Yara, a fictional Caribbean island that draws its inspiration from Cuba, is the setting for one of the biggest game releases of 2021—Far Cry 6. Helmed by an authoritarian dictatorship that has kept it isolated from the rest of the world for half a century, Yara is “an island that is almost frozen in time,” according to the game’s narrative director, Navid Khavari. In this way, Far Cry 6 offers a typical “tourist’s perception” of Cuba: a nostalgic wonderland where you can experience the past, 1950s cars and all!
This is not surprising, since this same wistful vision of Cuba has endured in the imagination of game developers and many others for decades. But this dangerous misconception ignores the reality of Cuban people in the 21st century.
Indeed, as historian Louis A. Pérez Jr. has argued, “it is not Cuba that is ‘stuck in time’ but rather American knowledge of Cuba that is ‘frozen in a bygone era.’” And this portrayal of a timeless Cuba is a common thread in popular culture circulated worldwide, from The Godfather: Part II to Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights.
Like these film sequels, Far Cry 6 serves up what fans of the series have come to expect. In this case, that means an open-world first-person shooter where they can take control of an exotic setting by patching together weapons and vehicles while calling on the assistance of various human factions and animal helpers—think wheelchair wiener dog or punk-rock fighting cock. This time, the plot revolves around a dictator preparing his son to take the helm while sustaining an iron grip on power by manufacturing and selling a tobacco-based anti-cancer drug, all in the face of increasing pressure from multiple opponents and insurgencies.
When you’re done rolling your eyes, remember that this game comes from Ubisoft, the French-owned game publishing giant that has brought us such dubious depictions of Latin America as Call of Juarez: The Cartel. But to create Yara, the development studio behind Far Cry 6 says it put in the time and did the research. The team spent a month in Cuba, where they circumnavigated the island and “met actual former guerrillas.” Then, throughout the development process, they brought in collaborators and consultants to ensure historical accuracy and cultural sensitivity.
Even as Ubisoft employees were launching a public campaign against institutionalized sexual harassment, including in the Toronto studio that led development of Far Cry 6, the developers were aiming to create an all-new, fresh take on a Cuba-inspired open world, an overtly political game balancing “mature, complex themes” with “levity and humor,” one that was woke and decolonial and part of the fight for social justice.
But you’ve been on this island before.
For decades, both the Cuban Revolution and the Castro dictatorship that followed it have been among the most popular scenarios for the representation of Latin American culture in video games.
This trope started at least as early as 1987 when Japanese developer SNK released Guevara, a top-down shoot-'em-up arcade game featuring the exploits of Ernesto “Che” Guevara and the Cuban revolutionary forces in their battle against dictator Fulgencio Batista. In a notable example of cultural and political localization, SNK changed the title, characters, and setting for the game’s US release, swapping out the communist guerrillas for an anonymous force fighting against a king and generically dubbing it Guerrilla War.
And let’s be honest, there’s not that much new in the way Far Cry 6 portrays Cuba. If you have ever played Guerrilla War—or, for that matter, Goldeneye 007, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon, Just Cause, Call of Duty: Black Ops, or the Tropico series—you have inhabited a simulation of revolutionary Cuba. And therefore you will be familiar with the signifiers that convey the country’s cultural and geographical landscape in games like Far Cry 6: 1950s-era cars, bearded revolutionaries, tropical foliage, salsa music, guerrilla warfare, colonial architecture, the Bay of Pigs invasion, rum, and cigars.
Even still, there are refreshing and novel aspects of the representation of Latin American culture in Far Cry 6. It is truly noteworthy that all of the main characters—at all points along the moral spectrum of the game—are characters from Latin America, even if the island they call home is fictitious. Yara is also broken into regions of cultural and natural diversity, bringing the player to engage with characters of different generations, races, genders, backgrounds, and abilities in a variety of geographic locales. One day you’re working with the Monteros, tobacco farmers with country roots; the next day you’re planning an operation with urban university groups Máximas Matanzas and La Moral; and the day after that you’re collaborating with the Heroes of ’67, encamped deep in the mountainous interior of Yara. Best of all, while you sit around at the Heroes’ revolutionary camp, you can partake in some staples of real-life Caribbean culture by learning to play dominoes while listening to some Cuban jazz.
But for years, the Far Cry series has been rightfully criticized for its colonialist tendencies. For example, digital artist and game critic Ansh Patel points out that the “malaria meter” used in the African setting of Far Cry 2 reinforces imperialist notions of foreign lands as inherently hostile and in need of civilizing intervention, while game studies scholar Souvik Mukherjee argues that the representation of South Asia in Far Cry 4 reflects the way video games’ depictions of history frequently rely upon colonial methodologies and assumptions.
There is certainly evidence that the Far Cry 6 team has attempted to evolve in response to critics. They varied up the “white male savior” narrative by featuring a Latina protagonist—although the player still has to choose to hit the “gender button,” so to speak, to play as a woman, and the choice notably has little-to-no effect on gameplay and story progression. Likewise, the developers have awkwardly woven some nods to decolonial critique into the game’s progress-through-annihilation gameplay. A reference to Puerto Rican independence leader Pedro Albizu Campos is something—but why that, instead of a reference to Cuba’s own voice of independence and national hero, José Martí? And while the team may have been attempting to appeal to a Spanish-speaking audience by incorporating untranslated Spanish dialog into the game, a disproportionate amount of that dialog is shouted out by anonymous Yarans as the player guns them down.
