We know very little about Far Cry 5, the upcoming video game in a long-running series of first-person shooters. But from what we can infer based on its recently released artwork, initial interviews and debut trailer, the plot is going to dive into controversial themes of religion, American exceptionalism and lots and lots of guns.
The art features a group of people at a long table in an obvious Last Supper-style pose. At the center of the table is an American flag, on top of which sit a couple of guns, raw meat and what appears to be a holy book (though no explicit religious iconography can be seen on it). Behind them is the open landscape of the game's setting: Hope County, Montana.
Near the bottom of the image is a shirtless man sitting cross-legged in front of the table with the word "sinner" etched onto his back. The first words spoken in the game's trailer are "We must atone."
The game's antagonist, according to its developer, is a man named Joseph who leads a cult called Eden's Gate. Video game website Polygon notes that the cult's symbol is reminiscent of the Iron Cross, which was once linked closely to Nazism, due to its usage by the Germans in World War II.
The theme of religion is driven home with a separate trailer for the game, introducing the character Pastor Jerome Jeffries. At first blush, he seems to be a typical, kindhearted American pastor. Unlike the Caucasian religious extremists we see on the cover of the game's box, though, Jeffries is black. He reads aloud, paraphrasing Jeremiah 23:1, "'Woe to the man who leads my flock astray,' says the Lord."
Then the pastor grabs a handgun hidden in his Bible and a shotgun from his side, saying, "For if I am not their shepherd, then I must be the wolf." Which, for the record, is not exactly how that Biblical text continues.
These teasers have me very interested in the story that Far Cry 5 wants to tell, but as a Christian, they also have me very worried about how the game is going to portray religion.
Christianity in America is not perfect. Even when you take away the extremist rabble-rousers like those from Westboro Baptist Church, you don't have to look hard to find places where the words of Jesus are being co-opted. There are lessons to be learned and stories to be told from the more toxic areas of faith, and I don't blame the writers at Ubisoft for seeing storytelling potential in this setting.
But tackling complex religious topics, especially in a video game that's focused on explosive action, is really, really difficult.
Far Cry 5 won't be the first major release to attempt it. Bioshock Infinite, released in 2013, went in a similar (though more fantastical) direction. Its villain was a man named Father Comstock, who ruled over the floating city of Columbia inhabited by cult members who believed he could see the future. That plot used baptism as a turning point for a character's descent into evil in a way that I didn't feel was fair to my religion or my beliefs.
(I actually wrote much more about this subject on the website GameChurch, in an article titled "Et tu, Levine? Bioshock Infinite's tortured relationship with religion.")
Given the view that outsiders tend to have of American Christianity today, I fear that Ubisoft will fall into the tired and disappointing "religion is the real bad guy" trope that you can find in many horror movies and plenty of science fiction novels.
Sometimes religion is the bad guy. Sometimes religious people commit terrible crimes and do atrocious things. But religion is complex, and giving your story a gun-toting, out-for-vigilante-justice pastor only makes things muddier.
Bioshock Infinite at least took place in a fictional world, with science-fiction overtones and only loose ties to the real America. Far Cry 5, though, takes place in the realistic setting of rural Montana, and that makes everything riskier.
Ubisoft, the company developing and publishing Far Cry 5, is not an American company. It is headquartered in France and has studios in Canada, the United Kingdom, China and Ukraine, all of which are chipping in on this game's development. The developers of Far Cry 5 did visit Montana and get to know some of its people, but they are ultimately outsiders to our country's current political and religious climate. Whether that's good or bad for their storytelling remains to be seen.
The Far Cry series is no stranger to controversy, either. Previous entries in the franchise have come under fire for their questionable approaches to race, especially considering that they often take place in foreign locales and end up requiring the player to kill locals of color. Notably, the cover art for Far Cry 4 caused a stir when it depicted a man who appeared white resting his hand on a seemingly submissive person of color. (The "white" man on the cover, as it turned out, a British-Chinese man who served as the game's violent antagonist.)
It's too early to say if Ubisoft is just leaning hard away from one race problem and into another one.
I hope Far Cry 5 has interesting things to say about religion, race, patriotism and identity. Those are subjects that can make for powerful narratives, and it's time for video games to step up and tell more impactful, meaningful stories. But the experience could very easily be boiled to down "Make some things explode, and also please notice that religion is bad." I pray that's not the case.
Far Cry 5 will be released Feb. 27, 2018.