Follow the Leader: The Changing Depiction of Cults in Video Games

By Mark Delaney, 10 months ago
"Well if your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?"

We've all heard that phrase from authority figures growing up. Parents, grandparents, teachers, even older siblings have at one point or another said it to you, no doubt. You don't likely reach adulthood without someone using this timeless rhetorical question to warn you of the dangers of groupthink and following the crowd. As we age, most of us surely understand it too and may eventually become the parents saying it to our own kids someday. There's no shame in that. It's a universally sound point to make, spanning pretty much all cultures and eras. It's never a good idea to do as everyone else is doing just because they're doing it.

That's partly why the idea of cults gives us such a sense of fascination and horror all at once. We think of cults as a close-knit community of followers and usually, but not always, a charismatic leader to whom they all look up. Sometimes religiously motivated, almost always living in isolation, be it geographically or just socially, the communal aspect of cults can at once seem mortally terrifying and dangerously alluring.

Video games have been depicting cults of various types for ages, but lately, the way cults have been used in games and their stories has begun to shift. No longer are cults the faceless, unrelatable villains of a story, akin to zombies, aliens, or even Nazis. These days, cults are personal, controversial, and uncomfortably life-like.

When you think of cults from video games, which comes to mind first? Maybe it's The Children of the Atom in Fallout 3. For many others, it's likely the Covenant from the Halo series or the Los Illuminados from Resident Evil 4. These earlier depictions focused on fantasy settings, supernatural events, or alien civilizations. They were distant. Like going through a haunted house, we could toy with the feelings of finding ourselves amid that danger, but it was kept at arm's length by never really resembling real life.

The new face of video game cults.The new face of video game cults.

Having the masses within the Covenant or Illuminados largely blending in together isn't just a technical shortcut for developers who don't want to customize hundreds of different character models. The oneness of enemy design is in keeping with the way villains have been depicted in storytelling for ages. Think of the orcs in Lord of the Rings, or the stormtroopers of Star Wars; their uniformed look is representative of what makes them the bad guys. They aren't individuals, they aren't free thinking. They are a massive army of lookalikes, bowing down to their respective leaders like a hive mind. For the opposite reason, it's why our heroes in fiction are always made to stand out among each other. Across literature, film, video games, et al, it's our own ingrained way of messaging how dangerous it can be to conform.

For a long time, video game developers kept their cults much like those orcs or stormtroopers, fictional and fantastical. We could draw careful parallels, like the Unitologists in Dead Space and their unjustified self-assuredness, without feeling too close to the subject. To examine cults in our real world was messy and troubling, so we examined cults only through funhouse mirrors. While older media like film and literature were decades into grappling such themes, gaming still had some growing up to do in this regard.

No longer is that the case though. Video games have grown up in a number of vital ways over the years. One way I find most important is the how developers are now choosing to address real-world issues head-on. Games can be widely sociopolitical, deeply personal, or anything in between. While games never stopped pitting us against cults as villains, now these villains are no longer hostile aliens or deranged people from a post-apocalyptic future. Now they're our next-door neighbors.

2017's Outlast 2 is a prime example of how the conversation has changed. In Red Barrels' horror sequel, players find themselves not on an alien planet or in a fantasy realm, but in the deserts of Arizona. A religious cult called the Testament of the New Ezekiel looks to their leader and supposed prophet Sullivan Knoth for directions on how to save the world from ushering in the Anti-Christ. They achieve this goal with ritualistic human sacrifice, torturous conditions, and a violent reaction to outsiders. These people of Temple Gate are fictitious, but not entirely fictional. Cults like theirs have been in the news before. One needs only to recall Jim Jones and his People's Temple, where nearly 1,000 people were killed via forced mass suicide after a US congressman began to investigate the cult in the late 70s. Like those in Temple Gate, they grew paranoid of interlopers, largely due to the rhetoric of their smooth talking leader and like so many others, ended tragically.

Say your prayersSay your prayers

Outlast 2 juxtaposes a modern civilized world with horrors equivalent to those in some holy books. In doing so, it means to show us how adherence to fundamentalism and literalism can cause people to do terrible things that they otherwise would never consider doing. It's a bold stance for a video game, and it's not one we likely would've seen even just a few years ago. Outlast 2 doesn't send us into far-flung space to depict its dangerous cult. It shows us one that is all too familiar. We meet many members of Temple Gate, learn their names, spend a lot of time running away from them, and it all becomes much more personal. They tell us clearly why they hurt people, why they do the heinous things they do, and the details don't sound so different from texts many are introduced to as children. These aren't aliens whose motives we cannot fathom. These are human beings that got swept up in a storm of bad ideas.

