Monday, 28 June 2010

Why hasn't there been more Western games?

The Western is one of the classic genres. It probably saw its peak in the world of film, where the likes of John Wayne popularised the classic Western from the 1960's onwards, but the Western is a pervasive influence throughout literature, television, art and beyond - show me a theme park without a "Wild West" section, for instance, and I'll eat my Stetson.

The Wild West, though, has never really found a foothold in games. I find this incredibly strange, because the games industry has never shied away from popular genres: the number of World War 2 games must number in the hundreds, with titles set in cliched science fiction universes not far behind. Think about the number of spooky mansions and fantasy worlds that you've trudged around in games. Classic genres are ripe for the picking, and developers never seem shy about relying on stereotypes.

Except the Western. Successful titles based in this most evocative of settings number in the dozens rather than the hundreds. In the early days crude titles like the infamous Custer's Revenge were about as good as it got, and only now does it feel like the Western is getting its dues when it comes to gaming.

Red Dead Revolver and Call of Juarez were predecessors to the excellent Red Dead Redemption and Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, and Lead and Gold: Gangs of the Wild West aped the squad-based gameplay of Team Fortress 2 - which itself has a somewhat Western theme throughout - to decent effect.

One of my favourites is the under-appreciated Gun, which was released to critical acclaim back in 2005, and its combination of open-world gameplay and high production values was critical to its success. After all, Kris Kristofferson, Ron Perlman and Brad Dourif lent voices to the game, and main character Colton White was voiced by Thomas Jane, who's previously starred in The Punisher, Deep Blue Sea and The Mist, and its currently taking centre stage in HBO comedy series Hung.

Crucially, this, classy, sleek title was also built around an open world.

Like almost no other genre, the Western needs an open world to flourish. It's a big part of why developers may have steered clear in the past, and an equally compelling reason as to why they're engaging more with the genre now.

After all, the real star of the Western genre isn't the Cowboy or the Indian, it's the terrain; stories of civilisation taking on nature are prevalent, and the endless vistas and plateaus create some of the most evocative and striking landscapes in all of film. If a game can't replicate this, serving up a landscape through which to roam, then it might as well not bother.

Other genres don't need open worlds to success. Games set in war zones can easily shoehorn players through linear environments: Medal of Honor's pivotal Omaha Beach level was, at its core, one beach, and countless levels funnel squads of troops through bombed-out cities. Science fiction designers can also find solace in relatively small levels set on different planets, or in the claustrophobic corridors of space stations.That won't work in the Wild West, though; it'd be the equivalent of a John Wayne movie set entirely in the local saloon and sheriff's office.

Gun was the first Wild West open-world game, and it's no coincidence that it took until the PS2 era for a game like this to appear. The previous generation of consoles was the first to offer the sort of power needed for convincing and absorbing open worlds - before then only the PC could hope to offer that sort of experience and, years before, titles like The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall promised open worlds but only delivered by serving up soulless, randomly-generated maps.

Gun, though, was different. A great-looking and deftly-crafted world that fleshed out its exciting, El Dorado-inspired plot with side-missions, NPCs and dozens of places to explore - all of the traits expected of successful open-world games. Looking back, Gun seems small, almost a particularly wide corridor between two large settlements rather than the sprawling settings we've come to know, but Neversoft's ambition was clear and the game set an important precedent.

Which brings us to Red Dead Redemption. It's one of the best open world games ever made and probably the best Western game ever thanks to the combination of Rockstar's development skills and the hardware that can be employed to turn ideas into reality. The fictitious land of New Austin is everything that an open world should be: dauntingly huge, flashed out with detail, packed with things to do.

It also bodes well for the future. The number of big-budget Western games has increased by a relatively huge amount over the past years, and I hope that it'll continue.

The Western may have been neglected in the world of games, but it looks like developers and publishers are finally waking up to the amount of untapped potential that lurks within this classic genre - and are finally able to build the worlds that the genre deserves.

And if it means that less WW2 games clog up the shelves, that can't be bad, right?

1 comment:

dan-ciminera said...

i know right! i remember you playing gun....TRAMPLE KILL!!!

i guess it was a boring world, and without getting into rape and debauchery, its hard to expand the genre.

cheers, dan