When creative director Dan Hay explained his narrative vision for Far Cry 5, he described a story that would address what he perceived to be the return of the “us vs. them” mentality in the United States. By his observation, in the last decade or so of American politics, a deep division had resurfaced to create an atmosphere of fear, or as he puts it, pressure. And he wanted to make a game about it.
This perspective, one that bears the social privilege of seeing the hostility of American politics, as Waypoint reports, as an “unrealistic experience” to build a game on, may explain why Far Cry 5 is so out of touch. Is it about cults? Is it about militias? Is it about white people and Christian fundamentalism? In a way, it’s “about” all of these things, but it doesn’t offer any insight. The player is positioned, much like Hay, to feel pressure and fear from a situation they don’t understand. And they are given no opportunity to critically engage or empathize.
As a result, Far Cry 5 completely misses its chance to offer any insight into How We Got Here, perhaps even deepening that same divide between Americans that Hay speaks of. If Far Cry 5 wanted to make a comment on our current political climate, it was as easy as doing the research. An explanation can be found not in drugs or music boxes or physical torture; mind control, as a concept, is just a fancy phrase for mental abuse. White America is already equipped with the tools for spiritual coercion, and already uses them. And that fact explains more about the “sudden” rise of the alt-right and violent conservatism than initially meets the eye.
I speak from first hand experience. As as a pastor’s daughter who grew up in the backwoods of Washington state, Far Cry 5 doesn’t seem anything like the rural separatism that I grew up with. I can see certain markers in the game that I am supposed to understand as Christian, but they don’t align with what I know from personal history. Rather, the game seems to base its portrayal of The Father and his acolytes on depictions of cults from pop culture, in turn influenced by the John the Baptist trope of the ‘60s, wherein a gentle, attractive leader gathers followers on the merit of their feel-good message and charismatic public speaking skills. Add to that a pair of yellow-tinted aviator frames and you have a contemporary take on the old hippie prophet stereotype, a hipster David Koresh. He’s not exactly your average Christian pastor.
Religious coercion and spiritual abuse, meanwhile, are one of the most common yet least-talked about issues within conservative America. Looking at the history of the white Christian church gives insight not only into how it came to swing fundamentalist, but why it remains so popular despite its oppressive nature. Evangelicism, the roots of modern fundamentalism, can be traced back to the Southern Baptist Convention, which despite its egalitarian roots, split off from the greater Baptist denomination in the 19th century in order to accommodate and justify slavery. This preceded the social role white evangelicals would later play in opposing desegregation and the civil rights movement and also led to a fixation on sexual purity that would be used to subjugate women. Since then, white supremacist patriarchy has continued to be upheld by an agenda-driven interpretation of scripture that positions men as a representation of divine authority. Self interested megachurch pastors like Mark Driscoll, or cult leaders like David Koresh, can then build up a following using the fear of their followers to reinforce their self appointment as God’s proxy without even raising suspicion. The resulting power structure, fermented by the geographic and social isolation of the congregation, inevitably escalates and leads to abuse. It’s a pattern that plays out in many white evangelical churches across the country.
I observed this first hand the first two decades of my life. My father was a minister in the Foursquare Church, a foreign-mission focused denomination that can swing fundamentalist in the right setting. Growing up, I watched how my well-meaning parents, who joined the church out of an honest desire to help people, were eventually swept up in internal politics, bickering and emotional abuse in almost every congregation we joined. We encountered pastors who embezzled money, failed to report assault or abuse, or just plain humiliated and bullied other believers. As they founded or helped establish “starter church” after starter church, each one inevitably slipped into petty, dogmatic spats over Biblical interpretation and escalating Pharisee-like performances of holiness that would eventually divide and splinter the entire group. Eventually, my parents got sucked into and exploited by it too, leaving me one of the many orphans to ideology that Christianity (and eventually, the alt-right movement) hurt and left behind.
My experience isn’t uncommon. The white Christian church is constantly splintering at the whims of self appointed prophets. Even in my tiny town of 4000 people, there are almost 40 churches, mostly due to a vicious social hierarchy that few outsiders even knew existed. Evangelicism has already been shaped to emphasize the sections of the Bible that support patriarchal white supremacy, and its legacy has enabled an uncanny ability to weaponize scripture to support individual agendas. Add to that an environment where members of a congregation are also geographically isolated and have few other options for social interaction outside of their local church (establishing a fear of ostracization), and voila: You have an easy way to both start your own following, and keep new converts in line. Perhaps it’s not so hard to imagine the spread of spiritual abuse in Evangelicism, after all.
Far Cry 5, meanwhile, for purportedly being about a fundamentalist Christian sect, is about the least Christian thing I’ve ever seen. And I mean that not in actions of the cultists per se, but rather the ideology. It’s completely missing. The name of God is rarely invoked, scripture is almost never quoted, neither Hell nor Satan are used as a threat. One of the only visible markers of their faith—the “seven deadly sins”—are neither Biblical nor particularly popular within Christian circles. And “Amazing Grace” is at this point an empty cliche. This doesn’t just reflect the writers’ lack of familiarity with the culture but also reveals their ignorance of how extremism works. It can’t exist without active participation from at least some of its victims. In fundamentalism, this means evoking fear with the weaponization of core beliefs, using the same careful omission of any inconveniently contradictory scriptures that has been used to enable oppression for literally centuries, and that language of oppression is missing from every snippet of dialogue, in every line, of Far Cry 5. There’s a massive incongruity between the beliefs and actions of the cult, and the internal moral negotiations that would ensue from navigating that cognitive dissonance just aren’t there. And that’s why Far Cry 5, on both the sides of the cultists and the townsfolk, feels so foreign. Outside of being warned directly that Faith Seed is a “liar,” the game has almost no subtext of the severe verbal and emotional manipulation that anyone under “mind control” would be put through. And what mechanisms the Seeds do use—drugs, music and torture—are such unnecessary explanations for a system of psychological exploitation that already exists.
