EletiofeFar Cry 5 Helped Me Escape Real Life, Until...

Far Cry 5 Helped Me Escape Real Life, Until It Didn’t


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I didn’t expect a two-year-old video game about psychotic rednecks to make me homesick.

Months ago, I bought Far Cry 5 on a whim; it was on sale. I’ve played other games in the series, so I thought I knew what I was getting into. It’s a first-person shooter that lets you indulge in open-world shenanigans and mayhem. The previous games in the series are set in tropical islands, the Himilayan mountains, and prehistoric times. They felt like escapist retreats. But Far Cry 5 is different. It takes place in rural America, in a small-town setting that feels exactly like where I grew up. At first, that familiarity was comforting. Then it grew into something else entirely.

Right now, I live in San Francisco, inside a small one-bedroom apartment that has doubled as an isolation chamber since early March. Playing video games is one of the many imperfect coping strategies I’ve employed to ease the existential anguish brought on by the pandemic (and all these other concurrent catastrophes).

But before my move to the big city, I spent most of my life in rural California. The backdrop of my formative years was a tiny gold rush town a couple hundred miles north of San Francisco. Our only community buildings were a post office and two bars. You had to drive 25 miles just to get gas. The closest real town is Redding, a sprawling hodgepodge of suburbs, strip malls, and freeways. It’s red-state Trump territory that has long been sidelined by the broader liberalism of California’s coastal cities. For as long as I can remember, many of the people there have harbored ambitions to secede from the rest of California and form their own state. It’s also ruggedly beautiful. Growing up, I swam in creeks, split firewood, pulled ticks and burs off the dogs, and always kept an eye out for prowling mountain lions.

I establish my redneck bona fides here to explain why this game had the effect it did. The plot of Far Cry 5 centers on a group of hyper-violent doomsday cultists who take over a fictional Montana county. The setting might be a couple states removed, but its geological splendor and prevailing political sentiments are familiar enough to evoke my own backwoods nostalgia. The game gets the details right in all the places that matter: There are towering mountains and sprawling meadows. Quaint cottages perched on the shore of a lake. Cozy bonfires and calming creeks. Even the game’s soundtrack is reminiscent of the kind of music I’d hear blaring out the speakers of a big, lifted Dodge Ram with an airbrushed bald eagle splashed across the hood. Ah, home.

Courtesy of Ubisoft

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.

As I played on, the game world felt less and less relaxing. I get that that’s how narratives work. Heightened stakes and tension and all that. But the more time I spent reveling in all the familiar elements that drew me in, the harder it was to ignore the darkness they invoke. Nearly every character in the game, good or bad, is a gun-toting rebel itching for an armed revolution. There are characters who spout monologues about “culling the herd” and eliminating the weak that echo the very real fascist rhetoric that’s become so present in our society. These are not just stereotypes or mobs you see on the news. They’re people I recognize in real life. I see some of them at family gatherings. Obviously, this feeling of discomfort was the point of the game’s story. It’s supposed to make you feel uneasy. I just didn’t expect it to feel quite so personal.

Eventually, the game world’s natural beauty began to feel less appealing as well. Not because the world was any less robust and bountiful but because of what becomes of it.

Spoiler: Far Cry 5 ends in fire and destruction. For reasons the game doesn’t make entirely clear, the narrative culminates with several nuclear bombs detonating in the middle of Montana. Trees erupt in flames. People scream and pray for forgiveness. A disoriented deer, its fur set alight, darts across the road in a futile search for safety.

Heavy-handed? Sure. But this too is familiar.

It doesn’t take a nuke to level a forest. This year, the West Coast has endured a fire season like no other. The results have been catastrophic. Literally thousands of fires have burned more than 8 million acres of land across California, Oregon, and Washington. As in years past, dozens of people are dead, thousands of buildings burned. It’s the outlying, rural communities like my hometown that suffer the brunt of this destruction. I’ve lost count of how many people I know who have watched their homes burn. I’ve evacuated with my family, feared for friends and loved ones, and watched the sky turn red as a swirling maelstrom of fire tore our community apart. To even compare this widespread trauma to a video game feels crass. But that’s what 2020 does, I suppose: forces us to digest horror after horror through our screens. It’s Plato’s cave by way of A Clockwork Orange.

FC5’s doomsday scenario is outrageous and implausible. (Atomic warfare is believable enough, but multiple nukes targeting rural Montana? C’mon.) Still, it evokes a very real terror. There will be more fire. There will be more death. A video game can help pass the time, can take your mind off things, but it can only do so much to distract from a violently changing climate.

By the end, my time in Far Cry 5 felt mournful. But I continue to play it, avoiding the main narrative and just wandering around in the open world, trying to recapture that sense of comfort and homeliness. I swim through simulated streams, hike simulated mountain trails, and walk beneath simulated trees. There is a deep sadness in the comfort the game brings, but it’s a comfort nonetheless. After all, before we know it, these fake forests may be the only ones we have left.

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