In the lead up to the release of Far Cry 5, developer Ubisoft strongly promoted the game’s antagonist, a charismatic leader of a doomsday cult that has taken control of fictional Hope County, Montana.
The development team enlisted the help of cult researcher Mia Donovan to advise on the creation of their fictional cult and extended its casting schedule in order to find an actor they believed could genuinely portray the role of its leader. Game Director Dan Hay said he knew they had found the right person in Greg Bryk when, after hearing Bryk’s audition, remarked that he would be convinced to follow him anywhere.
The soundtrack to Far Cry 5, presented in part as a collection of original songs and hymns about the cult, The Project at Eden’s Gate, further aims to give credibility and realism to the cult. By taking cues and direction from traditional Christian hymns and Contemporary Christian Music, composer Dan Romer creates a collection of songs that feel authentic and legitimately enticing, despite centering around a violent and villainous doomsday cult.
Unmistakable and Nostalgic
I’ve been playing music in churches for over half my life and was immediately caught by the sound of Romer’s tracks. They cover a variety of genres that will be familiar with those even mildly engaged with contemporary Christian music, from the upbeat bluegrass jams of David Crowder and the rumbling drawls of John Mark MacMillan, to the moody, catchy melodies of Hillsong and All Sons and Daughters. Romer also picks up on many characteristics and trends specific to Christian music.
The first time I listened to these tracks, I was playing along on my electric drum set, and was pleasantly surprised to find that I was able to “sight-read” the tracks by falling back on my real-world experience playing church music. The way the songs ebbed and flowed, the way the verses led to the chorus or dropped for the bridge, these songs didn’t just sound the part – they played it too. And that was just the first album.
In another move very common with Christian music releases, there are two additional Far Cry 5 albums with alternate versions of these songs. One is a raw, acoustic set with a full choir performance, while the other consists of mostly instrumental, ambient rearrangements. This is such an above and beyond move for a video game soundtrack, and adds yet another layer of authenticity to Dan Romer’s efforts.
I’ve heard plenty of attempts to parody Christian music, and while it is often entertaining, it’s also often quite obvious. These songs are not. From every aspect of their presentation, these songs ring true. They aren’t winking at the listener; they are standing with arms open for a warm embrace. These songs genuinely want the listener to believe these are the hymns of the Project at Eden’s Gate, and services are Sunday at 10 a.m.
The Word of CoD
But what about the lyrics? At the top of this article, I said Eden’s Gate was a violent doomsday cult. Knowing that, and with track titles like “Keep Your Rifle by Your Side” and “The World is Gonna End Tonight”, how could this music be taken seriously? Through smart wordplay and by leveraging Christianity’s penchant for violent metaphor, this isn’t nearly as hard as it seems. Don Romer’s songs are full of words such as “Father”, “Faith”, “collapse”, “bliss”, “garden”, “storm”, and other vocabulary common throughout Christian culture. These words have different meanings in the context of the cult (for instance, bliss is actually a psychotropic drug), their inclusion here provides a familiar texture to the lyrics that help their true implication fly under the radar, if only for briefly.
The second tactic here involves taking advantage of the often violent language already used in Christianity. This past Easter, I attended a service where we sang one of my all-time favorite hymns, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”, which contains the lyric “All the vain things that charm me most / I sacrifice them through his blood”. Within the context of the hymn and Christian theology, this is a beautiful line in a beautiful song, but stripped of that lens, can be read as extremely macabre. In the case of Project at Eden’s gate, these disturbing lines are usually quite literal (“We won’t listen to their crying / They had their chance to see the light”), but because violent imagery is fairly common in Christianity, they may not stand out as much as they perhaps should, especially among those comfortable with church culture. And if we imagine ourselves in the shoes of a hypothetical new convert to Eden’s Gate, it’s likely this more violent imagery would be similarly overlooked, on the assumption that there must be “proper context” for it.
How Far Cry 5 Falls Short
In fact, given everything we’ve discussed, it’s easy to begin imagining what Far Cry 5’s cult might look like. On the surface, it might look a lot like your average American Christian experience. The songs capture the same atmosphere and tone, leverage the same emotions and imagery, and even provide some basic knowledge of the cult’s leadership, history, and basic doctrine. Through the soundtrack alone, Dan Romer lays the groundwork for an authentic and detailed journey into the insidious nature of American religious extremism.
Unfortunately, in my time playing through Far Cry 5, the game itself falls well short of that goal, squandering the table set by Romer’s music, instead reverting to cliched tropes and plot devices. The depth provided by the soundtrack is actually as deep as the well goes, for though the cult’s leaders are given plenty of opportunity to monologue at the player, that time is spent circling the same vague statements on faith, sin, and control, without ever explaining details about what exactly it is they believe or why. Despite consulting a cult expert and the excellent performance from Greg Bryk, developer Ubisoft relies on a psychotropic mind-control drug called Blissto convert the locals of Hope County and control its members. Instead of building up a charismatic leader with a truly magnetic personality and a specific, convincing ethos, the game’s villains resort to what may as well be magic.
The phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” is a reference to the real-life cult of Jonestown in the late 1970’s when, after a congressman was killed by the group, cult leader Jim Jones tragically convinced nearly 1,000 men, women, and children to commit suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid. The people at Jonestown did not drink to become devoted. They drank because they already were devoted. It was Jim Jones’ personality, his message, and his manipulation that brought that cup to their lips, not the other way around. Yet this backward approach is the one that Far Cry 5 settles for, and in so doing, fails to provide the payoff to the depth and earnestness presented by Dan Romer’s convincingly-crafted, thought-provoking, and irresistibly listenable music.