The western is a genre within games that’s constantly in flux- never too in the spotlight to become over-saturated, never too absent to be forgotten.
I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with westerns. Growing up, I never cared for the classics. I had a problem with how the films almost glamorized that period in time. Even at a young age, I knew life back then must have been near-impossible, and the people were absolute terrible human beings. It wasn’t until after my grandfather passed, and I had the brief opportunity to look through some of his personal library that I began to develop an appreciation. And then I saw Unforgiven. It was a film that changed my life- I hadn’t really seen such honesty in a story up to that point in my life, and it’s one of the markers that define who I am as a writer.
Once I developed a taste for the western, I immediately tried transferring it to games… and, well- there wasn’t much to dive into. As a kid, I was a big fan of Gun.Smoke and Wild Gunman, but with the exception of Sunset Riders and possibly Wild Arms (skating by on a paper-thin technicality), there really wasn’t much out there up until the 2000’s. While titles like the ones I mentioned felt very primitive and of their time- primordial game archetypes with western motifs stapled on- it seems there have been several honest attempts over the past decade to get the formula right, and pay the genre it’s due.
The first title that really caught my eye was Red Dead Revolver. Released in 2004, it still very much had an arcade feel, but it was wrapped in this amazing pastiche composed of bits from the spaghetti films, as well as more serious fare. After that came Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath. Now, while it wasn’t strictly a western, I felt it was (for the time, at least), the best western title out there. Set in the Oddworld universe, there were times it felt like a Muppet version of a western- what with cute character designs and several moments of excellent humor. Still, beneath all that was as serious a western story as we had seen up to that point. And then came Gun. While far from a perfect game, Gun did have far more pros than cons going for it. It took the basic framework of Red Dead Revolver, and painted Deadwood all over it. Released in late 2005, Gun brought me hope that we were finally in the age of the western.
And then, nothing happened. With average sales, and lukewarm to average reviews in the press, Gun came and went… and with it, the western.
Since then, we’ve had the Call of Juarez titles (part two improved upon the first, but still wasn’t a stellar titles), and maybe a few others that are slipping my mind, but for the most part the genre has been waiting for it’s next big shot at the spotlight. Now, while I felt this exact same way about Gun five years ago, I can’t help but feel that Red Dead Redemption may be the title that pushes westerns into the direction they need to go. Set to be released just under three months from now, Redemption is bringing something to the genre I feel has been missing the whole time; immersion. If ever sandbox game play was called for, it’s in a western title. I want to live in one of these worlds, and I don’t think any of the previous titles mentioned quite got that… they all still feel like games more so than experiences.
I could be dead wrong, but I’ve got my fingers crossed with this one.