Recently, I discussed at length my issues with Assassin’s Creed Syndicate’s use (or lack thereof) of history. When I first played Far Cry Primal, also made by Ubisoft, I thought it a nice balance to this failing. But on reflection, putting a thin coat of prehistoric paint over a Far Cry game doesn’t eliminate its modern issues.
Let me get this out of the way: I don’t care about historical accuracy. Fire bombs and bee clusters are ridiculous weapons, but they’re fun. Much of Primal’s wildlife isanachronistic, but taming, petting, and commanding various predators is the best part of the game. And conversely, the three separate languages developed for the game - whilst based on meticulous research of prehistoric Indo-European speech, and therefore likely one of the most accurate aspects of the game – seems to backfire because it requires the player to spend most of their time reading subtitles rather than engaging in the dialogue.
What I do care about is how a game uses its history and what that use ends up saying to the audience. I was suspicious when the first press releases on Primal stated that it was “set in 10,000 BC, during the Stone Age, a time where humans have just discovered fire, and begun to use stones to create tools for their daily life,” because by that point fire had been around for almost a million years and in routine use for about 300,000, and stone tools had been around for approximately 500,000. It indicated a lack of care on Ubisoft’s part for anything other than creating a fun space for the player to interact with.
It’s not that this is a bad aim to have. Primal (like Syndicate) does this well. It’s that Primal claims to use this setting to make an experience that revolves around a struggle for survival in a harsh environment, which quickly becomes untrue. Just like in previous Far Cry games, this simple desire to survive is almost immediately eclipsed by your character’s bid for power over the map and the people within it. And whilst both Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4 have something to say about this character development (or regression, depending on your point of view), Primal’s supposed survivalist setting actively silences this exploration of the morality of your character’s actions.
Moreover, the prehistoric setting does not mask the issues with this theme that were also present in previous Far Cry games. Far Cry 3, in particular, was criticised for its white saviourism, and Far Cry 4 did not fully eliminate these issues. By entering a world far removed from modern understandings of race, Ubisoft should have been able to avoid telling a colonialist story, but they didn’t.
Having one tribe (yours, the Wenja) essentially wipe out two competitor tribes (the Udam and the Izila) is one thing. But Technical Director David Robillard also stated that “the Udam are similar to the Neanderthals and the Izila are more closely related to the Mesolithic tribes of the era. The Wenjas are an amalgam of what you would find in Europe at that time.” Since both the Neanderthals and the Mesolithic tribes also lived in Europe (among other places) this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it sets the stage: your tribe, the Wenja, are Europeans, and the Udam and the Izila are others.
Then we start digging, and it devolves. There’s less to be said for the vaguely “Mesolithic” Izila, because their characterisation hinges less on historical cues. (The Mesolithic era is commonly thought to have begun in the Levant – part of the Middle East – which does further the idea of them being “others” to the presumed white player, though.) The implications of the Udam and their clear Neanderthal coding is more troubling. How many conquests have been justified on the idea that the local population are not only dangerous and taboo (the Udam are repeatedly reported to be cannibals), but literally as a lesser species? Rather than subjugating other humans, Europeans justified themselves as coming up against “barbarians” and “savages.” This is the same justification given to the player and their European based characters in their colonialist romp through Far Cry Primal.
And it’s not just the expansion of your people at the expense of others. It’s the process of forcibly recruiting members of opposing factions for their knowledge and skills; of absorbing the children of your opponents into your own fold in order to erase their previous identities. These are real things with historical precedent, and yes, Primal is set in a time where colonisation did not exist, but it was not made or played in this time. Yet it communicates little about the morality of it all due to its justification that, thanks to the setting, you are struggling to survive. But this is increasingly untrue as you master more advanced weapons than your foes and even turn the hostile wildlife to your advantage. Characters stop stirring you to action by appealing to necessity, and instead champion revenge.
Occasionally, Primal tries to reach out to the idea that humans ultimately have more commonalities than differences, like when an enemy flees rather than fighting you, or when the leader of the Udam is shown to love his children. But it squanders these moments within a story of accumulating personal power with no incentive to question the idea that, as is so often the case in Far Cry games, perhaps you are not the good guy after all.