Seeded

Far Cry 5: One terrifying thing the divisive game gets right

Behind political cowardice is a chillingly accurate mind control story.

I was indoctrinated into Far Cry 5’s Eden’s Gate cult years before I even picked up a controller.

In 2018, musician and composer Dan Romer released Far Cry 5: Into the Flames, a collection of original songs covered by a selection of alt-country artists. Among them was Charlie Mtn, one of my favorite singers. Their contribution to the album, “Oh John,” was a stompy, high-tempo ode to a figure I’d never heard of.

But from that first listen, I was obsessed.

The lyrics were saturated with catchy slogans and righteous anger. I found myself humming “In holy water there can be no tears” and “our country made a promise but you cannot trust a liar.” I knew the songs came from a video game, but I had no idea what it was. It wasn’t until years later I discovered the songs were an in-universe cult hymnal from Far Cry 5. I was embarrassed, but as a person with a longtime fascination in cults, I was also incredibly intrigued.

In reading about the game, it seemed like a cutting examination of the slow invasion of Montana by white supremacist hate groups, like what happened in the town of Whitefish combined with the Rajneeshee cult in rural Oregon. But then I read the reviews. Far Cry 5 was widely criticized for pulling its punches and not saying anything about political extremism.

I was disappointed, but I was more interested in the cult aspect of the storytelling. Sure, developers may be unwilling to villainize the alt-right, but villainizing a cult is almost too easy, and I wanted to see how accurately they handled it.

“In the Beginning”

Joseph Seed, surrounded by his heralds, offers himself to be arrested in the game’s prologue.Ubisoft

So three years after the game’s release, I started playing Far Cry 5 with absolutely no frame of reference to video games. I was going into it less as an action-adventure experience and more as a cult simulator. How did Ubisoft take the playbook we see so many charismatic figures pull from and create an interactive experience?

The answer was much more complicated than I first assumed. The prologue was fascinating, following the player character as they accompany a U.S. Marshal to arrest cult “father” of Eden’s Gate Joseph Seed. However, Seed and his cultists overpower the authorities, and it’s revealed the entire mission was rigged by Joseph’s followers within the police force.

The sequence shows just how powerful the cult is in Hope County. Joseph quotes often from the book of Revelation, echoing David Koresh’s doomsday cult of the 1980s and 1990s. Seed turns what was intended to be his downfall into just more proof God is on the side of Eden’s Gate. Similarly, Koresh used the military opposition to bolster belief in his prophecies.

After the prologue, we learn Far Cry 5’s Hope County is divided into three sections, each devoted to a member of Joseph’s “family.” John, the smooth talker, Faith, the ethereal drug peddler, and Jacob, the makeshift militia leader. Three sections, three different types of indoctrination. It’s a regular cult neapolitan sundae, with Joseph being the cherry on top.

The tone is spot on to the real-life footage seen in documentaries, the insistence by Joseph that “we prepared for this” and “He won’t let them take me.” Each of his “heralds” speaks of Joseph the way any middleman in a high control group would. They often repeat phrases like “he saved me” or “he made me who I am.” The cult looks right, sounds right, and fights for their way of life like real cult members would. The only thing that’s missing? Actual beliefs.

“Faith without works is dead”

Even the thumbnail of Far Cry 5’s announcement trailer villainized “sinners.”Ubisoft

There’s no soul to what Eden’s Gate believes in. There’s a vague prophecy about “The Great Collapse,” making the group into a doomsday cult, but it’s unclear where they stand politically. Yes, Jacob Seed bears a striking resemblance to alt-right icon Richard Spencer, but many Hope County locals refer to the group as “hippies.” It seems their only stance is against “sinners,” but their definition of “sin” is incredibly basic, limited only to the seven deadly sins.

A key reason cult stories are so engaging is that every single person involved had an identity that was erased by the control. But we never see that with those involved in Eden’s Gate. There are no children. There are no cooks making communal meals for the members. There’s no evidence of life outside standing outside waypoints and saying “Wait, what was that?!” when you get too close.

I understand why this was necessary. It’s the conundrum of every cult movie and TV show ever made: how do you portray a criminal cult group so the viewer sympathizes enough to be engaged, but not so much that they side with the cult? Giving the cult firm beliefs would alienate the audience whose beliefs somewhat align, and humanizing the cult members would underline their innocence in the cult’s members.

