Last week, Ubisoft announced Far Cry 4 to the mild surprise of fans and pundits alike. As is often the case, the controversy surrounding the specifics of the announcement overshadowed the announcement itself, namely the game’s box art which was deemed by many to be offensive and racially insensitive. People around the world were understandably quick to jump to their keyboards and lambaste Ubisoft and the Far Cry 4 team(s) for depicting a white man subjugating a person of colour, a sly smile playing across his face as he holds the submissive’s head in his hand. Those people were right for the most part, but the issue probably isn’t quite as simple as it first appears, and Ubisoft’s decision to use such a striking and controversial image for one of its flagship titles is probably about as smart as it is stupid.
The bottom line is: the image is racially insensitive. To depict a white man expressing his apparent dominance over a darker skinned man is certainly a racist image, one that conjures thoughts of old fashioned racist propaganda. Many assumed, due to the cover sharing similarities with Far Cry 3‘s Jason/Vaas cover, that the subjugated character was the player character, and that players would be subject to racism and oppression. Fair point; that would suck, especially for a series that’s predominantly about power fantasies (Far Cry 2 notwithstanding). Creative director Alex Hutchinson listened to the backlash, and tried to put some concerns to bed:
Just so it's clear for those jumping to conclusions: He's not white and that's not the player. http://t.co/zvqe3uzZI6
— Alex Hutchinson (@BangBangClick) May 20, 2014
Okay, so our villainous character is apparently not white, despite looking about as white as Vanilla Ice. I’m happy to concede that we know nothing about this character or his background, so to assume anything about him would be a tad uppity at this stage. Now, racism obviously isn’t exclusive to white people, so that still doesn’t change that the image could be construed as racist, but it certainly takes some fans away from the fire.
There are also very important pieces of contextual information we must consider before jumping to conclusions too. We can assume that this is the villainous, self-appointed king mentioned in the game’s announcement press release, because if he isn’t then boy do I not want to play as him. With that in mind, for our main antagonist to be racist is probably a way for the game’s writers to make us hate the guy right off the bat, without having to dump tons of exposition (or character development for that matter) on us about why we shouldn’t like him. Hell, with the whole Donald Sterling fiasco at the forefront of many people’s minds, it’s probably a pretty crafty idea – I know my white guilt is doing somersaults right about now. In Tarantino’s Django Unchained, we were never meant to like Calvin Candie, because he was such an awful human being. We could enjoy the character and the drama he created, and we could certainly enjoy it when he gets shot (spoilers), but we definitely weren’t meant to think: “That Calvin Candie is a real stand-up guy. I’d buy him a pint”. I think the same applies here to a certain extent. I look at Far Cry 4‘s box art and I think: “Man I can’t wait to shoot holes in that racist”.
On the flip side though, one could argue that Django‘s box art places Django firmly in a position of agency and power, whereas FC4 puts all the emphasis on the power, wealth and dominance of a racist dictator. Django Unchained was Django’s film, whereas Ubisoft is putting across that Far Cry 4 is “Unnamed Villain’s” game, especially given the similarities to Far Cry 3‘s box art and how that game ended up ultimately being all about Vaas.
On the subject of Far Cry 3, that game didn’t exactly deal with race in a particularly mature or nuanced way. Everyone on the island was portrayed as either a savage tribal or an AK-47 toting para-military goon. It took a white guy on holiday to help the rebels rise up and take back their land, so it’s unsurprising that an image that screams “white superiority” and has the Far Cry logo above it would rub people the wrong way.
The weirdest thing to come out of this controversy is the assumption that the antagonist is gay. I understand that it would be bad for arguably the first gay character to appear in mainstream gaming to be a racist, insane warlord, and I’ll certainly be angry if that is the case, but we just don’t know yet. To decide that he’s gay because he’s stolen clippings from Dante’s hair and wears a pink suit is an odd assumption to make. I know that this industry isn’t exactly the best for dealing with stereotypes, but at least give Ubisoft the benefit of the doubt. Wait and see if it actually becomes true, and then call them our on their stupid mistakes.
The problem is, there’s so much we don’t know about this game, its story and its characters. It’s easy to assume things, but without concrete information I think it’s problematic to be calling out the people who are working on the game as racist. That’s a pretty heavy accusation to throw around without all the facts. Personally I don’t think Ubisoft and co. are racist, I think they’ve carefully chosen their box art with the intent to cause a controversy. It worked didn’t it? Everyone is talking about it; I’m talking about it right now. They’ve planted a seed of intrigue in everyone’s minds: “What if the new Far Cry game is racist? I guess I’ll have to play it to find out”. Like I said: pretty smart, but pretty stupid.