It seemed like it just might work. We got “Father” Joseph Seed into the handcuffs. The Whitehurst Sheriff, the U.S. Marshal — we got the Eden’s Gate cult leader out of his so-called church. Sure, his followers were yelling at us. But we made progress. We even got to our chopper.
Then, they started throwing rocks. And as we tried to get Seed into the chopper and into the air, his followers showed just how devoted they were to their beloved Father. They threw themselves at us, at the helicopter. They tried to get inside and rescue him. It was chaos. I almost thought they’d start foaming at the mouth; they were in such a craze.
Then, our chopper crashed. I hung upside-down, and if I were in such a situation in real life, I’d imagine my fear would go from “Are we going to survive this” to “I’d wish I’d told my family how much I loved them before leaving for this mission.”
That’s when Seed approached me. He grabbed the headset from me, and he told the dispatcher that all was well. And the person on the other end, the one working with us, the law, talked to him like she was a true believer. He looked at me, and I could feel not just the menace in his look, in his voice … but also the magnetism, the charisma, that drew so many into his folk. It gave me shivers.
Later, as I tried to escape the clutches of Far Cry 5’s villain, I noted just how much material they had. Hundreds of guns, tens of thousands of rounds of ammo. Plenty of cars and trucks. Radio equipment. Watch towers. Hell, even a couple of machine gun-armed prop planes.
I wondered, “Where’d they get all the money for this. These people, they’re dirty. They look like they don’t have two nickels to rub together.”
“Two words: free labor,” said Rick Alan Ross, Ubisoft’s cult consultant for Far Cry 5, in an interview last week at a ranch outside Livermore, California. I was asking about the role the Eden Gate’s cult plays in the French game maker’s March 27 blockbuster for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One and how Far Cry 5’s creative director Dan Hay and his team worked with Ross to make these fanatics feel true to real-world cultists.
“That’s an interesting question,” said Hay. “The way we looked at it, as we talked to Rick about this, is that it’s interesting to see how old some of these cults are and how long they’ve been in operation and how they’ve been able to accrue wealth over time. We built a 15-year history of ours in terms of where they landed. We had them come in early. The way we operated was, they came into Hope County and bought pretty worthless land, but because they put 1,000 people on it, all of a sudden all the surrounding land drops in value. OK, cheap land, so they begin to move across it. And then, very quickly, in our history, they set their sights on the idea of taking over the governance of the space. They’ve been there; I think we came to between 12 and 15 years. We wrote a lot of the backstory, a lot of what happened year over year, to be able to make it valid that they would have had so much control.”
Let’s face it: Cultists work cheap. I hadn’t realized this.
“Free labor. If you have free labor, you can make a lot of money,” Ross said. “So, like Dan said, they come into an area. They refurbish properties. They flip properties. They establish businesses. Their overhead is so low that they’re just making money, money, money,” Ross said. “I think that in that sense, and in so many ways, Far Cry 5 is resonating in a very factual, very real way.”
Ross is the executive director and founder of the Cult Education Institute, and he’s been studying cults and warning about them since discovering a group infiltrated his grandmother’s nursing home, trying to turn elderly Jews (including Holocaust survivors) in the 1980s. Ubisoft worked with Ross to get Father Seed and Eden’s Gate in-line with how cults operate, how they worm their way into communities, how they prey on people. It’s the first time that this cult expert has worked on a video game, and it’s provided a way to teach an audience about these destructive groups.
“… It also can pique people’s awareness and give them some of the telltale red flags of what would be a cult,” Ross said.
I learned a heck more about cults than just where the money comes from. You might, too, in our interview with Ross and Hay. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: How long have you been involved with the Far Cry 5 project?
Rick Alan Ross, cult specialist: Going back to the beginning.
GamesBeat: So you’ve been in consultation for a couple of years.
GamesBeat: What is the definition of a cult? What makes a cult?
Ross: A cult, a destructive cult, has three primary characteristics. One, an absolute authoritarian leader that is the defining element and driving force of the group. Two, a process of indoctrination that’s been called thought reform or coercive persuasion, where you break people down to gain undue influence and manipulate them. And then, three, if it’s a destructive cult, the group does harm. That varies by degree from group to group.
GamesBeat: Would step two be something what people call brainwashing?
Ross: In popular culture, yes, but brainwashing is really just a pop term to describe a synthesis of influence techniques and coercive persuasion, used as tools to gain undue influence.
