Far Cry 4 already playing with fire

Promo art for Ubisoft's upcoming shooter raises eyebrows, questions about why developers push players' buttons

In the Far Cry games, fire is a wonderful tool. It spreads dynamically, opening up a wealth of creative and strategic possibilities for players to achieve their goals. However, it also gets out of control in a hurry, potentially coming back to hurt the player in sometimes unpredictable ways.

It's an appropriate metaphor for the series' approach to controversial subject matter. Last week, Ubisoft announced the development of Far Cry 4, showing off some key art in the process. The picture depicts a blonde light-skinned man in a shiny pink suit against the backdrop of the Himalayas, smirking as he uses a defaced statue as a throne. His right hand rests on the head of a darker skinned man who is kneeling before him, clutching a grenade with the pin pulled. Though we know very little about the characters depicted, their backgrounds, or their motivations, the art got people talking (and tweeting). Some were concerned about racism. Others were worried about homophobia. Many saw neither. At the same time, details about the game are so scant that it's entirely possible the problematic elements here are properly addressed within the context of the game itself.

"[W]hile we lack the context the actual game would provide, there's no such thing as 'without context.'"

But at the moment, we don't have that context. It's promotional art, so to a certain extent, it's designed to exist out of context, to catch the eye of someone on a store shelf, even if they've never heard of the series before. And while we lack the context the actual game would provide, there's no such thing as "without context." Here, the context we have is that this is a Far Cry game, the latest entry in a series that has been earning a reputation for boldly storming into narrative territory where other games fear to tread (often with good reason).

Like the fire propagation mechanic, this narrative ambition was introduced to the series with Far Cry 2. What had previously been just another shooter (albeit one in a tropical setting more attractive than most) became a series that embedded its stories within thorny issues. Far Cry 2 cast players as a mercenary in a fictitious African country's prolonged civil unrest, using blood diamonds, malaria, and Western imperialism as texture in a story emphasizing the moral vacuum of war. Far Cry 3 took things a step further, with players controlling a spoiled rich white kid on a tropical island vacation who suddenly must deal with nefariously swarthy pirates and intentionally stereotypical natives. And just in case that didn't stir up any controversy, the story also weaves in rape, sex, drugs, and torture. In both cases, some critics and players felt the games offensively trivialized important or tragic subjects.


Click for the full-size version of Far Cry 4's promo art.

Given this history, it's not surprising that Far Cry 4 would not universally receive the benefit of the doubt. Much more surprising (to me, at least) is that Ubisoft is continuing down this path with the franchise. Far Cry 3 sold a staggering 9 million units, putting it in the same class of blockbuster as Assassin's Creed (last year's version of which sold 11 million units). However, the publisher's narrative approach to the two games could not be more different.

Assassin's Creed is a fascinating case study for dealing with touchy subjects in AAA video games. It wasn't long after the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq that work on the first Assassin's Creed started. You know, the one set in the middle of a holy war between Christians and Muslims. Assassin's Creed II had players attempt to assassinate the pope. Assassin's Creed III put players in control of a Native American protagonist during the Revolutionary War. Assassin's Creed IV: Freedom Cry saw the gamification of emancipation.

The Assassin's Creed franchise draws some criticism from time to time for its handling of these subjects, but the series has rarely found itself at the flashpoint of controversy. Part of the reason for that is the Assassin's Creed developers research their subjects thoroughly. They understand what the concerns surrounding the sensitive topics are, and by virtue of the games' historical settings, they can point to factual evidence of certain people's actions, or common situations of each era.

"[T]he right to explore those subjects should come with a responsibility to do so with care."

When it comes to dealing with controversy, Assassin's Creed is much like its stealthy protagonists are imagined to be: quiet, cautious, and efficient. Far Cry, on the other hand, deals with these topics more like the way Assassin's Creed protagonists behave when I play them: recklessly uncoordinated and endlessly destructive. Even when it's clear Far Cry's developers have put plenty of thought into what they're saying, it's not always clear they've put much thought into what people will hear them saying through their games.

It speaks volumes about how Ubisoft perceives the long-term value of the two series. Assassin's Creed is the company's biggest and most adaptable blockbuster, an annual gaming event based on a premise that can be mined and iterated on endlessly in almost any medium, a recurring revenue stream to be nurtured over time. Far Cry, this key art release suggests, is just another first-person shooter, a brand defined primarily by how hard it works to shock people, perhaps because the company doesn't have faith that it can sell on its other merits. One of them is the kind of project you make a Michael Fassbender film around. The other might be more of an Uwe Boll joint.

