Jacob Seed doesn’t seem like he should be an important or even interesting character. One of the three lieutenants controlling their own chunks of Far Cry 5’s fictional Hope County, Montana, Jacob will, if players follow the gently guiding hand of the game’s open world mission structure, just be the last checkbox to tick on the seemingly endless series of chores set up for her to complete. Before heading into his territory, most will have already spent dozens of hours squaring off against the other two militant—and militantly boring—members of the Project at Eden’s Gate cult “family”—John Seed, who “baptizes” others by tattooing one of the seven deadly sins on their flesh before cutting out the offending skin and stapling it to a wall, and Faith Seed, who oversees the distribution of a fantasy drug called Bliss, which converts more followers to the family through that time-tested psychological trickery of turning them into, no shit, homicidal zombies.
Before the Jacob Seed section, there is no reason to believe Far Cry 5 is interested in seriously engaging with any of the rich subjects it presents. Players assume the role of an unnamed, unvoiced sheriff’s deputy called, imaginatively, “the Deputy,” and enter the game alongside US Marshals and local law enforcement to arrest a popular preacher called Joseph Seed. Deliberate echoes of the opening minutes of the Waco siege come one after another—Joseph, a wiry zealot in oversized eyeglasses whose message revolves around the Book of Revelation’s Seven Seals, is almost a one-to-one David Koresh facsimile; the local sheriff argues with the marshal over the wisdom of directly confronting Joseph in the midst of his followers; and everything goes to hell when Joseph, claiming God is on the side of his mission, ends up freed after the trigger-happy marshal starts shooting in the air during a tense stand-off. All pretense to exploring these fascinating topics—premillenialist evangelicalism, clashes between American civil liberty and necessary government oversight, domestic terrorism, and fringe religious movements—is abandoned. In its place are vague gestures. The game’s prevailing image is that of a shirtless cultist, glowing green, whose religious fervor is expressed by tearing ass toward the player with a rusty pipe like the Florida Man freaking out on bath salts.
When just about all hope for something more trenchant is lost, though, Jacob Seed appears. Red-bearded, with a Richard Spencer undercut and wearing an old US Army jacket and ratty jeans, Jacob looks as if he’s crawled forth from the sweaty forehead of the American alt-right’s id. His exposed skin is scarred and filthy, well-toned muscles knotted beneath a layer of oil and dirt. He poses on loading screens gripping a combat knife, ready for action. He’s a survivalist; a self-made man who came back from the Gulf War ready to fight for his vision of a maniacal liberty overseen by no external power other than the Good Lord Jesus Christ.
The Deputy meets Jacob over and over throughout the process of dismantling his section of the Hope County map. Heading to the Whitetail Mountains region, players meet up with the local militia already in the process of fighting back. Their underground bunker festooned with Stars and Stripes and piled high with crates of ammo, the Whitetail Militia initially distrusts the Deputy, agent of the Man that she is. The player, for the first time in the game, probably isn’t too sure about her new allies either. One of the militia’s leaders, a middle-aged woman named Tammy Barnes, is openly antagonistic toward the Deputy. Barnes thinks she might be up to something because, even though the Deputy’s been ripping apart the same Eden’s Gate members Barnes is after, she’s still the law. And, despite the player having maimed and killed their way across the map already, it’s unsettling to see Barnes casually offering up mission details while a tied-up cultist sits slumped in an armchair, feet submerged in a kiddy pool and dead body hooked up to an exposed car battery in a torturous tableau.
All of it put together—and more directly than the rest of the game’s preppers and conspiracy theorists—the militia resembles something familiar in modern Americana: the well-armed, doomsday-rejoicing citizens all-too-ready to protect their community with outsized, self-righteous violence. Among their stuff is a scrap of paper entitled “Whitetail Oath.” It says only that “The Whitetails are born free. We will do whatever it takes to survive. We will never leave a man behind. We will resist, until we are free from tyranny.” Their extremism and their creed makes spending time with the militia call to mind the Bundy family’s ranch stand-off and Oregon wildlife sanctuary occupation, the mentality that led to the Ruby Ridge and Waco sieges, and the ideology of Timothy McVeigh, Robert Mathews, and acolytes of The Turner Diaries. In another story, the Whitetail Militia would be the villains.
Working alongside them, the Deputy is inevitably captured by Jacob (these unavoidable imprisonments occur with hilarious regularity throughout the game) and the militia’s characterization is put into further context. Jacob locks the Deputy in a cage each time he snatches her up and monologues his philosophy. We learn that he embraced a violent form of social Darwinism after nearly dying on a military tour in Iraq and is now obsessed with “culling the herd” by killing those he deems weak and fostering anyone he determines to be strong. Accordingly, rather than off the Deputy outright, he conditions her by hypnotizing her into a hallucinatory obstacle course that resembles a sort of live-fire boot camp.