GamesBeat: Dan, why did you decide that Rick was the person to speak with?
Dan Hay, Far Cry 5 creative director: When you start to look into why we built a cult, why we wanted to make it our own, the first thing we wanted to do was make it feel like it was authentic, like it was believable and credible. We started with the Father. We started by saying, how is it we’re going to have someone who is magnetic, who is a leader, who could believably bring people in and captivate them? Very quickly, we realized we needed to get some expertise because I think the problem with — when you build this stuff, quite often you end up building a cliché. You want to make sure it has believable moments, that it feels as if it’s credible.
We started to talk to Rick about language. The devil is in the details of this stuff. Right away, when we started to talk, we got the sense of, just the parlance of the cult needs to be different. There needs to be words they use that we’ve never heard before. We talked about things like love bombing, really strange terms that — OK, hold on, when we start to write this and build these characters, they need to have a language that’s different. It was powerful to be able to grow that.
GamesBeat: When it comes to the magnetism of Father Seed — in the bit I just saw, you could feel that when he was getting out of the helicopter. He was holding the headphones, the headset. To me, you can see some of that. He’s completely unfazed. He knew he was in control. He was being threatening, but at the same time, he wasn’t using overt violence. Is that something cult leaders have in common, that personal charisma? There’s a threat around the edges of what they say, but they never actually threaten.
Ross: I think the toolkit of a cult leader who’s successful is to have a charismatic personality that attracts people. It penetrates them. I think you see that in Joseph Seed. You see it’s very nuanced. He can be loving. He can seem deeply interested in each individual. And he kind of oozes this magnetic pull. I think that initially, if someone is going to join a group, they’re not going to join a group where they feel the leader is threatening but rather where they see the leader as welcoming, loving, and answering their questions.
Hay: Very much so. We did a lot of research and reading. We looked into a lot of historical precedents and personalities. We’re not specifically calling out which ones we used, but he’s a composite of — just the way that he holds his gaze or the way that he writes or the way that he speaks, there was an awful lot of work into trying to get that down. And then, being able to find the right actor to do that, that’s tricky. You can have the best intentions in terms of being able to make somebody magnetic, but you can’t tell somebody, “Be more magnetic.” That doesn’t work. You have to make sure you have an actor who’s able to take it from the page and step into the role. Even as creators, I had a hard time believing somebody was going to be able to make me believe that I would join the cult. It’s a tall order to be able to say, “Prove it.” When we found Greg Bryk, the actor who plays this, we cast the net really wide to find this actor. We wrote this prose, the stuff he would read, and he gave a riveting — I remember I was at my desk and somebody comes over and says, “You gotta see this.” I went over and saw the performance, and we knew that was the guy.
GamesBeat: You captured Seed’s performance, but it’s also your animators who have to give that a pass. What sort of a challenge was that, capturing that magnetism?
Hay: It’s tricky. You have to have people with really good craft. A lot of things can go wrong from the standpoint of what you write to what the performance is to what you capture and then what you author outside of that capture. I think it’s — you think about somebody who looks at you, holds that look, and they maybe don’t blink. Or there’s an intensity in their eyes that’s — it’s very difficult to take what you manage to capture digitally, and you’re able to apply that to the player. One of the things that’s cool, though, about making a first-person game is that we have that ability to get much, much closer. You definitely feel like this person can get into your space and step forward. You feel the pressure of them being right there in a first-person game. That’s a powerful tool for us to use.
GamesBeat: The name Seed, is that a purposeful choice? Do cult leaders take on names like this in order to form a persona?
Ross: Absolutely. I can think of many examples where leaders have taken on names, very specific to what they saw as their mission or to attract people. For example, David Koresh, whose real name was Vernon Howell, took on the name Koresh to fulfill Biblical prophecy. Or Moses David Berg, who headed the Children of God, he saw himself as Moses leading his people to the promised land. Cult leaders will take on names to evoke some kind of imagery and to attract and sustain their following.
GamesBeat: Was that something you learned about from Rick?
Hay: Yeah. One of the things we wanted to do — we also know that this is entertainment. This is a game. We wanted people to be able to step into our world. The whole purpose was to be credible, to get an understanding of how it works, and then, be able to build our own cult with our own leader and their own family and their own purpose. What was powerful for us was learning about doomsday cults, just this concept of, the end times are coming. You can feel it. I can feel it. At least this is what the Father believes. It’s going to happen. I’m going to take you, and I’m going to save you whether you want to be saved or not. And after two weeks or three weeks, when it’s all over, whenever the calamity happens, you’re going to realize it’s right, and the ends will justify the means. That was a fascinating and also terrifying thing to look into. It gave a lot more gravitas to the father and to the cult itself.
