I’m willing to give a break to game publishers in 2020 given the state of our broken, terrible world. It feels cliched to say that we live in unprecedented times but that doesn’t make our pandemic-ridden political firestorm-infused existence any less truthful. Things are weird and tough all around, which has led to companies trying to return to normal as much as possible. After all, the one thing that might help people through these toughest of times is by getting back to business as usual. If a single person can derive comfort from that sense of normalcy then maybe they’re doing something right. That’s why my hat is off to Ubisoft for getting back to the business of being as tone-deaf and comically uncoordinated as ever, showcasing everything wrong with the games industry in a single two-hour event. Ubisoft Forward was a disaster, starting weeks before the stream even started.
— Ubisoft (@Ubisoft) July 12, 2020
We can’t talk about Ubisoft Forward without setting the stage via the recent avalanche of allegations that range from sexual imposition to former Ubisoft Chief Creative Officer Serge Hascoet being accused of partaking in drugging employees and laughing when vice president Tommy Francois (suspended, for now) forcefully kissing a colleague. The number of resignations coming in felt like that bit from the beginning of Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the opening credits scroll says “Those responsible for sacking the people who have just been sacked, have been sacked.”
Of course, Ubisoft decided hours before its stream on Sunday that now wasn’t the time to address these things in front of its core audience, despite going on for weeks preceding the event. The move smacked of not wanting to derail the publicity train at work and set the stage for a streaming event that was one failure after another, with an inability to control tone being the main offender. It ignores the fact that company culture and the tone and politics of its games (even when Ubisoft says they are apolitical) are intertwined in symbiosis. And of course, it only got worse once the actual show started.
‘First They Came…’
Where to start with this event? Is it the use of perhaps the most famous work of poetry to come out of the horrors of the holocaust to sell the “rad-ness” of yet another neon-slathered, political hellscape of a game? Was it promoting a game that constantly talks about players “joining the resistance” and protesting against the unjust while the company burns from the top? Or the fact that the show went from grim-darkly quoting a Holocaust poem retrofitted to be about hackers and segued into a wacky sequence of gameplay where a granny and wrench-swinging construction worker throw punches like Roman Reigns? Come play this totally non-political zany game that’s about revolution against tyrannical government!
And to get into the games side of things so that this isn’t just all about company politics: What happened to Assassin’s Creed? Remember when these games were thoughtful, methodical action games and not just another needlessly large open-world mess that shirks the franchise’s trademark stealth and planning for “LOL, I DUNNO… DUAL-WIELD SHIELDS CAUSE IT’S COOL!”
And it is cool, but it isn’t Assassin’s Creed. It’s just a mushy paste of games tropes that Ubisoft has pressed through the meat grinder.
“But you haven’t played it, so you can’t say anything!” Absolutely true. I haven’t played it. But I did watch a half-hour video that leaked last week displaying the game’s dirty laundry out for everyone, which was yet another hallmark of this bad, terrible event. If the Ubisoft castle is on fire at the top then the basement must be flooded because every single possible surprise this event had was leaked so far in advance that it verges on comical. And let’s not ignore the biggest leak and what was supposed to be the big reveal for this event: the inclusion of Gustavo Fring himself as the Tropico-esque dictator of a not-Cuba as the all-important headlining villain that is the trademark of all Far Cry games.
It’s so fantastic that Ubisoft is finally casting roles with actors that understand their own heritage and brings authenticity to a story as gripping and important as the revolutionary wars found in areas such as Central and South America, giving some much-need–Wait, sorry. We’re being told just now that actor Giancarlo Esposito, best known for playing a Chilean-born, Mexican drug lord from Breaking Bad is actually… uh… from Denmark. And isn’t even remotely from any area in Central America, as his father was Italian and his mother was a Black opera singer from Alabama.
Can we talk about the fact that Giancarlo Esposito is not Latinx. Great actor I enjoy watching, but why is he taking Latinx roles? This is erasure. This is not good casting. Games need to do better. https://t.co/tCO8jKsgDw
— Chella Ramanan (@ChellaRamanan) July 13, 2020
Excellent casting, Ubisoft. Yet another feather in the cap. And before anyone starts to sing the song of “Well, he’s most well known for a role that is near-identical to that of the one he now plays in Far Cry 6, so….” I’ll stop you there and say that I don’t care. It’s this type of race erasure that we just accept because a thing or actor is popular, and said popularity doesn’t make it alright. I love Breaking Bad and Esposito is an amazing actor, but he’s only in Far Cry 6 because his face is and will always be an instantly recognizable symbol of calculated and cunning villainy thanks to his turn as Fring.
In the Throes of Revolution
Of course, Far Cry 6 has more issues than casting a dude from Denmark as a dictator from south of the equator. The franchise has always straddled the line–minus Far Cry 5 and Primal–of using the backdrop of revolution and the plight of people fighting for freedom as a setpiece, and the sixth game appears to be no different.
We’ve been here all before. I’ve seen this movie; I’ve heard this song. The trademark Ubisoft open-world that is gorgeous, yet hollow. The trappings of another culture being used as a placeholder for authenticity, this time in the form of a handicapped puppy named Chorizo that players can unlock a special revolutionary-themed skin if you pre-order now. A big, dumb flamethrower being revealed as the collector’s edition incentive while limited in-game screenshots are tucked away in press packs. In true Ubisoft fashion, there are already no less than six versions of the game available for pre-order before even a single second of the actual gameplay is revealed.
All of this is old hat for Ubisoft, as the company shows zero interest in doing anything other than what they’ve always done. I started this by saying that we live in difficult times and jokingly pointed out that Ubisoft’s attempts to stick to the script is them trying to portray some form of normalcy. However, I think the exact opposite is what should be called for at this moment. Times of extreme duress and radical change to the status quo is exactly the times when inner reflection should be made and change should be attempted. Maybe that type of change is out of the realm of possibility for a company such as Ubisoft that is so big and influential at this point. Ubisoft wants to make a statement about the modern political landscape while also not hurting the bottom line, making any and all attempts a hollow endeavor.
But that’s exactly what Ubisoft is: hollow. And Ubisoft Forward was as clear an indicator of that as ever. Oddly, inviting this very controversy might be the point. As US Gamer’s Kat Bailey points out, the fact that we’re even talking about this in depth is giving a kind of power and attention to Ubisoft that the company and its games thrive on. It’s a marketing strategy that has historically worked in their favor, and gamers continue to eat up these controversial hollow games with nothing to say set against politically charged backdrops. But hey, at least we were spared an overly long Just Dance 2021 dance routine.