Far Cry 5: How Ubisoft dug deep into America’s disturbing history of cults
by Chris Kerr
Far Cry 5 feels different. Smothered in the trappings of modern-day America, it seems as if the zany shooter, known for its vibrant settings and outlandish characters, has been yanked back down to earth. Where previous entries have been set across lush Pacific islands and Himalayan mountain ranges, the switch in focus to the States has made the the fifth main instalment in the series a more potent affair.
Whether Ubisoft likes it or not, commentators have been quick to draw parallels between Far Cry 5’s rendition of America and the real thing. Political extremism, gun-control issues and seemingly infallible figureheads have made headlines in recent months, but the game also touches on another nerve in American identity: the country’s history of cults.
In the latter half of the 20th century, the US showed itself to be a nesting ground for doomsday cults. In the 1960s and 70s, groups such as the homicidal Manson Family and the UFO-worshipping acolytes of Heaven’s Gate prospered and propagated, convincing their congregations to commit heinous acts like murder and mass suicide in the name of family, religion and even extraterrestrial overlords.
Ubisoft’s latest open-world prospect brings that checkered past into the present, transporting players to the fictional backwater of Hope County, Montana, to duke it out with the Project at Eden’s Gate – a marauding band of religious cultists convinced the end is nigh. Led by their charismatic leader, Joseph Seed (also known as “The Father”), the group seizes control of the rural landscape and brings the local populace to heel. On paper it reads like a nightmarish fantasy, but the premise isn’t quite as far-fetched as it sounds.
Far Cry 5’s narrative director Jean-Sébastien Decant explains that Eden Gate’s appearance in the game is based on how real-world cults spread their roots: “Imagine that you own a farm and a good portion of land. One day, you realise that the neighbours have sold their land to a bunch of eccentric people. The day after, hundreds of eccentrics are settling down.
“You realise the neighbours have sold their land to a bunch of eccentric people”
“Their presence impacts the nearby landscape, your farm too. Business is going south and the presence of the eccentrics has devalued your property. Nobody wants to purchase it anymore, except the eccentrics who will buy on the cheap. That’s an example of how some cults have operated to acquire a targeted area and spread.”
Those “eccentrics” might then attempt to embed themselves within local infrastructures such as businesses and government services. From there, they could apply even more pressure to non-compliant personalities and generate a “control buffer” around their core operations. It’s a wickedly utilitarian tactic that’s been employed by groups such as The People’s Temple, whose leader Jim Jones formed his own church and took on the role of a pastor to boost membership, gain influence and eventually push his own “us vs them” agenda during sermons. The technique is so successful because it’s effectively an inside job. By the time people realise what’s happening, it’s already too late.
(Jim Jones, leader of The People’s Temple, in 1977. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Nancy Wong)
“Eden’s Gate didn’t specifically indoctrinate the locals,” Decant continues, when quizzed on how such an unorthodox, seemingly militant movement could establish itself in Hope County – even with a leader as enigmatic as Seed. “Their ranks are filled with old-timers, the disenfranchised and the lost souls from before the Montana days, and plenty of others coming from all across the planet over the last ten years. Let’s be clear: they’ve never held a civilian at gunpoint or stolen anything in broad daylight before now.”
Eden’s Gate might be propagating an extreme ideology, but the basics are formulated and communicated in a simple, relatable way. Like many cults of days gone by, it succeeds in the world of Far Cry 5 because it offers salvation to those who feel abandoned. Back in the 1960s, a new-age Christian movement called The Children of God promised the same thing, spreading a message of spiritual revolution, happiness, and salvation while teaching its followers to distrust the “The System”. Of course, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is, and the group became embroiled in controversy for imploring converts to “show God’s love and mercy” and attract other members through sex (a method dubbed ‘flirty fishing’).
After gaining notoriety, it was forced to rebrand and reorganise, but it still persists today as The Family International. You may wonder how these movements retain their appeal after such high-profile misdeeds, but Decant has already provided the answer: they attract those looking for nothing more than security and acceptance. Offer them that, and you might as well be offering them the world.
The devil is in the details
Listening to the narrative director wax lyrical about the methods behind the madness, it’s hard not to be impressed with the amount of thought that’s gone into making Eden’s Gate a credible threat. Ubisoft evidently went to great lengths to ground its fundamentalists in reality, speaking with specialists from around the world, meeting with Montana locals (yes, the state itself is a real place), and poring over the history of cults and preppers from the 1960s onwards.
Anthropologist and Stephen F Austin State University professor Karol Chandler-Ezell was similarly struck by the studio’s efforts, and confirmed that the notion of a real-world Eden’s Gate is anything but make-believe.
“Given that the game is set in the western US, and the cult is a Christian derivative with white members, they would get away with quite a bit,” she tells me, suggesting the cult would be treated very differently by the justice system and media than a non-Christian group, or one comprising people of colour. It’s her opinion that our modern-day infrastructures would almost certainly look more kindly on Seed’s flock, allowing his perverse ideologies to grow and their numbers to multiply.
(A mugshot of David Koresh in 1987, held by the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office. Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Koresh seems to share more than a few similarities with Ubisoft’s own madman with a messiah complex
“Take a look at how long the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon) groups persisted in Utah, Colorado and West Texas in recent decades. Meanwhile, the Branch Davidians, a religious cult based in Waco, plagued nearby college campuses and towns for years and didn’t run into trouble until they got really obvious about stockpiling massive armouries and weapon hoards. It took some fairly extreme child-molestation charges to finally do something about them.”
The mention of the Branch Davidians, led by self-proclaimed “final prophet” David Koresh is particularly curious. Koresh seems to share more than a few similarities with Ubisoft’s own madman with a messiah complex. For starters, they both display a penchant for firearms, hostile takeovers and fantastical prophecies, and even seem to have the same taste in aviators.
Is this the real life?
As you might expect of someone who hoards guns and harasses entire towns for sport, Koresh eventually met his end in a firefight when the FBI raided the Davidians’ compound in April 1993. In Far Cry 5, it seems like players will face a similar task: cut the head off the snake and eliminate the threat. It’s obvious inspiration from yesteryear, and another minute shred of detail that brings an eerie sense of familiarity to the world of Hope County.
(A fire at the Branch Davidians’Mount Carmel Center in 1993. The siege lasted 51 days and resulted in 76 deaths, including that of David Koresh. Credit: FBI/Wikimedia Commons)
Indeed, the more I mull over America’s dangerous love affair with the weird and wacky, the more I wonder whether Ubisoft’s self-styled “parallel reality” really has started to bleed into our own. As tensions rise in our very real timeline thanks to a certain wild-haired commander-in-chief and an ever-widening ideological gap, it’s hard not to view Far Cry 5 as the digital embodiment of the modern-day Cult of America. Decant seems to agree, and while he isn’t reading too much into the series’ politicalisation, he admits to being a little unnerved when reality suddenly begins to imitate art.
“We live in a climate of very short-term information cycles. Everybody’s freaking out; there’s lots of judgement that’s either based on headlines or driven by emotions. In this context, social media is like gasoline and news is a match,” he suggests, speaking about the reaction when Far Cry 5 was first unveiled.
“It’s the time we are living in, I don’t personally feel anything about the political comparisons people are making. As soon as we share the game with our fans, it’s not ours any more […], but as a developer it was a bit frightening. I’ve worked on many games inspired by our world and history before, but I’ve never been caught up by reality as much as with this one.”