An Idea for Its Ivory: Will ‘Far Cry Primal’ Fall Prey to Franchise Cannibalism?

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Photo credit: Ubisoft

Far Cry Primal (which releases tomorrow) is a Stone-Aged take on Ubisoft’s crowd-pleasing first person shooter series, and this is a premise which should, however novel, have us all holding our applause. Observed honestly, the game is as many shades New IP as it is ‘Far Cry’; many of its wildest (Mesolithic) period-centric ambitions ones which could probably have been more freely explored by the developers at Ubisoft Montreal if not for the wealth of franchisal expectations from all sides. Of course, with this statement comes a flood of caveats: would the publisher, for example, have greenlit a project with this setting, and of this size, without the time-tested assurance that name recognition alone would secure a default number of sales? Given the alarming (but not surprising) inflation of ‘AAA’ game budgets this hardware generation, and increasingly crowded competition in said space generally, the chances are low.

Marketing is, however, message. It doesn’t matter what you are selling if you cannot sell it effectively. Let’s pretend for a moment, then, that what matters here is the longevity of the Far Cry “brand” and not the ideas and work represented by each game, and how the brand ultimately lives or dies on how well these ideas are met by players—sorry, “consumers”—after purchase: what has been Ubisoft’s “message” with Primal? Well, they have released what amounts to Far Cry Primal for Dumbies; they have told us that they are “bringing the Stone Age to life and providing players with a strong gameplay experience based off of the Far Cry legacy“; they have delivered vicarious blunt force trauma through manifold combat montages. But what they have not done is explain why this needed to be a Far Cry game—not why it is, in fact, one. (We know why.)

Across all applicable portals, the most common initial reaction to the game has, as far as I can tell, been audible head-scratching. Whether or not this confusion gives way immediately thereafter to unruffled enthusiasm for many (it does look fun, everything else aside) should not soothe any of the publisher’s worries about brand dilution or over-extension—assuming that they have these worries (they should). Because, if my expectation is a sound one, the aforementioned confusion will not be resolved at any depth or length by the game experience itself. Unless its developers somehow reach a perfected marriage between visceral Mesolithic-era survival and Far Cry’s home recipe “core gameplay loop“, Primal will leave the impression either of a wild idea tamed unnecessarily by enterprising masters, or of a major Far Cry release stripped of its franchisal “meat”, so to speak—which I characterized last time as a “jocular collaboration between guns and all-terrain vehicles.”

“Meat”, however, is hardly the concern. This is the case in large part because, with Ubisoft’s open worlds (though they are certainly not alone here), substance is always the more pressing matter—and for no other reason, sadly, than the fact that it is rarely offered. Between the wide ranges of collectibles, optional sidequests—and wide ranges, literally—that these games offer, there is never a lack of things to find and do. But neither, it’s become clear, is there ever good reason to do them.

2013’s Blood Dragon reined back this excess through necessity: namely, its “standalone”, bite-sized nature. It was, however, liberated from series criterion not only because of its size and budget, but its deeper commitments to style and tone—in this case a camp “80’s VHS vision of the future“; it traded the collectibles mosaics and algorithmic “loops” of most open-worlds for an excess, rather, of character. And because Primal‘s scale parallels the main series and not that one-and-done retrofuture outburst, the game’s best hope at similarly carving excesses—at being, functionally speaking, a kind of franchisal paring knife—rests entirely on its commitment to setting. Blood Dragon‘s hallucinatory fast-forwarding of the tapes granted it some excesses (e.g. cyalume-blooded laser-breathing reptiles) while its abbreviated blueprint denied it others. Primal can’t claim this latter blessing in disguise, and, by rewinding to a bygone era of our planet’s actual history (if only slightly more committed to realism), will have to be much more inventive with its notions of “excess.”

It’s reasonable to wonder, then, if this “paring” will be an exercise in subtraction only. But success with endeavours of this stripe is neither impossible nor at all unprecedented. Consider by analogy Rocktar Games’ Red Dead Redemption, whose designs square neatly with those of parent-series Grant Theft Auto, but which plays and acts uniquely thanks to a caustic rewind of approximately a century. Moreover, setting aside the fact that John Marston’s search for estranged fellow grifter Bill Williamson is, for whatever reason, better written than the tree from which it branched—it also engages more from a playing perspective. So, not a subtraction in the ways which really count. Indeed, there seems to be more of a sobriety, more of a present tense, in maneuvering a rippling soot-black mare (which you’ve caught and broken yourself) over cactused foothills and the arid timberlines than in coasting the pedicured Los Santos pavement in your Cognoscenti Cabrio coupé.

This sentiment also applies to combat: the sweatless precision of modern (and future) warfare has, exercised ad nauseam in recent years, become increasingly old saw in games, providing the same perfunctory pleasures as always but lacking the original menace, that viperous sense of unease and low-pressure thrill even sleeping weapons icily radiate (as well they should, given their function). Marston’s six shooter or bolt-action Krag-Jørgensen, Lara Croft‘s makeshift longbow—these provide a level of tooth and nail muscularity absent from the munitions of games set present (and future) day, which tend to be dialed toward either hygienic accuracy or effortless excess.

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Photo credit: Ubisoft

Far Cry Primal may therefore be in a favourable spot, at least in terms of “arms.” (If you’re a motor jockey, though, my sincere condolences.) Its being more “organic” in this area may result in a positively entrenched hair-raising physicality that is experienced only in passing inside of typical sessions with numbered Far Cry’s, wherein the player might be made to combat wildlife or humans on foot only as a means to safely reach the next enemy encampment or radio tower (which, for obvious reasons, will not feature at all in Primal and will instead be replaced by bonfires).

But the fact that the game is more “organic” in several ways—that is, less Far Cry—also makes its most organic ideas (i.e., those outside the “loop”) a more susceptible host, collectively speaking, to corruption. See, franchise “cannibalism”, as I’ll call it here, isn’t cannibalism in the truest sense of the word; it is, rather, more akin to the Cordyceps fungus in The Last of Us. But where the Cordyceps uses its host to promulgate its fungal population (by physically steering the host toward optimal conditions for releasing airborne spores), game publishers, I believe, wound their own brands (what collectively determines their vitality) by allowing their franchises to feed off ideas that would be better left unburdened by the unhelpful weight of namesake. How much worse would The Last of Us have been if it was only greenlit, finally, on the condition that it not only bear the Uncharted name, but satisfy that franchise’s established idiosyncrasies as well as its own, unestablished ones? How schizophrenic and confused would the Uncharted franchise then appear? (And like Uncharted, I might point out, Far Cry is neither hurting for interest nor for profits.)

Some publishers, rather than preying on a franchise gradually—be it through behaviour which is confusing or, conversely, repetitive (admittedly far more common)—kill their trophy animal in brisk and brutal fashion. (As, for example, Konami did with Silent Hills, and Metal Gear Solid—and, well, everything else they were once responsible for.) But both are cases of, as I’ve described it in the past, “killing an idea for its ivory”; one is merely paced in such a way that allows us to track the steps which lead to it. Both deaths are possible, also, without necessarily intending them. And what marks the beginning of the end, I think, is the moment those “enterprising masters” I mentioned earlier suddenly believe that their franchise has become immortalized, or that it is instead beyond saving—overdue for oblivion. Given the spoils Far Cry is presently enjoying, I must assume it is the former here. Yet, as is often true in videogames, it is the dangers we haven’t had the chance to fear before that tend to take us down, and this may be—successful departure or not—one of only a few chances for Ubisoft. I doubt they will have nine.