Far Cry 5 left me feeling similar to what I felt the night of the 2016 election: How did something like this happen? The game is a reflection of our current situation, complete with addled politics and a seemingly delusional leadership figure at the center of a cult of personality. Where it completely fails is in deciding to answer the question of what would happen if David Koresh really was Jesus Christ. In doing so, it turns into a nihilistic, perverse experience and I’m left stupefied that anyone who worked on this thought it was okay.
We’re living in interesting times, you and I, just like the old curse says. America is topsy turvy. Guns are practically worshipped in this country—real praise the lord and pass the ammunition type stuff—with militant gun thugs storming nightclubs and concert venues and school corridors and taking over wildlife refuges. The economy is taking a roller coaster’s worth of ups and downs, while the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The current administration appears to be staggering toward nuclear war. The environment is failing, with snow storms piling on top of snow storms or hurricane after hurricane battering already battered towns. In terms of politics, Democratic voters are horrified by what is going on while Republican voters are content to sit back and savor the Democrats’ horror, and neither side’s party seems to offer real solutions—the Democratic half tries to maintain a status quo while the GOP proceeds to ransack the town.
With all of that said, the idea of a game confronting what we’re all confronting on a daily basis seemed absolutely perfect. Armageddon is on the lips of TV-famous Evangelicals, with preachers huckstering buckets of doomsday chow for the day when the bombs drop or Jesus returns, whichever comes first (and parts you with your money beforehand). In Washington we’ve seen the dominant political party, the GOP, warp and twist itself to serve the needs of a gameshow host-cum-political hustler most party members were decrying as a debasement of their very principles just a few short weeks before the man won. And his voting base can’t be described as anything other than cult-like, if not a cult, flat out.
And yet. And yet. The game, by design, doesn’t have much to say. In it you play a new deputy, often referred to simply by your position, “Rook.” You’re accompanied by another deputy, your sheriff, and a US Marshal, sent in to fictional Hope County, Montana to arrest Joseph Seed, head of a cult called the Project at Eden’s Gate (the cultists, in game, are referred to as Peggies). Joseph tells you it’s not in God’s plan for him to be taken away, and sure enough, when his people start to attack your chopper, it crashes and he takes it as a fulfillment of God’s desires for him. You flee until you eventually wind up in the hands of a doomsday prepper who sends you out of his bunker to fight the Peggies and free the county from their influence.
Already the game has muddled its politics. #NotAllParanoidDoomsdayBelievers, it tells you, as if there’s an appreciable difference between two men who both think the world is coming to an end. The main difference seems that Joseph is just a tetch more proactive about it. Further, the cult both reflects real world cults and doesn’t at the same time. It reflects them in homilies and butchered Bible verses and some of the ritual, but not in the extreme depravity of it. By the time you emerge from the bunker of “Dutch” (so called because his last name is Roosevelt), the Peggies are marauding across Hope County, enslaving the residents and slaughtering the rest by hangings, crucifixions, and burning them on pyres. They have wild, scraggly faces like a cross between a hippie and a mountain man and they behave more like a Raider in a Fallout game than someone trying to recruit you for a cause. Even the enemy types are consistent with Raiders: melee, rifle, and flame thrower users making up the bulk of what you’ll face again and again throughout the game. The unreality of these monsters-as-cultists is especially jarring when the game pits these brutal thugs against you at an outpost you need to retake while loudspeakers blare messages about love and safety and acceptance and building a new world from the remains of the old one. Obviously, the juxtaposition is meant to jar you, except that the game never offers a regular group of them. They’re all murderous thugs. There’s nothing about them that seems appealing to a lost soul, nothing that would stand as public advertising for this group of end-of-the-world murder wackos.
While you fight the cult, the map of the game is broken into three sections, one for each of the three lesser antagonists before you get to face down Joseph again. John Seed is a guru type who tries to break you down mentally through abuse, Faith Seed tries to break you down through drugs, and Jacob Seed is a violent man who goes full Clockwork Orange Ludovico Technique on you. Their reasons are unclear. Each has a back story of tragedy and abuse at the hands of the world, but it’s not enough for the amount of savagery they engage in. They exist as an idea of a cult in amber.