Even some of the casual design decisions made in Far Cry 5 play a role in weakening its message. While the cult seems to be vaguely Christian, it’s the finer details that reveal its lack of an authentic, cohesive origin. For example, The Father, with his bare chest, tattoos and yellow shades, looks like a rockstar. This is likely the byproduct of the game’s primary source of inspiration, the trope of the charismatic cult leader, where devotion and worship are directed at an earthly prophet instead of an ideological figure, like Christ. However, in modern fundamentalist Christianity, his presentation would be seen as vain and sexually motivated, thus self serving and insincere. And while many white men within the church are indeed self serving, it’s “safer” to act as a conduit for God rather than demand individual devotion, which would be seen unfavorably as idolatry. This is why abusers within Christian ideology will hide behind a weaponized interpretation of scripture (a dynamic that is missing from the game). It’s easier and raises less suspicion.
As for other dead giveaways, the NPCs of the cult generally sit within a demographic that, statistically speaking, is all but fleeing the countryside in real life, that of young, able-bodied people. Here they’re also the same height, with no visible distinctions between one another outside of skin color and haircut. Race wise, almost everyone is represented, as if the cult exists in some strange dystopia where everyone can be exploited equally in racial harmony. It’s just bizarre. The use of customizable player characters is this setting, with these specific characters and their specific backgrounds, is similarly tone deaf. With no adjustments or alterations for individual identities within the game’s dialogue, the game suggests that one could have a universal experience in this scenario, which is just false. It also suggests people of color would be co-conspirators of a rural extremist Christian cult instead of targets and victims. And I find it hard to believe that the social hierarchies we see in every facet of American culture wouldn’t somehow manifest under these circumstances.
With the character customization options and the developer’s choice in setting, it would almost seem as though the writers of Far Cry are aware of the criticisms of the series’s tone deafness and felt pressure to respond to it. But if they’d really wanted to atone for years of reinforcing a colonialist narrative, they could have pointed the finger where it belongs—back at the colonizers. It says something disturbing to me that even in a criticism of Christian extremism, we still can’t address it directly in any real or insightful way. It’s like we’re all being held at gunpoint.
This topic is important because we’re at a time in American history where the influence of evangelical Christianity on our politics needs to be put on the examination table more than ever. Rural white extremism explains why the conservative right is so comfortable with fascism. The culture of evangelicalism and its literalist interpretation of the Bible got them to accept it years ago. And not just accept it, but reinforce it and defend it. They’ve had years of practice building up a defense excusing the actions of abusive authoritarians, including their own God. When you wonder why poor whites or white women roll over in the name of a system that will exploit them (and viciously throw other marginalized groups under the bus when they damn well know better), look to that fear and cognitive dissonance. It’s violence, conditioning and moral negotiation all the way up.
When I wrote about the lack of authenticity in Far Cry 5’s portrayal of country life earlier this month, one person mentioned that the composer had done a lot of research in creating the soundtrack and lamented that it was a shame “the rest of the game wasn’t as sensitive.” But the thing about that is, authenticity isn’t always sensitivity. The music’s authenticity may remind me of my doomsday prepping childhood, but it doesn’t help tell the story better and it doesn’t reveal anything about the culture. And unlike identities that are actually marginalized, my white fundamentalist Christian background doesn’t need that kind of acknowledgment, because it’s in no danger of being erased. In fact, most of the time it’s busy trying to erase others. What it needs more than authenticity is dismantling, and as far as that goes, there’s still a huge challenge ahead of us. Equal access to well funded education and infrastructure are part of a long term solution, but on the short term, we’re faced with the problem of teaching millions of people who equate authority with God that they have the right to dissent. It’s not easy. And worse, we don’t really have the time to spare.
How you feel about how the game delivers its interpretation of Christian extremism will depend on if you feel that groups like the Branch Davidians and Heaven’s Gate are pertinent in terms of white Christian American culture. They’re an outlier, but they do exist as the logical conclusion of fundamentalism. Whatever the case, as a satire or criticism of either camp, Far Cry 5 is a clumsy one. It fails because it seems confused as to who the villains of the story really are, sending mixed messages about both the cult and the mostly-white Christian residents of Hope County (and positioning militias as a “good guy” while ignoring their antagonistic role in the escalating political tension in America).
I didn’t expect Ubisoft to suddenly change course with Far Cry 5. The days of Far Cry 2’s thoughtful and self reflective narrative are over. Heck, even Hay seems to admit it, noting that at the end of the day, they chose to avoid the psychological implications of the game’s narrative because “it’s a Far Cry game”. But at a time where taking an actual stand means so much, their failure to do so is a huge disappointment. Far Cry 5 isn’t about “fear in America”. It’s about one man’s fear that we won’t ever be able to return to the comfortable delusion that everything in our country is fine. When it comes to America’s politics, maybe Far Cry 5 is just as clueless as anyone.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.