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It can be hard to understand what drives people to join a cult. Hindsight, as they say, is a great gift. Those that joined Heaven’s Gate or moved to Jonestown or followed David Koresh to a fiery death all probably thought they were preparing for heaven on earth, not mass suicide. The same can be said of those that joined Perfect Heaven. Members of a cult or cultists are not crazy or stupid they are real people with hopes, fears and dreams. It is often the leader of the cult that makes them into the drones and mindless zombies we are so often led to believe these people are. Sagebrush – a short form fictional narrative game developed by Redact Games – explores the story of how a cult rises and falls and those it drags into oblivion with it.
Black Sage Ranch is 250 miles north of Albuquerque, New Mexico and the site of the 1993 Perfect Heaven cult mass suicide. Years after the ranch has been abandoned to rust and ruin Lilian Carter, the lone survivor of the group, returns seeking closure in the face of her overwhelming survivor’s guilt. As the player explores the ranch through Lilian’s eyes it becomes clear that Perfect Heaven was run by a paranoid charlatan whose abuse of the women at the ranch along with his violent cleansing rituals made life at Black Sage the opposite of a Perfect Heaven.
Sagebrush is in the vein of games like Gone Home, What Remains of Edith Finch and Firewatch. All are narrative games of varying length and style that require the player to walk around and occasionally interact with objects they find. The term ‘walking simulator’ is thrown around a fair bit but these games exceed that moniker by a safe amount. When the entire point of a game is to tell a story than most of the things that make would make a traditional game, like a shooter, exciting but no one plays a narrative game because they want a traditional gaming experience. They play it because they want to be told a story and, more than that, they want to be the ones to tell it. Like the other well-liked and respected games in its genre Sagebrush maps out its story as an investigation and it makes you the detective.
All of these games have an element of horror to them. What Remains of Edith Finch is about the horrors of death and the empty spaces it leaves behind. Gone Home explored the disintegration of a nuclear family by way of a spooky house while Firewatch hid its protagonist’s fear of dementia behind shadowy figures in the Wyoming woods. Sagebrush is more upfront about its horrors though it still requires you to do the digging to unearth them. Still, the idea of a cult is pretty scary even when divorced of the specific trappings that make up its beliefs and the tools that enforce those beliefs. That said the specifics of Perfect Heaven’s beliefs, their leader’s abusive tendencies and the way he enforced both these tendencies and beliefs at Black Sage Ranch makes Sagebrush plenty horrifying.
It takes a little while to realise the extent of Father James’ hold on the members of Perfect Heaven. The sun-lit, lo-fi setting of Black Sage Ranch is beautiful despite the decay and rot and rust that’s set in over the years Lilian has been away. It’s only when players begin to explore the dark spaces of the community centre and school do we get a sense of what was going on here. The Milliennialist belief in the End of Days coming at the end of the 20th Century was heavily enforced at Black Sage Ranch by Father James ad his most devoted acolytes. Doubt, including the doubtful curiosity so common to young children, was brutally punished in the red space of the barn or ‘Cleansing Room’. Later revelations show that Father James’ hold over his Flock was absolute as he had his way with the cult’s women, even the married ones, in a bed overhung by blood red lamps and paintings of Golgotha – Christ’s place of execution.
But more important than what happened is how the lone survivor of the Perfect Heaven mass suicide is dealing with it. How would any of us? It’s a question few of us will ever, thankfully, have to ask ourselves. Would I have drank the Kool-aid? Would I have stood with my fellow Branch Davidians and died as the FBI stormed the compound in Waco, Texas? The end game of Sagebrush makes us live through these events in Lilian Carter’s life. The initial questioning by police. The conversations with parents and therapists and a nice man named Tim in a bar. “How did I survive?” becomes “Why did I survive?” becomes “Did I deserve to survive?”
It’s obvious from the start of Sagebrush that Lilian deserved to survive. How else would this dark and bold story be told otherwise? But what about everyone else? It’s something that occurs routinely throughout history. Why did so many die because of one man’s messianic madness? Sagebrush provides no easy answers it only asks increasingly tough questions. Despite our faith or our lack of it there’s nothing to be done for the dead except to live on where they could not. As the sun rises on Black Sage Ranch it’s with hope that the dawn comes not horror.