done in a light, simple way by having some moments that said something like, “The cult was wrong, but so were we to neglect those that found hope in their ways, when we could have been helping them instead.” Some recognition that something was awry in Hope County that left people desperate enough to believe the rantings of the cult.

There’s so many possibilities there, which Ubisoft clearly recognized on some level, but left to ramblings lashing out against the federal government(?) or whatever, when in reality as much of the situation was built right at home by the local citizenry and government as it was the federal government. This could have been a great moment for encouraging rural introspection as much as your typical venting about the feds.


#8

“Conveniently” for the FC5 writing team, they give themselves an out here with the mind control drug. There’s no need for a reckoning with the material conditions that caused people to be sympathetic to the cult when they can claim “no, actually they were all good people who wouldn’t have been cultists if it wasn’t for the drugs”


#9

If I look at this simply from the perspective of the game’s characters I can absolutely understand why this wasn’t on their mind. Most people don’t really think about what’s problematic regarding the underlying structures of their community, in my experience. I can buy that even more in a relatively individualistic community like FC5’s. That’s why I’m not bothered by the game not offering anything past returning to the status quo, that’s why I don’t see it as necessarily nihilistic and hopeless either. I can totally buy the game’s community just wanting contentment and stability. I might disagree with it, and I do, but I’m not one to transpose my political desires on the media I consume. Verisimilitude matters more to me. In that FC5’s “Let’s kick out the cult and go back to normal” functions adequately to me. People generally aren’t very adept at looking past that.

The game’s “silent in more ways than one” protagonist still kinda sucks though.


#10

After playing more of the game, i’m having a hard time finding anything not to like in this game.
I really believe this about as deep an approach to a theme as you’re ever going to get in a video gamtemse. I don’t understand the issue with the silent protagonist. How can leaving ultimate response and interpretation to the player not be a positive?
My opinion is that criticism of fc5’s treatment of its theme stems from 2 things: the theme’s difficulty and misplaced expectations of the video game medium.
The theme is not guns or cults or red/blue america, it is how to respond to cultural breakdown in america…whether real or hypothetical. A lot of people simply wanted the theme to be something else.
And it’s almost silly to me the weight of thematic expectations people put on this game. I believe video games are limited in their capacity for thematic depth. Maybe a game will come along and convince me otherwise. Until then, i believe fc5 has about the maximum level of this possible for the medium. It raises good questions, addresses relevant issues WITHOUT dictating or spoonfeeding answers, which is a plus with me.
We need books in particular which address similar themes in much greater depth than fc5. The fact that the expectations of a great work of literature or social philosophy are being placed on a video game is probably a symptom of the societal problems far cry 5’s theme addresses.


#11

The video game silent protagonist has never been worse. They just let these shithead NPCs and antagonists run their mouths, both espousing awful bullshit I don’t want to hear, and wasting my fuckin time sitting through their terribly-written diatribes. Like this is some of the most offensively bland writing I’ve ever encountered in a game, made worse by the fact that everyone talks for literal minutes at a time. The protagonist allowing these characters to continue speaking for as long as they do, totally uninterrupted, is completely unrelatable, and actually strips the game of any immersion. In these moments, the protagonist shifts from being a character to being a camera, into which these characters run their mouths for as long as they please, without consequence. It really is bad.


#16

The moderation team has just banned a troll from the thread. Sorry for any confusion or inconvenience.


#17

Agree with the article. The ‘fish out of water’ protagonists of Far Cry 3 + 4 were part of the appeal of those games. Being a cop in 5 just seems to lack imagination on the developers part.


#18

So Kotaku just had a discussion of the ending, which puts the entire silent protagonist thing (and the game’s writing in general) into an even darker light.

Without spoiling it (and honestly? Spoil yourself and save the $60): I don’t know what the writer’s intention was, but releasing that ending in this particular political environment scans as nihilist propaganda. As Heather Alexandra put it:

You should also read her comment in the article, where she says that the game’s ending puts to rest the myth that the game doesn’t say anything. It is saying something: everything is fucked, and nothing you do in the game matters. And having the protagonist remain silent during the true ending makes it so much worse. It isn’t enough that the game is selling empty nihilism and hopelessness – it’s that it wants you, as the protagonist, to agree with it through your silence. And that is some fucking bullshit.