Graphically speaking, the game is stunning. The wilds of Montana are gorgeous and just as gorgeous are the buildings and interiors with their knotty-pine paneled walls and decades out of date furniture lovingly rendered like some lost episode of Twin Peaks. It’s the kind of thing that could so easily be re-adapted for other games like a movie studio backlot and will instead languish in service to a single story that is all sound and fury. The gameplay is solid enough and shooting handles well (even if sniping is still iffy), but cars drive like greased air hockey pucks, swinging wildly with the slightest turn. The most satisfactory vehicles are helicopters and quads in terms of practical usage and feel. A huge area where the gameplay falls down, though, is in outposts and encampments—these areas often feel arcade-like, your character being funneled into shooting arenas and having to perform tasks that ensure a new wave of enemies will come pouring in. A shooting gallery is still a shooting gallery even if the ducks can flank you. All that said, solid enough gameplay doesn’t make up for storytelling that verges between the meaningless and the brutal, punctuated by moments of juvenile humor that’s completely at odds with what’s being told here.
The story is often meaningless in that very little of it feels like we’re involved with an actual cult or that locations and characters couldn’t be slotted out at random. There’s little difference between taking back a visitor’s center from cultists than in regaining a crater base from Martians would be, and about as little plot motivation: it’s there so you do it. Being as the game goes very little into what it means for a religion to become this powerful, or take over this much, beyond a lot of gum-flapping by the big bads about their simultaneously lofty and cruel goals—such as Jacob telling you he will ensure his people are strong for what’s coming, and he’ll do it by culling the weak—none of this lends much in the way of urgency or goals. Again, things simply exist to be done, so to play, you do them.
And where the game isn’t that, it’s got bizarre tonal issues. One series of missions has you trying to stop production of a drug called the Bliss. Faith, the spiritual one, pumps people full of the stuff so she can implant the cult’s beliefs deeper—often going too far and chemically lobotomizing them into mindless, zombie-like enemies. Contrast that with another set of missions where you try to ensure an event called the Testy Festy (based on a real-life bull testicle food festival in Montana) goes off without a hitch. You meet side characters who become allies you can call on to aid you in missions. One such story sees you aiding an ally as she hunts down a guy who burned people to death and enforced cannibalism among them, while another has you helping the goofball son of a cantankerous old bigot running for senate who trots out such humorous chestnuts as “Obama-lovin’ libtards!” Simply the most fun you can have outside of lockjaw.
The game dips a toe into being political but is hesitant to actually say anything (outside of the ending which was so awful I was left with my jaw hanging in disgust, but I’ll get to that in a moment). In an age of Evangelicals run rampant and people who are against the Trump agenda calling themselves the Resistance, a game about a cult in Trump country where the people opposed call themselves the Resistance seems rife with potential. But, unfortunately, that’s about where it ends. There’s no discussion of race or women of any import, no real look at how a place could get there from here. Nothing that goes into the white supremacy that fuels a lot of these movements. Everything is drapes to dress the windows. As I said earlier, it’s a story about a cult encased in amber. They’re too brutal and cruel (John, the guru, will tattoo you with the name of your sin and then cut out that skin using a hunting knife) to be passable as something you’d imagine people choosing to enter into and their goals—to suck up the remaining resources and citizens—too opaque to be grappled with. They believe the apocalypse is coming and that’s about it. That, coupled with the game’s mixed messaging—it’s the gun-hoarding religious types to worry about, but the gun-hoarding doomsday preppers who will save us from them—reflects nothing of the world in which we live. In the Venn diagram of reality, the church-y gun nuts and the apocalyptic gun nuts almost form a circle. Further, such weird hedging leaves the game saying nothing much at all, while dressing up in grownup clothes and thinking that makes it an adult.
Now the ending. Hoo boy, the ending. If you ignored the spoiler warning above, bow out now. If not, take my hand.
