You are a rookie law enforcement officer, onboard a helicopter heading into the main compound of Project at Eden’s Gate, a religious cult operating across a huge stretch of Montana. A towering statue of the militia’s leader, Joseph Seed, rises into the sky. With a warrant for the arrest of Seed, you navigate a warren of buildings patrolled by aggressive white men and their snapping dogs, before entering a white-boarded church. A haunting rendition of Amazing Grace plays in the background as you meet Seed for the first time, in an almost dream-like sequence. From there, you are transported to an intense face-off between militia extremists and federal officials.
This is what you would experience on playing the new Ubisoft video game Far Cry 5 (2018). Its story speaks to what seems a powerful political moment, of an American nation literally at war with itself.
While already a huge financial success (with reports of nearly five million copies sold in its first week of release), Ubisoft’s title has been widely criticised for its overt lack of political message. The Montreal-based company may have promoted its game as a serious take on religious and political radicalism, but so far journalists have labeled Far Cry 5 a title unwilling to squarely take aim at Trump’s America, or speak directly to matters of contemporary racism, endemic gun culture, or right-wing extremism. Instead, reviewers have called it “totally unconvincing” (PC Gamer), “a missed opportunity” (The Outline), and a game that ultimately “says pretty much nothing about” modern America (The Guardian).
Are we being too harsh on the game? After all, most entertainment companies hype their products. Equally, would a film or novel tackling religious cults be criticised for not engaging with the wider problems of Trump’s America? In my view, video games do not need to make blatant political statements to be considered art or satire, nor do they need strong messages to have impact. Ultimately, gamers make their own readings and experiences, without the need to be constantly “billboarded”.
The Last Supper
Far Cry 5 also still has a message; just more subtle, and yes, peripheral, than first imagined. The core image of the game is a digital recreation of the Last Supper, reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci’s mural of the late 15th century. Ubisoft depicts Seed as a preacher at the center of a long table, with open hands gesturing to his gathered disciples – all white, hardy and unkempt survivalists. The table features a mass of armaments from hunters knifes to bazookas. Seed uses the Stars and Stripes as his tablecloth.
It is a great picture: subversive and satirical, intriguing and ambiguous. It is true that the gameplay rarely reaches such iconographic heights, but it asserts the same sense of destabilization and decay. The game has something to say if you listen.
While Far Cry 5 is set in contemporary Montana (and speaks to a recent rise in home bred extremism), its sense of conflict evokes an earlier period, specifically the mid-1990s, when militia groups resembling Seed’s seemed on the verge of having real impact on American society. Specifically, the game character of Seed closely resembles David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians, a religious cult whose members committed mass suicide during a federal-led siege at Waco, Texas, in 1993. Beginning with the Ruby Ridge siege of 1992, events climaxed in 1995, when Timothy McVeigh planted a bomb at the Alfred P Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City that ripped the structure apart, and killed 168 people.
Seeking to understand the ascendancy of such radicalism, scholars discovered issues of rural impoverishment (linked with Reaganomics), isolation, and disenfranchisement. Transposing the mid-1990s to 2018, Far Cry 5 suggests we have something to learn from that difficult moment. It leaves questions for the player to ponder, such as at what point does disillusionment turn into rebellion, as well as highlighting the paradoxes of religious groups who worship their weaponry. As one rescued civilian puzzles: “For holy folks, they sure put a lot of faith in their guns.” The game leaves the player to decide the bigger lessons.
The image of Joseph Seed itself smacks of prophecy. Lead writer Drew Holmes explains: “We wanted to tell a story about a man who believes the end of the world is coming.”
Far Cry 5 is about one American who invites doomsday. Like most post-9/11 video games, Ubisoft’s title explores the dystopian theme of a nation falling apart, with the player, as hero, sent in as a loyal serviceman (in this case, a sheriff’s deputy) to raise the flag. Like many games, it is a decidedly cathartic, adrenaline-fuelled and redemptive campaign. The player actively saves small-town America from a lurking threat, and while action dominates the narrative, there is always a sense of righteousness and patriotic duty on display.
The game is also about hope. Far Cry 5 counterposes the natural beauty of Montana (introduced as “America the beautiful” – a land of grain silos, pick-up trucks, and the Jeffersonian agrarian idyll) against scenes of darkness, such as a dank bar where locals talk of unwelcome and ugly thugs taking over. The fight for Hope County, the fictional territory where the game takes place, is actually a fight over hope itself: the hope offered by a misled leader with vague talk of saving people, especially the disenchanted white, versus the truer hope offered by traditional American values and governance. Illusions to false messiahs and even a mission “Make Hope Great Again” to some degree satirize Trump’s America.
But the real danger of Joseph Seed lies in the mystery of where he’s planning on taking his Americans. As heard on a radio at one survivalist’s bunker: “You are my children, and together, we will march to …” Then the transmission fails.
It is important that as players we interpret the clues, think for ourselves, and co-create the stories. Far Cry 5 offers an immersive and atmospheric digital America for us to explore. It’s a good game precisely because it shies from outright criticism of Trump’s America. After all, we already have that in spades in the real world.