A couple of months ago, in a meeting room on the outskirts of the Los Angeles Convention Center during the E3 gaming show, Ubisoft’s Tommy Francois described what he thought would be the ultimate video game.
It would be “a matrix where you get one thousand lives, where you get one thousand mistakes and within these thousand mistakes you get all these different points of view and you get something out of it.”
A few days before we’d spoken, he’d described something similar in a Q&A published on Ubisoft’s website. “If my game was set during the Vietnam conflict, for example,” he said, “we would want the Viet Minh, the Viet Cong... basically everyone’s point of view.” From there, he said, players would learn about all sides of the war and form their own opinions.
Francois wasn’t using these descriptions to pitch a new game. In his Q&A and in his conversation with me, he was instead attempting to reframe the discussion around politics and video games, a perennially taboo topic that most makers of big-budget games avoid. He wanted to engage.
“I do see that we’re being challenged on politics,” he told me. “It hurts me, because we know there’s a disconnect between where we want to take games years down the line and what we’re doing on a day to day basis.”
Mending that disconnect is a goal, he said. Maybe it’s his, maybe it’s Ubisoft’s. It was hard to say, but Francois does hold a position of influence at the company. He’s the vice president of Editorial, the Paris-based team at Ubisoft that oversees, advises, and budgets all of the company’s games. He works with the makers of the Assassin’s Creeds, the Ghost Recons, The Divisions, and more. And in a rare interview, he at least opened up the discussion about political ideas in Ubisoft’s games more than anyone in the company before him.
During our half-hour conversation, Francois was ambitious about the future of games. He exhibited the video game true believer’s tendency to position games as a remedy for a societal problem. At times he was open about Ubisoft’s shortcomings, at other times defensive or vague.
“I was annoyed by the fact that we weren’t given more forgiveness for not being perfect,” he said to me at one point, reacting to criticism of the politics of the company’s games. “We know that. We know we de-scope. We know we’re not taking it far enough.”
In recent years, critics and reporters, myself included, have been asking game developers more questions about the political messages of and in their games. Very often, the games in question are Ubisoft’s.
What should players, critics, and creators make, for example, of the sleeper agent fantasy depicted in 2016’s The Division? In that game, players take the role of one of hundreds of civilians who were secretly agents of the U.S. government, ready to be activated in a post-disaster America with the authorization to kill on sight. Or what inferences should we draw from Far Cry 5’s premise of a heavily armed religious cult seizing control of a county in America’s heartland circa, oh, right about now?
Largely, the developers of these games had declined to talk about any deeper political meaning to their work, or they have asserted that these games have no specific political messages.
Francois, however, is proposing a different way of thinking about the politics of Ubisoft’s games. To explain it to me, of all things, he started talking about voting and about his kids.
“First time I voted, I think I was a stupid voter,” he said, “Because I voted out of ideology, education, what I thought I knew, [and] legacy of my family.” I was puzzled. To my ears, those sounded like good sources of information. Video games, he argued, could function like simulations to make people smarter voters. He mentioned his sons, Nemo and Owen. “I’d like to think that because Nemo and Owen will be in simulations they will get to iterate their vote and understand the impact of it in a fun way, so it makes them more aware.”
“So the goal there is not to be preachy,” he added, slipping into talking about Ubisoft’s game-making goals. “It’s to showcase.”
He was trying to sell me on his model of a game from which the player is able to sample a range of perspectives. Think of it like sampling a menu at a restaurant, he said.
What Francois was articulating in a roundabout way is Ubisoft’s new stab at answering the politics question: that their games don’t lack a political message but instead are designed to potentially contain multiple ones.
He pointed to a game Ubisoft was hyping at E3, Watch Dogs Legion, as a sign of things to come. It has no official main character and instead lets players assemble a playable roster from any of the thousands of people virtually living in the game’s version of near-future London. “When I look at the future, look at Legion,” Francois said. “Legion is a step in that direction.”
Francois’ framework might allow Ubisoft’s developers to speak more frankly about some of the more politically charged ideas they have already been including in their games — for example, the lack of black people in Silicon Valley tech companies, as explored in 2016’s Watch Dogs 2 — but it sidesteps the conversation about the political ideas of an overall work of art. Just because a game might be a vessel for political ideas doesn’t mean it itself doesn’t present a political take.
There is no dispassionate disbursement of ideas that isn’t freighted with some politics. Consider a school textbook and what its authors choose to include about the creation of the world or the founding of the United States. Consider Ubisoft’s own recent creation of an educational version of its ancient Egyptian adventure Assassin’s Creed Origins. For that work, the company chose to censor the game’s historically accurate nudity and added anachronistic instances of girls attending historically male schools in Alexandria.
Mission-giver Karen Bowman to the player’s character: “You’re such a Cold War antique.”
Main character: “Says the CIA agent in Latin America.”
— Dialogue from Ghost Recon Wildlands
Ghost Recon Wildlands was a flashpoint for Ubisoft and its games’ politics. Some people saw that game as a wonderful co-op shooter, I noted to Francois. The 2017 Tom Clancy-branded shooter lets players, as U.S. special forces, shoot their way through a modern version of Bolivia to take out colourful drug bosses and possibly help local rebels rise to power.