I'm not saying that Far Cry should avoid these subjects. I actually love to see games of all sizes attempting to tackle topics and themes often ignored by the industry. But the right to explore those subjects should come with a responsibility to do so with care. These are legitimately painful subjects for many people. If developers want to force players to confront them, they should have a good reason for it that goes beyond pushing people's buttons, exploiting tragedy for shock value and an early preorder campaign. In video games, we don't push buttons for the sake of pushing buttons. We push them to do things.

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Latest comments (29)

Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital8 years ago
The day the people will stop seeing racism and homophobia in every place that contains two people of different races or Gordon Ramsey's brother wearing a pink suit, will be the day when racism and homophobia may start disappearing from this world.
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Joel Hruska Analyst/Journalist 8 years ago
It's typically racial majorities that have the luxury of thinking this way. When race doesn't impact your life in any particular fashion, it's easy to say that racism will vanish as soon as everyone forgets about it. Unfortunately, for the millions of people who are judged on their race every time they walk outside, they don't have the luxury of ever forgetting.

Yes, if racist majorities stopped being racist, racial minorities would be able to stop talking about race -- but let's be clear about where the judgment is coming from in that equation.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Joel Hruska on 19th May 2014 4:39pm

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Ben Mathis Art Director & Co-Founder, Snjohus Software8 years ago
Well said, Joel.
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Show all comments (29)
Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 8 years ago
There's many smaller indie and TWINE titles that push the boundaries of gaming, in a sensitive way. Forcing the player to grapple with emotional issues - and talking about the developmental reasons for doing such - can be incredibly informative, and can bring to the fore empathy and understanding in the player. (Here I'm specifically thinking of The Day The Laughter Stopped, by the way.)

But that's indies. I think perhaps the real issue is that for any company which stakes a vast amount of money on such a venture, shock and PR wins out over deeper meaning and intense discussion. Which, if you take gaming to be a part of the same media as films, is fine, I suppose. AAA gaming is to Hollywood what Indie is to World Cinema. But that means two things: 1) There's the possibility of an inherent racism/sexism etc. slant to big-budget gaming, with boundaries crossed just for the sake of it. And 2) that to outsiders, gaming could continue to be juvenile, because the most obvious examples of it are games which don't justify their shock-value.

@ Joel

Absolutely could not have phrased it better myself. :)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 19th May 2014 5:02pm

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Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital8 years ago
@Joel: I am not downplaying racism, neither I am saying that it should be ignored in order for it to eventually disappear. I am a very liberally-thinking person and thus consider racism and homophobia as some of the biggest crimes.

We all want a world where races don't matter. But freedom comes in both ways. Because as long as a person of a certain race in a dominant position and another person of a different race in a submissive position is viewed first as a racial issue, rather than civil or social issue, racism will never stop being a problem. You want a world where races don't matter, yet you see this picture and the races of the two guys are the most important thing you see... THAT is the problem.
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Pete Thompson Editor 8 years ago
Well I guess if you're a racist and you go looking for racism in your everyday life then you might end up interpreting a lot of things as being racist when there's no racism (or even any malice) intended..

I personally didn't give the cover art a second glance, but then I'm not a racist..

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Pete Thompson on 19th May 2014 6:07pm

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Maik Buetefuer PR Manager, Ubisoft Germany8 years ago
I totally get both points, but discussing the issue of racism of a packshot without any context is not racist, it's a bit silly.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Maik Buetefuer on 19th May 2014 7:58pm

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Keldon Alleyne Strategic Keyboard Basher, Avasopht Development8 years ago
It's a matter of competency. If you are an artist with an aptitude for interpretation you will know the impact of your artwork and thus it is totally justified for the context of the image to be put into question.

For example if you had an image of a predominantly homosexual army being fired at by predominantly Jamaican soldiers, one could easily interpret that as a social commentary in favour of the prevalent homophobia present in Jamaica.

It's like the movie 300, I just saw it as a great telling of a true story that I've always wanted to see on the big screen. However the first thing my friend raised was it's homosexual undertones. That went completely over my head, but my point in raising it is that as an artist it is your responsibility to manage interpretation in the most prudent way possible.

