This is a multi-part series. You can find your way around the whole thing at the Chapter Index.
Disclaimers: I’ve also listed all the disclaimers in full at the Chapter Index
In (very) brief, they are:
• Lots of Far Cry 5 spoilers.
• I didn’t actually play the game.
• Far Cry 5 is © 2018 by Ubisoft Entertainment SA. Please respect Ubisoft’s declared intellectual property rights.
• If you want to use my ideas, take them, use them and welcome. Make great content.
This Post is Huge: Yeah. 2800 words and counting. Really it’s three related parts that feel too dependent on each other to publish separately: Part One acknowledges Far Cry 5 was supposed to look at cults, separatism and divisionism in American society, but didn’t. Part Two, which is divided into two smaller bits, begins the process of imagining what it would look like if we made a game that did examine cults, etc. Part Three addresses the term cult which is loaded and ambiguous and not useful for examining either religious or follower-explotative organizations. So yeah, there’s a lot of material here and there will be more still in future posts. There are a lot of ideas here. Enjoy!
Traveling Through This World Of Woe
So what happened with Far Cry 5?
Far Cry 5 takes place in the fictional county of Hope, Montana, and is about surviving in a zone controlled by a violent doomsday cult. In 2016, well before Far Cry 5 was released, Ubisoft’s hype machine took full advantage of the rising divisiveness between liberals and conservatives, between urban Americans and rural Americans, and between the religiously devout and the irreligious. This tension only progressed in 2017 as the Trump era was fully realized. Then in 2018 Far Cry 5 was finally seen by the public. And regarding social division in the US, regarding the phenomenon of doomsday cults, FC5 said… nothing.
Far Cry 5 was released in early 2018, and didn’t address any of these things at all. To the contrary, as Chris Franklin, observes Ubisoft endeavored to assure FC5 said as little as possible, and ended up implying more than it intended.
Eden’s Gate, the fictional cult in FC5 follows a Christian faith. The New Testament is quoted often by the Eden’s Gate leaders, especially The Revelation with obvious millennialist interpretation. And yet, Jesus isn’t mentioned even once, not in sermons and not in the gospel music. And it’s conspicuous.*
Brainwashing is done using a fictional mind-control drug rather than the more common recruitment and organization methods used by cults, including camaraderie, peer-pressure, appealing to desperation, isolation and indoctrination.
And then, nuclear Armageddon (nuclear holocaust over Montana, at very least) occurs in one of the possible endings, which begs that conversations should be had, and yet FC5 fails to contribute to that conversation at all. Moreover, this is the only ending possible if the Deputy (the player) confronts Joseph Seed and Eden’s Gate. Alternative endings are had by choosing to walk away, leaving seed’s brainwashed, drug-addled victims to languish and suffer under him without hope for rescue or justice. To me, it presents an unsatisfying, depressing, unresolved dilemma.
To be fair, it may just be that the sheer cost of FC5 in capital was too much to behold without company pressure to adhere to risk-adverse best company practices. (Granted, the Catch-22 between getting nuked and letting evil prevail — in this case evil refers to the oppression, murder and abuse of followers and victims of Eden’s Gate — is clearly outside any syllabus of best practices.) It’s likely Ubisoft’s development team felt they couldn’t afford to offend anyone (and lose that market) and hence endeavored to create as politically bland a product as possible. The thing is, as Disney’s showed us many times, by trying too hard, it’s easy to end up making unintentional statements (case in point, Chicks dig the sweet ride, the implicit moral of Aladdin). Mr. Franklin observes FC5 endorses being a rural prepper (not to be confused with a preppy) and implies this is a better alternative than being a doomsday cultist. Better still is to not fully embrace prepping, but to instead make friends with preppers, and perhaps being prepperesque without fully committing.
There’s also a certain gross hypocrisy, given western media is willing to explore, play with and risk blasphemy of non-Judeo-Christian faiths. Even the predecessor to FC5, Far Cry 4 offended Buddhist groups with its box art in which the antagonist, Pagan Min (no relation to Burmese king in the Konbaung dynasty) sits irreverently on a sacred Buddha statue using it as a makeshift throne. The grievances of those groups were, as is typical, disregarded entirely. Games (and western media in general) explore religious themes casually and with frequency, with Judeo-Christianity being a major exception. Considering the prominence of Judeo-Christianity in western culture, it warrants scrutiny and critique in media, including within games. And still Far Cry 5’s premise presented that opportunity to its developers, and they steered entirely clear. (The Binding of Isaac serves as a notable counterexample that openly explored Christian and biblical themes. Despite its success on PC, The Binding of Isaac wound up getting banned from iTunes) One can infer from this game companies are afraid of reprisal by religious extremists. FC5‘s avoidance of mentioning Jesus at all certainly suggests that Ubisoft harbors such fears. If Ubi doesn’t worry about violent retaliation, then litigation, political censure or loss of sales from boycotts by offended parties. It’s an example of chilling effects silencing speech.
