Western space


Any readers who follow me on Twitter will know that I’ve recently been undertaking a task of mammoth proportions: watching one film per day in my collection that I haven’t yet seen. For those playing along at home, this numbers just over one hundred films, so it may well take some time.

My travels have already taken me through some great classics that I never got around to watching, but one genre I’ve been catching up on in particular is the Western. I’ve long been a fan (The Searchers and the Dollars trilogy number among my favourite films), but I wouldn’t have ever have gone so far as to call myself well-versed in the genre. A few days ago, it was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; tomorrow, I’m planning on sitting down with Red River.

While watching these terrific films, I began to wonder why there are so few Western videogames. Certainly, we’ve had Gun, Call of Juarez and even the completely reprehensible Custer’s Revenge, but the Western has never really established itself as a genre in gaming like the sci-fi or fantasy genres have. This might have something to do with the Western being seen as ‘old’ or outdated. Then again, fantasy was not widely popular before The Lord of the Rings films, and has nevertheless always been a recurrent game setting.

I therefore suspect that the prevalence of these genres has to do with their compatibility with the strengths of the videogame as a medium. A common trait of sci-fi, fantasy and videogames is a strength of world creation. All are held on the power of their ability to create minutely detailed worlds – at least two sci-Fi and fantasy franchises have coherent, fictional languages – and so it isn’t surprising they would intersect. However, when it comes to genres, I have come to believe that the Western is equally compatible.

There are several points that make the Western perfect for videogame form. Most obviously, the Western is easily converted into standard gaming conventions. Most Westerns feature, of course, activities that videogames have been doing well for over a decade: shooting and riding horses.

However, it is the approach that the Western takes to filmic space that makes me think that developers have been remiss in using the genre for videogames. The space in Western films can be broken down into two variants: structured and unstructured. Both play into videogame design perfectly. The wide open plains of the desert are remarkably close cousins of the dead wastelands of Fallout 3, the rolling hills of Oblivion, the occasionally nondescript terrain of the Zelda franchise. These are spaces that games do well, and it isn’t difficult to imagine riding a horse across a sweeping Western desert in a current-generation styled videogame. These are spaces of perspective and exploration, and they are thrilling in reality for the same reasons they are thrilling in games. The prospect of searching atmospheric, wide open spaces for a prize (as in The Treasure of Sierra Madre) or a quarry (as in The Searchers or 3.10 to Yuma) is an easy one to be excited about.

Importantly, though, the Western also deals with highly structured spaces. By this, I mean the reoccuring Western township. These are remote, hermetically sealed environments where ‘outside’ does not matter. These are focussed places, predicated on one or two factors that define their space. In High Noon, the town is a contested, treacherous place, pointed myopically, irreversibly and unavoidably at the arrival of that train. Every section of the town is outlined in relationship with the arrival of Frank Miller; he defines and owns the space well before he makes his cinematic arrival. Indeed, it often seems like the director has actually drawn up a map of the town in order to plot key events. All narrative is related to a central hub of places: the hotel, the railway station. This strategy of ‘mapping’ is a common ploy of the Western, and suits videogames nicely.

Further, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, we see the positive effects that Rance Stoddard has on the town inscribed in its very appearance for the early segments of the film. I know where I’ve seen that happen before – in videogames, like Fable II, perhaps?

These structured spaces are about the influence that one or two people can have over place. They are about power structures and power struggles – and again, these are things that games do very well. In A Fistful of Dollars, The Man With No Name enters a town at war with itself, and plays the two rival groups against each other. It takes almost no imagination to conceive of this idea converted to videogame form. A Bioware-style RPG, perhaps, with branching conversation trees and choices to make? Or even less imaginatively, Far Cry 2 transposed to the desert?

This post is therefore a plea to any designers out there: give the Western another go. I want to see a game where I can ride my valiant steed across lonesome plains, only to arrive in a township where no-one likes me and a price rests on my head. I want to have a shoot out in a grave yard and a dust-up in a bar-room. I want every moment of the game to come down to one final confrontation in Main Street, where he who flinches first loses his life and possibly more. And after it all goes down and I’m left standing, I’ll throw away my badge in disgust. But inside, I’ll be having the time of my life. I’ll pick up my controller and direct my gunslinger towards the next outlaw township.



Filed under videogames

4 responses to “Western space

  1. Fantastic post. Your last paragraph, describing the general plot arc of the western-shooter videogame just sounded, to me, so similar to Far Cry 2.

    At the very least I think this game could really work in the same engine, with it’s focus on gunplay and minimal (yet meaningful) interactions with other characters.

  2. I have to admit that I’ve never seen a western, but I’ve always wanted to play a great western video game. I also want to play a great adventure/RPG set during the Civil War.

    There was a great cartoon-style Lucasarts western shooter wasn’t there? I’ve vote that as the best I’ve played. Also, wasn’t there a strange game called Westworld or something?

  3. The two titles that came immediately to mind were Sunsetriders, a Konami run-and-gun, and Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist, a Sierra adventure game. That’s pushing way back to 1993, though.

    I agree that modern game genres and conventions could make for a fantastic Western game. Perhaps the recent crop of films like No Country for Old Men and the 3:10 to Yuma remake will reignite interest.

  4. I was a fan of Juarez and Gun, but I’m not sure either did a great job of really handling the sense of space. Sure, the relation of the lone gun to a town is close to most FPS feels already, but I was really hoping either one would take advantage of the sweeping landscapes in the wild, where the vastness really dwarfs the character.

    And man, could modern graphics engines make a beautiful rendition of John Wayne’s “on location” Monument Valley settings.

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