Talking Cults and Culture with the Developers of 'Far Cry 5'
We spoke with Far Cry 5 director Dan Hay and cult expert Mia Donovan about the game's treatment of religion, community, race, and more.
All images courtesy Ubisoft
When I sat down to play a few hours of Far Cry 5 earlier this month, I couldn’t shake the initial pitch Ubisoft made for the game last year.
As written, that pitch goes like this: Past games in the series spanned the globe, taking open world exploration and first person shooting to “exotic” locales, where you blew up shit in the name of beating the Bad Guys. Now the action is coming “home” to a fictional county in Montana, where you’ll team up with everyday Americans to face down a nefarious doomsday cult called the Project at Eden’s Gate. It’s a group led by by a man who stands in front of an American flag and, wielding preternatural charisma and commanding the baleful force of his loyal soldiers, preaches on faith, freedom, firearms, and the end of the world.
But that pitch doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s modified by its context. We’re four years removed from Cliven Bundy’s militia-backed standoff in Nevada, only two from his son’s in Oregon, and only seven months past the violence in Charlottesville. These (and other) events would always have cast the game in a certain light, even if Ubisoft’s initial pitch for Far Cry 5 hadn’t explicitly invoked comparisons to Bundy-style militia movements (instead only focusing on the Branch Davidian and Eden’s Gate influences that have near-exclusively taken the forefront since.)
In between a three hour gameplay session—which you can read about right here—I was able to sit down with Dan Hay, director of Far Cry 5, whose deep voice slipped in and out of a prophet’s cadence, speaking with dry certainty about our own moment of crisis. I was also able to speak briefly with Mia Donovan, director of the documentary Deprogrammed and consultant on the game, whose passion and expertise were obvious in her eagerness to dig into the complex material at hand.
Waypoint: So, when you pitched this game at the Pre-E3 judges week thing, you hit this notion of “the pressure,” that was a thing you hammered on pretty heavily. The idea was that to live in a space like this and to move in places like this, there is this sort of constant, ever present feeling that things could fall apart at any moment… that you were always on guard.
How does that come through here? How do you put that feeling in a game like this that can often be goofy and—especially with coop—loose, and there’s funny physics things happening. It’s unpredictable.
Dan Hay, Director of Far Cry 5: I totally understand the question. So like, how do you rationalize the tones, the multiple tones.
Yeah, and specifically that idea of “pressure,” the notion of feeling vulnerable.
Ok. I think there’s no question that if you’re playing co-op, or if you’re playing with some of the more bombastic Guns for Hire, that you’re going to forget. You know, it’s easy to forget the cult, it’s easy to forget some of the earnest moments.
But we do have moments where those things come together. Y’know, you’ll meet a Herald [one of the cult leader’s chief lieutenants], you’ll have a shared experience of sitting in a chair and [will face] the question of whether or not you’re being programmed. You’re about to experience that actually, if you go back and play.
"The key word is community." -Dan Hay, Director, Far Cry 5
We’ll have points where you’ll meet characters that are absolutely tough to deal with. They have their beliefs. They’re zealots. But then you’ll also be able to go out and play with Cheeseburger [the bear.] You’re gonna be able to do that.
So I think the key thing for us was: It starts with the Father, and the concept of pressure. He absolutely, unequivocally believes that the end times are coming. He absolutely recruits people whether they wanna be recruited or not. And he absolutely has control over this environment. So we put that pressure into the world, and then we give you the ability to choose the tools [to fight back.]
But we do have moments that appear where you’ll be taken, where you’ll be spoken to, you’re going to be sort of put under the thumb of the cult. And those moments remind you of the pressure. Just trying to make it so it’s organic.
So, speaking of this organic nature of all of this… One of the ways that cults and very aggressive militias like this work, is that they prey on people’s fears and they divide people. We see a very specific vision of that here: We have the father immediately say “They’re coming for your guns, they’re coming for your faith, they’re coming to disrupt your natural way of life.”
In Far Cry 5, will we see the player building coalitions, bridging the gaps between different sorts of people to resist that specific sort of fear mongering? If so, is it more than just blowing up the cult shrines and rescuing people from immediate danger? Is there some idea of bringing together disparate groups under some sort of shared common banner?
I would say yes, but not specifically how you may be asking the question. The key word is “community.” Is there a sense of community in the game? And I think there is, from the standpoint that we actually built three separate communities, right?
In the south you’ve got Pastor Jerome and Mary who are trying to bring back Fall’s End, and that’s a community unto themselves.
And they seem like kind of “everyday people”...
