A Simulated Retrospective, Part 2: The Old West

Welcome to Part 2 of this Higher Level Gamer Critical Retrospective! For these Retrospectives, I’ll take a broad approach to examine some of the tropes of particular game genres, their historical contexts, provide some examples, as well as explore why I think these genres are fun.

As a reminder, this first retrospective will consist of four parts, and will concentrate on marginalized or otherwise underrepresented simulations. I’ve already gone over pirate simulations, and the next two weeks will cover submarine simulations and space simulations, respectively.

However, this week is given over to the Old West, so let’s get to it!

As I’m writing this, I popped a copy of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars into the DVD player. It’s the first chapter of Leone’s Dollars trilogy, and I’m sure that after this one’s done I’ll be watching For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

It helps that A Fistful of Dollars is a remake of Yojimbo, one of my favourite movies. However, the movie also is a good segway into discussing Old West video games. A Fistful of Dollars pretty much introduced American audiences to the Italian-style Old West movie-making, the so-called Spaghetti Western, and as such provides a good historical entryway for a retrospective such as this one.

Before A Fistful of Dollars, American audiences were largely familiar with the Hollywood-style of Old West movie where good guys won, morality was clear, and semi-historical characters ruled the plains. Spaghetti Westerns changed that however, by doing away with a clear good guy, and muddying the moral landscape of the plot. It’s from this particular perspective that Old West video games emerged.

Gone was the sheriff. Rather, the solitary outlaw pistolero took center-stage. Gone was the defense of innocents. Rather, a whole cast of shady characters appeared. Gone is the adulation of a long gone Past. Rather, we were introduced to characters whose stories were much more nuanced.

It could be argued that The Oregon Trail is one of the first Old West games, and that would be largely true if historicity was the only defining characteristic of the genre. However, The Oregon Trail‘s gameplay lacks many of the distinguishing features that will come to be associated with Old West simulations. As such, our first entry into this retrospective will be Mad Dog McCree.

Today’s audiences might be familiar with the game because of the Mad Dog McCree Gunslinger Pack on the Nintendo Wii. However, Mad Dog McCree dates back to the early 1990s, where it was a light-gun arcade game. Mad Dog McCree‘s use of live actors was a radical departure from the pixelated characters that existed until then. Needless to say, the game became a hit.

Mad Dog McCree joined the Hollywood and Italian Old West by putting players in the role of “The Stranger,” the stereotypical Man With No Name, a bounty hunter who attempts to rescue the daughter of a city official held prisoner by the titular character.

Mad Dog McCree possessed many of the design characteristics that would come to define the genre: a lone gunman, a fetishization of the six-shooter, and the almighty duel. The game itself is what would be known today as a gallery shooter where players are required to gun down enemies that pop in and out of cover, followed by Boss fights that take the form of duels.

What it lacked, however, was the Italian Old West movie’s flair for epic stories. It wasn’t really until 2005 that some attempt at a storyline was made with Gun. An open world Mad Dog McCree, Gun provided a lot of action, but very little justification for said action. Ultimately, that game didn’t manage to hold my attention for very long. Its somewhat clunky Xbox 360 control scheme also didn’t help.

I really didn’t find everything I wanted in an Old West simulation until 2009 with Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood. The game is a prequel to 2006’s Call of Juarez, a game that allowed you to play as the Reverand Ray McCall, and that was more known for its quirky approach – name me another game where you can stun opponents by quoting Bible verses before gunning them down – than it’s actually gameplay.

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood tells the story of McCall’s fall from grace. It possesses an engaging story, colourful characters, and fast gunplay action. However, not having played the original Call of Juarez, it was the first game that I played that really captured the feel of that quintessential Old West film moment: the duel.

The complexity of duels have often resulted in awkward gameplay integration. Often, this complexity is reduced to a single element: timing. In video games, a successful duel means proper execution on a QTE-like moment.

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, however, demands that players keep track of the opponent’s position, that they keep their hand close to their own gun, and that they aim and pull the trigger quickly once the guns come out of their holsters. The mechanics were developed for the original Call of Juarez, but they were polished and smoothed out for Bound in Blood. For the first time, video game pistoleros had to rely on skill and precise execution to come out alive.

The year 2010 is an important one for fans of Old West simulation. That year, Rockstar Games released Red Dead Redemption. A spiritual sequel to their previous, but less critically acclaimed, Old West game Red Dead Revolver, Redemption puts players into a vast open world and asks them to tag along for John Marston’s epic story.

