Far Cry 5 is a game that struggles with concepts of control - control over the player, control over its beautiful mess of intricate systems, even control over the narrative it wants to tell. For most of its runtime, Ubisoft Montreal’s latest is the twenty-hour cavalcade of relentless violence that fans of the franchise expect: an all-you-can-eat buffet of planes to shoot down, jeeps to blow up, and outposts to capture, swarming with masses of crazed cultists just salivating for a bullet in the brain. That is, of course, until the plot decides to kick itself into gear, triggered by a progression meter that climbs slowly to your every act of wanton violence, which usually leads to unbeatable mobs capturing your tabula-rasa protagonist - known only as “The Deputy” - for the umpteenth time.
Like the Project at Eden’s Gate, the thinly-sketched Evangelical Christian death cult that haunts the rugged Montana valley that you find yourself defending, Far Cry 5 loves to wrestle control away from you a bit too readily at times, plying you with plot devices like magical drugs or bizarre mind tricks in order to keep you frog-marching down the prescribed arc of its story. But while its “family” of four villains spill a Wachowski sisters script-worth of nonsense each by the time the credits finally roll, the game continually scrambles to make them say anything of import about their organization itself or the vision of America that produced them. Like previous games in the series - particularly 3, which bore the unmistakable trappings of the racist “white savior” narrative that so often dominates popular Western media even today - Far Cry 5 draws heavily on existing media shorthand for its depiction of its cult, which, while relatively inoffensive and broad in its conception, robs it of its potential nuance and character.
Still, it’s not that Ubisoft is unaware of these pitfalls - rather, as lead writer Drew Holmes tells it, fitting all this baggage into the template of a best-selling action-blockbuster can prove trying. From the beginning of the project, director Dan Hay and other top creative staff worked with consultants like filmmaker Mia Donovan, who has knowledge of real-world cults like the Children of God, to create their vision for Eden’s Gate, even going so far as to write out a “cult bible” that mapped out the day-to-day operations of the organization. “That was really cool and interesting, but once we got to the gameplay part of it, we realized this realistic take on things wasn’t going to work at making a fun gameplay experience,” says Holmes. “There were versions early on, where we tried to go more subtle, even for the look of the cult, but when you get into a gameplay space, and you don’t know what to shoot at, well, that can’t work. We wanted to keep it grounded in reality, but we wanted to amp it up. That’s a lot of where the drugs came from.”
During our conversation, Holmes often alluded to Bliss, the game’s version of the classic perma-euphoric cocktail that lurks only on the pages of screenplays that ensures the easy docility of the masses. In true Far Cry fashion, the effects of Bliss are virtually indistinguishable from Tolkienesque magic, and they vary in intensity and form along with the contours of the plot, which has provoked a fair bit of criticism. Though he admits the effects are a bit ridiculous, even for the series, he points out that many cults use hallucinogens to keep their subjects sedated, often without their consent. From Holmes’ perspective, when writing a triple-A video game like Far Cry, you have to abide by what he calls “the Refrigerator theory.” He explains: “As long as the moment to moment makes sense, and it doesn’t immediately contradict itself when you go up to the fridge to grab a beer, you might think ‘Oh, this doesn’t make much sense,’ then you’re fine. It’s much more about the emotion in the moment.”
While Far Cry 5 is hardly the first big-name media property to use the sordid saga of these destructive organizations as fodder for a pulpy-thriller, some experts on the well-documented phenomena have mixed feelings about the outsized effects these attempts at representation can have on the public at large. Dr. Alexandra Stein is a UK-based academic who has studied cults and cultic behavior for the past twenty-five-plus years, authoring books such as Terror, Love, and Brainwashing. Though she says that many of the elements of Far Cry 5 and its cinematic cohorts can indeed be recognized in some real-world cults, the vast majority of these depictions verge on caricature, which can undermine her and her colleagues’ attempts at preventative education.
“The problem with the caricature is that it makes it too easy for Joe Blow to say, ‘that would never happen to me. That’s too crazy, and I wouldn’t get involved with something like that,” she says. While it might seem easy to recognize a “doomsday cult” like the Branch Davidians or Heaven’s Gate when they scream about the end of the world so openly, as Stein puts it, most cult-like organizations are far too canny to lead with the apocalyptic talk - rather, they rely on front groups like rehab centers and vocational programs to feed into their particular Mothership. She speaks from personal experience - by her admission, she was in one such organization for ten years, and she didn’t even realize it had all the markings of a cult until well after she left it.
"... in a cult, it all comes from the leadership, and they break their own rules."
“When you go to Scientology, they don’t say to you, ‘we’re going to force you to have an abortion. You have to believe in these little demons that float in your body that came out of a volcano. We’re going to work you 80 hours a week,’” Stein explains. “No, they say, ‘here’s a personality test. Here’s a training program for dentists to make your practice better.’ They have dozens of entry points that seem innocuous. It might not look like Waco; it might look like a job. But soon enough, they can control the most intimate details of your life. In my experience, unless you have preventative education on what cults are, most of us are vulnerable, if we happen to come across one that happens to line up with our interests at the moment. And it can be as fleeting as ‘I want to buy some cosmetics.’”
Though Stein describes most aspects of the Project for Eden’s Gate as fairly run-of-the-mill for fictionalized cults, she takes great umbrage with its rigid organizational structure, which has the David Koresh-esque Father Joseph Seed at the top and his three trusted lieutenants just below him, never wavering until your illustrious Deputy puts a bullet in each of them. While this might make for an engaging gameplay conceit, to Stein, this reflects one of the most endemic myths of cultdom - the idea that the group has any leadership beyond its charismatic head. “You often have a lieutenant layer near the top, sure, but it’s extremely insecure,” she says. “The writer Hannah Arendt said that it’s important to recognize that totalitarianism isn’t a bureaucracy, and cults are totalitarian. There are no rules and procedures beyond the individual - in a cult, it all comes from the leadership, and they break their own rules. When I draw my picture of a cult, it’s a steep pyramid shape. One scholar does an upside-down T, to indicate that everybody is really on the bottom. It’s unstable all the way up.”
For her part, Stein advocates creators looking to pattern their work on real-life cult catastrophes could easily avoid the explicit antagonism and othering that games like Far Cry 5 gives to their “Peggies” by taking the player through the process of recruitment from the start. There’s no reason that you couldn’t have played as a Peggie yourself rather than some nameless cop, or even as a wayward lieutenant of the Seed clan. Still, such a bold decision was never in the cards for Far Cry 5, an exceedingly adequate game that’s so scared to say anything that it ends up spouting gibberish for hours and capping it off with a meaningless explosion or two. “We all have this idea that only weak people get taken into cults, people who have no one,” Stein says. “It’s just not true. It’s not about coming from an abusive background or repeating family patterns, or any of the easy narratives we want to believe. Everyone is susceptible.”