When American culture is confronted with a sudden political trauma, popular culture responds, and fears tend to bubble up in our media. The Cold War, as well as former President Richard Nixon’s scandals and cover-ups, inspired a generation of political paranoia thrillers, like The Parallax View or Winter Kills. Decades later, former President George W. Bush’s war-filled presidency and the years after 9/11 saw the arrival of increased militarism in popular films and shows such as The Hurt Locker and 24.
For those of us living during Trump’s presidency, every new book or film with hints of xenophobia, nationalism or nativist violence creates a sometimes messy opportunity to interpret the pop-cultural smoke signals. At first blush, Far Cry 5 appears to be one of those distinctly Trumpian experiences.
The latest in a blockbuster franchise of mostly unconnected shooting games, Far Cry 5 is set in rural Montana, pitting players against an evangelical Christian cult run by charismatic extremists. The game has been met with controversy: An online petition called on game developer Ubisoft to cancel its impending assault on Christianity. Here at Mic, we previously wrote that the game could be an opportunity to explore the dark heart of American extremism. Far-right website Breitbart accused the game of pandering to “the revenge fantasies of the punch-a-Nazi crowd.”
Early fans and reviewers speculated: Would this be a game about the evils of religious devotion? Or would it be about the so-called “alt-right?”
It turns out that Far Cry 5’s politics aren’t completely obvious. Its writers back away from mainstream political commentary about extremism. In the end, it’s not a game about liberal versus conservative or religious theocracy versus liberty. Instead, the game itself is a cautionary artifact, an example of how the uniquely American obsession with cults protects us all from recognizing the extremists in the mirror.
The game takes place in fictional Hope County, Montana, where a drug-dealing Christian cult called the Project at Eden’s Gate (adherents are called “peggies”) has been kidnapping the locals and slowly starting to build an island compound. Its leader is Joseph Seed, a doomsday preacher who is preparing Hope County to be a refuge for an oncoming apocalypse he calls “The Collapse.” The player is the sheriff’s deputy, who has been dispatched to arrest Seed. When the arrest goes south, the cult takes total control of the valley and a land war breaks out in rural America.
Good extremists, bad extremists
The goal of Far Cry 5 is to win back the area by driving ATVs and firing all manner of modern weaponry at the fanatics in order to purge the cult and liberate Hope County. To take back the land, the player needs to build a “resistance” movement and replant the American flag firmly in Montana soil. From there, the player begins fighting religious extremism with right-wing political extremism.
The introduction to the game’s spectrum of protagonists and freedom fighters arrives when the player wakes up in the bunker of a military veteran named Dutch, an anti-governmental activist in the vein of the real-life sovereign citizens, a loosely connected movement of sometimes-deadly extremists that doesn’t recognize government authority. An arrest warrant for illegal use of state land to keep a private reservoir can be found in Dutch’s bunker, as can evidence that Dutch is an evangelist for homeschooling.
The Christian extremism introduced at the game’s outset may seem to indicate that far-right extremism is the enemy. This notion quickly vanishes as the game introduces the player’s purported allies in resistance.
The majority of the game’s resistance fighters — who really just make up a loose network of well-armed local militias — is comprised of survivalists, doomsday survivalists, conspiracy theorists and veterans, all with guns and vehicles painted with the stars and stripes. Several of the game’s protagonists, including the local reverend and several essential teammates and allies, make note of their service in Iraq or the Gulf War and speak darkly about the state of the country, about neighbor turning on neighbor. But if there is one binding ideology between the resistance members, it’s the perseverance of individual liberty in the threat to land rights.
A subversive right-wing undercurrent shared across the game’s heroes and villains alike is disdain for the federal government, dressed up in the trappings of the real-world “patriot” movement. The only federal officer in the game is a hot-headed U.S. Marshal whose impulse for violent intervention threatens the entire mission. It’s a credit to the game’s researchers that the player is a sheriff’s deputy; real-life anti-government extremists often view locally elected sheriffs as the only legitimate law-enforcement apparatus.
Several other reviewers have expressed disappointment that the game’s politics seem incoherent. Well, those looking for a referendum on right-wing extremism will walk away disappointed. But the politics are there — not explicitly in the writing, but in what the writing takes for granted. The game offers up a familiar fable, lurking in the special role of the cult in American pop culture and folklore, about how we delineate the good extremist from the bad extremist.
At first, just as it appeared to the game’s first critics, the gun-loving evangelical cultists are obvious stand-ins for Bush-era Christian nationalists-turned-extremists. Far Cry 5 slowly backs away from that notion. Some characters refer to the peggies as “hippies.” In one voicemail left on an in-game answering machine, an unnamed character suspects the cult is advancing a “globalist agenda” — a term frequently used in right-wing conspiracy theories. As the game’s rogue gallery of paranoiacs continue to chime in, it becomes clear the Eden’s Gate cult represents to any given character whatever fantasy of social perversion they fear most.
“Keep your rifle by your side”
Far Cry 5’s cult draws clear inspiration from the real cults that beguile us. Decades later, cults such as the Manson family, the Heaven’s Gate cult and the Branch Davidians at Waco are still the subjects of modern films and TV series. Cult stories, as Bitch Media’s Andi Zeisler wrote, offer a voyeuristic glimpse into what goes wrong when our need for success and belonging becomes so self-assured that we lose our self control.
“Listening and learning the lines and the tells of thought reform and groupthink is a kind of psychic insurance policy; if we know how cults work, we won’t be weak or gullible enough to fall for the florid promises of a self-described messiah,” Zeisler wrote. “Instead of thinking, ‘That could have been me,’ we can think, ‘That would never be me.’”
When Americans talk about fascism today, our understanding often starts the same way: with a focus on the charismatic leader. Fascist movements are often led by chauvinist strongmen who beguile a population to abandon reason and democracy in favor of violent pursuits. This is a comforting explanation for those who feel they’d know better than to fall for a charlatan. But it doesn’t address any of the underlying politics of fascism, and it surely doesn’t train us to recognize its symptoms. In his book The Anatomy of Fascism, preeminent fascist historian Robert Paxton called the focus on the cultish demagogue “the last triumph of fascist propagandists.”
“It offers an alibi to nations that approved or tolerated fascist leaders, and diverts attention from the persons, groups and institutions who helped him,” Paxton wrote.
By scapegoating the cult leader or fascistic demagogue, we protect ourselves from recognizing fascism and cult behavior in our own lives and in national culture, Paxton theorized. Instead of thinking, “That could have been us,” we can think, “That would never happen here.”
We know much more about fascism today. We know fascists seek out returning military veterans in order to prey upon their sense of custodianship for their country. We know fascism is anxious about possible loss of self-control, and that it meets such fear with masculinity and militarism. The closer you look at the bad peggies through the eyes of the good resistance in Far Cry 5, it’s impossible to distinguish fascist from fascist.
In the game, car radios blast Christian nationalist lyrics such as: “So we’ll take a stand, because we must protect our land, keep your rifle by your side.” Based on the religious overtones, one could assume the song is meant to be a in-game tongue-in-cheek parody of the Eden’s Gate cult. However, there’s no reason it couldn’t be an earnest theme song for Far Cry 5’s protagonists in the so-called “resistance” movement too.
We know the Eden’s Gate cultists in Far Cry 5 are bad, for overly obvious reasons. They violate consent and torture the unwilling. It’s a child-like moral fable in which charisma is, as always, a sin-eater for the evils of extremism. In this particular American fable, the player represents the well-armed skeptics who set aside our differences for duty and love of country to purge the degenerates from our rightful home.
Far Cry 5 is ultimately a story that serves up the familiar threat of the charismatic abuser and answers that threat with a fantasy of winning back self-control through cleansing violence. The existential threat of the religious death cult doesn’t just provide cover for the protagonists’ own extremism, but also the cathartic justification for it.
It could be the hyper-nationalist and ultraviolent framing are now necessary in developing a blockbuster game title. How else would you explain an open-world war zone set in Montana? Any other explanation would test the boundaries of our imagination beyond the dichotomy of unacceptable cult extremism and justified nationalist extremism. That kind of flag-waving, gun-toting militarism is so normalized nowadays, it hardly registers as political at all. Yet we still insist the real cultists are the commies or the feds or the Jesus freaks.
When the audacity of American nationalism is so garish, it’s impossible to gawk at the religious fanatics in smug superiority. After all, none of us are free of sin.