When it comes to first person shooters, games writing hit a wall years ago. We’ve exhausted just about every means and pretense to explain the aggression of videogame antagonists. Not the Big Bad Villain of every game, mind you, but rather, the hordes and waves and unending streams of nameless NPCs who show up in huge numbers to thwart the hero. Sometimes they’re zombies or other beasts understood to be violent because of their mutated or demonic nature. Or they’re an ideological opponent, which inherently suggests a threat. Or, in the case of Far Cry 5, they’re drug addicts, driven to frenzy by the chemicals present in their body, attacking innocent people as much for personal gain as sheer bloodlust.
Drug use seems to be one of the safest ways in games narrative to immediately establish an expectation of violence. The drugs depicted are rarely portrayed as they are in real life; in name and effect they’re a combination of traits from various substances and only vaguely recognizable. But whatever their hip street-name or origin story or bodily effect, it’s a shortcut that is often used to vilify a group or person without having to give out any other information. Are they in pain, suffering from mental health problems, being abused and lashing out? We don’t know, and that’s the point. To know their motivations would be to understand, perhaps even sympathize with them. And that’s not the goal of enemy NPC design. They’re combatants, and drug addicts, not sympathetic humans. Empathy is not the point.
Where did this association between drugs and aggression first enter the popular dialogue surrounding body altering substances? The conservative effort to stifle social revolution in the decades preceding the War on Drugs, and years of shock stories in the media no doubt played their part. But by now, videogames are part of a greater voice reinforcing the narrative status quo rather than innocently parroting it back. The percentage of the videogame playing population that regularly comes in contact with chronic drug abusers is undoubtedly nothing compared to those who only know of them from media and entertainment. And the primary message they’re getting from media is this: addicts are combative, and to be feared. There’s no room for nuance or perspective in the impersonal AI of a gun-toting NPC.
It’s not just inaccurate, it’s lazy. Yes, there are drugs that sometimes make the user aggressive, and most of them are stimulants. A short list features the usual suspects of cocaine, meth, and PCP. Generally, the aggression is limited to the duration of use; the drugs don’t brainwash users into a heightened state of loyal combativeness that can be weaponized by a third party (and we know this, because MKULTRA tried). And yet in Far Cry 5, drug abuse is meant to explain the actions of thousands of people who apparently abandoned their lives and families for the privilege of guarding outposts in the woods. While the Seed family uses torture to break their victims, constant exposure to their wonder drug, Bliss, is what turns them into the cult’s mindless super soldiers, the Angels (or as Paste Magazine’s Brock Wilbur calls them, Christ Zombies). But what about the rest of the seemingly-lucid cult members, who have an amount of agency that would suggest they’re not constantly high?
No doubt the writing’s heavy emphasis and association between cults, mind control, violence, and drug abuse comes from the game’s borrowing from the popular depiction of cult leaders from the ‘60s, who were often portrayed as charismatic hippies using their good looks and drug experimentation to inspire devotion from their followers. As an explanation though, it’s still boring, and not particularly relevant to what we know about mind control, cults, and drug abuse now.
I have other issues with how the writing of Far Cry 5 interprets the topic of religious coercion in white fundamentalist Christianity, which I’ll save for another article. For now, I’m reminded of all the drug addicts I knew back in my hometown, a little place not unlike Fall’s End. I think of my ex-husband’s cousin, who used to go to my father’s church. The pollution from a nearby mill gave him brain cancer as a child, and the pain was so bad, he started taking meth. He died from complications of his tumors and left behind a wife and two children. I think of my ex-husband’s best friend, an invalid with Crohn’s Disease and a colostomy bag who would disappear every time he went on a meth binge. We haven’t seen him in years. I think of my nephew’s half sister, whose mother began pimping her out for meth when she was a child and I remember those nights when she was a teen, when my ex would let her sweat out the drugs on a mattress in the family den so she could get clean again. Last I heard, she was working at Wal-Mart. I’ve yet to meet an addict that didn’t come by their need to self medicate honestly.
Far Cry is far from the only game to use drug abuse as an easy explanation for NPC aggression (for example, my beloved Fallout series is a serious repeat offender). But it’s one of the more direct juxtapositions I’ve seen in a game in a long time. What does this depiction of drug addiction and religious extremism reinforce about poor rural whites? What does the wholesale slaughter of Eden’s Gate cultists infer about the value of the life of an addict? The message is muddled by additional context. But in general, as a character motivator and a justification for violence, it’s a tired device, one that seems especially cruel considering the relationship between trauma, neurological damage, the rewiring of the brain’s reward anticipation system, and self medication. As writers and human beings, we can do better.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. 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.