Joseph Seed sits center of table, chin slightly lowered over an inverted tab-collared shirt, eyes locked with the viewer — tinted yellow behind a pair of shooting glasses. His hands are raised slightly, palms up; before him lies a book, a chalice, a piece of unbroken bread. Arrayed around him in groups of three, all facing forward, are a gathering of his flock: gun-toting, knife-wielding militia all in stages of incredulity or surprise.
In this particular tableau, created by Ubisoft to market an upcoming video game, not renaissance artist da Vinci, the role of Judas is played by machine-toting camper, next to him: a handcuffed, injured U.S. Marshall, hands raised in fear. And the tablecloth upon which they are about to eat includes a re-imagined American flag.
The image and its cast are aglow with the radiance of a Western sun, the greens, blues and yellows of a Montana mountain-scape, winding river and rolling hills of cornfields saturate the setting.
Before the table sits a man, head bent, wrists tied, the word “sinner” scrawled across his back, he is framed by the table and stockpiles of arms. It’s a painterly image that could serve just as well as a recruitment tool for a domestic terrorist cell as it does for upcoming game Far Cry 5.
But it’s also seems a lot of politicized flash for very little meaningful bang.
In blending the iconography of Christianity and American militia to create a sort of homegrown bad guy, Ubisoft is tapping into decades of anxiety over militia groups like the Montana Freemen, Branch Davidian-like cults, and a President Donald Trump-fueled Era of Fear.
At least that’s what its marketing seems to be doing, but I have doubts that this latest Far Cry game can offer a substantive examination of the roots of that fear, or even deliver any sort of cathartic release from it.
Fear of zealots, of militia, even fear of a president is nothing new in America. The country has had spasms of fear over a multitude of presidents, from Roosevelt to Clinton and Obama. But this era of Trump has already brought with it a realization of some of those fears and a whole host of new ones to worry over at night.
In Far Cry 5, players will take on a zealot bad guy who turns middle America, specifically Montana, into his hunting ground. His flock are preparing for the end days by harvesting souls in pick-up trucks described as “built cult-strong.” The descriptions of the game and its published imagery, placed against how the developers explained their inspiration from real-world events and sought real-world research, can’t help but create a troubling dichotomy.
In presenting Far Cry 5 to gathered press, the game makers told worrying stories about their research into the game. Stories so concerning, that they had those attending sign legal documents saying they would never write about, among other things, the “Montana militia story.”
But pressed for more details, Ubisoft declined to say they met with militia in Montana, confirming only meeting with experts on cults and some Montanans to “accurately depict in the game their daily lives, struggles and achievements.”
This is a game, we’re told, born out of very serious events and concerns, but it appears to deliver more playground of destruction than examination of issues. It rides the back of very real worries, but glibly plays loose with the facts.
This disconnect is what pushes Ubisoft down a road that risks not just missing out on the nuance of what contorts Americans and the country’s politics today, but mocking it.
This strikes me as a game meant to serve as a sort of siren song to the extreme far-right, blasting that vocal group and its media with imagery it can’t help but write about, talk about, give free advertising to all while despising it.
Far Cry 5, I’m sure, will be just as fun to play as its predecessors, which dropped people, armed to the virtual teeth, in lush shooting galleries set in the Tibetan mountains, African plains and tropical islands. But with those games, Ubisoft didn’t need to cloak its gameplay with the emotional turmoil of American extremism and modern-day politics. The games were simply interesting diversions that gave players the ability to ignore or embrace their stories.
There is a danger, I think, in empty-hearted ploys to attract attention by courting the extremes. Not a danger of action, but of thought and the way we view the world around us. Extremism, if designed simply as a colorful backdrop, can become normalized.
Put another way: When the worst fears born of cults, militia and extreme views of Trump’s America become little more than an entertaining playspace for the latest video game, perhaps its time to reconsider how we judge entertainment.
Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding editor and executive editor of Polygon.
Correction: This article originally misidentified the location of Judas in the original painting, we have since fixed the mistake. We apologize for the error and thank the readers for pointing it out.