Back in the swinging sixties, you couldn't walk 10 feet through the American mid-West without tripping over an Italian film crew working on a spaghetti western. Tales of stolen gold, corrupt lawmen, and ugly Mexicans by people like Sergio Leone were ridiculously popular and continued to be for a good twenty years before the films dipped out of fashion. There have been a few noteworthy westerns in recent years, The Proposition, 3:10 to Yuma, True Grit, and so on, but so few western games and fewer still good ones.
The previous generations aren't the most given to gaming; if you were one of the lucky people who saw A Fist Full of Dollars at the cinema on its release date, you're likely mystified by all these floating shapes on your grandson's magic tablet thing right now.
Though recent western films feel vaguely archaic, there's clearly still a market for them, so why are there so few video games set in this kind of plot landscape?
Continental westerns are less important to us as a generation — brought up as we were with the huge-budget sci-fi and fantasy adventures that fuel a lot of video game writing. But unlike film, games aren't categorized by things like overarching plot theme, chronology, and locale; their genres are based on particular design conventions, like camera perspective.
But they do fit certain archetypes of which western could be considered one, but compared to others (like World War II; modern war; the post-apocalypse; or Tolkienian, pseudo-medieval Europe), the Wild West seems woefully underrepresented.
The obvious example of a modern western game, Red Dead Redemption, was wildly successful and rightly so. Rockstar took all the technical advancements they'd made with Grand Theft Auto IV and applied them to their typically mature story style, stuffed it full of their usual cast of nutbags, boxed the whole thing up, and sold millions. It was a damn-near flawless concotion of dark, deadbeat humour and punchy drama, with copious distractions and a smooth enough control scheme to avoid ever seeming like wearisome toil.
It wasn't remotely surprising. Rockstar's approach to open-world design and adult themes was a perfect suit for the Wild West — that much was obvious from Redemption's spiritual predecessor, Red Dead Revolver back in 2004, and even then, much of the original material Rockstar actually bought was from Capcom's Gun.Smoke project that was dropped in 2002 after seventeen years in developmental purgatory.
The desire to make western games was already there, but the tech wasn't. Some critics ripped Red Dead Revolver apart, citing broken controls as a particularly needling foible. The game was divisive but set many of the founding elements for its successor. You could say Redemption was the game Rockstar had wanted to make all along but that the hardware constraints just didn't allow them.
As well as being the most recent, Red Dead Redemption is also the most critically successful. One of the reasons it did so well was because it felt so refreshing — outside the open-world or third-person shooter brackets, there was precious little competition. Of the limited other western games of the 2000s, most labor in mediocrity, like Call of Juarez, Gun, and Dead Man's Hand. Those that don't mostly sparked more interest by splicing western genre ideas with other, more familiar concepts, particularly sci-fi: Look at Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath's alien-snagging/bounty-hunting in a clearly defined Old West.
Quite a change from Abe.
Western themes do slip into more outwardly one-sided settings occasionally well enough that the archetypes could be considered blurred. Fallout 3 managed to quite successfully evoke a western feeling in a post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C. just by nuking the East Coast into a second Dust Bowl.
But because these formulaic settings are so dilligently overused, it's just easier for developers to jam fingers in multiple pies to make them seem more intersting. Sure, gin and juice is great and all, but if you've got the right stuff, both components stand up well alone. Rockstar proved that with the right team, it's possible to produce games with narrow but established plot ideas that can compete with the most complex, unrelatable thematic schemes….
All right, forget that. So developers just can’t help themselves. If that’s the case, then maybe it isn’t all that suprising that there are so few western games. If I want my fill o’ rootin’ and or tootin’, I’m going to have to do it the old fashioned way. By rustlin’ me up some cattle. Yee-and-indeed-Haw.