A choir booms out over the speakers. They're singing a hymn, a song about the things they treasure, the work they must do, and the god they believe in. A good hymn is a major part of any church service. Every Sunday, you can hear them rolling out of churches in cities and towns across the United States. Some are upbeat and joyful, others are solemn and somber.
A good hymn can be calming. I was raised in a Christian household and though I don't practice, the musical composition of spiritual hymns still hits something in my lizard brain. They feel like songs of safety. While I'm sitting here hearing the hymns of the fictional cult in Far Cry 5, something in me relaxes. Until I hear the lyrics and realize something isn't right.
"That was one of the things I had hoped for from the beginning. That this beautiful music would be heard on two levels. At the beginning of the game, I use that music to attract the player," Far Cry 5 audio director Tony Gronick explains to me, following a presentation on the game's music. "I wanted these songs, when you heard them, if you knew nothing about the cult they'd mean one thing. I wanted them to be inspiring. And once you knew about the cult, they'd mean a different thing."
In Far Cry 5, you're up against the Project at Eden's Gate, a cult led by The Father. The Father believes that The Collapse is coming for humanity, so he's had his cult take over Hope County, Montana. All that stands between the citizens of Hope County being "saved" by the cult is your character, a nameless sheriff's deputy. The Project at Eden's Gate is based on various real life cults and sports its own brand of religious fervor.
And where there's religious fervor, there are hymns.
But this fictional cult isn't Christian or Catholic. For Far Cry 5 to work, the cult needed its own music; songs that sound like they come from a cult based in the United States, but not from any specific religion.
"Very early in the game, I realized that the cult needed its own sound," Gronick says. "At first, I started looking at Christian rock; that didn't seem to match the characters. I tried post-rock, but that didn't quite work either because the droniness of post-rock kind of interfered with the engines of the cars. Then we found traditional hymns."
By "traditional", Gronick means Americana folk hymns, popular in the South and Midwest of the United States. Songs like "Amazing Grace," "Blessed Assurance," "How Great Are Thou," and "We Shall Overcome," which you've probably heard of in films and television shows, even if you're not religious at all.
"When I heard that, I knew this is what we had to do, but the lyrics of the songs didn't match what the cult believed in. We had to write our own music in that style," says Gronick.
Composing A New Religion
Once Gronick knew what was needed in the game, he needed to find someone who could make it work. Early in the project, he was watching Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film about a young girl and her family dealing with an oncoming storm to their Louisiana bayou-based community, and found himself struck by the music in the film. It didn't feel like a Far Cry soundtrack though: it offered the needed inspiration, but lacked the darkness and grit needed for the game's subject material.
When another developer showed Gronick Beasts of No Nation, a Netflix film about child soldiers in Africa, he realized he had found the sound they were looking for. Gronick combined one of the darker, heavier tracks from Beasts of No Nation with the more inspirational music of Beasts of the Southern Wild; together they formed the sound Far Cry 5 needed. One of the lead composers on both films ended up being the same person: Dan Romer.
Romer is a Los Angeles-based composer who wears many hats. He's composed a number of film soundtracks, including Beasts of the Southern Wild, Beasts of No Nation, Digging For Fire, Finders Keepers, Gleason, Chasing Coral, and The Little Hours. Romer produced singles for musical artists, including Shawn Mendes' "Treat You Better" and "Say Something" by A Great Big World & Christina Aguilera. Romer has also played in bluegrass and country bands, something that made him perfect to work on Far Cry 5's soundtrack.
"We gave him all the information about the cult and Dan went back and started writing these hymns. After he wrote a hymn, he would just send it. Just his voice and an acoustic guitar," says Gronick.
Now Ubisoft had the hymns, but they needed someone to actually sing all of the songs. Far Cry 5 needed that good old gospel choir sound. They turned to a Nashville-based band called Hammock, an act that had previously popped up when Gornick was searching for the game's specific sound. So Ubisoft took Romer's songs down to Nashville and recorded the versions of the hymns that you'll hear in Far Cry 5. (See the video above.)
Cult beliefs and manifestos form the underpinning of Romer's compositions; they sound like traditional Christian hymns until you listen carefully to the lyrics. According to Gronick, early during the prototyping phase of the game with no music, the actions of the cult made little sense, offering violence and destruction with no real meaning or impact. Once Gronick added the first attempts at the game's cult hymns, they imparted motivation to the violence. The cultists in Far Cry 5 believe they're doing the work of their god and that holy work is all that stands between humanity and extinction.
Gronick admits that there's an emotional dichotomy at work in listening to the hymns.
"You don't agree with them, but you understand the motivation," he tells me. "I really thought these hymns would be so annoying to the player that they'd want to kill at the cult members, but I find myself listening to it when I'm answering my emails. It's beautiful music."
The music plays on cult radio stations within Far Cry 5, usually over the radios of various vehicles. Every cult vehicle is automatically tuned to their station and it acts like an aural marker for the player: when you hear the hymns, you know cultists are nearby. The music escalates as the cult takes further control over an area. Leave them alone long enough and they'll set up trucks with mobile speaker stations. Wait even longer and they'll set up speaker towers, blasting the hymns over the countryside. The louder the song, the more work you have cut out for you.
The cultists even sing their hymns while they're doing their holy work.
"We got the cult singing along," Gronick says. "Imagine two guys out in the field and they're butchering a cow. They're going to be singing to the song that's playing on the truck. It's going to show that they know they're doing god's work." And that right there is a creepy phrase, which is the point.
The hymns aren't in Far Cry 5 in just their whole choral form though. Romer also wrote the rest of the game's music, so the action tracks have bits of the hymns within them, reinforcing the overall themes across every part of the game. These callbacks to the cult's hymns carry through most of the game's soundtrack, but it becomes even more complex when it touches the other part of Far Cry 5's sound: regional flavor.
Every Town Has Its Tunes
There are four major regions to Hope County, Montana. Each region has its own style for the cult hymns, but when you clear away the cult, there remains an underlying tone for the region.
"I know people will think it's weird that every region has a different sound. But it really isn't when you have the harmonies of those hymns holding it all together. When you go into a different area, it feels different, but it still feels the same," Gronick explains.
The primary region of Hope County leans heavily on an Appalachian style for its hymns. Holland Valley has a more acoustic, traditional American feel to it. The heights of the Whitetail Mountains have an Industrial twinge to them. Finally, the Henbane River area is all about post-rock influences with more psychedelic leanings.
Free of the cult's radio, each region also has its own radio station. Cars in each area are tuned to that region's radio station when they're free of the cult. You can change to another station if you want, but Gronick wanted to provide an anchor within different areas of Hope County.
These are all licensed, familiar tunes. Holland Valley is classic rock, Whitetail Mountains is more modern punk or heavy metal music, and Henbane River features 50s and 60s magic, with doo wop buzzing over the speakers. Gronick likens the latter to the soundtrack to the film Pleasantville. Ubisoft is still finalizing the licensed soundtrack, but currently there are over a 100 licensed tracks in the game.
"I wanted a driving mixtape basically," he says. "What you would take on a long trip? When you wipe the cult from an area, this is the type of music that plays. Each region has a different feel to it. In two of the regions, I kind of wanted the music to be the opposite of what the composed music was. Hopefully, you don't change the channel, because [the radio and regional flavor] do work together."
Last Ride of the Daredevil
There's one final musical treat for players within Far Cry 5. There are time trials to complete, with your character racing to beat the times of the legendary, Evel Knievel-style racer Clutch Nixon. The feeling here is completely different from anything else you're doing in the game: it's all motocross and Monster Trucks, to the point that you can hear the faint "Sunday, Sunday, SUNDAY!" in your head. So, time trials needed their own theme and Gronick turned to a band called the Road Vikings to help.
"When I started playing with [Clutch's] stuff, I decided he needed his own music," Gronick says. "I found this band in San Francisco. They were kind of surprised I had ever heard of them. They had a song that I asked them to rework the lyrics a bit for me."
The song is a reworking of the Road Vikings' "The Ballad of Evel Knievel", leaning hard into Clutch Nixon's inspiration. It is appropriately awesome.
With the pivot towards the northwestern part of the United States has come a whole different sound for Far Cry. The series has always touched on faux spirituality in some form–from the rituals of the Rakyat in Far Cry 3, the trips to Shangri-La in Far Cry 4, and shamanism in Far Cry Primal–but this is the first time the publisher can touch on a distinctly American type of religion. Part of doing that right is all the work illustrated above. Far Cry 5 won't sound like any other Far Cry. And if Ubisoft and its assorted contractors are right, it should make at least some players in the United States feel right at home, before it twists the rug out from under you.
Far Cry 5 is coming to PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 on February 27, 2018.