They are. They’re normal, everyday people. They’re not militant, they’re not trained. You know, they’re just regular folks you meet. But then you also have the community of the people you choose as your guns for hire. Your group.
To the north you’ve got an existing community. With Eli, Tammy, and you haven’t met those folks yet.
They’re the Whitetail Militia?
Yeah, they’re very specific. They have their own thing, they have their own belief. Basically, they’re having their situation and saying “Do you wanna join us? Do you wanna be part of it?”
And then in the region I’m not allowed to talk about, there’s another community. And they are probably the most thrown together group.
We wanted to also make sure that those communities are different. You have two people who know each other down in the south. You have three people who know each other and have known each other for a long time in the north, and then you have a group of people who have just been thrown together—and they don’t necessarily get along at all, and they all believe in different things.
So, from the standpoint of individual narrative moments in the community, we have that. But then we also have whatever community you decide to build.
You’re gonna have… like, we have some people who really love to go out and find generic guns for hire. Just regular folks, right?
Yeah, they’re really funny actually. There’s a sort of charm to them commenting on the events around you that I didn’t expect. It was a nice surprise.
Watch the antics of one of Far Cry 5's generic Guns for Hire right here:
One of the things that’s come out of early coverage of the game, there were some outlets which said “this topic matter is too serious or too real,” which struck me as odd at the time—because so are the Tamil Tigers or conflicts in the Pacific or in African nations. These things do happen.
I’m curious what the response was internally to comments like that.
I’m also curious if those conversations came up earlier in development, when you were still trying to figure out what the topic matter was. And how you went about digging into this in a way that was thoughtful and educated.
So that’s a big question, I’m going to try to break it down into its components.
Did [those comments] affect us and have we thought that? Of course. You would accuse me of being a liar if I hadn’t told you that truth, right, so, yes, for sure it affected us.
When you see a game like this and you set it in America and people get first blush look at it, everybody looks at it through their own lens. And the point is, that’s why we’re so happy to bring people the game and play it, to see it for what it is.
When we talk about the question of tone: We’re like, “Look, we know we’re bombastic. We know we’re earnest." And we know we have those two things together, and we think it still makes something great for players to be able to discover and play the way they want. To give you the tools to assemble your own narrative. For sure.
"...there doesn’t necessarily need to be a god, but there needs to be an enemy." -Mia Donovan, Cult Expert and Consultant
Are games at the point where they’re mature enough to be able to, at the very least, scratch at some of this stuff? To explore it? I think they are.
Does that mean that we absolutely, unequivocally, have to tackle it this way at this moment with this thing? No, it doesn’t. We can go in and we can have a story that has a cult. We can have a story that’s not just about America.
It’s about the state of the world right now, where everything feels like it’s a little bit closer to the edge than it should be. And that maybe we need to take a step back. Maybe there’s a moment where we need to think.
And I think that that’s… If people are going to be able take away anything from this... Y’know, of course it’s a Far Cry game, you’re gonna be able to go in, it’s going to be an anecdote factory. You have a whole bunch of stuff to do and you can play it however you wanna play it, and you can assemble the story as a choose your own adventure, right?
But what you take away from it?
I think you take away from it that we are on the edge. And that maybe there needs to be a little bit of thinking about that. There needs to be… What do we learn? How do we manage that in the real world.
So one thing that’s come up… or really, it’s two things, but two sides of the same coin: First, I think people are going to be really excited about customization. This is the first time that players will be able to play as a woman in a Far Cry game. You can choose your characters face and skin color, which is awesome. As a black player, it’s exciting to be able to play as a black character in a series I’ve always enjoyed.
At the same time, one of the questions that has come up is that, when you look at real, evangelical or religious cults in America—even just in this geographical region—what you see mostly is, uh, white people. You see a lot of ethnic purity in that space.
(That’s not to say that there aren’t the rare people of color in these spaces. In fact, the host of the podcast Heaven’s Gate is a black man who grew up inside of an evangelical, apocalyptic cult. In the fourth episode of that series, he talks about how weird it was being the one black guy in the cult, about how he wasn’t able to date as a teen because the rule of that specific cult was that you could only date people in your race, and the only other black person his age was a biracial girl who lived far away and who was trying to become redesignated white.)
All of that is to say that race is a big component in these cults, or that identity is a big component in cults and that race is one vector through which identity is formed.
So, I’m curious: On one hand, you have this great example of representation in the character customization, but what goes into deciding that these cults should in fact be multi-ethnic? The cult is filled with people of color from the very opening sequence. So what goes into doing that versus having the Project at Eden’s Gate be a white nationalist group or something similar to the sorts of cults we’ve seen historically?