“Which it is,” he said.
The game was a hit. According to Ubisoft, Wildlands had 10 million players within a year of its release. All the while, the country where it is set protested its existence, and its critics, including our reviewer, deemed its gameplay fun but its politics disgusting.
Others, I continued, can’t get past the fact that we’re playing as Americans rampaging through a South American country, fighting drug lords. We’re not seeing the perspective of the civilians. We’re just shooting our way through their towns. These elements have compelled some people to call the game imperialist or racist. I wondered how he felt about that. I asked: Is that your game, or is that not your game?
“There is no yes and no,” Francois replied. “The large focus on Ghost Recon was to deliver a great co-op experience. Games need to be fun before anything else.”
Gameplay first, I noted.
“Gameplay first, always,” he said, because otherwise people stop playing.
“You know, I can hear that truth. In reality, when we were doing research on Bolivia, the first thing we were trying to show was the simple fact that [when] we’re talking about cocaine [it] is already a subject of the big white man. It’s for our nightclubs. When I say “ours,” I’m talking about North America, Europe, or these places where there is money.”
To local Bolivians, he said, coca leaves have medicinal and religious purposes. “What the team found out over there is that most families that do sell [coca leaf] for the cartels aren’t doing it because they want to be in drugs,” he said. “It’s the poorest country in South America, and they’re looking to survive. So they’re growing more than what they’re allowed and selling the extra to feed their children.”
All of this, Francois said, was intended to be expressed in the game. “We were hoping that at different places in the game people would get these subtleties,” he said.
That’s not really how Ghost Recon Wildlands plays out, though. Civilians are largely bystanders in villages and countrysides that function as arenas for armed combat between a few strong American special forces troops — plus some summonable local resistance fighters — and hundreds of mostly nameless Bolivian drug criminals.
The occasional audio log or collectible trinket might reveal some details about Bolivian culture, but it’s so subtle as to probably not be there for many players. On the PS4, the trophy for collecting even just half of the game’s lore and historical documentation has been achieved by only 13.6 per cent of the players. This is not a game of a thousand lives and a thousand perspectives.
“I don’t think we invented enough means of communication with the player to get everything we wanted through,” Francois admitted. I wondered if Wildlands would be different if Ubisoft could remake it 20 years from now. Would there be more playable perspectives? “Of course,” Francois said. “We have constraints. I don’t think the team ever wanted to not depict every type of population.”
I care deeply for Montana, which is why I can no longer sit back while this state and this country are turned into Canada by godless, gutless hippies who will not rest until democracy is dead and we’re all eating ketchup chips. These syrup-sucking socialists sneak into our country with three-hundred different gender pronouns and take our high-paying jobs and entertainment and hockey. They don’t care about our way of life. They want to take our guns, spread their liberal agenda and give our daughters free abortions.
If elected I’ll put a stop to these make-believe menaces to the north. I will make sure our healthcare is more expensive than ever. I’ll remove French courses from our schools. And I will require all Montanans who were born in Canada or share their politics to be deported or shipped to California. Finally, I’ll push for more strict immigration laws and build a 213.36m-tall ice wall on our border, which I’ll slowly move one inch north every year until Canada is American again.
Make no mistake: if you’re Canadian or that dirty liberal judge Andy Walker who ruled against me and let my gold-digging ex-wife steal my fortune in the divorce, your days are numbered. I’m Hurk Drubman Senior, and I approve this goddamn message.
— An in-game state senate campaign ad from Far Cry 5, which was largely developed in Canada
In 2010, a sidequest buried in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood posited that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision earlier that year, which allowed corporate contributions to flow unfettered into campaigns and was condemned by then-President Barack Obama and is generally hated by the Democrats, was a plot by the series’ bad guys, the Templars. It didn’t hint at this. It didn’t use fake names. It said it flat-out.
It’s not that Ubisoft doesn’t take risks. By some measures, the company is the most ambitious of the big western game publishers, showing a willingness, especially in its Assassin’s Creed series, to set its adventures in unusual places and eras and to feature more than the standard gruff white guy as a protagonist. Nevertheless, Ubisoft’s games are usually presented as removed from political concerns, of maybe being about something that is happening now but not quite saying it or saying much about it.
Take Far Cry 5, the 2018 first-person shooter in which the player has to take down a religious cult that has seized control of the fictional Montana county of Hope. It was pitched to reporters in early 2017 as a work inspired by a rising anxiety in America. Its creative director, Dan Hay, cited an unease brewing since the great recession and intensifying since early 2016. The game draws some obvious inspiration from real militia movements in America, including those who occupied a wildlife refuge in Oregon in January 2016 in a standoff with the federal government.
Far Cry 5 names no names, though. Its most overt reference to American politics is a side-mission in which players must secure the notorious “pee-tape,” the centrepiece of the theory that the Russian government has compromising information about Donald Trump. Listen very closely to the game and you’ll at least hear a conservative politician’s robocall rant about immigrants, his desire to build a border wall, and his willingness to diminish America’s health care system, though the twist is that he’s focused on America’s border with Canada.
