In Far Cry 5 there’s always music in the air. The apocalyptic cult that runs this slice of rural Montana spreads its message through song, and everywhere you go you hear their hymns: through loudspeakers, echoing from churches, hummed by enemies. The hymns were written by Dan Romer, a producer, songwriter, and composer whose work you may have recently heard on Netflix drama Beasts of No Nation. Audio is rarely the focus of promotion for a game, so it’s telling that Ubisoft is making a point of explaining the philosophy behind this aspect of Far Cry 5, which goes beyond merely sounding good.
The idea of the songs is that, if you don’t listen too closely to the lyrics, you’ll find this gospel-style music beautiful, almost inspiring. But as you get to know the cult, their teachings, and their beliefs (chiefly that the world is about to end and anyone who doesn’t join them is doomed), the songs take on a sinister new meaning. “When the world falls into the flames,” I hear a soaring choir sing. “We will rise again!” The songs were recorded with a real choir in Nashville, which gives them a suitably epic sound.
The hymns also echo in the game’s score, which changes depending on which region of the world you happen to be causing trouble in. When you’re somewhere safe, an area where the cult has been pushed out, you’ll hear nostalgic country music. In Holland Valley the soundtrack has a glam rock feel; the kind of music you might hear blasting out of someone’s truck. Around Whitetail Mountains the music will be droning and industrial. And in Henbane River it’ll be influenced by ambient and post-rock.
It’s a bold mix of genres, and I wonder how Ubisoft Montreal will segue between so many different styles and still sound coherent. “That was one of the puzzle pieces we had to put together,” says audio director Tony Gronick. “I wanted each region to have its own distinctive flavour. I kinda look at it like the game telephone, where you tell a friend a story, then they tell another friend, and so on, and at the end the story is a little different, but still kinda there. And the music in the game is the same.”
“We start with the Father (the leader of the cult), and as it branches out there are different interpretations of that music by other family members. So when you get to a region, it might sound more industrial than Americana. But the music still matches, because you know the hymns. You know the songs, the melodies. So there is a cohesiveness there. You won’t hear the score and the hymns competing, but you will hear familiar melodies in the score. In the industrial region, it’ll take a bit more investigation to hear the connection.”
As you play the game, you’ll find yourself singing the hymns and subconsciously absorbing the message of the cult. And to give the world a sense of scale and variety, the hymns will have different meanings to different sects of the group. “Each region has all ten hymns, but really it’s like thirty because there are three different interpretations of them,” says Gronick. “At first we thought, let’s make the music as annoying as possible so people would really wanna kill the cult. But when we started making it more beautiful, we began to understand how someone who truly believes could be inspired by this music. And I do find myself humming and singing these songs myself.”
And as well as the hymns and score, you’ll hear licensed songs on the radio when you drive one of the game’s vehicles. In Holland Valley the music is described as ‘your favourite driving mixtape’, while you’ll hear ‘50s doo-wop and pop while driving through Henbane River. “There’s a different feeling driving around shooting out of the window of your car to something like Earth Angel than heavy metal,” says Gronick. “It’s the same action, but it’s a different emotion.” The song list isn’t finalised yet, but in a presentation at Ubisoft Montreal I heard snippets of Bobby Day’s Rockin’ Robin and Barracuda by Heart, which should give you some idea of the songs you might encounter.
The family at the heart of Far Cry 5 might be a bunch of zealous, militant cultists, but boy do they have some good music. And I fully expect their hymns to bleed into my subconscious as I play the game. Hopefully that doesn’t result in me standing on street corners ranting about the end of the world, but then I am suggestive like that. We’ll have more on how Far Cry 5 actually plays in the next few months, and more access to the developers, but audio is a quietly important part of a big game like this, and it’s good to see Ubisoft giving it some depth. You might not notice it when you play, but your brain will.