10 min read

Big Ideas, or How We Weren't Ready for the Far Cry 4 Box Art

Discussing how Ubisoft took a risk with Far Cry 4's box art, and what it says about us as gamers that the risk didn't pay off.

As everyone who follows gaming news knows by now, Far Cry 4’s marketing debut got off to what even the most charitable would call a rocky start. The fault, despite the popular reaction of the gaming community at large and the gaming media, does not lay at the feet of the Ubisoft marketing department. At least initially, the fault was ours.

The perceived misstep by the Ubisoft marketing team was, of course, the box art for the forthcoming game. The actual misstep was Ubisoft seeking to treat us all like adults. The predictable, unfortunate and overwhelming reaction to the image, which I’ve included below, was negative. It was largely negative for the wrong reasons. In this piece, I want to break down how not only the popular reaction was wrong, but that, ultimately, it sets us all back as gamers.

To understand my argument, it must be taken as a given that the below image raises issues of racial prejudice and subjugation, cultural and religious annihilation, and colonial oppression. These are heady, complex issues normally reserved for the lofty halls of academia. Ubisoft, however, has a reputation for taking on complicated topics and presenting them in interesting, thought-provoking ways in interesting historical contexts. For example, the much-maligned Assassin’s Creed 3 addressed head-on the ideas of colonialism, the “white-man’s burden” of civilizing native peoples, and cultural annihilation.

Ubisoft has (at least a semblance of) a tradition of taking on such complex topics in modern contexts as well, such as with Far Cry 2, which drops the player into a war-torn amalgam of several African nations including, but not limited to, South Sudan. The conflict in that game revolves around the pursuit of an infamous arms dealer who may or may not have grown a conscience, and integrates into the story the horrors of the African diamond trade, including drug trade and abuse, child soldiers, indiscriminate murder and mutilation, and, last but not least, the perpetuation of such conditions for the continued enrichment of wealthy, white Europeans and Americans. Those are rich and timely themes for a mere videogame to address, but Ubisoft did about as good a job in presenting them and raising questions about them as anyone in the industry could.

It wasn’t perfect, however: creating  a game that can authentically address such complex issues, while still maintaining a tried and true element of game design (namely, indiscriminate murder), can sap some of the weight with which the player considers the themes presented. The question then becomes: can a game tackle such controversial issues effectively, and if not, is it a disservice to try anyway?

But let’s back up for a moment and revisit the particular facts of our present object-lesson. Ubisoft released the above image to advertise the forthcoming Far Cry 4. The immediate implication of the image is that Far Cry 4 seemed to be moving in the direction of Far Cry 2, dropping the player into a war-torn, semi-autonomous region of dubious national control, but with clear corollaries to real geo-political entities. From both the box cover art and the gameplay trailer released at E3, it appeared that we would find ourselves in a close analog to Tibet, or amalgam of, Tibet and Nepal. The Tibetan prayer flags, mountainous terrain, and desecrated Buddha idol were dead giveaways.

Before I get into how the above image is racist, but shouldn’t have received the reaction that it did, let’s break the image down a bit. The image above presented two figures, placed in positions of unequal power. The first, sitting figure is in a position of absolute dominance. He occupies the center of the image, on top of and in front of almost everything else in the image. He sits atop a desecrated idol in the figure of the Buddha, the central figure and founder of Buddhism, who also appears in other religion’s teachings, including Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. The sitting figure owns the desecration by not only sitting on the idol, but placing his foot, in a pose typical of a conqueror, on the decapitated head of the idol. In addition, he rests his right hand on the head of a second, kneeling figure. This, also, shows dominance and subjugation. The first, sitting figure radiates two things: power, and control.

The second figure, in contrast, is placed in a position of marked marginalization, subservience, and submission. His surrender to the first figure’s control is complete – his eyes are downcast, and he is kneeling before the first figure, his only object of control a grenade.

The skin tones, which were what generated such an outraged initial reaction, deserve attention. Equally as important, however, are the styles of clothing, hair, and mannerism of each figure. The first figure sports a fashionable undercut haircut, a flamboyant suit and shirt, and a beguiling, smug grin. There is no doubt as to his expression: he is gloating, as if daring the world to come get him. The second figure, again in stark contrast, appears to be lost in despair. His eyes are downcast and vacant. His clothing seems to be military in nature, but not in the organized, structured manner of a professional soldier: his guise is more akin to a guerrilla, or a freedom fighter (as will be the inescapable conclusion later on). The AK-47, RPG launcher and ammunition belts support this conclusion. Finally, their skin tones: the sitting figure’s skin tone is light, while the kneeling figure’s skin tone is markedly darker. This matches up with the other evidence to support one conclusion: the game will be addressing issues of racial subjugation, religious and cultural annihilation, and colonial oppression and domination, through the lens of the Tibetan freedom movement. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that the sitting figure is not white, but Chinese, at least nationally, if not ethnically. Once his name was revealed as Pagan Min (which is a surname of Korean origin), there was little doubt as to what Ubisoft was driving at.