GamesBeat: Does Seed see himself as a messiah?
Hay: I think he sees himself as somebody who has been chosen to effectively protect humanity and save humanity. He also understands that people aren’t going to believe them. When he walks up to you, he’s under the impression of, “Look, I get it. You think I’m crazy. But what if I’m right?” There was a really interesting commentary on why we chose to go down this road, which is — when I was younger I remember thinking about and feeling pretty scared of the end of the Cold War, watching it happen and seeing that at the time, looking at the Soviet Union and the U.S. in this titanic struggle. Really feeling the weight of that and being scared by it. And then, when it dissipated and left, I think I felt like everyone else, “OK, we’re not on the edge of [a] cliff anymore.” It was three or four years ago. I started to feel like that was coming back. It was as if we were moving toward another key moment in history where you have to be very careful. You have to have the maturity to understand that if we were on that edge, would we have the wherewithal to pull back? When you mix that idea with a doomsday cult, and the belief that they think this is the one time that mankind is going to push it too far, that’s very powerful.
GamesBeat: Dan, where did you grow up?
Hay: I was born in Toronto, and then, I moved out West, right north of Montana, actually. I was in Calgary and Edmonton for about nine years. Then, I came back to Toronto probably when I was about 10.
GamesBeat: I ask because we’re about the same age, but I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, so when I think of cults, I first think of the Peoples Temple. I was wondering, did what happened there play at all into designing Seed’s cult?
Hay: I’m cautious to talk about who it is that we looked at. I don’t want to give you a bullshit answer, but of course, we looked at everyone. We looked at a whole bunch of different things. It’s no question that, if you hear the story of a magnetic leader who takes people — who has the ability to take that many people and have them do something horrible, it definitely left an impression.
GamesBeat: The other thing with Jim Jones — there was a time when he was loved in the city of San Francisco. One can argue he did some good. What about Seed? Would you say he had any of that sort of background?
Hay: What’s interesting about what we learned is that a lot of the time, it starts out with altruistic intentions. A lot of the time, you’ll hear about these guys who start off as — they’re under the guise, under the auspices of doing good works. That’s what brings people in. We’re doing good things. Maybe they catch you in a moment when you’re a bit vulnerable, a bit weak, or you feel like you want to contribute to something larger than yourself. Which is a very human thing to feel. And then, over time, that’s when it begins to twist. That’s perhaps when the reality of what’s going on behind it happens. That’s definitely Seed.
GamesBeat: What is more important to a cult in that respect? The message or the messenger?
Ross: In order to be defined as a destructive cult, it would be the messenger. An obedience to that messenger and adherence to the messenger’s sense of mission and purpose. Though when people initially join, like Dan said, they’re feeling completely different. It’s all about the mission. It’s all about the purpose. They gradually begin to come into line with, yes, but it’s completely controlled by the leader. That’s the scary part of a destructive cult: all these people who have basically been broken down and their ability to think independently and critically is gone through one means or another. They’re now dependent upon the leader to think for them, and when the leader becomes delusional, dysfunctional, when things slip over the edge, all those people go with the leader. That’s when it gets scary.
GamesBeat: You’ve made this your life’s work. If I remember your bio correctly, it was because of teachings at your grandparents’ senior home?
Ross: Yeah. Well, my grandmother lived in a Jewish nursing home, and a group with a mission to target Jewish people for conversion infiltrated the paid professional staff of that nursing home and targeted the elderly covertly. When I went to visit my grandmother, she’d been accosted by one of these people, and she was very upset. I came to find out that this group with an agenda had actually infiltrated the staff of this nursing home where my grandmother lived. She was in her 80s. So, I started out as an anti-cult activist, and that evolved into working at a social service agency and so on. Thirty-some years later, here I am.
GamesBeat: Is this the first time you’ve brought your message about cults to a game?
Ross: Absolutely. This is the first time I’ve been involved in a video game. It’s been fascinating.
GamesBeat: How important is it to reach people who might have never even thought about a cult? Or they might just remember the Branch Davidians when they were growing up, what happened there.
