In honor of Ubisoft’s much-anticipated release of Far Cry 5 today, we were offered a rare opportunity to speak with one of the video game’s story consultants. Now other action-oriented games out there might have consultants on weaponry, tactics, vehicles, and the like, but Far Cry 5‘s story separates itself from the pack by focusing on a dangerous and deadly cult that has taken over a Montana county. In order to bring a sense of realism to that particular tale, the game’s creative team brought documentary filmmaker Mia Donovan on board to do just that.
And it’s Donovan we had a chance to chat with in celebration of the game’s release today. Director of the 2015 cult-centric documentary Deprogrammed, Donovan shared her experiences doing research for that film and the personal story of her step-brother’s traumatic deprogramming experience resulting from time spent in a cult in the early 1990s. We also spoke about how her knowledge base and continuing work with cults informed the central story of Far Cry 5, the elements the video game embraced–like the concept of being “blissed out” on belief–and the dangers of real-world cults. And even if you’re not into video gaming, this interview might just open your eyes to the way a cult operates and warning signs to watch out for. The fascinating discussion follows below:
How much of your own personal experience in dealing with a cult made its way into the game?
Mia Donovan: As a consultant to the writing team on Far Cry 5, my main objective was to help them understand the social psychology of thought-reform, particularly in terms of the way cults use language to reinforce their ideology and cultivate a sense of exclusivity between the members and the ‘outside world.’ You have to understand that they reinterpreted most of what I shared with them in a way that would make sense in the context of the Far Cry model and video game platform, but one example is how they adopted the concept of being ‘blissed out.’
I have been shooting with a small cult in the desert for the past few years for an upcoming documentary and I described to Dan Hay, Creative Director, and the writers how the members are completely ‘blissed out’ – it’s like they are high on Jesus. They are actually completely sober but they are high on this idea that they are living the life of Jesus and they spread the ideology that if you love and accept Jesus into your life then no harm can come to you.
The video game is obviously meant to be a thrilling experience for the player with dramatic moments and a lot of action, but is it safe to say that real-world dangers posed by cults tend to be more subtle and develop more slowly?
Donovan: Absolutely, the process of cult indoctrination usually happens incrementally over a period of time and it’s very hard to duplicate the social psychology of this process without real human peer interactions. An example of a very popular manipulation tactic used by cults is often referred to as ‘love bombing,’ which is usually the first step towards being recruited into a cult.
Let’s say, for example, you decide to go check out a ‘self help’ type of seminar that you were handed a flyer for on the street. It could even be something as unassuming as a vegan cooking class that you signed up for online. When you arrive, everyone is so friendly and happy to meet you and they all shower you with a ton of attention and affection (these scenarios actually happened to two former cult-members I spoke with). This sort of environment where you feel so loved and admired can be very appealing, so when they invite you to come back the next day for another meeting or workshop it can be hard to resist. But the red flag in these scenarios is that real friendships don’t happen instantly, they take time to cultivate. When a new group of people are immediately trying to convince you that you are welcome to be part of their family, you should be cautious.
The misconception is that only a certain type of person might be susceptible to a cult’s message, but is it possible that anyone, anywhere could be drawn in?
Donovan: Before I started researching and interviewing cult members I assumed that only weak-minded people who didn’t have a strong sense of their own identity were vulnerable to becoming recruited by a cult. In reality, the majority of the people that I spoke to that had joined cults were very strong-willed, educated and many came from affluent backgrounds. However, most of them described themselves as ‘seekers.’ Most of the people I met who joined groups particularly during the 1970s came from politically active backgrounds and were seeking ways to make the world a better place. They were idealistic and somehow disillusioned with the world but optimistic to make a change.
What is it about cults and their leaders that pose such real and present dangers? Is it the message, the leaders’ charisma, or the combination of the two that poses such a threat?
Donovan: I believe the threat is more about the loss of individual autonomy. We grow up in a society that values individuality and free-will and we are taught that we can chose to become whoever we want to become. Cults represent the opposite of that. Cults ultimately erase individualism and demand that their members reject their own individual needs and desires.
Is it true that most cults and their leaders tend to be preaching a message on a religious basis, or are there other types of messages out there?
Donovan: Many cults are based in religious ideology but they are not restricted to that. The social philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote in his 1951 book ‘True Believer’ that, “The strength of a mass movement is proportionate to the vividness and tangibility of its devil.” In many cases, the idea of a devil or something to be afraid of is more a facture in creating a bond within a group. To have a common enemy to resist is a strong unifying force.
How difficult is it to get in touch with someone who’s become a member of a cult, willingly or otherwise?
Donovan: Many members of cults really believe in their message and if you show interest in what they have to say, they are often more than happy to speak to you – unless they see you as a threat or an embodiment of the devil. During the 1970s when deprogrammings were very common, many cults dissuaded members from visiting family members for fear that they would be deprogrammed.