I think it might have to do with age. Insofar that, when I grew up and I was thinking about this, I was informed by the cults of the 70s. I’m remembering this concept of inclusion. I’m recalling this idea of “bring us everybody.” And to me that was definitely where we wanted to go.
The cult was always about… and this goes back to [the cult leader] Joseph, and “the pressure”—he unequivocally believes that the end of times is coming and he unequivocally believes that he has to save everybody. Or as many people as he can. And he simply goes out and says “Just get them. Bring them in.”
"...there’s a lot of fascination about cults because I think people have a hard time understanding how someone could go into this group where it’s conformity to the extreme." -Mia Donovan
And so from the standpoint of a question about race or specifically what religious views he has, we were pretty earnest right from the beginning in saying “Guys, this is cult of inclusion. This is a situation where they’ve snacked on different things religiously. And they’ve kind of built their own version.
And this is our cult, y’know? We’ve put it in Hope Montana, which is a place that doesn’t exist, because we wanted to be able to take some creative freedom. And we also wanted to make sure that it was our cult. So we went out to an expert and said, “Talk to us about stuff that happened in the 70s and the 80s. Talk to us about different doctrines, and allows us to take a composite of all of that.
And when I think about where some of them… I can’t use specific examples, I totally want to but I can’t.
But when I think about some of the people who were very good at bringing in people and getting in their heads, and building some of the memories that I have as a kids about cults, they were absolutely inclusive. And it was amazing how they could get so many educated people from so many disparate groups all to believe the same thing. That was powerful.
Mia, you’re someone who has studied and reported on cults. You directed Deprogrammed, a documentary about a controversial cult “deprogrammer” who worked through the 1970s through early 90s.
How, as a consultant, did you help the team with keeping the the representation of the cult from being “flattened” or “reduced” into a sort of mass market boilerplate?
Mia Donovan, Consultant: That’s interesting, because it’s something that I was always floating. Every time I would meet them for a creative meeting, we would get into how interested the writers were in learning the psychology. Then it would be like… Okay, it’s a still also a Far Cry game, so.
It’s really interesting, this fascination with cults. I think what they really wanted was the core: "How do we create this overall logic in the game that will make sense if someone puts all the pieces together.”
We grow up in this society where we’re so focused on individuality and our free will. And I think there’s a lot of fascination about cults because I think people have a hard time understanding how someone could go into this group where it’s conformity to the extreme.
For me, that’s what was so interesting when I first started interviewing people from cults. I was just like, they’re not just zombies, they’re actually functioning people. But their thoughts have been really reformed to reflect the ideology of whatever leader is there.
So was it about trying to push that idea in all of the depictions of the cult in the game?
Well, it was like trying to have them understand that the cult is in your brain, not just in the physical environment. And about how these ideas become reinforced even when you’re not necessarily in a locked cell or a prison. It’s not just that the environmental control is physical. It’s more than that. I tried to explain to them about the use of language in cults that emphasizes this separation between “us” and “the rest of the world.” You touched on that right at the beginning.
One quote that really stuck with me that former cult members always bring up is from the writer Eric Hoffer, who was a social psychologist. He wrote about “mass movements” before the word “cults” came into play, and he has a strong statement: “The strength of a mass movement is proportionate to the vividness and tangibility of its devil.”
So there doesn’t necessarily need to be a god, but there needs to be an enemy.
Like some sort of oppositional force to define yourself negatively by?
Was there anything else you wanted to make sure they got right, given the strengths and weaknesses of games in general?
I understand the constraints. I tried to work on a VR piece about indoctrination that was very difficult. It’s hard to simulate real social interaction with technology, even though [Far Cry 5] is getting closer, because most people who I spoke to were indoctrinated with really subtle social peer environments. Very subtle manipulation.
Which is a different thing than I’m gonna put this headset on my face and soak it in.
Yeah! And like, people talk about “love bombing,” where you enter this environment where everyone is showering you with love, attention, and interest. Suddenly they’re your best friends and family. And in real life friendships take a while to develop. It’s the sort of deceptive and inauthentic manipulation tactic, which a lot of former cult members remember doing, but they also remember feeling like they really needed to do it in order to save the person.
It’s so internalized, and so it’s very, very complex.
I spent a lot of time talking with the dev team about this, and I think they did a really good job touching upon this. You didn’t go through the whole process yet, but you’ll see different ways of how they’re able to make their version.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.