Chances are, a non creative demanded a photo depicting a soldier showing dominance over another and that the dominant soldier must appear homosexual (just to be in with the times). Who knows, but as mentioned in this article, responsibility and competency are of utmost importance IMHO.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Keldon Alleyne on 19th May 2014 8:12pm

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David Serrano Freelancer 8 years ago
The image isn't racist or homophobic, it's sadomasochistic. It is a common master slave, dominant submissive composition. One of many disturbing things I learned in Second Life lol. Probably NSFW:
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 8 years ago
Without authorship, it's meaningless.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 8 years ago
Hmmm. I see nothing there but good art because I don't assign roles to characters in it now ASSUME what the story is behind it. If I did, I'd be yelling at Capcom about the NA cover to Mega Man because it makes light of overweight old guys in horribly made outfits or something. Let this one slide, Internet...
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 8 years ago
I can imagine the outraged comments would have went something like this:

Outraged onlooker: "That image is racist"

Developer: "Actually both men are of the same race, it just so happens that one of them has a better tan"

Outraged onlooker: "But that image is still promoting homophobia"

Developer: "Both men are straight heterosexuals"

Outraged onlooker: "Then it's sexist"

Developer: "Why, because theres no depictions of any women?"

Outraged onlooker: "No, because I needed something else to complain about"

My only minor issue with the image is that it's proven how far we've over done the whole politically correct restructure of all of civilization. Some times theres a need for that based on the ever changing layout of the world today but many times(such as this) people just like to make something out of nothing.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Jace on 20th May 2014 12:41am

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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 8 years ago
The cover may well be depicting racism or white imperialism. But that guy on the throne may be the bad guy, whose schemes have to be thwarted, in which case the game may be ground-breaking in a whole other way. Especially if the main character isn't so white they get lost in snowstorms.

I'll wait and see .
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Simon Weisgerber Independent Japanese/English to German Localization Specialist, Freelance - Gaming8 years ago
Ah, the moral high ground in the game industry.
"The medium needs to grow up" - so some people feel the urge to interpret some promo art in a way that makes them see in it racist and homophobic expressions and god knows what else.
Ironically, all their P.C. and "do-gooder" attitude does not extend to the fact that this game is about shooting people in the hundreds. Because, well, that is how games are, right?
I am not slamming the franchise, hell, I actually enjoy the Far Cry games, but I think it's revealing how some people feel the need
to get riled up about some (at least as they see it) homophobic/racist imagery, but they do not have a problem with condoning mass-murder.
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 8 years ago
Just finished writing this and it ended up being a rant... havent done this in a while but here we go... I have to proof read it for spell checking or incoherent ideas, but other than that I hope you get the general message.... just mind yourselves, I dont intend to be offensive... just want to say what i wanna say without beating around the bush. These issues are sensitive, they get you in the hotseat right away and often open up philosofical debates that have no real conclusve outcome... cause it really is just peoples perceptions and no one see's things the same way... but here i go.


Racism and sexism everywhere... this is the world were we live in now. Forget being a free thinker and forget freedom of expression.

So how should we fix this? Make the guy in the chair black and the guy on his knees white or chinese. Or why dont we make them both black... oh wait, what about the main character? If he is white it will be racist to have him kill black dudes.... so lets make him black to...

Oh shit... hold on its 3 black dudes! Lets make one female... who should it be?

Lets make the hero a chick... oh wait thats sexist... ok so lets make the villian on the chair a black chik... hold on thats racist and sexist.

Soooooooo.... lets make them all female... but thats sexist tooo...

Soooo... Lets make them all green skinned and sexless!!! problem solved... eehhhh... ya see, Im a genius!

Im a very firm beliver when it comes to peoples ability to express themselves freely. I do not find anything wrong with any of the above scenarios I mentioned. Alot of what is sexist and racist is, I feel created in peoples heads. I just think people should see this for what it is and not condemn it. They dont have to like it. But they should not condmn it.

We live in a world full of differant types of people and when creating something its impossible to cater to everyone.

I know there is more of one thing... but I dont think there should be less of it. We shouldnt fix this by having less white or male characters... I just think there should be more of the other stuff.

And to be honest you also have to look at who is creating this stuff. I keep saying you cant condemn people for not doing something you are not doing either. An example would be Japanese manga and anime. The japanese make it. They create all the manga and anime, which usually caters to there perceptions and cultural backrounds. And they are happy with simply selling it in their country. However its very popular all over the world. And the people from the western world, usually have to take it for what it is.... Is it right to condemn japanese manga and anime, for featuring mostly white cast of characters and that they also tend to depict females with huge jiggly boobs and lots of cheescake humor.?

In a world were a person like Conchita Wurst is met with standing ovation and awarded the Eurvision award for being male a gay transvestite who refers to himself as a "her" dresses as a woman, and leaves the beared... if you say your a straight heterosexual male who likes woman with huge boobs your condemened and called sexist what kind a shit is that?