In these sequences, strains of The Platters’ “Only You (And You Alone)” drift into the world and the Deputy wakes in front of a table set with a handgun. A timer ticks down and the only way to extend it is to snatch up the gun and run through the course—dreamlike household architecture bathed in red light and decorated with occasional images of snarling, bloody-jawed wolves. Each dead enemy adds precious seconds to the clock. At first, Jacob’s trial is a tedious, forced chore, but, by the second and third time the Deputy is dropped into them, a subtle urge to excel at the task in front of her takes hold. The first few rooms repeat with welcome, arcade level regularity. Jacob admonishes the player when time is running out and congratulates her with a barked “Good!” when she kills fluidly and with ease. Unthinkingly murdering cult enemies starts to seem if not good then necessary.
Here, Far Cry 5 begins to reflect what author and professor of psychology and psychiatry Robert Jay Lifton, identified as the modern doomsday cult’s “ideology of killing to heal” or “altruistic murder.” Through a process the game acknowledges as “classical conditioning,” the Deputy is programmed to respond reflexively to Jacob’s ideology. She is rewarded with her captor’s approval when killing enemies and verbally punished for failing. In its own small way, the game itself echoes this process by coupling a failure to complete the course with being forced to restart it over and over until it’s finished. Though the music box hypnosis and splash-screen “SACRIFICE THE WEAK” that pops up after each sequence is hackneyed, the effect of Jacob’s trials is far more nuanced than its trappings suggest. Rather than, say, force players to shoot enemies that look like non-enemy characters, Jacob’s ruthless “cull the herd” programming is instilled, in both player and player character, through a mild recreation of the same kind of behavioural conditioning used by apocalyptic cults from Japan’s outwardly violent Aum Shinrikyo and America’s own Manson Family to the self-annihilating, programmed brutality of Heaven’s Gate and Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple.
While this would be noteworthy on its own, Far Cry 5 goes a step further in its Whitetail Mountains section by directly equating its cult members with American militias and the nation’s military worship. Jacob, as the game’s most straightforwardly villainous character, is shaped by his military service. His worldview was formed during the Gulf War, informed by the national army he belonged to. (Posters scattered throughout his region show Jacob pointing a finger at the viewer in a recreation of Uncle Sam recruiting ads.) His follower’s bases contain chalkboards with “TRAIN, HUNT, KILL, SACRIFICE” written on them and his monologues are delivered outside the bars of a makeshift Guantanamo cell, a brainwashed aide-de-camp giving him a shave in front of rows of caged prisoners and patrolling guards. Returning home from war, his worldview exists only within the dimensions of an ill-defined Christian faith and its relation to the American, centre of his universe, whose impending collapse he views as the end of existence.
This, combined with his hatred of the government (“We let the weak dictate to the powerful and then we are shocked to find ourselves adrift,” he says in a radio address) makes Jacob more than a little reminiscent of the paranoid dreams-come-true that have finally given the local militia’s survivalist violence room to vent. By the time Jacob is killed and the militia wins, any serious distinction between the two sides, militant veteran and militant citizen, has been blurred to the point of meaninglessness. Jacob’s followers are more immediately appalling, but mainly because they has more control over other lives. What’s shown of the Whitetails suggests that, given the same opportunity, their power would only be a minor variation on the cult’s grotesque. Everyone, from the patriots of the US Army to the patriots of the militias to the patriot that is the cult-killing, order-restoring Deputy, has blended into a single, malevolent sickness that the game makes clear is distinctly American in character.
It’s the only fully formed argument that Far Cry 5 manages to make, but it’s a compelling one: the same processes used to form nationalist zealots, like the frightened imperialism at the heart of America’s military obsession to the radical libertarians who express a country’s character through its extreme, but logical endpoint, are the product of a culture that functions like a sprawling national cult. Just before the bombs go off in the game’s nihilistic final moments, with the Deputy and Joseph Seed the only ones left alive to welcome the End of Days, the complexities of Waco—of Ruby Ridge and Oklahoma City and on and on and on—are finally recognized as more than simple binaries. There are no good guys and bad guys; nobody quite right and nobody quite wrong. Instead, there’s only a despairing recognition of something rotten in the heart of a country’s culture at large and the understanding that its expression, in the name of but not with the help of God, may usher in the apocalypse after all.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at GQ, The AV Club, Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE.