This blog is part of our Summer Showcase series, celebrating our free festival of ideas for curious minds.
Computer and video games (the terms are interchangeable) have been with us for almost half a century, with the first commercial title, Pong, a simple game depicting table-tennis, released in 1972. Over the years, alongside fantastic stories of alien onslaught in Taito’s Space Invaders (1978) and collectible creatures in Niantic’s Pokemon Go (2016), many titles have explored scenarios drawn from the real world, including the American experience. As a US cultural historian, my research tracks shifting depictions of America across the modern medium of video games.
Programmers have designed video games based around myriad elements of American life, including digital versions of national pastimes such as basketball and baseball, and simulations of work. Video games continue to offer commentary on society and politics. However, few scholars have explored the content of such games and how they subtly reflect and reframe American popular culture.
Far Cry 5: a game about cults, community and conflict
This year, several blockbuster video games are set to explore the American experience, including Quantic Dream’s Detroit: Being Human, a gamethat analogises android life in a future version of Detroit with African-American struggles in the Civil Rights era, and Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption II, a classic Western adventure set in 1899. In March 2018, Ubisoft released Far Cry 5, a game about cults, community and conflict in contemporary Montana. It concerns the rise of a messiah-like figure, preacher Joseph Seed, who gathers into his fold the downtrodden and persecuted of rural America. As a sheriff’s deputy in the fictional county of ‘Hope,’ the player sets out to liberate the region from Seed’s control. Seed himself closely resembles David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians killed during the Waco Siege in Texas in April 1993.
The controversial promotional image of the Last Supper from Far Cry 5. Image credit: Ubisoft / Montreal.
Prior to release, Montreal-based Ubisoft hyped Far Cry 5 as a game with something to say about the contemporary American condition. Their publicity included controversial images of the Last Supper, with Joseph Seed positioned as a would-be Jesus, and the Stars and Stripes employed as a colourful tablecloth with a range of firearms littered across it. Far Cry 5 appeared poised to enter the fray on controversial US debates surrounding religious expression, gun culture, and the rise of business mogul Donald Trump in mainstream politics.
Many reviewers and commentators nonetheless found playing the title a disappointing experience. Rather than delivering on its promise of strong slogans and statements, the game lacked an obvious core message and offered very little pertinent criticism of Trump’s America. For a title about gun-toting religious cults, Far Cry 5 appeared strangely quiet on such matters, avoiding rather than inciting controversy.
Unexpected subtlety and balance
However, Far Cry 5 offered something that has come to be unexpected in video games: amidst the typical carnage and incessant gunfire of gameplay, the title sought out subtlety and balance. Programmers strove to depict Montana as a real place, with real people and their real stories. It commendably offered a multiplicity of voices.
Instead of presenting (and stereotyping) white working-class Americans as blind followers of extremist propaganda, the game showed a range of individuals struggling with the demise of their America and their rural community. Some turned to Seed for salvation, others rallied together to restore old buildings and agricultural livelihoods. Some actively fought Seed’s cabal, others minded their own business.
One of the qualities of Far Cry 5 proved its sense of immersion in a troubled realm, with the player granted the ability to speak to locals, locate allies and learn about the region. With its spectacular Rocky Mountain vistas and beautiful wild-running rivers, the digital rendition of Montana reminded of the actual geography of ‘Big Sky Country’ for those (like myself) lucky to have spent time there.
The spectacular vistas of Montana rendered in Far Cry 5. Image credit: Ubisoft / Montreal.
Optimism amidst a conflicted nation
Far Cry 5 thus offered an interesting lens on contemporary American life. Like many video games, the act of play, of interactive immersion, revealed more subtleties than expected. Alongside the relatively simple story of a religious cult rising up, the game provided a broader and more nuanced exploration of dystopia, discord and disillusionment. The video game highlighted a conflicted nation: an America of ‘us’ versus ‘them;’ a nation literally at war with itself when Seed’s followers take arms against other local Montanans. But it also explored the beauty of rural America and its residents, offering a little bit of optimism amidst the drama of ‘Hope County.’
Dr John Wills is a Reader in American History and Culture at the University of Kent. He specialises in environmental issues and popular culture, and edits the journal European Journal of American Culture. His most recent publication is Disney Culture (2017) with Rutgers University Press, with a book on video games forthcoming with Johns Hopkins University Press.