With Red Dead Redemption 2 just around the corner, the Western genre is once again in the spotlight. However, outside the Red Dead series, there are very few big releases set in the Wild West. While the genre was one of cinemas most recognisable and profitable, comparable to today’s superhero craze, there was never this same widespread use of Western tropes in video games. Games like the Call of Juarez series or Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath never gained much attention when compared to other first person shooters in the modern military genre. Is it that the Western genre doesn’t translate to video games? Or is it someone more widespread and cultural?
The argument can be made that the Western genre fits video games perfectly. The action of shootouts, bank robberies, cowboys and gangs is what drove cinema in the early 40s to 60s. As the games in this genre highlight, this action translates perfectly to video games. Games such as Grand Theft Auto V had multiple heists, proving to be the highlight of the game. There isn’t any reason why robbing a bank or charging alongside a train on horseback to steal its cargo would be ‘unfun’ to gamers. As early as 1990, in Mad Dog McCree (who inspired the Overwatch character of the same name), players were collecting bounties and shooting down outlaws. One look at movies like High Noon (1952) or True Grit (1969) show that the Western genre is driven by the adrenaline fuelled danger that embodies the Wild West. Tales of revenge, tragic heroes, survival and betrayal contain the depth that often garners critical praise for a video game. Therefore, it’s not the stories of the Western Genre that is putting developers off.
Perhaps it is the loneliness and desuetude of the Western frontier. A barren wasteland is limited to a feeling of solitude. In this regard, gamers only need to look at the literary equivalent of Westerns that spawned in 70s novels. The idea of a lone figure exploring a hostile and unknown frontier is a theme consistent with many Sci-Fi tales. As space is the final frontier, games have always embraced the thrill of exploring the vast mysteries of the universe. So why is the Western genre any different? The answer is, it isn’t. Many post-apocalyptic games like Borderlands or Fallout position players as wanderers exploring a wasteland. Where Mass Effect had the player venturing across the galaxy to discover unknown planets and the relationships between the galaxy’s inhabitants, so can the player explore the Wild West. Swap the Normandy for a trusty stallion and the crew mates for gang members or a sheriff’s department and gamers have the same conventions that entertain them with a new and vibrant setting. One look at Red Dead Redemption shows the beauty of the barren desert on modern consoles.
If the Western genre is such a great fit for video games, then what is it that is stopping developers? The answer lies in what is culturally relevant. Realistically, the Western genre died in cinema when it suddenly just stopped being interesting. Much like how the Zombie genre is dying, albeit slower in gaming than movies, sometimes a specific style isn’t popular. However, Westerns never had their time in gaming. With modern military shooters falling out of fashion, with Battlefield and Call of Duty rewinding the clock to World War 2, now might be the time for a new genre to come forward. Red Dead Redemption 2 might just be what starts this new trend. With Red Dead Revolver and Red Dead Redemption being comparable to A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), which featured Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, then Red Dead Redemption looks to be gaming’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966).
The video game industry is always in desperate need of new ideas. As the Western genre is having somewhat of a resurgence in popular culture, seen in movies like Django Unchained (2012) and The Hateful Eight (2015) and TV shows like HBO’s Westworld, now seems like the perfect time for gaming to embrace a highly stylised and suitable genre. Red Dead Redemption 2 releases this November and hopefully a new wave of gritty, action packed western games will follow.