Be it East or West, the American South holds an extremely complicated cultural context, far beyond the scope of this article to explain. However, games like Sagebrush give us an empathetic glimpse into the rationale of lost people who wander towards a misguided flock in search of meaning, be it amongst the harsh sandy dunes of New Mexico or deep within the wetlands of the Gulf Coast.
With the bustling metropolises like Albuquerque, Atlanta, and Raleigh or all the way to Austin and Miami, an outsider’s perspective would understandably perceive the Southern states as a widespread, populous area entrenched with heavy emotional scars and prolific social struggles. However, outside of the busy suburbs and traffic-clogged highways, down empty unpaved country roads, are often ruins: the remainder of forgotten hopeful dreams and unspoken trauma. Through viewing the southern states as a holistic cultural entity and sociopolitical bloc, most fail to grasp the fractured nature of the South’s human element, the individuals who reside within the subtropic bayous, pine forests and dusty deserts.
When contrasted with foreign culture from your own continent or abroad, it is often easy to rely on the preconceived notion that you have all the answers worked out, that you, in fact, have an accurate image of what those cultures are and thus can easily infer and understand the systemic roots of the problems that plague them. Faith, Food, Architecture, Language- we too frequently believe in the myopic conceptualization of the One-Size-Fits-All solution through our consumption-centric lens, and when you’re so certain you have all the answers, you begin to think of those from the outside as foolish. Whether we ‘re honest about this or not, most cultures external to our own at best come off as a different brand or a new kind of food to add some flare to the local pub.
Sagebrush is about a religious fringe cult that has taken up residence in the desert of the southwestern united states, a derelict christian offshoot whose members have chosen to take their own lives through the act of ritual suicide to prove their devotion. It is a tale that mirrors several historical events that took place in the 20th century while also drawing influences from less fatal events like the infamous cult occupation of a small eastern Oregon town in the 1980s. But through a fictional tragic outcome, Sagebrush asks the audience to examine the deeper causes that lead people to such drastic outcomes, to understand how given the right circumstances, be it grief and pain, loneliness or a lack of a role in the world, the seemingly no-strings-attached offer of absolution with communal inclusion would be tempting for any lost wanderer looking for answers.
Put in the shoes of a silent observer stumbling across and trespassing upon a silent graveyard of mementos, Sagebrush has a lot of overlap with survival horror games both in atmosphere and the presentation of its UI, but is an otherwise approachable, familiar stroll through clues and straightforward puzzles that act as pacing mechanisms rather than cumbersome obstacle courses of logic that hinder progress. Sagebrush isn’t here to lock the drama of the narrative away from the player, but rather uses the gameplay mechanics to guide them through a thoughtful meditation, like a guided audio tour. With the familiar survival horror visual trappings and the hazy setting sun obscuring much from view, every footstep taken leaves you feeling as if you just heard someone behind you. It’s a fear that resonates in your bones, haunting you until you realize the only ghosts hiding here are trapped within the pages of diaries and the magnetic reels within tape decks.
In any rural community, but especially one fraught with a cognitive dissonance that fails to rectify pride with a historical legacy built on a foundation of exploitation, as either the western frontier or the southern states, it becomes easy to find oneself lost and devoid of purpose. While many choose flight over fight and seek greener pastures elsewhere, there are many who stay behind to try to build the meaning they’ve searched for since birth. Be they apostates, estranged parents, homeless youth, the addicted, the lonely, the sick, the destitute, or simply those looking for an excuse to overlook their own flaws at the cost of others. It’s the last group, the pulpit bull, which often becomes the bulwark of these flawed social structures, turning themselves into a lightning rod of false solidarity in search of power and influence, that all too often find themselves punching down at their own kin than upwards at the social ills they preach about from the safety of their podium. Once the seeds of cult of personality have been sown, no matter how noble the cause, the rot will inevitably set in and pollute the house of the people.
When you live in a veritable wasteland devoid of economic or cultural opportunity, of love or purpose, the prospect of an open-armed community and the path to a meaningful identity is a canteen of water to the parched lips of the thirsty drifter. It is this very human need to be loved, to have a place amongst like-minded individuals with the resources to persevere the metaphysical drought of the human condition that allows so many to succumb to exploitation at the hands of the zealous, sometimes expedient, or outright malicious few. When there is nowhere to turn but the church, all roads seem as if they lead to Rome.
Sagebrush shows those of us who have never seen it a first hand experience of what happens when those neglected by society, the outsiders, the fringe, the forgotten, are left out to dry, and how they can become kindling easily lit aflame by the potent passion of a matchstick pastor. An individual who claims they have seen the *true* and only way forward, can easily stoke the heat of intolerance and a call to action. A fire that fails to spread will only have itself to consume at the cost of those who laid its foundation, and once the flames run their course, the only thing that remains are ashes and memories. The cry of cicadas act as a sobering reminder, a sound comparable to a geiger counter clicking reactively to the presence of invisible contamination, the residual emotional energy left over from a traumatic human Chernobyl, a total meltdown of the collective psyche. An intangible suffering left behind will not decay for many decades to come.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice