Cults: fearsome, strange, and fascinating. These zealots have been the subject of a hundred books, a thousand papers, tens of thousands of blog articles and news stories—and no small number of games over recent years.
Now, as a new AAA game is set to use a cult as the primary protagonist (Far Cry 5), we take a look back at cults in video games throughout the ages.
Let’s get weird.
The first well-known representation of a cult in a video game appeared in Earthbound (1994) with Happy Happyism; an obsessive, vaguely KKK-looking group who believed they could bring happiness to the world by painting everything with their favourite colour: blue.
Everything from the name to the clothing to the cult leader, Mr Carpainter, is ridiculous and even outright campy. You might argue that this is simply a part of the Earthbound game design, but it appears that this light-hearted approach to cults is hardly unique for the 1990s.
Take The Brotherhood of Nod from Command & Conquer (1995), for instance. They may not be wielding paintbrushes and Klan robes, but it’s hard to take any group seriously, even armed with assault rifles, when their leader (Kane) seems to conduct all his operations from a photography lab’s dark room.
The earliest representations of cults are almost exclusively campy, odd and more of a joke than a serious threat.
Perhaps it’s the result of the medium being relatively young, but the earliest representations of cults are almost exclusively cartoonish and more of a joke than a serious threat. Somewhat ironically, the 1990s were also the decade in which some of the worst cult attacks/activities were uncovered, such as the Heaven’s Gate suicides, The Order of the Solar Temple murders and the Aleph sarin attacks, to name a few.
However, not every cult during the 90s was laughable. In fact, one of the most iconic cults in gaming was created at the very end of this decade…
The New Millennium
The Order, Silent Hill (1999). When people think of the original gaming cult, this is who they think of. Brainwashed townspeople hellbent on bringing about the apocalypse through dark, forbidden magics. Their efforts spawn a whole cavalcade of twitching, dripping and horrific monsters. Quite the step away from the blue and reds of Happy Happyism and Nod.
Their efforts spawn a whole cavalcade of twitching, dripping and horrific monsters.
The most interesting part of The Order is the fact that this is the first representation of a cult that deals with, for lack of a better term, ‘the weird sex stuff’. One of the things that fascinates us about cults is the whole forbidden aspect of many of their practices, sex included; just look at the practice of Flirty Fishing in the cult called The Children of God, or the now-renounced polygamy of Mormonism. It’s abnormal by Western standards, and yet we’re drawn to it, then repulsed by it—the perfect combination which aficionados of zombie and particularly vampire movies will be all too familiar with. Or maybe it’s just my degree in English Literature desperately groping to get out…
So when you start seeing sexualised monsters like the Nurses, the depictions of sexual violence in many of the enemies and even the main plot point of giving birth to a god, you can see how Silent Hill takes that strange attraction-rejection dynamic and capitalises on it to make us feel horrified and fascinated all at the same time. There are people in nurse outfits, but they’ll also murder your face; spooky, right?
However, this isn’t a unique tactic, and real life fears of cults being made cyberflesh in video games is something that developers continued to do—and still do today.
As gaming matured and became a global phenomenon, so too did cults begin more diverse in their representation. We got the classic horror cult in Call of Cthulhu, as well as the campy outrageousness in Dead Rising. Even the happy hippy communes got a look-in with the Treeminders of Fallout 3 and, right at the end of the decade, the political/religious cult of Sofia Lamb in Bioshock 2.
However, when you think about cults in modern gaming, you are thinking of one group and one group only: The Unitologists from Dead Space (2008). They’ve got it all: body horror, political power, brainwashing, mysterious rituals and secretive ways. It was clearly heavily inspired by the continued rise of Scientology, particularly considering the heavily publicised release on the web of Scientology beliefs e.g. OT III.
When you think about cults in modern gaming, you are thinking of one group and one group only: The Unitologists.
Scientologists were also hitting headlines with celebrity endorsements as well as court cases and other shady practices. While Unitologists are certainly violent and destructive, it is interesting to see the change of cults in games from purely religious zealotry and local power into the galaxy-spanning force that was Unitology; perhaps reflecting the growing power of Scientology in real life as well.
But, of course, there was satire as well, in the hands of the Epsilon Program from Grand Theft Auto V (2013). Kooky, crazy, greedy and generally mad, the comparison to modern-day cults such as Scientology is so on-the-nose that it could put you in the hospital. But satire doesn’t always have to be subtle.
Now, we move into the modern day, with the announcement that the primary antagonists of Far Cry 5 will be a doomsday cult, as well as the more traditional horror cult of Outlast 2.
At first glance, these might not seem all that different from cults from gaming’s past, but there is one thing that is uniquely interesting about them. Rather than cults based on native beliefs with Christian twists (The Order), wacky cults with unusual beliefs (Happy Happyism) or even real-life-inspired cults based on headlines and controversy (Unitology), now we are faced with something else. Cults that are based on traditional religions, but twisted versions. Recognisable, but horribly maimed.
Now we are faced with something else. Cults that are based on traditional religions, but twisted versions.
Earlier, we talked about the ‘weird sex stuff’ in Silent Hill, and how that twisted familiarity is what made that cult so great as a horror antagonist. It’s a similar situation here, but rather than that attraction-rejection dynamic, it’s now the established beliefs of many people around the world that are being twisted.
That can be exceptionally upsetting, and that’s kind of the point. Because you can see something familiar, something within yourself in the violence and mayhem, if only a little. When antagonists start using your own beliefs against you to back up actions that you detest, it makes their abnormality all the more… well, horrifying. It’s like walking into the crazy mirror room at a carnival: you see yourself, but stretched and crushed and twisted into something barely recognisable—but you can still see it’s you. If you want to get REALLY liberal arts about it, you might even interpret it as a form of abjection.
The Far Cry cultists don’t just play on a twisted version of Christianity, but also managed to play on another common fear of the modern day: religious cults attacking the homeland. Terrorist attacks feel like they are becoming all the more common for people all over the world, and in America the spectre of the 9/11 attacks are still fresh in the minds of many.
Now, Far Cry has now placed what is essentially a terrorist cell in the middle of Montana. But rather than ISIS, this terrorist cell is, at its core, recognisably Christian-inspired. Jihadi John is nowhere to be seen, instead replaced by a white American man wielding a bible. Rejected, and yet familiar. A twisted version of beliefs that you might yourself hold quite dear, or at the very least, a recognisable part of the culture you were brought up in. Even if you yourself aren’t Christian, there is enough familiarity there to make you feel uncomfortable. Isn’t it lovely?
- The 90s were campy
- The 00s were violent
- The 10s were political
- The 20s will be twisted
- Cults make great antagonists because we see something of ourselves, or something we like, in them—but broken and abjected.
Cults are mysterious, strange, violent, deadly, powerful, political, kooky—and much more besides. They allow game developers to give us an antagonist that is ripe for satire and ridicule, but also for fear and worry.
Once, they were campy nutjobs with colour obsessions. Then, they became sexualised, violent groups that delved into magicks that man was not meant to know. Eventually, they became global political forces, brainwashing and breaking, no longer just violent monsters.
Now, in the modern day as we close out the 2010s, they’ve returned to the fear and the violence, but now they are oddly familiar, bastardised versions of many people’s beliefs, but twisted in such a way that they represent our greatest fears as well.
And what of the future? What will cults become in the 2020s and 2030s? If history is anything to go by, there’s a simple formula: take a common fear, take a common belief, twist the former around the latter and give it some power, an assault rifle and some druid robes and boom: you’ve got a five-star video game cult.
What is your favourite cult in gaming? Have we missed them out? Let us know in the comments below!