But FC5’s worst implication, I would argue, comes from portraying Eden’s Gate as something closer to comic-book a mind-control themed supervillain gang than a real world religious institution. There’s a mastermind overlord and his trusted lieutenants, each of whom feature a uniquely-themed superhuman power with which to control his or her followers. (Jacob uses military themed brainwashing techniques; Faith drugs her victims; and John just has an inexplicably endless army of abduction teams and will kidnap and hold loved ones hostage — is that a superpower?**). This implies real-world doomsday cults in the US are not a worthy topic for consideration, hence Ubisoft felt theirs needed to be turned into cartoon caricatures.
For a moment I want to reiterate what I’ve opined before regarding games that address real world issues. Most games, and almost all AAA games don’t, choosing instead to create fictional threats to confront. It’s better for the industry and for the art that games boldly endeavor to examine real world matters, including the violent hot-zones featured in Far Cry (e.g. failed African states, human trafficking in the south Pacific, civil war in the far east or violent cults in the rural US). Even if games poorly represent such situations, it continues the conversation. In contrast by avoiding real-world problems and choosing instead only to portray fantastic conflicts adds nothing at all. A poorly-considered argument will, at very least, invite better-considered ones.
So what does better look like?
I’m Only Going Over Jordan
There’s already been plenty of discussion online regarding FC5, much of it critical. and for those interested in whether or not the game is playable and worth suffering its problems for its fun bits, I invite you to seek it other critiques of the game and decide for yourself at what price point it is worth obtaining and playing.
Because it’s the same franchise as Far Cry 2 (about which I’ve raved to excess ) I want new Far Crys to be good and I want to love them. (And I want prevalent fire physics back! And I want plentiful, plausible first-aid animations and region-accurate weather! And game effects like malaria and deteriorating guns!) But I’m getting distracted by re-opened wounds, and it does no more good to (further) beat the dead horse of how FC5 is okay, but not awesome, not terrible yet still disappointing.
So instead, it’s better to imagine something closer to what we wanted. Let’s consider what feasibly could have been with a bit more research and creative latitude. FC5 is what it is. It’s not going to change now. But by imagining what is missing, we can inform games of the future. We’ve seen this happen before.
It’s a long journey. Let’s get started.
Golden Fields Lie Just Before Me
Suppose I was able to produce a game with the same design and premise of FC5. It’s an open-world first-person game with shooting, exploration, survival, collectable-hunting and so on. I have set the game in Montana and got my level designers to take a trip to Montana and get it right.
It will include all the activities I can find that Montanans like: hunting, fishing, boating, plane flying, beer drinking, pasty-eating, Burger Diving, ice-climbing, horse-riding, skiing, driving too fast, geyser-watching, rodeo-scoring, axe-throwing and testicle festivalizing. Anything that seems to fit well into Big Sky Country.
Suppose, then, I want to make the primary antagonist the armed violent fanatical division of a doomsday cult commune. I want my doomsday cult to feel authentic to the American Doomsday-Cult Experience. I want the problems with my fictional doomsday cult to reflect the problems faced by historical doomsday cults in the US and by people, civilians and responders, who have engaged them. I want to address real problems of religious communes. And while I’m at it, I want to provide a glimpse of the lifestyle, social dynamics and politics of Montana, so that Montananas feel I’ve done them right. And in all of this, I want to come up with interesting, satisfying stories.
What would that look like?
Dark Clouds Will Gather ’round Me
In order to address cult phenomena fairly, I’ll need to clarify what I’m talking about. The word cult itself is problematic. And regardless of whether we’re talking about new religious movements, unorthodox political activism fronts or even peculiar countercultures, once US society brands a group as a cult, its members commonly end up alienated and marginalized, sometimes even violently purged. Our society doesn’t like scary new social trends.
In the mid-20th century, cults referred to any new religious movement (now, aptly called new religious movements or NRMs) Christianity has about 40,000 distinct denominations, but this does not include non-denominational churches who have defined their own creed or statement-of-faith, most of which would still qualify as NRMs. (Religions have to get pretty old before they’re not new.)
During the 20th century, new movements were automatically distrusted to be dangerous merely for meddling around with scriptural interpretation beyond what God intended (as according to other, slightly-more-orthodox faiths). This is partly because differing religious faiths were more antagonistic than they are today. (In contrast, since the new century, Christian churches are less threatened by their fellow schisms than they are new atheists, Islam — perceived as a monolithic front — and opposition groups to common Christian-right political fronts: Abortion-access advocates, gay-rights activists, feminists and so on.) In the 1970s, it was common belief that all churches outside the one true one were instruments of Satan. This presumption extended, of course, to any new religious movement that failed to even adhere to an established orthodoxy.
NRMs also faced the anti-cult movement which automatically regarded them as fraudulent scams that brainwash victims before exploiting them for money or labor. Since many institutions did exactly that, whether regarded as a cult or otherwise, anti-cult movements kinda had a point. Or would if they hunted indoctrination and exploitation wherever it was found.
More recently, sociology professor Janja Lalich discusses cults in her TED talk. For purposes of her talk, she redefines cult as an organization with an authoritarian, pyramidal heirarchy that recruits via manipulation (generally targeting people suffering from loss or trauma and offering them easy answers and a place to feel better), that pressures followers to divest themselves of their lives outside the organization, and ultimately seizes total control of each individual and how they live. By this definition of cult (Lalich freely admits) many established institutions qualify, The Roman Catholic Church, The Southern Baptist Convention, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The Church of Scientology. Major Islamic foundations, including the Taliban, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and the Ahmadiyya Caliphate fit Lalich’s definitions of cult. Also religious dictatorships such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran would also qualify. Lalich also believes cults need not be religious in nature, and that nations, commercial enterprises and organizations can be cults as well.
But this means for sake of describing Eden’s Gate, cult is not a good word to use, even if it qualifies under Professor Lalich’s definition. Granted it’s used a lot, and I’ll still refer to it when outsiders refer to Eden’s Gate as one. But for our purposes Eden’s Gate is an NRM. It’s still dangerous, apocalyptic, and has violent contingents and is going to be a problem for Hope County. A rose by any other name and all that.
I’m Only Going Over Home
So what the heck is this situation that has beleaguered Hope County?
Well, as I mentioned above, Eden’s Gate is more something of a supervillain band, with a brigade of fanatically loyal henchmen thanks to it’s leadership’s repertoire of mind control techniques. So let’s not do that.
Instead, let’s occupy Hope County with the Reformed Church of Eden’s Gate. (Properly, it’s the Reformed Baptist Church of the Jesus Christ Advent of Eden’s Gate). The RCEG is a new religious movement that that has gained a considerable following and a handful of rich patrons, and is moving into the intentional community phase of expansion. As such it has secured about 8000 acres† in Hope County, Montana. Currently over three thousand parishioners live on the commune, and as such it features a security contingent of about five hundred volunteers.
With these figures, the RCEG is a major social movement, and will be one of the hallmarks of its era. All of Montana including the Governor is flipping its shit over how crazy and popular this new movement is (and they do call it a cult.) It’s likely the President of the United States has commented on occasion about Eden’s Gate, and in committees in both houses, bills have at least been considered regarding this Eden’s Gate thing in Montana.
Developments at Eden’s Gate occasionally make national news.
Meanwhile the Eden’s Gate Commune has among its population about twenty to thirty undercover agents and informants reporting to the FBI, the ATFE, local law enforcement and news agencies. And no, they don’t all know about each other.
Things are about to get so exciting!
* Jesus is mentioned in the opening scene (watch it here). Sheriff Whitehorse exclaims Jesus! in the opening scene as the police helicopter passes by the the Father’s Statue. I haven’t checked to see if Jesus! is ever used as an expletive in secondary dialog. Jesus! is a common expletive in 2010s-era games that do not feature doomsday cults in Montana, so it might be used in FC5 as well to convey alarm and distress.
Regarding the Father Statue, it’s kinda amazing. Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro is thirty meters tall and took nine years to build. The Father Statue’s height is not listed anywhere. Visually, I’m guessing it’s 60-70 meters tall. (Comparatively the Statue of Liberty is 90 meters), and likely it was built in one third of the time, thanks to some amazing feats of engineering and construction. It probably cost the church around $6 million, so it was a pretty major expense.
** According to materials available online, John augments his baptismals with an unknown blue chemical (not to be confused with Faith’s white gas), but it’s not actually mentioned (that I know of) in the game proper.
† For comparison, Jonestown was 3800 acres. The YFZ Ranch was 1700 acres. Big Muddy, the Oregon property where the Rajneeshpuram was settled was 64,229 acres, but the city itself only took a small fraction. Trementina Base is two squares of 400 acres each. Mount Carmel Center is 941 acres. So the Eden’s Gate community project is pretty darned huge, the Deathklok of cult communes. Plenty enough to provide housing, farms, private schooling, it’s own police department, a radio station and one superfluously huge statue. Fortunately for Eden’s Gate, there’s plenty of hydroelectric power in Montana, so they don’t have to worry about setting up a nuclear reactor, but they will have to set up sewage treatment centers and their own internet.