The most striking thing about Far Cry 5 is how it has been shorn of any and all rough edges, despite dealing with volatile material. It takes place in fictional Hope County, Montana, and deals with a vague doomsday cult. Neither the game’s setting nor its antagonists are defined too precisely. They are studiously generic; they exist insofar as they need to exist to let the player enjoy herself.
Hope County is a straight-from-the-mold Ubisoft player’s paradise—dense with vendors, treasure, vehicles, and good honest folks who need the player’s help. That’s “good honest folks” in opposition to the feral, drugged-out cultists who sprint at the player like Danny Boyle zombies. These “angels,” one in-game document points out, can’t be treated or saved; thus there is no option but to slaughter them without compunction.
The Project at Eden’s Gate, led by Joseph Seed and his cadre of demented siblings, gestures at all manner of real-world signifiers—David Koresh, Ruby Ridge, Heaven’s Gate—without really resembling any of them. Seed’s rhetoric is standard end-times fire-and-brimstone, babbling about “the collapse,” and his three lieutenants each have a single trait: John Seed, obsessed with sin; Faith Seed, obsessed with drugs; and Jacob Seed, obsessed with torture. The cult is also oddly inclusive to people of color and women; one more careful excision of fraught material.
What Eden’s Gate believes beyond “the end of the world is coming” is never made clear, though they do have their own special bible, as if to assure players that these are not real Christians (what exactly is in this other bible is, you guessed it, never revealed). Real-world Montana, incidentally, is home to the Church Universal and Triumphant, a long-running new age cult run by the improbably named Elizabeth Clare Prophet. You may recognize the much-sampled audio of one of their madly ululating “decrees”—the full version of which runs an excruciating 27 minutes long.
The late ‘80s saw the Church obsessed with what they felt was an inevitable nuclear war, even urging members to build stocked fallout shelters—the largest of which was maintained well into the new millennium. In 1989, the cult’s security chief was arrested with a stockpile of illegally purchased weapons and plans to arm 200 CUT members. “They were . . . to be used only to protect our loved ones and community in the event of a holocaust that would destroy civilization as we now know it,” he said. It is no secret what the Church Universal and Triumphant believes in; like any functional cult they have a sprawling, syncretic mythos. Their beliefs are specific and authentically bizarre (this sentence, from the testimony of a former member, gave me shivers: “if you have or had an abortion, then you will be an abortion for the next 9 lifetimes”), forced on followers using alleged sleep and food deprivation and more.
The point is that the Project at Eden’s Gate is so ill-defined that it leaves a gaping hole at the center of Far Cry 5. The cult’s characterization is so imprecise that it has been interpreted as everything from a right-wing satire of leftism to a South Park-esque exercise in adolescent nihilism and a muddled attempt at untangling American disillusionment. It’s not even clear how people join Eden’s Gate, or if everyone in the cult has been conscripted or brainwashed. The competing methods of Jacob and Faith Seed muddle this issue entirely. Jacob uses brutal indoctrination and hypnosis to influence his militia, who appear to be the “normal” enemies the player fights; the rabid zombies—”angels”—are people Faith essentially lobotomizes using a drug called Bliss.
The game says Faith’s angels can’t be cured, yes, but the player breaks free of Jacob’s mind control. That other victims might be able to do the same thing is a notion that never comes up, unless you consider death-by-an-arsenal-of-garishly-customized-weapons “freedom.” The player can rescue people from cultists all over Hope County, but once someone’s indoctrinated into the cult . . . who knows what happens then. Maybe the cult is so inclusive because literally all its members are brainwashed?
It’s no mystery why Far Cry 5 is so slippery. All the meaty symbolism and signifiers it throws onscreen are treated as nothing more than window dressing; here, a flag is just a flag. Joshua Rivera, reviewing the game for GQ, puts it most succinctly when he says “Far Cry 5 stops being a story and starts being a video game.” The dictates of fun don’t lend themselves to nuanced explorations of belief and culpability, especially not for yet another entry in the bewilderingly long-running Far Cry series. These games set up ostensibly charismatic villains who provide the dangling bait necessary to spend 50 hours kicking around in a thinly fictionalized foreign locale—with the ruts worn this deeply into the formula, hoping for Far Cry 5 to wheel out some cutting critique of “our current moment” simply because it’s a fake-America this time is misguided at best.
Far Cry 5 may actually have less in its head than any of its predecessors, right up until its profoundly stupid conclusion. That said, one image in the game struck something in me. When the player goes to collect Boomer the dog, a potential animal companion, she finds Boomer’s owners dead. Their bodies are sprawled out on the ground, blood pooled around them. Their hands are almost touching. Families torn apart; people murdered and their homes stolen. This is the kind of violence that suffuses American soil, a legacy that will stretch into the future. Montana, notably, is the only U.S. state to teach indigenous history in schools, however imperfectly—to even acknowledge the wounds left in this country’s Native populations. You will be shocked to learn that indigenous people don’t factor into Far Cry 5, although Hope County is said to be near Missoula, and Missoula is surrounded by reservations. It’s not unreasonable to expect a piece of art that consists of nothing but violence to reflect on that violence; on where it sets that violence, and how it employs it.
It’s not unreasonable unless you’re discussing a videogame, I suppose, one which displays neither the genre acumen to pull off propulsive action without stumbling over bizarre hurdles (why can the player wantonly murder civilians with nothing more than a gentle warning popping up?) nor the wit to deliver satire—a couple wan one-liners about libtards and gender don’t count. The pieces are really all in place here: references to “who’s in charge” of the country, heavily armed, paranoid militia, religious hysteria induced by white figureheads. That Far Cry 5 refuses to put two and two together really is a feat of artistic timidity.
Astrid B writes about movies and videogames on the internet. Follow her on Twitter.