One of the most clever things Far Cry 5 does is assign a common cult mind control method to each member of Joseph’s family. John, who the player is encouraged to tackle first, goes on and on about “The Power of Yes.” Touted as the person who will “march us right through Eden’s Gate,” in person he was just a glorified Tony Robbins dressed like a pick-up artist. He represented the “self-help” indoctrination techniques we see in cults like NXIVM and Scientology.

John Seed in all his sleazy glory.Ubisoft

Faith’s section is centered around the hallucinogen known only as “Bliss.” Bliss appears as just a white flower, reminiscent of the Devil’s Trumpet, an actual hallucinogenic plant. Bliss turns cult members into zombie-like creatures known as Angels, completely stripped of what little humanity they once had. Cults using drugs to keep their members docile and suggestible is a well-established pattern, whether it’s Charles Manson dishing out LSD to his followers or the “sacred herb” marijuana in the Source Family.

Jacob’s indoctrination initially appears to be good old-fashioned locked-in-a-room-with-a-slideshow brainwashing, but there’s more to it than that. His region solidifies the ultra-violent practices of the cult. In escaping his capture, the player shoots at countless faceless soldiers who disappear after being shot. They’re literal strawmen. This practice of demonizing the enemy is evidenced all over the place in cults, but especially in alt-right extremist groups that promote violence.

Joseph represents what most people imagine when they think of cults — the ultra-devout religious subject who worships the leader as a higher power. Even as he tells the story of killing his own newborn child, his piercing gaze and charismatic ways feel ripped from Jonestown keep the player engaged and cultivate strong feelings.

“All have sinned and fall short of God”

Faith Seed in a field of the Bliss flowers.Ubisoft

To quote John 6:7: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” But Eden’s Gate can’t pinpoint a particular sin to set them apart from the player and their allies: they’re basically equals. Both are fighting for a higher cause and against a threat to that cause. Both are incredibly violent. And both are willing to die for their cause. (I should know. I died quite a bit.)

Then, there are the songs. They’re what brought me to Far Cry 5, and poking around Reddit I kept reading the same sentiments over and over again:

“I kept switching the radio station in the cars so I could listen to the cult songs!”

“I would join Eden’s Gate just for the concerts.”

“I would just sit in the cars and listen to the songs.”

According to Steve Hassan’s book, Combating Cult Mind Control, “Music is used by many cults for indoctrination because it forms a strong anchor for emotional states via memory.”

This isn’t only true of the player, but the player character as well. When held captive in Jacob’s bunker, they are brainwashed to respond to the classic oldie “Only You.” Creating such a strong reaction to music isn’t just a way to keep you playing, it’s another cult tactic.

One of the most misunderstood things about cults, religions, or even simply societies is how much work it takes to unlearn the practices drilled into your head through high control methods. (For example, I was raised extremely religious, and it took me years to unlearn a lot of internalized prejudices surrounding shame.) In the jargon of cult studies, this unlearning is called “deprogramming,” and it’s a long process requiring a lot of talk therapy.

Jacob Seed triggers the player’s brainwashing with a music box.Ubisoft

At the end of the prologue, Joseph Seed tells the player, “Sometimes, the best thing to do is walk away.” Sure enough, at the end of the game, the player is given the option to walk away, to get out of Hope County and escape the entire ordeal. But even if they do, the result of the brainwashing means the player character isn’t completely disconnected even as they walk away from the cult. “Only You” begins playing on the radio, and the game fades to black.

No matter how disconnected a member may be from the cult circumstantially, the teaching and control still affects the way they act. This mindset is exactly what keeps members from leaving high control groups, even if they’re free to leave at any point.

It would humanize the vast hordes of cult members slaughtered throughout the missions in Far Cry 5 if we could see how just one isn’t suddenly snapped out of it as soon as they leave the outpost location during the game, not just as a plot twist in a “bad” ending. The effect of cult mind control is long but not a death sentence. Cult members completely believe they are doing the right thing by rejecting their family, but they aren’t culpable, they’re simply victims.

Far Cry 5 may be widely considered the worst of the Far Cry series, but I don’t see why. It’s a fascinating case study in how a convincing cult can be built on sand. Even without any political beliefs, Eden’s Gate uses real cult techniques to control the narrative — and, in a way, the player — into sympathizing. It shouldn’t go down in history as a missed opportunity to speak out against the alt-right, but as an engaging way to understand just how easy it is to fall prey to high control groups.

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