The game is far from perfect. Its GTA-like mission structure somewhat breaks the flow of the narrative, the gunplay varies between too easy – with aim assist – and to too hard – without – while never finding a proper middle ground, and the first two thirds of the game are somewhat plodding if good enough to keep you engaged. However, Red Dead Redemption is lots of fun, and provides everything a fan of Old West simulation could want without really innovating on anything. In that sense, it’s the Mass Effect or Grand Theft Auto of Old West games.

However, the game really shines once you reach the last third of the game. You’ll then be introduced to some of the game’s most colourful characters – I’m looking at you Harold MacDougal – and to a tight and engaging storyline and finale. Like classic Italian Old West movies, Red Dead Redemption reminds us that good guys aren’t always clean and don’t always win. Nor are they always good.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger was released this past May. I hadn’t played an Old West game since Red Dead Redemption, and I was weary of Gunslinger at first. I mean, Call of Juarez: The Cartel was critically slammed and was nowhere near, thematically, to the rest of the series, so I suppose my reticence to play Gunslinger was justified.

Gilles Roy’s essay at Play the Past on Gunslinger‘s historical representations got me more interested in the game, and last week I decided to purchase it. It was a good decision because Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is quite fun. It hits all the right notes, and though it doesn’t possess an open world or branching narratives, it provides fast-paced action and excellent voice acting. If anything, Gunslinger is a return to Mad Dog McCree: a fun linear gallery shooter with tight mechanics and plenty of action.

Earlier in this post, I mentioned three characteristics of Old West simulations: the lone gunman, the fetishization of the six-shooter, and the almighty duel. I want to spend a bit more time discussing each of these characteristics, but I also want to add a fourth: a haunting soudscape.

The lone gunman is a staple of Old West movies, especially the Italian ones that so influenced Old West video games. Whether he be a drifter, a bounty hunter, or lawkeeper, the protagonist of Italian Old West movies is largely out for himself. Oh sure he might temporarily team up with someone. But in the end, he’s looking out for #1. No Wyatt Earp is he.

This construction of the Old West protagonist was well adapted to game design where players can only play as a single character at a time. While Italian-style Old West movies have given us Blondie, Tuco, Mortimer, and Angel Eyes, Old West video games have offered us The Stranger, Colton White, Ray McCall, John Marston, and Silas Greaves.

Like their movie counterparts, Old West video game protagonists are largely nuanced characters who deal in shady morality. Justice, to them, is a foreign concept that is better left to others. To them, wealth is what matters.

For example, Ray McCall’s story involves his fall from grace during his search for the lost treasure of Cortez, which eventually leads him to commit acts he deeply regrets. Once a steadfast Confederate soldier, McCall slowly slides into despair to become the gun-wielding, Bible-quoting preacher of the original Call of Juarez.

John Marston, on the other hand, is a former criminal who was forcibly recruited by the authorities to help bring down his former gang leader. With his family being held hostage by said authorities, Marston is willing to go to any length to ensure their safe return.

These motivations are far from the glory and justice that motivated the old Hollywood frontiersmen. Where Wyatt Earp was after justice, and Davy Crockett and James Bowie died in a blaze of glory, Old West video game characters are adventurers hungry for revenge.

The second characteristic common to Old West simulation is the fetishization of the revolver. Again, this is an aspect that is prevalent in Italian-style Old West movies, and perhaps best epitomized by Ramón Rojo’s famous line in A Fistful of Dollars: “When a man with a .45 meets a man with a rifle, the man with the .45 is a dead man.” Used during the climactic duel between the rifle-wielding Ramón and revolver-wielding Joe, the revolver reigns supreme as Joe manages to gun down his adversary, thereby proving Ramón to be a liar.

Another aspect of the fetishization of the revolver is that few, if any, remain generic for long. Few Old West characters carry unnamed weapons: Blondie and Tuco carry Colt Navies (in fact, we see Tuco painstakingly assemble his at the gun store), The Kid carries a Schofield, English Bob as “.32,” and Ned Logan a Spencer carbine.

This fetishization extends to Old West video games, but takes on different forms. For example, few critical moments present the characters with anything other than revolvers in their hands. For example, the duels in Call of Juarez are revolver-only, as are the ones in Red Dead Redemption. Also, keys scenes such as Red Dead Redemption‘s finale can often only be executed using revolvers. Finally, many add-on packs specifically include revolvers. For example, Red Dead Redemption offered the “Golden Gun” add-on as a pre-order bonus.

As far as Old West movie moments are concerned, few are as impactful as the duel. Often used during a movie’s climactic moment, duels allow the movie’s protagonists to triumph over the villains.

