The Art of the Counterbalance Character
Far Cry 5 is accurately described as a game whose social commentary is toothless. Set in rural Montana, its villains an army of gun-toting, bunker-building, neo-Christian cultists, opportunities seem ripe for certain comparisons. To be fair, Far Cry 5’s marketing promised nothing, as opposed to what’s probably its closest contemporary, Wolfenstein II: the New Order. The “No More Nazis” ads of the latter piggybacked onto contemporary antifascist rhetoric in a way that promised (and delivered on) the ability to punch digital Nazis to your heart’s content.
Far Cry 5’s antagonist is the Father, the religious leader of a violent sect called the Project at Eden’s Gate, and his family: Jacob, the soldier; John, the baptist; and Faith, the siren. Their belief in a modern apocalypse they call the Collapse serves as the veneer to sack the countryside, turning farming co-ops into labour camps. It’s an interesting look at what the precursor to a Mad Max apocalypse would look like when embraced by the exact kind of people who wait for a Mad Max apocalypse. At every opportunity, the game makes it clear that they are the villains. They shoot random people, put them in cages, torture them, etc. But with equal vigor, the game steps away from all of the reasons for that villainy by introducing counterbalancing characters.
The villains are backwoods gun nuts
The Project at Eden’s gate hides guns like squirrels hide nuts. It boasts hundreds of people armed with fully-automatic assault rifles, each one entitled to murder sinners. The opening scene features a US Marshal and some local sheriffs moving through a crowd of believers who level guns at them in a fashion analogous to the Oregon Standoff in 2016, on their way to arrest the Father. From that standpoint, it’s an easy step to acknowledge them as rural survivalist jackasses, driven by an apocalypse that will never come.
But many of your allies are also rural survivalist jackasses. Your first ally, Dutch, is a Vietnam veteran with a hidden bunker on an island in the centre of the region. The Whitetail Militia, led by Eli Palmer, has a hidden bunker complex in the mountains, and reports to have covered miles of mountains in hidden cameras. Prepper stashes are treasure troves of gear and goodies in the game, and your friends keep turning up vehicles with mounted .50 caliber machine guns that they’ve had laying around for years.
The cult invented their apocalypse, but every other survivalist in the region is almost rewarded for theirs, their years of planning and unimaginable amounts of money invested finally paying off. Seriously, bunker complexes are not cheap. Far Cry 5 makes it clear that stockpiling weapons of war isn’t what makes the villains bad, it’s just a thing that you do in the country.
The villains are powerfully religious
You’ll hear the word “Cult” so much it loses all meaning. It’s synonymous with “The badguys” from the opening cinematic. Their doctrine is…unclear at best. Some kind of faux-Nietzschean, neo-Christian will to power thing. Equal opportunity, however. The Project at Eden’s Gate embraces people of any race or gender, which seems like a disingenuous attempt to disconnect it from a lot of the other ways it employs white supremacist rhetoric. They reject the Bible for their own book, and employ a lot of the Christian imagery and symbolism that one expects, as well as only the most badass of Biblical quotes. But their devotion and religiosity aren’t really connected to their villainy, it seems. It’s never really clear what role work camps play in their ideology, only that they seem entitled to use them.
Enter Paster Jerome Jeffries, minister of Fall’s End and a dedicated ally, a man who quotes the New Testament while liberating you from the back of a crashed van. He paints the main character as their deliverer, and carries a gun in his Bible. On both sides of the conflict in Far Cry 5, we find people who listen when God tells them to pull the trigger. Pastor Jeffries’s heart is in the right place, and he recognizes a duty to the people around him, but his character also occupies a position of “There are religious people on both sides here!” which dilutes the cult’s narrative a bit.
The villains are plain old terrible people
The badguys are bad. Bad bad. Shooting people at the side of the road bad. Load you with drugs until you’re a murder zombie bad. Flamethrowers and crucifixions, work camps and brainwashing. The atmospheric storytelling does a lot to signpost these particular Americans as people you don’t have to feel bad about shooting. The game lets you shoot to wound, picking off other cultists as they come to help their ally. Throw shovels like javelins, chase them with helicopters, etc.
But some of your allies don’t really have the problem with that that you’d expect. Hurk Jr, a stalwart companion, talks about how initially he wanted to join the cult, but they had too many rules. Adelaide, a helicopter pilot, talks about them like an inconvenience rather than an occupying force. For every character that tries to melodramatically engage with the main character using creepypasta stories of cult atrocities, there’s someone who’s like “Oh, those darn cultists. I could shoot a hundred, I suppose, if they came around.” It waters down your allies, and makes what should be a black and white action movie world kind of murky.
In all kinds of instances, we see characters who are allies counterbalancing what we’d think was the things that make the cult bad. Being racists. Shooting innocent people. Obsessed survivalists. Far Cry 5 is a game about shooting Americans who are definitely bad, but goes to a lot of effort to not interrogate or understand that badness at all, despite its absolute love affair with villains tying you to a chair and trying to talk you to death. It’s all empty words. It’s almost set up like you could do the same game from the other side, and not really notice a lot of difference.
This is definitely true for other games in the Far Cry series, but Far Cry 5 is playing with tropes that are clearly in the public eye and the contemporary cultural mindset. It nods to them at every opportunity, most notably with a dying John Seed shouting “You think the end isn’t coming? Look who’s in charge!”
For a game about fearless adventure that wants to nod to the real world, it seems deathly afraid to touch it.