Lost in the Dust
The death knell of the film Western has been sounded multiple times, but gaming has never had to bother. As a genre, the videogame Western has been nothing but a runt, at best. Aside from a few games with good stories (like the flawed Gun) and action (Outlaws, or my arcade fave Sunset Riders) we've never seen a videogame Western that could remotely be called defining. Now, with the impending release of two sequels, will the videogame Western finally become viable?
(A note before going deeper: Because it is more an educational tool than a piece of entertainment, I'm not thinking about Oregon Trail in this context.)
Rockstar recently announced Red Dead Redemption, the sequel to Red Dead Revolver, a game the label picked up, finished, and booted out the door back in 2004. The first trailer suggests that Rockstar at least has its influences in line. The footage suggests pulp Westerns, but asks us to imagine a more grandly evocative drama, like "Deadwood" or "Unforgiven" by way of Grand Theft Auto IV.
Meanwhile, Ubisoft's Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood appears to be much more comfortable as a B-movie. Confederate soldiers are spurred into vengeful action, casting players partially as an anti-hero worthy of classic Spaghetti Westerns.
As a devotee of the film Western since childhood, and a guy with a passing interest in Western novels (less L'Amour and more McCarthy, or Oakley Hall's "Warlock"), these upcoming titles appear to be brimming with potential. Red Dead Redemption, with the promise of an open-world game set at the turn of the century, may be able to tap the genre's vast resources. But lessons learned in the past leave me only cautiously optimistic.
My qualms stem from something that has always scratched at the back of my mind as I've played Western games, even ones I like. Within the context of gaming, is the Western genre redundant? When so many of the basic trappings of the Western -- simplified moral codes, easy violence, frontier narratives -- are the building blocks of the basic action game, what characterizes the ideal videogame Western? Answering that question may require turning it around. It's not "Is the genre suited for gaming?" but "Are games ready to embrace the genre's requirements?"
To generalize, I see two basic forms of the Western, essentially the high country and the low. (Yeah, I got that labored metaphor at the General Store.) In the high country, the genre tackles "serious" topics: social development and upheaval, the effect of technological advance on society, and the behavior of people in a moral vacuum, or a state of serious moral relativism. That it doesn't always tackle them seriously doesn?t matter. (Howdy, "Blazing Saddles.")
The low country is a lot simpler, flowing from a basic aspect of the moral-vacuum approach to paint environments in which characters, their language and governing laws are all simplified. Essentially, it's a place for simple moral tales with a lot of action. This approach drove hundreds of hours of television and movies, a forest's worth of dime novels and comic books, and informs almost every action-oriented videogame Western ever made. It also nearly killed the movie Western at the tail of the silent era, until John Ford made "Stagecoach," and did kill the television Western. (No, "The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr." didn't count as a revival, and numbers say that "Deadwood" didn't, either.)
The low country is a state in which nearly every videogame with violent character encounters exists. Simplified characterization and a lenient approach to violence are the bread and butter of action games. Just as "Star Wars" was basically a Western with spaceships and laser pistols, a great number of action games could be reenvisioned as Westerns with little imagination. For the most part, all we get when a game is explicitly made as a Western are a bunch of hats and horses. What does the genre have to offer gaming?
As there are a lot of us who would like to see the three-way intersection of character, story and environment be taken to new levels in gaming, quite a lot. So what stops developers from incorporating some of those deeper themes into gaming? Fairly obvious factors like technological limitations, market realities and the fact that gamers outside of Japan don't favor the languid pace that is often a defining characteristic of "high country" Westerns. This is too often a restless, impatient medium.
I don't mention Japan idly. The Western infiltrated Japanese storytelling years ago. Akira Kurosawa was a devotee, which is easy to see in films like "Seven Samurai" and "Yojimbo," which was remade (uncredited) as "A Fistful of Dollars," the Sergio Leone movie that made a star of Clint Eastwood and established the Spaghetti Western as a viable genre offshoot. Japanese role-playing games are the ones that most often come close to achieving what a "high country" Western should do. They've got the breadth of character, the proper pace and the ability to go deep into background story details. If there's a JRPG that is explicitly in the genre I haven't played it (I'm sure it exists), but the JRPG is what gives me hope that Westerns can live and breathe in gaming.
So what's the best Western in Western gaming? No question. Appropriately, it's Fallout 3. The post-apocalyptic story doesn't live in the genre by definition, yet it is a brilliant Western all the same. It's got the frontier elements, an outlaw/hero dynamic and the sort of resource crisis that not only characterizes the frontier, but helps create social castes. That the resource is water only makes it feel more proper.
The Western and post-apocalyptic landscapes are very similar, differentiated primarily by whether technology is waxing or waning. The Wasteland in Fallout 3 is uniquely positioned between the two theoretical spaces. Technology has fallen, creating a new frontier, but by the time the story begins that frontier is again being challenged and shaped by the encroachment of new societies and tech.
Granted, I'd like to see some of those elements taken farther. In driving games we very rarely deal with gasoline as a resource, but in a story set in the desert, wouldn't it be awesome to have water be a primary concern? Red Dead Redemption will make me so happy if I have to occasionally think about keeping my horse alive by giving it water I would otherwise drink.
(Water, as made more prominent in the Fallout 3 expansion Broken Steel, gives me weird, giddy optimism. I've already gone into why in another article.)
That's just a single for-instance. I want a game with uncomfortable intersections between industry and politics. (Read about the Wobblies, a union that evolved from the radical Western Federation of Miners. That's a great source of inspiration for game drama. Games love mines!) I want to wrestle with my rejection of God as I wander the desert without water. I want to see the promise of opportunity balanced by the danger of exposing what's dear to you. When it comes to the Western genre as it exists in gaming, I want redemption. Rockstar, I hope your new game has not been named lightly.