Still, you can’t miss the fact that Ubisoft’s team is making attempts at wokeness with Far Cry 6. Early in the game, revolutionary Clara tells would-be émigré to the United States Dani, “Sure, yanquis might pay you to park their cars or pick their fruit, but you'll never be one of them. The American Dream doesn’t come in our color.” But this rhetoric of equity is a bitter pill to swallow in the context of this particular game: although Ubisoft seems to have brought in dozens of Spanish-speaking voice actors for Far Cry 6, there don’t appear to have been any Cuban, Latin American, or Latinx voices in the writers’ room.
Likewise, there are plenty of Latinx actors playing bit parts, but many of the major roles—including lead villain Antón Castillo, played by Giancarlo Esposito—went to actors who do not identify as Latin American or Latinx. (As an aside, it is worth noting that actor Anthony Gonzalez, of Coco fame, delivers a brilliant exception to this rule in his performance as Castillo’s son, Diego. And Esposito’s own diverse cultural background—he was born in Denmark to a Black American mother and an Italian father, and relocated to New York as a child—has informed his award-winning acting.)
In Far Cry 6, there are also frequent missteps with the use of the Spanish language, from the over-pronunciation of “Admiral Benítez” (it should’ve been Almirante) to a would-be Spanish-speaking revolutionary who addresses Castillo by phone with the anglicized pronunciation, “Hola, fashista.” Listening to this and other characters’ faux broken English should give us all pause for thought about who gets to tell which stories.
What Far Cry 6 serves up is neocolonialism and cultural appropriation—with a wink.
One example is “Chicharrón,” a giant fighting cock with a studded collar and neon spurs, who along with his disabled handler, Reinaldo, embodies some of the most blatant and tiresome stereotypes in Far Cry 6. An emphasis on the violent and taboo practice of cockfighting paints Yara-as-Cuba as culturally lowbrow. This is particularly evident since the fighting cock is paired with the would-be comic relief of country bumpkin Reinaldo, who lost his hand to an outburst from Chicharrón but still looks after the animal using his prosthetic claw. These characters might earn a laugh or two for the game’s developers, but those laughs come at the cost of reinforcing harmful stereotypes about Latin American and Caribbean people, as well as people with disabilities.
Another example of this “cultural appropriation with a wink” is the way Far Cry 6 incorporates the concept of resolver or “getting by,” the renowned Cuban way of improvising fixes for technologies to keep them functional. In the game, resolver is the framework for the weapon customization and improvement system—as the game’s arms expert Juan Cortez explains: “For a guerrilla, resolver isn’t making do with what you have, it’s inflicting chaos with everything you got.”
On one hand, we might applaud Ubisoft’s attempt to incorporate culture into game structure beyond the narrative level by using the Cuban practice of resolver as a central mechanic, even if it’s not all that different from the way weapons are patched together in a series like, say, Fallout. On the other hand, the geopolitical and historical structures that underlie this Cuban spirit of innovation—namely, more than a half-century of US trade embargo and the collapse of the Cuban economy during the “Special Period” of the early 1990s—are ignored altogether or referenced only in passing in Far Cry 6, like when Dani quips, “If the yanqui blockade taught us anything, it’s how to keep things running when you got nothing.”
While informed players may catch these subtle references, it's important to remember that resolver is a practice borne of both poverty and geopolitical isolation. As scholars like Elzbieta Sklodowska have shown, resolver emerges out of real necessity, not just creative ingenuity.
Like the fighting cock, the appropriation of resolver for the purposes of a cutesy nudge to the audience for Far Cry 6 misses the mark. In fact, it is a perfect example of the type of casual neocolonialism that is so frequently practiced by game developers today, as they sack Latin America’s cultural iconography for its most glimmering and sensational manifestations, using them as the “raw material” for the production of refined technological products.
Then, to close this circle of neocolonial cultural appropriation, those video games are sold worldwide, including to consumers in Latin America, a region with some 300 million players in a market that generates more than $7 billion in annual revenues for Ubisoft and other multinational game publishers.
The steps Ubisoft has taken to increase the diversity and accuracy of cultural representation in its games show that it recognizes the importance of these issues for video game creators and audiences alike. But representation is just one facet of the relationship between video games and culture—it certainly wouldn’t have hurt to have some Cuban or Latin American representatives on the Far Cry 6 development and writing teams. As it is, developers of games like Far Cry 6 pick and choose whatever elements of global culture they think will work best with their audiences. And in spite of their checks, balances, and cultural sensitivity consultants, they often make decisions based on tired assumptions, without a sense of how the content of their games relates to a broader historical and cultural context.
Sometimes the Far Cry 6 developers should have just known better—like when they decided to casually base their story around the practice of slavery in 21st-century Yara. In the game, the Castillo regime rounds up dissidents and forces them to work in tobacco fields, making slavery just another reflection of the dictator’s depravity and ruthlessness.
For a narrative set in a simulated Cuba, this is particularly insensitive to the centrality of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the island’s real-life history and culture. Slavery has shaped Cuba perhaps even more than it has the United States: Cuba sustained the practice through 1886, more than two decades after abolition in the US, which was itself one of the last nations in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery. Today, one in three Cubans identifies as afro-descendent. To build a game around the theme of slave labor in a simulated Cuba without a thought for this real history is irresponsible, and we should expect better.
Likewise, the story of Far Cry 6, centered on a repressive regime using violence against protestors, is particularly ill-timed given the current real-world upheaval in Cuba. In the summer of 2021, thousands of Cubans took to the streets to call for an end to a 62-year-old dictatorship in the most massive popular protests in decades and were met by a government crackdown in which hundreds of activists, demonstrators, and journalists were detained by authorities under the orders of Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel. Today, as the heirs to the Castro regime clutch ever more desperately onto the levers of power, the Cuban people are making ever more vocal calls for change.
Far Cry 6 imagines an island frozen in history. Meanwhile, in Cuba, time marches on.