Italian-style Old West movies, Leone in particular, have used the duel as a central motif. Who can forget the face-offs between Joe and Ramón, Mortimer and Indio, or the climactic battle between the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly? A memorable duel makes for a memorable movie.

In Old West simulations, duels are frequently used in lieu of Boss fights. However, the tension found in cinematic duels is difficult to reproduce in a game where too often the moment is reduced to a few pushes of a button.

Mad Dog McCree‘s light-gun action is well suited for duels. During the game’s Boss fights, the players stand facing their opponent, weapon lowered, and must out-draw the game’s character once the go-ahead is given in order to win. By focusing on timing, Mad Dog McCree set the stage for the QTE-like duels that would follow, such as the ones found in Red Dead Redemption. In such duels, the action happens after the revolvers are pulled out of their holsters: all the action is focused on the moment of the kill.

By far the best implementation of the duel that I’ve seen is that of the Call of Juarez series. By contrast, Call of Juarez focuses most of the dueling action before the revolvers are pulled – a key strategy of Italian-style Old West movies. Where most games ask you to wait unmoving for the proper cue, Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood requires you to move the right thumbstick left and right to keep your enemy properly aligned, and to move the left thumbstick slightly down to keep your hand close to your gun for a faster draw. The success of these actions will greatly influence whether or not you will win the duel.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger iterates on this formula by introducing the notion of Focus. The game’s duels present two kinds of focuses: one where players must keep a moving crosshair centered on their opponent, and one where players must keep their hand aligned with their gun.

As with Bound in Blood, the success of these operations will greatly impact the success of the duel. For example, a higher “opponent” focus might result in a less twitchy crosshair when comes time to aim, while a higher “gun” focus might give you a few extra seconds before your opponent pulls the trigger. By focusing most of the action before the trigger is pulled, Call of Juarez greatly is able to recreate much of the tension found in Old West movie duels.

The last aspect that I want to talk about is the Old West movie soundscapes. Music and sound have always been important in setting a particular mood. I’m sure we all remember the haunted tune that kicks in when the shark approaches in Jaws. Old West movies are no strangers to the use of music and sound, either.

Would Leone’s Dollars trilogy feel as epic without Ennio Morricone’s score? Would the climactic duel between Mortimer and Indio in For a Few Dollars More be as tense without La Resa Dei Conti? Would Leone have reproduced this scene at the end of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly if it hadn’t been so previously impactful? And would we remember that duel without The Ecstasy of Gold?

Gamer Theories wrote about the non-diegetic uses of music in Red Dead Redemption, so I won’t repeat that argument here. I’ll just add that sounds can be just as important as music. Playing a game without its soundtrack can provide for a very different, yet just as exhilarating, experience if the soundscape is well designed.

As a Canadian – and a French-Canadian at that – it’s difficult for me to overlook how much of an American story the Old West really is. Intimately tied to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, the western American expansion and all it entails isn’t something I can really relate to. Canada had its own period of western settlement, but immigration – especially from Eastern Europe – played a much larger role than did emigration.

When the Americans moved west, Canadians moved north. The American gold rush happened in California, but to Canadians, gold rush will always be synonymous with the Yukon. Where Americans tell stories of Lewis and Clark’s expedition beyond the Mississippi, Canadians talk about Sam Steele and the North-West Mounted Police, the predecessor of that all-Canadian symbol, the Mounties.

Perhaps it’s this particular cultural position that leads me to sidestep one aspect of Old West movies that isn’t really present within Old West video games: revisionism. Though nowhere near a dominant movement, many revisionist Old West movies have been released within the last 35 years.

Perhaps a leading proponent of this movement is Clint Eastwood, the same man who previously helped popularized many of the tropes common to both Old West movies and video games. Films such as The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven have been important in denouncing the dominant representations of violence, women, and First Nations – I’m using the Canadian term for what Americans would colloquially refer to as Indians – in many, if not all, older Old West films where violence is celebrated, women are docile bodies (Foucault 1977), and First Nations are a people without history (Wolf 1982).

Old West simulations haven’t yet had their revisionist moment, but here’s to hoping that it isn’t too far ahead of us. Such a moment can only enhance the story-telling and educational capabilities of video games.

That’s it for now. Be sure to check in next week where I’ll be talking about perhaps the most intense genre of this entire retrospective on marginalized simulation games: the submarine simulation!

About Erik Bigras

Erik Bigras is an independent scholar. He studied as a PhD Candidate in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He graduated with a BA in Anthropology (2009) from the University of Prince Edward Island (Canada) where he focused on the creation of subjectivities through digital media. He's been playing video games since the mid-1980s, but expanded his gaming interest to table-top RPGs in the early 2010s.
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