The upcoming indie game, The Church in the Darkness, is more like Jonestown than Outlast 2, or any other video game ever for that matter. Players are tasked with infiltrating the South American settlement of Freedom Town and exfiltrating the protagonist's nephew. Among you are a bevy of cultists living on the settlement, and though not each of them is fleshed out as individuals, the game informs you of their motives and disposition more subtly, through context clues and over the loudspeakers utilized by the game's dynamic duo of leaders, Isaac and Rebecca Walker. Across multiple playthroughs, the cultists may not be so violent toward one another. Sometimes the ideologies of their leaders don't require the human rights violations we so often associate with cults. However, the people of the Collective Justice Mission do maintain one key negative element of all cults: hostility toward outsiders. Even if the residents of Freedom Town aren't interested in locking each other in cages or killing each other on the spot, they'll certainly treat you that way when you're spotted in the encampment of The Church in the Darkness.

In real life, this is at least metaphorically true. Cults flourish only when they close themselves off to outside opinions and influence. Any cult not doing this is not even a cult or is at best a short-lived cult. This is often a recipe for disaster because then the only message getting to the followers is that from their manipulative leaders. This mentality welcomes stubbornness and resists change. It's the same brand of resistance to new ideas or evidence seen today in cults like the KKK or the philosophical cult of Flat Earthers. These are people who bend and break the world's logic to fit the shape they require, rather than alter their opinions based on facts of the world.

Even the most peaceful version of the Collective Justice Mission doesn't welcome strangersEven the most peaceful version of the Collective Justice Mission doesn't welcome strangers

Like The Church in the Darkness, the most famous use of modern cults in games has not officially released yet, but we can still gauge quite a bit from the pre-release material. Far Cry 5 takes the series to Montana in a bid to upset an entirely different population of gamers. Historically, the series has come under fire from the political left for depicting people in countries outside the west as savages or backward. In Far Cry 5, Hope County is a small, secluded town ruled by a family of bible-thumping evangelical tyrants, thus now upsetting the political right. While we can either laugh with or at them for covering all their outrage bases, Ubisoft is again proving that the conversation on cults in games is changing. The Far Cry depiction is the most familiar of all.

While Outlast 2 and The Church in the Darkness offer us cults hidden in seclusion, Far Cry 5's Project at Eden's Gate gives us a cult that exists out in the open. They closed themselves off from others intellectually and socially, but they're not in a bunker. They haven't retreated to South America. Their ideas are extremely dangerous and it's not a secret that they rule over their town with fear and violence, but they feel comfortable enough to do all of this right in the open. Their insolence toward rule of law is born out of their assurance that their ideology is the right one, that enough people will be either sympathetic to their views or fearful of them. They believe their message is of utmost importance. To Joseph Seed and his family, everything else is secondary.

We can probably all point to people in our lives, if not family or friends then friends of friends, that may believe dangerous ideas reminiscent of those held by the Eden's Gate family. Be they religiously motivated, politically motivated, or just the results of indoctrination of awful ideas like racism or a contempt for the poor, these people exist today. There's a cost to trying to maintain a melting pot when many of the ingredients are at odds with each other because they can't agree on even objectively true facts of the world. Bad ideas must be defeated by better ones. In Far Cry 5 we see the extreme of bad ideas run amok, and as in real life, there comes a point where you can feel it's too late to apply the brakes. The bad ideas have won. That's the position the people of Hope County are in at the start of the game. It's a foregone conclusion that the story of Far Cry 5 will see players taking out this family of cult leaders until their power has deteriorated and the people of Hope County are liberated, but that's the Hollywood ending. In real life, bad ideas with enough breathing room can end up suffocating you.

Far Cry's use of religious iconography will upset many when the game releases next month. It's already begun to do that now and that's just based on screenshots and trailers. While I don't anticipate Ubisoft will have the most elegant message of these three recent examples — the publisher is above all making things with the fun factor at the forefront — their premise is already daring enough to see how things have changed in the medium. If Far Cry 5 is done thoughtfully, I anticipate the game will have more to say on this issue of overconfidence in bad ideas.

These three games are just some recent examples of the changing depiction of cults in video games. Others like Night in the Woods, Mafia III, and even Deus Ex which pushes the limits of "real world" a bit further than the rest, all still return to a central change in how these characters are depicted. Thanks to a bolder community of developers willing to challenge ideas the industry would not touch years ago, games are now putting human faces to the hordes of cult followers and their megalomaniacal leaders. Whereas before we saw cults in games as literal monsters spanning time and space and blending in like the masses of Tolkien's orcs, now we're seeing the all too familiar brand of cults, the type that is on the news, the type that lives next door, is resistant to change, and is willing to shed blood in the name of its bad ideas — the type that is dangerously content to sip the Kool-Aid.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is the host of the community game club TA Playlist. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his family. He almost never writes in the third person.