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How The West Went Wrong

posted on May 17th, 2010 by tyson

Let’s play a game that we’ll call, “Count The Genres”. Video games do a pretty good job of covering their bases in terms of the copious amount of scenarios and storylines they deal with. You have your run-of-the-mill sci-fi game, fantasy plots set in mystical realms, hospital simulations, farming sims, sports, you name it, there is probably a video game that touches on it in some way. There is one genre though that I am constantly amazed by the lack of coverage it receives and that is, the Western. How many Western themed games can you name?

I am curious as to why the Western genre gets as little love from electronic gaming as it does. This is especially true when you consider how romanticized the genre has been in books, radio, and film since the turn of the century. If one were to examine television from the Fifties and Sixties, shows like, “Gunsmoke”, “Rawhide”, and “Bonanza” were mainstays. The Seventies and Eighties brought viewers “Little House on The Prairie”. My question is, why in hell aren’t there more Western video games? I am befuddled by this lack of prairie doggin’, whiskey drinkin’, gun totin’ awesomeness for a few reasons.

If you wanted to, you could make a pretty decent parallel between peoples’ motivations to go West and why people play video games to begin with. There was definitely a sense of escapism to be had upon crossing through the Cumberland Gap and essentially leaving civilization as people then knew it. There was also a great deal of adventure and fear of the unknown that lay in front of you. Do we not play video games to get all of those same sensations? Sure, the pioneers faced real danger and peril compared to their gamer counterparts. I have played through Oregon Trail enough to know death-dealing diarrhea was one wagon length away at all times during those journeys. I just think it is odd that one of the greatest American adventures doesn’t get the attention that other enduring genres are treated to all the time.

The fact that there are so many sci-fi titles compared to Westerns is especially baffling. If placed in the realm of reality, science fiction has the potential to be infinitely more boring than life in the West. Sitting in a spaceship doing nothing for extended periods of travel or rolling slowly in a wagon over a land that was home to Indians, poisonous snakes, flooding, starvation, the rickets, and f’ing bears. What sounds like a more awesome game to you? Why do we even need to turn to fantasy settings for action when we have time periods like the Western Expansion of the United States? You can’t tell me the story of Lewis and Clark wouldn’t make a badass game, I am not even going to mention Daniel Boone. That dude’s son was kidnapped and tortured by indians and Boone kept on adventuring. Need another example? James Bowie. How many people do you know that have a bigass knife named after them? Not only that but witness this:

The dude had his portrait done with him holding brass knuckles. American. Badass.

Another thing that irks me as an RPG fan is that a role playing game based in the West could be extremely open-ended and huge. Yes, I know Red Dead Redemption is coming out and it is supposedly the biggest land area Rockstar has ever constructed but anyone that thinks Red Dead Redemption is going to be a true RPG needs to have their head examined. But hey, I will take what I can get and I pre-ordered the game. By the way, don’t think I overlooked the Wild Arms series. I just find it novel that the only people who thought the Wild West would be a good RPG setting would be Japanese.

Now it is time for some academic honesty. Yes, I live in Idaho. Yes, I am a history teacher/nerd. The funniest part is that I am not even that big of a Western fan, I just think it is interesting that such a big part of the American psyche and history gets overlooked in modern gaming. In the past couple of years that has changed a bit with titles like the Call of Juarez series, Gun, and the Red Dead series but you look at the amount of fantasy games kicked out in the same time period and the West is dizzyingly outgunned by elves, wizards, and dwarves.

I would actually be very happy if game developers looked at other historical time periods and locales in American history. Hell, look at New York city in the years between 1895 and 1905 and tell me that wouldn’t make a cool game if someone put their mind to it. Grand Theft Auto: Tammany Hall Stories. There was just as much corruption, drugs, killing, and general creepiness in New York then as there is in the modern day, if not more so.

Getting back to the Western game, I guess there is just part of me that thinks if we can have 722,561 games based on World War II, we can do better than a few dozen games based in the 100 year period between 1800 and 1900. Something that held true for those traveling West still holds true for game developers today, that huge chunk of land and that time period is anything that you want to make of it, ambition is the only determining factor.