(It then apparently immediately turns around and lets you continue to play the game as if the ending never happened, so … ???)

The funny thing is: knowing that the game is aggressively selling you on the hopelessness of playing the game, why would anyone want to buy it? Worse: if Farcry 5 is meant to be a “games as a service” platform going forward … maybe telling people to stop playing it is a dumb thing to do? The only way it makes sense is if Ubisoft expects that no one will care about the ending, or the story, or any of the writing – because games are just mechanics, amirite? If that’s actually the case … that is some galaxy brain corporate cynicism.


#19

Has the “we want players to project themselves onto the character” argument for silent protagonists ever worked for people? It always made it harder for me to project myself onto characters because I wouldn’t stay silent as a politician asked me to get his truck back so “libtards” don’t harm his reelection campaign


#20

Nope. If anything, I usually find the silent protagonist to completely break the immersion for me. Not only is everyone around my character talking while mine doesn’t say anything, they all have to awkardly speak in a way that tries to make it not weird that the character that everyone is speaking to and about never says anything themselves, which just makes it significantly weirder.

An example: I got to a scene in FC5 a couple days ago where I liberated one of the three “starter” outposts (Faith’s, I think). There’s a bunch of people looking at me. One of them says “Who’s this?” Then another chimes in with “this here’s The Deputy” and proceeds to explain… jack and shit. I just stand there. They don’t know what’s been going on in the other regions, and they’ll never know because I don’t talk. It just reeks “video game dialog!!!” with tons of third person references to a character that’s standing right there (I guess because if the two people talking about you actually talked to you, it would make it even more weird?) Never mind the fact that the characters all refer to you as the gender-neutral them, except they all pronounce it 'em so it just sounds like they’re saying him anyway.

I should note that this is specifically for action games and/or games with no dialog options. For RPGs like Dragon Age: Origins, for example, I still prefer voiced protagonists (even in Fallout 4), but if they’re at least not silent within the game world, I can deal with them being silent on my TV.


#21

I’m two thirds of the way through FC5, and frankly, the game would be vastly improved if literally every other character were as silent as the protagonist.


#22

I mean this trope has almost always been rooted in pretty gross ideals when you think about it. While FC5 spins it a little with customization, you might still notice the vast majority silent protagonist games (that presumably operate under the usual “any player can project themselves better!” philosophy) are about playing white implied-straight American dudes with no opinions and a lot of violent power to exercise. Even Dishonored 1 doesn’t let you really have opinions or have an opinion of its own, it just does the same old shit while simply monetizing body count for binary morality, regardless of any other context (culminating in maybe the most shamefully disgusting shit put in an immersive sim to date, involving aiding & abetting a [TW] rapist kidnapper).

Silent protagonists speak to both the popularity and folly of apolitical pretense in games. The protagonist will always speak through their actions, they’ll always be cleansing the filth, crushing the opposition, going where they’re told and doing what they’re ordered… but if they never speak, then there is no fear of introspection.

If you just have wacky characters rant at the player with dialogue that picks personalities/shitty catchphrases out of a Political Climate™ hat with no comment from the white-by-default protagonist, then you don’t need to worry about your infantilized audience (already producing algorithmically-recommended videos like “SJWS CONFUSED BY FAR CRY 5’S NUANCE”) feeling truly confronted. They’ll feel that you’re deep, that your villains may have a point and you know maybe these good guys aren’t so good? But not them, they’re the protagonist, they have the blanket of subordination and control, they have their own opinions and their own free will to have fun as they want, they can be men that go their own way.

Basically Half Life 2 and all the rapidly-aging writing around it did more harm than good, and the nature of most AAA story standards makes this almost always a bad trope now. Unless you have your first-person silent protag actually express a decent personality and opinions through animated actions alone, which AAA games have done! They did it in Doom 2016 and… uh…


#23

In my opinion, it only works when the main character actually has agency in the game. In Far Cry 5, you have none, so the whole time I felt like some spineless police officer being thrown around by townfolk and cult members.

Also, the “projection” argument is intended to state that the game (theoretically) allows to do exactly what you would do in the situations presented. Paradoxically, in the situations presented, I would speak. The design intends for an outcome that cannot be achieved, unless that specific design is not used.