For me, the parallels to real life didn’t end at pretty trees and recognizable bird calls. The game world is populated with broad caricatures of rural denizens. They wear plaid, talk with a twang, and relish the freedom that comes with being surrounded by miles and miles of untamed wilderness. There are a startling amount of doomsday preppers, with their elaborate bunkers scattered across the map. There’s a civilian militia, ready for an uprising. There’s a crotchety would-be politician who calls anyone he dislikes “libtards” or “bad hombres.” Exaggerated send-ups, sure, but in them I recognized the DNA of my former neighbors, extended family members, people I went to high school with.
Even the antagonists feel all too familiar. Characters in the game talk about how the cult started out as a small, fringe operation. No one ever expected them to become as powerful as they are.
Well, I too know what it’s like to have a zealous religious group take over your town. Growing up, I watched as a local church called Bethel expanded into a boisterous, influential “Supernatural Ministry.” Their acolytes spread through the community, performing unsolicited faith healings, inviting people to attend their increasingly large Pentacostal-esque services, and even attempting to raise the dead. They opened businesses and got elected into the local government. Their spread was so rapid that it shocked and alarmed even the hardcore evangelical Christians who had long been deeply established in the community.
To be clear, these real-life churchgoers are not at all the vicious marauders of Far Cry. It’s the controversy they’ve elicited that is familiar. It doesn’t take a murderous rampage to sow chaos in a community. In righteous defiance of public health guidelines during a pandemic, some of Bethel’s leadership have mocked mask orders, and one prominent member led a Christian music concert that drew large crowds to a Redding bridge. Over 100 students and staff tested positive for Covid-19 after the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry welcomed them back on campus in September, contributing to a recent outbreak that pushed Shasta County back into the state’s more restrictive purple tier. (Bethel leadership has officially disavowed these gatherings and says it is working in collaboration with Shasta County Public Health officials. It has also moved to a fully online curriculum.) These actions may have been negligent, but they’re obviously not the outright cruelty of a Far Cry–style cult. As a society, we haven’t exactly figured out where this kind of willful ignorance ranks on the morality scale. Fictional narratives tend to be more clear cut. There’s an appeal to facing off against enemies who are distortions of real life, exaggerated and explicit in their malice. Sometimes it’s simpler just to stare into the abyss.
“People seem to get drawn toward nihilistic media when they’re in more difficult times,” says Chris Ferguson, who researches the effects of violence in video games at Stetson University.
It can be comforting to escape to a world that’s worse off than ours. It’s why people seek out movies like Contagion during a pandemic. The same goes for games. Animal Crossing became a pandemic hit because of how calming and gentle it is. But some of us also need catharsis. A game that mirrors real-life problems gives you a chance to fight back in a way that feels immediate and visceral.
“The experience is autonomy,” says Yemaya Halbrook, who researches the positive effects that video games have on well-being at Ireland’s Mary Immaculate College. “You feel like you have the decisions yourself, you have control over everything that you do in the game. Having that sense of autonomy is linked to having positive levels of well-being.”
In fact, the weakest moments in FC5 come when that control is taken away from the player in the form of predetermined cutscenes. The bumbling story has already been criticized by many people much smarter than me (back in 2018, when it was still relevant and timely). The game’s messaging is presented with all the subtlety of a shovel-launching bazooka. The more it hits you over the head, the more tiresome it gets.