Far Cry 5 hasn't even been released yet, but the open-world first-person-shooter — in which players will be fighting to destroy a Christian doomsday cult in the heart of a red state — is already shaping up to be one of the most controversial games of 2018. Breitbart even called it an "appeal to the revenge fantasies of the Punch-a-Nazi crowd."
However, the conservative agita over the setting of the game (Hope County, Montana) and its villains (Father Joseph Seed and his fellow doomsday preppers) misses the point. In fixating on a violent, apocalyptic cult that's invaded an existing community as the main enemy, Ubisoft is glossing over a more subtle and dangerous problem facing America: The broad strokes of the ideals espoused by Far Cry 5's fictional villains are essentially mainstream in parts of the country, including where I live.
Everywhere you look, there's an inability to tell extremism apart from normalcy.
I very well could be a character in Far Cry 5. I live in an empty South Texas county that has only 7,500 people and a turbulent history going all the way back to 1749; our economy remains dominated by cattle ranching and oil production. Even though I spent an 11-year stint in Chicago, during which I pursued a doctorate degree and got married, I'm still very much a part of the local culture. I spent most of my latter teen years working as a cowboy for massive Central Texas ranches — chaps, horse and all. I've been back for three years now, living on a ranch where I see cows, chickens and red-tailed hawks more often than people.
We may have prickly pear and miles of mesquite rather than pretty mountains and Ponderosa pines, but in many ways you could swap this setting out for Hope County and Far Cry 5's story would still fit. Not 10 minutes ago, I walked outside and heard a rifle pop off eight rounds somewhere within a mile radius. I barely noticed. You get used to these things living in a spot where the Milky Way still shines in its full glory at night.
Far Cry games usually take place in far-flung, exotic locales (the series has faced criticism for perceived insensitivity toward the local citizens) into which a hero swoops to save the day. But a more realistic protagonist in a rural American setting would be a conflicted local — someone who loves many aspects of their life but who's disturbed by the shifts toward insanity he or she sees in the surrounding people. Someone who'd potentially find themselves fighting against family if circumstances got bad enough. Someone, well, a little like me.
Early previews have largely focused on the cult leader named Father Joseph Seed and his brutal worldview based on "freedom, faith and firearms." (As if that weren't politically topical enough, you'll be able to customize the hero's gender and race, giving players the opportunity to take on a group of religious extremists as a black female police officer rolling into town to kick cultist ass.)
However, my time in Texas leads me to believe that people like Seed are only the distilled waters of a stronger current coursing all throughout the red sea. And the truth is, if Seed and his buds quietly entered my town, I'm not too sure the local white folks would be all that opposed to them.
Religion certainly plays a part: There's plenty of goodness to be found here, no doubt, but there are also disturbing trends. Whenever I visit church — hey, it's really the only social activity here, and that probably explains its grip — there's always a marked emphasis on the Old Testament. Jesus barely gets mentioned. That "turn the other cheek" and "love thy neighbor" stuff is passé. If you want to get a rural crowd cheering these days, you tell them the story of how 75,000 Persians get slaughtered in the book of Esther out of revenge.
It gets weirder. I've heard successful, prosperous people say that "prophets" (i.e., random nobodies from Corpus Christi) told them that God wants Donald Trump to be president, "pussy-grabbing," bad deals and all. He's "flawed," you see, just like King David. He's the person meant to bring about the apocalypse. Logical arguments based on past action and data might seem to have persuasive weight in San Francisco or New York, but this is what you face out here in what locals like to think of "real America."
Sure, Fox News blares inside every business with a waiting room and a TV. But most of the "news" people excitedly show me originates not on The O'Reilly Factor but in typo-riddled emails or Facebook posts claiming to know the "truth."
That was how I first learned about Jade Helm 15, the training exercise locals claimed was an attempt by former President Barack Obama to "invade" Texas. Even the governor eventually bought into the conspiracy theory, going so far as to deploy the Texas State Guard. When I tried to point out how silly that was, I came seconds away from a fistfight with my own family over my "brainwashing."
Things have changed down here during my decade-long absence, and I don't think I feel that way merely because a decade in Chicago changed me as well. The same environment that once cheered me for pursuing a Ph.D. now mocks climate change reports in one breath and then, minutes later, complains about how the summers are getting hotter here.
A good story about these tendencies would focus on currents like these, and how powerless it feels to fight against them as a local. Every conversation here is filled with barely subtle tests of loyalty to the point of absurdity. Any game wishing to capture what it's like to live here would have to capture that.
Last November, my wife and I sold a rare Ayam Cemani rooster. We cautioned the buyer that pure bloods don't really exist in the U.S. because of import regulations. (This is pretty standard in agriculture.) His response? "And of course Obama would have brought them in and fucked up everything."
It made no sense, especially since Democrats are known down here for loving more regulation, not less. But I was supposed to laugh, and I did. I had a sale to make. And besides, I was in a remote spot.
I used to tell myself this knee-jerk spite wasn't rooted in racism, but the truth is that whenever a white dude rants about Obama here and you're a white dude with a Texas accent, the other guy's eventually going to slip the N-word into the conversation.
The unrelenting barrage of absurdity in red, rural America deserves a spotlight and some ridicule, but I'm not sure Far Cry 5 is the way to go about it. For all the outcry about the insult to "real Americans," it appears that the game will ultimately play it safe by focusing on a cult of outsiders. Ubisoft looks like it's content to position Seed and his merry band as an "other," complete with a story that will neatly wrap up once they're all shot down. Whatever gravitas the plot starts out with seems to go out the window once rednecks on four-wheelers start riddling tankers with bullets, and that's a shame.
Will I play Far Cry 5? Right now, I doubt it. I already live with this insanity to a degree in real life, and I'm currently trying to get out. I don't want to live with it in a game, too.