Need proof that gaming is severely lacking Westerns, look at this and count how many have been made in the last decade:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Western_computer_and_video_games

17 Comments

  1. christian said on May 17, 2010:

    I always wondered whether the problem was that Westerns had died out before games came along. The people playing them probably have more vivid memories of sci fi/fantasy stories than westerns, which is what we ended up getting more of.

    Another aspect is that Westerns, I think, are harder to make into a game. You have to do decent horseriding, you have to really nail the feel of being out on the frontier lands (including lasso usage), and if you really mean business, you have to get the period firearms correct. You’d end up with a game with complex controls and innacurate guns, and while I think this could be a recipe for really great stuff, it doesn’t jive with what sells. I’m hoping that Red Dead Redemption is good, but it mostly seems like a reskinned GTA. We can do better, and yet we can’t, because no one wants to put that level of work into making a realistic Western that no one would buy.

    Depressing all around, really.

  2. ECM said on May 17, 2010:

    I always wondered whether the problem was that Westerns had died out before games came along. The people playing them probably have more vivid memories of sci fi/fantasy stories than westerns, which is what we ended up getting more of.

    That’s pretty much it: the Western, essentially, died when Gunsmoke was canceled in 1975 and has been on a slow, starvation, death since then with occasional bliips like Unforgiven and the like. (It’s the same with Western novels: once L’Amour passed they just don’t make ’em like they used to with, again, only the occasional blip like The Dark Tower or Lonesome Dove keeping the traditional aspects of the genre going.)

    (You could also make an argument, however, that many games *are* Westerns, though they lack the cowboys, indians and traditional setting.)

  3. DeeMer said on May 17, 2010:

    Back in 2006 a Civil War FPS came out, and I remember one of the criticisms being that the period guns were no fun to play as, like Christian said. Granted the War Between the States was a few years before the Western boom. I a non-fps game, though it’d work better.

  4. Golden Jew said on May 19, 2010:

    Unfortunately, there are two enemies in Westerns… nature, and native americans (and occasionally evil cowboys, but I digress). You can’t really kill either these days without people getting mad at you.

    Per ECM, nature and natives are often the enemies in other games… but when they’re space monsters and aliens, genocide is more accepted, and hovercars are sexier to ride than horses.

    The “frontier” is a solid game or story setting, and heavily utilized, but the “American frontier”, unfortunately, is too politically incorrect for this era.

  5. Cunzy1 1 said on May 20, 2010:

    Lead & Gold anyone?

    Also, once you’ve walked into a saloon and the music has stopped, busted someone out of jail (Timesplitters) and shot someone off a roof into a horse trough I’d say that was the genre exhausted.

  6. christian said on May 20, 2010:

    Which version Cunzy? Timesplitters 2 had some of the most stiff and sterile single player levels in a generation. Of course, I still bought it and said I loved it at the time, but mistakes are made.

  7. Cunzy1 1 said on May 20, 2010:

    We were very close to not being internet friends there Christian. Your last sentence may have saved your life.

    Yes, story mode wasn’t exactly great but I am very fond of the Mexican Mission Map and selective memory preserves nought but warm memories for Elijah Jones’ level with the prison escape and the mines.

  8. Spyder Mayhem said on May 24, 2010:

    The genre is not even close to exhausted, especially in video games. Not anywhere near the level that giant robots/elves and orcs/space marines/zombies/WWII/3rd-person hack and slash gorefests/rhythm games/”scary” adventure games/mini game compilations/co-op games with edgy main characters/JRPGs are, anyways.

    Red Dead Redemption may not have stats or cutesy purple-haired big-eyed sidekicks, but it is still a pretty damned good Western RPG. The fact that it tracks how many criminals you’ve turned in alive/shot to death/allowed to go free/dragged to death behind your horse is pretty much exactly what a Western RPG should do, much moreso than tracking your strength or agility or magic affinity. Everything about it is just about genre perfect. I only wish that I could rustle some cattle for extra cash.