Wow. The game ends (aside from the secret ending ten minutes in) in one of two ways: If you leave Joseph and go to get help, he wins. The brain washing his brother Jacob put you through earlier kicks in and it’s implied you slaughter all of your fellow law enforcement survivors (as you do to everyone around you every other time the brainwashing kicks in). That’s the “bad” ending. The “good” ending consists of you fighting Joseph who has drugged all the companions you saved during the game and forces you to fight them as well as him. You can revive them and they again become your allies and together you prove that you can overcome one hateful man and his evil ideas. You arrest him and head out. Or you do until nuclear war breaks out in the form of blooming mushroom clouds and fire and you all flee through burning wreckage with him in tow. Eventually your car crashes and you end up rescued by the man you tried to arrest who makes you the first member of his new cult, handcuffed to a cot, mirroring your rescue by Dutch in the beginning of the game. Joseph wins again. He feels vindicated, and, judging by the exact timing of those nukes, by golly it’s hard to argue with the man—God told him he wouldn’t let him be taken, after all.
Watching this I felt sick. I can imagine the room of writers thinking this twist was great. How could it lose? And I’m simply at a loss. It reflects very badly that there was no one there powerful enough to raise a hand and make sure they didn’t go this route.
The story you want with a cult leader is the story of a paper tiger. You need to make his followers see that their god bleeds like any other mortal man. The ending to the game should have had the bad ending being you fighting Joseph to his death (and accidental martyrdom) and the good ending having you walking away to get the National Guard while he pleads and begs for your attention and becomes ridiculous in the eyes of his followers. What you don’t do is vindicate him. You don’t vindicate the cruelty, the slaughter, the evil perpetrated against everyone and everything that displeased his Yertle the Turtle gaze. You don’t suggest that he was right in any capacity. You don’t suggest that maybe Hale-Bopp really did have a spaceship tagging along behind it to pick up the Heaven’s Gate crowd, or that Jim Jones made great cocktails, or that David Koresh really was Jesus Christ returned. We live in the real world and we see the destructiveness of these organizations and how, even if they don’t outright kill their members in suicide pacts, they leave huge psychic scars that affect former adherents for the rest of their lives. It’s utterly depraved to portray even the vaguest possibility one of these guys, who engages in sadism and drug addiction and murder, as possibly being right in his beliefs.
“But hold on,” the argument might go, “what if it’s just a coincidence, the bombs and him?” And the game, by leaving he and you and the only survivors so far as you know, you at his mercy, him speechifying about being right, that he knew it was coming, that he was told, clearly chooses a side.
It’s irresponsible and grotesque. We live in a world where Charles Manson killed a pregnant woman and her companions thinking it would invoke race riots he had termed “Helter Skelter” and in which Timothy McVeigh blew up a government building and killed and injured hundreds. We live in a world where Cliven Bundy held a standoff with the government and later, like Jacob Seed, his son Ammon took over a wildlife refuge belonging to the state. I’m not looking for a game to exist purely so I can spank conservatives again and again. But in an age of Trump and his cult of personality voter base, who will believe anything that paints the other side as demons (and, in some cases, some who think the other side is made up of, actual, literal demons), an age in which the president spews vile rhetoric against minorities, against women, against this, that, and the other thing he thinks will rile up his crowd, it’s dangerous to offer the idea that such a man may be right. Or at least think he’s right, and, if he’s a last man standing (or gets to become a dictator, let’s say), at that point there’s qualitatively no difference.
I don’t imagine that any of this was the intentions of the developers, but I can only judge product, not intentions. What I imagine is that they thought about going the Frailty route, where the twist of that film is that the dad who claims visions from God and kills “demons” turns out to be right and of his two children, the one who doubted and thought his dad was only a serial killer turns out to be wrong. Except Frailty goes out of it’s way to paint the “victims” as murderers and pedophiles and monsters themselves.
Far Cry 5 doesn’t. It presents the people of Hope County as ordinary folks put through a meat grinder by a dangerous man who turns out to be justified in doing so. It presents a world where Trump could be right, and if he could be, then it tells us fighting is pointless and we might as well give up and give in. Seeing as the developers had the villain survive, and the player end up in handcuffs, maybe that was what they were saying all along.