Why barely address Trump’s rise even if it seemed to coincide with much of the anxiety that informed the game? Francois said the team was “more concerned by not building an anti-Trump game because we didn’t think it was fair as we were going through.” I didn’t quite get this, nor understand why the ideal of a game with multiple perspectives couldn’t contain firmer criticism of — or support for — named political figures.
He said he’d attended Trump’s inauguration in early 2017 as part of a research trip for The Division series and that, while “I thought I was going to get along with the anti-Trump people a bit more, well, I didn’t because I saw extremes on both ends that are dangerous.”
It’s unclear whether the desire to not offend Trump’s supporters was a political stance or a marketing one. The two tend to intertwine. Francois denied that this was an instance of Ubisoft backing off in its political expression. Instead, he contrasted the older, more linear Assassin’s Creed games like Brotherhood and III, which told players a narrowly directed story, with the freewheeling formula of the Far Cry games. The latter are playgrounds — anecdote factories, in his words — for gun and weapon-oriented mayhem.
“We’ve always struggled internally with: How do you go around shooting people because it’s fun as a game mechanic and how do you make points when you’re doing something like that?” he said. “So perhaps part of Far Cry’s issue is linked to that.”
Agent Kelso: Don’t we have enough agencies in this country?
Division recruiter: It’s not so much an agency as a kind of stay behind movement, a last line of defence, if you will. No hierarchy and you’ll answer directly to the president.
Kelso: And I’ll get to do whatever I want?
Recruiter: Whatever is needed, Ms. Kelso. Should you be activated, you’ll be given extraordinary judicial powers to…
Kelso: Extraordinary judicial powers, huh? All right, sign me up.
Recruiter: I’ll get the paperwork started. Selection is six weeks from now. Good luck.
An audio log depicting the recruitment of player ally Agent Alani Kelso
— An audio log from The Division 2
Shooting in games is fun. It has been since Space Invaders and Defender, still was in Doom and GoldenEye, is today in Destiny and Fortnite. It’s unsurprising that many of Ubisoft’s most popular games are full of guns.
The abundance of guns and shooting in games is thus a considerable factor in the messages blockbuster releases send and the values they espouse. In these works, by and large, guns are good, worth having, and effective for ending a dispute. In games, shots fired usually lead to success and rarely to negative consequences. The more guns you have in a Far Cry or a Ghost Recon or a Division (or a Call of Duty or a Borderlands or a Battlefield, to name games from non-Ubisoft publishers), the better.
As Francois noted, all this shooting can get in the way of making a point. I’d argue that it can also make a point about guns. Francois seems to be aware of the conundrum.
“With every game we try to create new mechanics that would be new tools for the player to not resolve to guns,” he told me. “This is important, because I think the mechanic of aiming, just to take it elsewhere, is a lot of fun. We need to make social interactions, a la Animal Crossing or other types of games — Eve Online is an interesting one as well — most games we’re currently working on and in the future, we’re thinking: What other means could we get to the player so they could do problem-solving differently and not resort only to that?”
I don’t expect the publisher of the phenomenally successful Rainbow Six Siege to give up guns. I doubt many players or critics would even suggest they should. As quickly as Francois posited a future Ubisoft with less of an emphasis on in-game guns, he reeled some of that line back in. “I wouldn’t want to make a judgment to that either,” he said. “If some people want to have guns and play, that’s fine. If other people want to find other ways, that’s fine, too. If people just want to have fun and not engage with politics or the deeper meanings that may be available in these worlds, that has to be fine. It has to be all about agency.”
It’s easy to dream about what video games can be, and perhaps it is easy to placate an interviewer with talk of hypothetical games that are diverse in perspective and have bolder things to say. At the end of my conversation with Francois, I wasn’t sure if I’d heard about a Ubisoft future that will come to pass or a lofty aim that will fall by the wayside while less complex fare gets made and sold to millions.
The editorial team of which Francois is a senior member has a lot to say about Ubisoft’s games, but they can’t force the future. To some developers who know Ubisoft’s process, I’ve heard the team described as a useful guide, sometimes a controlling force, and at other times an unneeded extra cook in the kitchen.
“We’re trying to take the company in the way of open-world, systemic, multiple points of views, emergent gameplay, emergent narrative, full autonomy, real life simulation, learn from what you’re doing, resonate with the systems of life,” he said, as he rattled off a batch of game design goals. “This is what we’re trying to achieve collectively. And it’s hard.”
Francois was ready to leave me with some hope that Ubisoft’s games will get deeper and more complex and that its developers will be more willing to talk about the politics in and around them. But he also shared this idea: “You’re in a group in the Division, if you don’t see it in the game, fuck it, have a political conversation. Why should I be responsible for everything? The Division can be a wonderful backdrop to talk politics while you’re playing. You can enable these types of conversations. I don’t want to author anyone or anything. I don’t like being authored in life.”
A moment later, as the interview came to a close, he added: “I hope I didn’t come off as aggressive, just passionate.”