Ross: I think that cults are ever-present. I travel all over the world. It’s a phenomenon that’s everywhere. It’s global. I can assure you that it’s a growth industry. There are more destructive cults today than there were back in the ’70s or ’80s or ’90s. It’s a very real and current problem. I think the game taps into that, and I think — other than being exciting and fun, it also can pique people’s awareness and give them some of the telltale red flags of what would be a cult.
GamesBeat: Does this game teach against authoritarianism in general, the dangers of that?
Hay: What we did in the game — we know it’s a work of fiction. We know it’s a work of entertainment. I think what we do is we leave that up to the player to be able to think about. When you try to force a prescription of an idea on somebody, you can push them away on the idea. I think what we did with this, we have a pretty good pedigree in Far Cry of building unique and interesting characters. Taking you to unique and interesting environments. Putting you in situations that feel believable. But still not forgetting that it’s fun. It’s interesting. It’s a fun game to play. We put the situation in front of the player, and we let them make the decision.
GamesBeat: Cults start with a message, with a messenger. Where is the money coming from for Seed?
Hay: That’s an interesting question. The way we looked at it, as we talked to Rick about this, is that it’s interesting to see how old some of these cults are and how long they’ve been in operation and how they’ve been able to accrue wealth over time. We built a 15-year history of ours in terms of where they landed. We had them come in early. The way we operated was, they came into Hope county and bought pretty worthless land, but because they put 1,000 people on it, all of a sudden all the surrounding land drops in value. OK, cheap land, so they begin to move across it. And then, very quickly, in our history, they set their sights on the idea of taking over the governance of the space. They’ve been there; I think we came to between 12 and 15 years. We wrote a lot of the backstory, a lot of what happened year over year, to be able to make it valid that they would have had so much control. And at that moment where the player comes in and is almost the tinder to start this, you could believe that control would be turned on quickly.
Ross: Two words: free labor. Free labor. If you have free labor, you can make a lot of money. So, like Dan said, they come into an area. They refurbish properties. They flip properties. They establish businesses. Their overhead is so low that they’re just making money, money, money. I think that in that sense, and in so many ways, Far Cry 5 is resonating in a very factual, very real way.
GamesBeat: When it comes to Seed, is his message ultimately about true belief? Or is it just a desire for power over others?
Hay: That answer comes in two forms. He’s absolutely a true believer. He believes that the end times are coming. He absolutely believes that this is the one time that humanity is coming toward the edge, and this time — we’re going to lack the maturity and the wherewithal to step back. He says, “When it happens, how will we know?” It’s happened so many times, that humanity has been on the edge of calamity, that when we’re able to get past it, we become numb to it. His point is, that’s not going to happen this time. He absolutely, unequivocally believes that the end times are coming and that he has to do everything he can — in an environment where nobody is going to believe him, where he’s not going to be able to get a lot of help — that he’s obligated to try to save people whether they want to be saved or not. As far as power, I would have to — it’s probably gotta be pretty intoxicating to have that much power over people. I can imagine how it would corrupt someone. But he’s absolutely a true believer.
Ross: And that’s when it gets really scary, as opposed to a cynical con man or manipulator. When the leader truly is a believer, the potential for violence, the meltdown, the intensity, that’s when it gets really freaky, really scary.
GamesBeat: Is there a cult active in the United States right now that you’d consider a danger like this?
Ross: There are always dangerous cults in every country around the world. There are of course groups that are in the media on, really, a daily basis. If you go to cultnews.com or culteducation.com, you can see that there are many groups that have been called cults, that are in the news every day.
Hay: We probably won’t be calling out somebody specific, just because — I think we used them and wanted to be able to gain an understanding of cults in general, but the key thing we did was we built our own. We’re being cautious about that. We built it for a reason. We built our own cult so people could understand that it’s a work of fiction, that it’s entertainment.
GamesBeat: And also, you didn’t want to drive people into a cult.
Hay: [Laughs] I hadn’t considered it that way, but for sure, we want to be able to make sure we have people have the opportunity to experience and understand right from the beginning that it’s ours. That’s also why we built Hope County. You can’t find that on a map. There’s a way you could understand a bit of the framework of a cult but at the same time understand that it’s a piece of entertainment.
Correction, 7:26 a.m.: I published Greg Bryk’s name as Greg Brick and Moses David Berg’s name as Moses David Burke. I have fixed my error.