The Hotfix

Ubisoft controversy explains why its games fall short of their potential

Ubisoft needs to stop making statements about how its games don't make political statements.

Ubisoft needs to stop holding its storytellers back.

The video game developer and publisher has a habit of setting games in politically charged settings but shied away from saying that any of them made bold political statements. This leads to titles with muddled stories where the veneer of political commentary feels like little more than window dressing.

Far Cry 6 is the latest game to prompt such an outcry, and it exposes why Ubisoft’s approach needs to change. Ubisoft seems to think that political messaging limits player agency, storytelling, sales potential, or all of the above. As a result, it actively limits the potential of the stories and worlds of its games.

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Ubisoft needs to break free of this mindset so its stories are less superficial like Watch Dogs Legions or avoid stories in politically charged settings altogether.

I'm Tomas Franzese, and this is The Hotfix, a column about ideas that could improve video games and the culture around them. Each week or so I'll explore a problem in gaming and how it could be solved. I'll talk to experts, offer my own analysis, and solicit you, the people I'm writing for, to sound off with your ideas. Send any and all feedback to thehotfix@inverse.com. 🎮

What happened? On May 28, Ubisoft showed off Far Cry 6 gameplay for the first time. You play as a guerilla fighter on the fictional tropical island of Yara trying to take down Giancarlo Esposito's dictator, Anton Castillo. Cuba's well-documented history of political unrest inspires the game. (Ubisoft even spoke with guerilla fighters as part of its research.)

Still, in an interview with The Gamer, Narrative Director Navid Khavari insisted Far Cry 6 wasn't making a political statement about Cuba.

"We realized it's a complicated island and our game doesn't want to make a political statement about what's happening in Cuba specifically," Khavari said. "Beyond that, we're drawing inspiration from guerilla movements around the world and throughout history. For us, it felt like doing the island of Yara would help us tell that story while being very open with our politics and inspiration."

The interview was met with backlash by those baffled by the notion that a game inspired by real-life guerilla fighters wasn’t making a political statement. Soon after, Ubisoft backtracked in a blog post written by Khavari, saying that the story was technically political by tackling issues like fascism and imperialism while maintaining that players “won’t find” a direct “political statement” about Cuba in it.

Why it matters — This isn't the first time Ubisoft has ruffled feathers by claiming its games inspired by contemporary events were “not political.”

It happened with Watch Dogs Legion, Tom Clancy's The Division 2, Far Cry New Dawn, Far Cry 5, and Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Breakpoint. Each game is inherently political in its premise, yet Ubisoft avoids grappling directly with those implications time and time again.

A June 2019 interview with Ubisoft's former VP of Editorial Tommy Francois (for what it’s worth, Ubisoft fired him in 2020 following sexual harassment allegations) hints at the reasons behind Ubisoft’s muddled political messaging:

"We believe that ultimately, in the future, players should be able to go in the game world,” Francois said, “have as many different experiences as they want, experience as many different political views as they want, as many religions as they want ... as many different fantasies as they want."

This lukewarm approach means most Ubisoft stories lack a strong message despite superficially dealing with heavy real-world topics. Under the guise of focusing on variety and player freedom, the company ignores the moral implications of signal-boosting potentially problematic viewpoints.

Ubisoft tries to shift attention away from politics and toward gameplay.Ubisoft

When you make games inspired by Brexit, cults, or political revolutions, it's a disservice to the storytellers and the audience to avoid potential discomfort or disagreement at all cost. Ubisoft’s current approach doesn’t really hold up with Far Cry 6 or any of its other open-world games — they all still feature linear, cinematic stories in their large systemic worlds.

Far Cry 6 making a political statement doesn't have to be one-sided. It can show the good Castillo has brought to the country while still spotlighting his corruption and taking the side of Dani Rojas and other guerilla fighters.

If the narrative team can't — or won’t — accommodate any political statements or messages in a story like this, the game will likely suffer for it. Far Cry 6 should embrace its politics more than other Ubisoft games

Unfortunately, Ubisoft's history with similar delicate topics doesn’t inspire much hope.

Watch Dogs Legion takes place in a post-Brexit police state. It could've highlighted the failures of the United Kingdom’s monarchy, parliamentary bureaucracy, conservatism, and police force, but its story doesn't go beyond a surface-level observation about the power and corruption of private military companies.

This precedent suggests that Far Cry 6 will feature a lackluster story that doesn't live up to the potential of its politically charged setting. Ubisoft fears taking a political stance might hurt the game’s mass appeal, but that approach thus far has only made its games less interesting.

What's next? If Ubisoft keeps tackling politically relevant topics, it needs to stop deflecting when players want to know more about the real-world issues explored in its games.

Ubisoft development teams need to embrace the political nature of these stories early on in the process. If not, future games like Far Cry 6 will only uphold the trend of lukewarm, bloated, and unsatisfying Ubisoft games. Otherwise, they might as well just consider less politically charged settings.

It’s easy to place all of the blame on Ubisoft, but the audience shares some of the responsibility here too. As players, we can be more open to video games that present different perspectives. Even if you disagree with the political message or viewpoint of a video game, try it out and try to understand the developers' perspective instead of sending an internet mob after them.

Ubisoft’s leadership needs to encourage more varied, nuanced, and poignant studios in video games rather than a multitude of titles that are too afraid to say anything substantial.

Ubisoft can attract an audience interested in varied and nuanced political viewpoints rather than one that thrives on a lack of commitment to a political statement, and this will happen over time if its games tell compelling stories with a distinct point of view. It will make for better games, and in the end, that’s what really matters.

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