Remember what I said about how it was our fault that Far Cry 4 had a rocky debut? Here’s why: we cried racism, but for the wrong reasons, and with the wrong intent.  The kneejerk reaction from the gaming community was that it was unforgivable to place an image on a game’s box that might imply that the game contains racist systems of thought. It was actually a reaction I expected from gamers' completion of Far Cry 3, and some certainly wrote about the implications of that storyline.

It didn’t help that the two figures present in the above image were alternatively misunderstood to be representations of the character the gamer would play. The second kneejerk reaction, falling in domino effect, was for Ubisoft to defend itself, and its design decision, by declaring that the seated figure was not white (whether it was an official response or not is kind of beside the point). Finally, the third event in this quick chain was for the public to accept this as a reasonable explanation of why the image wasn’t racist. All of the above reactions, indeed the entire chain of events, is dead wrong.

See, the image is racist, but not because one of the guys might be white. It depicts the subjugation of a native people by an outsider via use of cultural, racial and colonial oppression, but not because one guy might be white and the other might not. One only needs to spend half-a-minute on Tibet’s Wikipedia page to understand that Tibet has long been involved in a contentious, and at times violent, struggle with China over its status as an autonomous state, for the last several hundred years. These freedom movements became especially violent in the wake of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s, during which the People’s Republic of China, led by Mao Zedong, sought to systematically wipe out signs and influences of traditional and cultural heritage that was not authentically Chinese and supported the communist ideal. This cleansing was not limited to China alone, but extended to semi-autonomous regions like Tibet. Tibetans lost many cultural and traditional touchstones in the conflict that followed, all in the hopes of propagating a Chinese communist hegemony over the country. (As a side note, this is a very brief breakdown of a very complicated set of events, but it’s sufficient for our current purposes.)

It is with this historical context that the original Far Cry 4 box art was conceived and presented, and in which it should be viewed. With a basic understanding of the tidal historical and cultural forces at work, suddenly the image above takes on added significance; suddenly it’s not racist just to be racist, but to give the player a mission, and to give context.

The reason I decided to write this piece is because I think Ubisoft gave up too easily. As most know, Ubisoft caved to market pressures and changed the box image to the one below. They courageously set out to treat gamers like adults, and asked us to confront complex, difficult issues like cultural annihilation, colonial oppression, and racist power structures in a mature way. They’ve set their game in a fairly clear historical and geopolitical context. The struggle into which the player will be dropped is a long struggle, and one that necessarily implicates colonialism and racism.

If I’m right (and I bet I am). the marketing strategy to make this premise interesting to Americans was to portray it in a way that allowed for a change–namely, the player–to shake things up in this conflict. Americans love freedom. Far Cry 4 will generally be sold to an American audience. Therefore, it will primarily be marketed toward American sensibilities. Far Cry 4’s box art invites the player to choose a side in the lopsided struggle between Tibetan freedom fighters and Chinese hegemony (with the obvious good/evil paradigm) and to save the poor, blighted local populace from the foreign invader. Sound familiar?

It’s same overarching premise as Far Cry 3. (I won’t get into the American fetish for liberation fantasies here: that’s a whole different post.) Along the way, though, it’s clear that Ubisoft wanted to point our attention to the real life conflict around which their game is based, and to examine the historical, cultural, racial and political contexts that produced that long-running conflict.

I’m an adult gamer. I like it when game developers produce games that make me think about and confront mature concepts. But when the gaming community’s reaction (which included many in the gaming media–shame on you!) is as base and unthinking as “white guy + not white guy + inequality = racism = bad/wrong/unconscionable,” developers won’t be willing to take the risk that gamers won’t buy their game, only because we were too simple to pick up what they were putting down.
Ubisoft tried to treat us like grownups, to inject some thoughtful geopolitical commentary into their game. We, as a community, showed (once again) that we’re not worthy of such treatment. I only hope that one day we can be.

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