    I have, in my awesome three days of playing it: Cheated at cards and cleaned out an entire table of people for their hard-earned money. Cheated at cards and got caught, leading to a duel in the streets between myself and my accuser. I was forced to duel another man because of how badly I beat the first duelist which had given me a rep as a badass gunslinger. I fought four wolves at once using only my bowie knife. I captured a man trying to kill a saloon girl and placed his hogtied body on a railroad track for extra justice. I was ambushed by two mountain lions that came out of nowhere. I started a barfight with an entire gang and got my face kicked in. I was challenged to kill three birds in under a minute by a hunter on a mountaintop, but when I could only find one bird to kill I got frustrated and killed the hunter, a secret only me and his dead body know about. I was chased down a mountain cliff by a gang of hoods trying to free their leader that I had captured for bounty and I shot the horse out from under one of them, sending the rider flying off the cliff and into the unknown. I stopped four gangsters from dragging a man to death but in the process accidentally shot a lawman, leading to a standoff in a train depot between myself and seven policemen. I accidentally spooked a herd of deer into the path of an oncoming train. I got into a gunfight with six guys in the middle of a town street, half of the civilians running for cover and the other half running to see what was happening. And these aren’t even the story missions.

    As for concerns about the lack of fun of Old West weapons, I’d say that RDR’s Deadeye mode with a six-shooter is some of the most fun I’ve ever had. I’ve shot a hat off of a man’s head to scare him away, shot a man six times in the face just because I could, shot the gun out of a guy’s hand, killed four people in the blink of an eye during a Mexican standoff, and sniped three people to death before they even knew they were in trouble. I’ve snuck up on criminal groups and methodically killed them all and I’ve waltzed into the middle of a camp like a badass and killed everyone “fairly”.

    Cunzy, I’d say that your assessment of the limitations of the genre are perhaps incorrect.

    A Western RPG would rule, but at least Red Dead Redemption shows just how awesome the genre can be. I was none too impressed with GTA IV, but I love RDR. Moral ambiguity in the Old West just feels right. The fact that the story is engaging is just extra icing on the cake.

  9. Cunzy1 1 said on May 24, 2010:

    Oh sure! Next you’ll say there’s more to GTA than sexing, paying and killing hookers!

  10. Spyder Mayhem said on May 24, 2010:

    It is?

  11. Spyder Mayhem said on May 24, 2010:

    Huh, I had no idea. STRONGLY DISLIKED GTA IV.

    And yet, when it is basically ported to the Old West it rules. Can’t explain it.

  12. Tyson said on May 25, 2010:

    It has been fun reading the feedback to this article! I would like to respond to a couple of points.

    Both Christian and ECM made the point that the Western genre was basically dead by the times video games came along and that this probably had something to do with the lack of Western game titles made. I would agree with this if it were not for the fact that WWII had been over for the better part of 40 years before video games started gaining in popularity and yet we can’t go to a game store today without seeing a new WWII themed title of some sort. I have a hard time believing that WWII was more or less exciting than the West. True the “wild West” was gone almost 70 years prior to the start of WWII but that didn’t stop comics and radio programs being made about it then.

    I think the answer to why the Western was sentenced to death may have more to do with what Golden Jew said in terms of political correctness. A lot of stuff that happened in the 1800s flies in the face of how we view the world today. Presently, peoples’ PC radars are finely tuned to even the smallest hint of racism and I agree that the world would be a much better place if racism didn’t exist. Having said that, racism does exist and played a very big part in the formation of the United States and England (Cunzy that was for you :P). Was some of the stuff these two countries did despicable and wrong, yes, does that mean we should forget about it entirely, no.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating we start making FPS’s that let the player kill villages of Native Americans or sims that let you trade people on the open market. I am just saying that just because something historical happened that doesn’t align with our modern views doesn’t mean that we should totally ignore it. I think there are tasteful and meaningful ways that these politically incorrect subjects could be dealt with in a game such as a Western without making a big deal out of those issues.

  13. jay said on May 26, 2010:

    I’d just like to mention that sometimes people finding something distasteful is not necessarily a case of political correctness. That term is generally reserved for middle of the road things that are not actually offensive to a lot of people. Calling the people who were here when the Europeans landed “Indians” is politically incorrect. Playing out our conquest of these people is a bit beyond politically incorrect.

    I do agree with Tyson that it can be done in a meaningful way, I just don’t like to see concerns brushed off as “politically incorrect.”