Bottom line... there is nothing wrong here... keep on walking. I like stuff other people create for what it is. I belive in a world where no one is equal, everyone is differant and thats ok... because Im happy with appreciating those differences. But what i cant stand is that when you want to share with people your point of view many easily condemn you... and now a days people will easily throw around the words, sexist or racist towards anything that doesnt cater to their persective. Its fine if you wanna be gay, homosexual or transgender... but me... Im heterosexual... i dont care for none of that... HOWVER its ok if others want to cater to those things. And I have many friends that hang around in those circles and we all get along. And I dont have to be like them for that. its all about respecting each other and accepting and appreciated each others differences and Im just speaking for myself.

I get that we have more of one thing than others. But you know, I also belive nothing in the world can be obtained by asking someone else to do it. There was a time when most video games came from Japan. But then the western market grew and now its bigger than the japanese market. We see more games catered to western tastes.

Hopefully Latin america will get busy and make something that caters more to there culture and perceptions. We now have animations like Black Dynamite and the Boondocks that cater towards the afroamerican crowd. And while lots a people may not be happy with the depiction of black people in these animations they are produced by black people with a majority of black people doing the voices. but hold on, do i have to be black to enjoy these cartoons? More on that later.

What im getting at is... would it make people happy if black people where depicted as behaving more like white people... would it be correct to simply take everyone from every race and gender and have them behave the same? THATS STUPID! But then you have people on the homosexual campus wanting to be accepted for there differences....

Ultimatly what does all this lead to... NOTHING PRODUCTIVE thats for sure. And the people that use the terms racism and sexism so loosly are the ones who do the least for the issue. I myself am trying to create something. Wether it see's the light of day, im not sure. but i work on it. And I know I cant cater to everyones perceptions and if I tried, i wouldnt be able to tell the story I wanted to tell... so I shove aside the thought of what everyone else wants and simply tell the story I want to tell.... because at the end of the day, whats important to me is that I can tell the story I want to tell. Because nobody is going to do it for me and I wouldnt want them to.

Anyway i hope someone finds some reason on what Im saying... and yeah Im a caucasian heterosexual male and I also happen to like TV shows like The boondocks and Black Dynamite, just as Much as Regular Show, Adventure time and Attack on Titan anime and sword art online... is there a problem?

FINALLY (for real this time)... I dont think these people who creat these games have a racist, sexist or homofobic agenda... Like Nintendo with their Tamagochi life game... Nintendo got alot of heat for that... which I think was unecessary... i really dont think they met anything against the homosexual crowd by not including gay marriages. Likewise I dont think Ubisoft has an agenda against any race.

Lets just chill and see what the story is about. Guy in the chair seems like a real a ss h o le. Much like Shane and the Governore in walking dead. A good well written character is one that you feel strongly about even if its in a negative way. And in that respect, I can appreciate this artwork. For all we care the origine of this "white" character, could be that he was born in a country full of people from a differant race, much as in the same sense a black person can be born in japan.Regardless the color of his skin, he seems like a villinouse dictator that needs to be taken down. Im cool with that.

Edited 6 times. Last edit by Rick Lopez on 21st May 2014 2:03pm

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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany8 years ago
We are taking this obsessions with being "politically correct" too far.

Because really: first of all; it's a work of fiction. Second, what if the guy is ACTUALLY a racist? he is the bad guy and that not only would fit with the cover but it would also make the artwork consistent and keep it from being just a cheap scandal seeker.

Still, if the guy is NOT racist then... Where is the problem?

Again; it's an obsessions: Make the guy black and they will say "It exploits a cliche" Make him a woman and it will be "an objetivization" make him a South American and "It feeds on a misguided idea that South Americans are all weapon dealers" (Funny thing, didn't saw anyone say this about Mr. Montenegro in FC3) make him a normal american ans somebody in europe will point it as "Imperialist supremacy" (any excuse)

Botton-line: Tired of this moralist trend that in most cases leads nowhere.
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Gareth O'Neill Environment Artist (Contract), Ubisoft Reflections8 years ago
Well said Rick.
I have Echoed your comments many times in the past on controversial subjects and I'm usually met with scorn and lambasted or shunned for my comments because I am a Heterosexual White male, my comments on the subject are invalid as I am the majority and therefore it is impossible for me to perceive the injustices carried out to minorities.

I think you put things in a better way than perhaps myself but I completely agree, I consider myself a Fairist, as In I want everything to be Fair for everyone, and it drives me insane when things are not fair for all but its considered to be politically correct.

For Example, if you were to contact the Equality and Human rights commission (as I have in the past) as a White, Hetero sexual, none disabled, single gender, 30 something, none religious Male they are un-able to help you in any way because you do not fit in to one of their 7 Acceptable to help you categories. (see below taken from their website)

Age discrimination
Religion and belief
Sexual orientation
Disability discrimination
Gender equality - sex discrimination
Race discrimination
Transgender discrimination

I have requested and been denied help from them on the grounds I do not fit in to one of the above categories, not only that but I was even told that help with my issue would have been granted had I been one of the above (meaning there was nothing wrong with my issue as a topic of discussion).

