Editorial: Bright Dawn for the Gaming Cowboy

This week Gavin Bard presents his debut editorial for TGR, in which he takes a look at the genre of western games, their past, present, and the potential for a bright future. 

Blood-soaked dirt as far as you can see, the wind whistling through the local saloon. A vengeful sheriff contemplates bending his own laws to wrong those who wronged him, just one from an entire culture of people carving out their lives in the grey area between right and wrong. If this all sounds appealing to you, congratulations; you’re probably a card-carrying American – or maybe Sergio Leone – for when it comes to over-romanticizing bloody, lawless eras of history, we Americans have no equal. Thankfully, this tendency to over-romanticize things has also contributed to some phenomenal pieces of entertainment, and when it comes to being phenomenal romanticism there are very few genres that can equal the western. Even a below average western movie is still watchable because of how entertaining the setting is. You almost have to actually go out of your way to make an unwatchable one, or at least hire Uwe Boll to direct it. The primary reason for this is that basic western tropes tug on the most base of human emotions – mostly grievance, but that is a big one.

What’s interesting is that despite the ease with which westerns capture our attention in movies, our chosen vehicle of distraction from the bleak and meaninglessness of our existence – that’s gaming, by the way – has seen very little in the way of westerns. In the early days of gaming, your only options in the western genre were Hogan’s Alley clones like Bank Panic, generic old school action games like Kane, Laserdisc shooter games like Mad Dog McCree that about eight of us remember, and whatever you want to call Custer’s Revenge ("good old-fashioned fun" – Ed). They all had two things in common; the action was very simple and, most damagingly, the plots weren’t very deep. In those early days of gaming, though, you could probably say that about most of the peripheral titles. Outside of the classics and the hidden gems that most of us are familiar with, how many truly deep titles were released during those early days? Not too many, and even fewer with a western theme.

It really wasn’t until the current generation of games that westerns got a serious outing as a genre. Dead Man’s Hand on the original Xbox was one of the first games to really give it a good shot. There were no added mystical or fantasy elements to gussy it up, just gunslinging and horseback riding. Sadly, despite a relatively interesting plot and some rather unique ideas, it fell short in the gameplay department and as such is widely forgotten about today. But what it did was make a foothold for the genre, and soon more western games began to hit the market. Red Dead Revolver came out the year after, and helped in its own way too. Again, despite almost entirely nailing the dirty, whiskey-soaked feel of the wild west, the game was too simplistic to deserve anything more than a cursory play through.

It’s at this point that you may notice a trend. Gun, Call of Juarez, and most recently Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood all have nearly identical strengths and weaknesses. Each game shows how easy it is to make a western game aesthetically appealing. This is especially true in the case of Bound in Blood; everything is just nailed to the wall like a crumbling ’wanted’ poster. The darker and more morally ambiguous the games get, the more realistic and more engrossing the plot seems to become. But again, each game had technical problems that plummeted them down towards mediocrity. Gun suffered through primitive AI, a woefully short story mode, and a fairly literal take on being a sandbox game, with most of its open world made up entirely of, er, sand. Call of Juarez suffered through the same carnival game AI and unforgivably boring, frustrating stealth sections that made it almost impossible to sympathize with any of the main characters since they are so terribly boring to play with the majority of the time. In both games, these technical issues obscured engrossing plots of revenge and redemption, and kept either from being an elite title.

Bound in Blood has brought western games back into the spotlight.

Bound in Blood is the best western game to get released on any system so far, yet it still has mind-boggling problems. The AI has been swung to the other side of the capability spectrum, occasionally shooting the buttons off of your Confederate grays from 100 paces. The lack of a two player co-op in a game with two main characters who are side by side for the vast majority of its astoundingly short story mode is a huge oversight. Thankfully, just like the rest of the genre, the story is strong and compelling. Both main characters are incredibly easy to empathize with due to convincing dialog and human moments, this despite their over-the-top mean streaks. Bound in Blood is a glimmer of hope in gaming’s desert oasis of westerns.

Most importantly it is an improvement, and that is all any western fans can ask for in an oft-represented genre with so much promise for the future. Glimmers of hope are more and more frequent in each successive title, and hybrid games such as the well-received Wild Arms and moderately-received Darkwatch show how the western theme can be used to enhance fantasy and steampunk elements, hinting at the potential for western elements to find themselves in genres one wouldn’t think to look for them. While I would personally rather see developers stick to traditional western tropes, I certainly wouldn’t be against more attempts to use westerns as a base for more fantastical settings. Just imagine lining up in the center of town to fight some bank robbers when a gigantic, steam-powered mech drops down from the sky and forces all parties involved to team up and blow it away with their carriage-mounted railgun. We would owe it to the anime fan in all of us to buy that game on the spot. Oddly enough, a game with over-the-top fantasy elements in a western setting would most likely spur the genre along more than a good game in a more traditional setting would. World War II games weren’t exactly the norm before Wolfenstein, and now it seems there’s one being released every couple of hours. The western even has a little bit more room to maneuver within itself than the World War II genre, as there is slightly less to go on historically. When it comes to WWII games, developers are hamstrung by well-documented facts; they are forced to keep the game to the same battles, the same locales, and essentially the same story. Contrastingly, developers can really do whatever they want with a western, as its story will be focused more on its individuals and their issues. Creativity-wise, the western genre is as untapped as the actual West was all those years ago.

Add all this together and it’s easy to see why the future seems so promising for fans of six shooters and gunfights at high noon. Red Dead Redemption, the sequel to the aforementioned underwhelming Red Dead Revolver, is due next year and seems poised to improve on the issues of its predecessor, while we’re all expecting a follow-up to Gun to be announced sooner rather than later. There is so much still left to explore – there hasn’t been a real attempt at a mature western MMORPG or pure multiplayer shooter yet. It is only a matter of time before a game breaks through the mediocrity and missed opportunities and puts the genre on center stage like a tarted up can-can dancer.

My money is on whoever can rip off an Ennio Morricone soundtrack the best.

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