  14. Spyder Mayhem said on May 26, 2010:

    But how many games let you play as Nazis? I don’t think many people at all agree with or condone the behavior of the Third Reich, but these games still exist.

    I can sink lots of British and American cargo ships as a dirty Nazi in the Silent Hunter games. Panzer General games let me take Nazi tanks and units and crush things with them. The Civilization series always gives the Germans Panzers as their special unit. The Hearts of Iron series lets the player conquer the world with the Nazis. Almost all of the titles in the Close Combat series let you play the German side of things.

    These games exist and they sell lots of copies and many of them go “beyond” political correctness issues and into darker territories where players can fantasize about a world where the Third Reich doesn’t just not fall, but indeed thrives and wins.

    The Europa Universalis series allows for lots of fun and exciting Crusader opportunities against dirty infidels. It also includes a mechanic for punching native peoples in the face repeatedly to force them to turn over their hard-earned gold.

    I think the real answer to the question is that World War II games are easy to make and even easier for traditional gamers to understand. Drama is already built in, everyone knows who the good and bad guys are out of the gate and the collective images of that time are burned into and ingrained in humanity’s universal psyche. World War II affected a massive portion of the globe. The Old West affected very few people, isn’t so ingrained in the psyche of the Europeans and Japanese (Although some of the best Western films came from those two regions: Spaghetti Westerns and the works of Kurosawa). Heck, even for people who live east of the Mississippi there is a disconnect from that time period of history. See City Slickers and City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold for details.

    Video games often ride the popular coattails of movies and television. Saving Private Ryan is as much to blame for the glut of WWII-themed games as anything else. The popularity of superhero films lead to time, effort and money being invested in superhero games. Batman: Arkham Asylum doesn’t get off the ground if Batman Begins and The Dark Knight suck and fail. Left 4 Dead probably never exists if the public refused to eat up any and all zombie-related products. MDickie’s glorious “The YOU Testament” is never made in a world without The Matrix and The Passion of the Christ.

    And Red Dead Redemption probably doesn’t exist without Deadwood. Deadwood, though, is confrontational, vulgar, abrasive and off-putting to many. People who love it REALLY LOVE IT. People who hate it REALLY HATE IT. It, even at it’s peak, was never as popular as even the worst Fantastic 4 movie. RDR was a gamble, but luckilly for all of us Rockstar decided to wear it’s Expensive Suit to the table. This may be a case where Western movies pick up a boost from a video game instead of vice versa. More likely, though, the Uwe Boll-produced vehicle based incoherently on the game that will inevitably star Mr. T and Sharon Stone will kill the genre just as fast as life was breathed back into it.

    As Tyson and I discussed during a furious chattery session, there are lots of underappreciated and under-represented epochs even beyond the Old West that could use some love. I’d buy a well-made Victorian murder mystery game. I’d purchase a Mongolian Invasion survival horror game. I’d love to experience a Fallout-like game about the Black Death and the Middle Ages. A fighting game based on mid-1800s British bare-knuckle boxing? I’m so in.

    The problem is that everyone else will continue to buy WWII games and games about Space Marines. We have no one to blame but the other people with 360s and PS3s.

  15. jay said on May 26, 2010:

    Let me clarify that I don’t think things should be off limits. My point was that concern about how war and conquest is portrayed is not merely a case of people being overly sensitive. Saying that people who care about how serious topics are shown are only being politically correct is dismissive and suggests the discussion is illegitimate. So this whole argument is sort of off topic of games, it is about the language we use to discuss them.

    For the record I was banned from a popular forum for defending Rapelay.

  16. Spyder Mayhem said on May 26, 2010:

    I’m not going to argue against the “Political Correctness = unfair dismissal” point. I think that you are valid in making it. And I missed it entirely in my epic novel of a post.

    Proceed.

  17. bruce said on June 16, 2010:

    We probably see plenty of stock characters originally created for Western books and movies in our adventure games, so in a way it’s serving as a strong influence characteristically if not stylistically.

    Personally I’d like to see some games that take inspiration from both the wild west and science fiction. Like something based in the Firefly universe or that of Firefly’s inspiration, The Galaxy Rangers.

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