This infuriated me as I was of the belief that Equality, and Discrimination were words that applied to everyone, because that would be the only way to make everyone equal and to be fair, you Can't Exclude people when your preaching fairness and equality, the same rules apply to everyone equally, if you tip the scales in favour of one or the other your undoing the very thing your trying to accomplish.

anyway rant over, I agree with your sentiment that sometimes people look too much in to things to find an issue when perhaps they should be looking hard in to the mirror as maybe it's they who have issues deep down and are using do gooderness and political correctness to compensate for their own issues, they project on to others.
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Andrew Watson Tools Programmer 8 years ago
Well it certainly looks like their marketing team was successful in getting people to talk about it!
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Announcing a game with a provocatively-designed single piece of art entirely without context was bound to generate chatter and controversy. Given Far Cry 3's often questionable handling of racial and sexual themes I don't think it's a huge stretch for commenters to be concerned about the possible direction of the new game and I have little doubt Ubisoft's marketing team was well aware of the kind of conversations it would be sparking. It's a rather contemptible marketing tactic as old as time.
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Jeff Wesevich Audio Engineer, EA Sports8 years ago
Brendan--when you contacted the Far Cry 4 team as part of the normal research on your piece, what was their reaction?
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Paolo Giunti Narrative Designer 8 years ago
My personal impression is that it'll go the same direction as FC3 even on the character design. Which is unfortunate, as i recall a lot of characters were so horribly stereotyped to be actually annoying to look at/listen to.
Don't get me wrong, FC3 was a very solid and fun shooter, and Vaas made an excellent psychotic villain. But about half the cast was really nothing more than a display of poor taste in character design.
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James Ingrams Writer 8 years ago
This is what I would call a "marketing" article, in that it pretends to convey "news", but just promotes. Gamers must never forget that the games media, alone amongst all media, exsists to promote the industry to guarantee it's continuing exsistance!
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James Brightman Editor, North America, GamesIndustry.biz8 years ago
@James, no it's not a "marketing article" - neither Brendan nor GI is attempting to market anything. We're not conveying news with this either; it's an Opinion piece which we clearly separate out from our news reporting.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 8 years ago
Never mind the fact of the protagonist sitting down on a religious icon whilst clearly being a warmongering sociopath with questionable taste in clothing not even irony could explain away. He has a dumb smirk after pulling the plug from his companion's hand grenade which will kill them both in a few seconds, but since the other guy is kneeling and has a slightly different skin tone, racism is the problem here; obviously. And don't argue with the companion part, because no racist I know can get close enough to one of its victims to pull the pin of the hand grenade said victim is carrying! Oh Mr. Pink, you eyes say "don't judge a book by it's cover" but the rest of your mural makes Poland's latest Eurovision entry seem subtle and well measured.

At times like these I wonder what the expensive part of this campaign was. Coming up with the poster, or hiring 10.000 people for a fake outcry under the same hashtag? Or is this a benchmark of how bored a society is to tweet about that from work? But maybe we are in luck, kneeling down with that grenade in front of that mural would make one hell of a photo promotion thing at conventions.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Klaus Preisinger on 20th May 2014 7:36pm

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Ryan Locke Lecturer in Media Design, University of Abertay Dundee8 years ago
All this vehemence and I'm just sat here thinking 'Wow that's a busy image, I sure hope they address it before release'. Tut !
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Joo Namorado Project Manager, Portugal Telecom8 years ago
Update: "He's not white and that's not the player."
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Dan Howdle Head of Content, Existent8 years ago

If this were a movie poster, no one would bat an eyelid. Being a movie, there's probably a story; a justification for whatever the race, gender, implied sexual orientation or suggested psychopathy.

I see no commentary in this image on either race or sexuality. A racial or homosexual subtext does not imply an opinion on either issue. So if you want it to bother you less, perhaps stop writing the subtitles to suit your daily outrage.
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Ryan Locke Lecturer in Media Design, University of Abertay Dundee8 years ago
Outrage sells - A part of me hopes they (carefully) ride the flames of infamy.
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Roland Austinat roland austinat media productions|consulting, IDG, Computec, Spiegel Online8 years ago
"Much more surprising (to me, at least) is that Ubisoft is continuing down this path with the franchise. Far Cry 3 sold a staggering 9 million units"

You've already answered your own question, Brendan. :)
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