Why aren’t there more Western video games? As a film genre, the Western may now have spent more time in decline than it has at the front of the popular national consciousness, but it steadfastly refuses to be gunned down. Courtesy of Sergio Leone’s smashes in the ’60s, Clint Eastwood’s self-reflective “Unforgiven” in the early ’90s, and HBO’s “Deadwood” in the aughts and 2007’s highly regarded oaters (including, if you stretch the definition, “No Country for Old Men”), the genre keeps finding ways to pick itself up, dust itself off and make itself relevant once again, despite its setting having long been surpassed by outer space as the place for cinematic adventure-fantasies. And many of the Western’s ingredients — lone heroes, violent showdowns, clashing cultures and tectonic generational/societal shifts — are well-suited for games, where gun battles between silent protagonists and dastardly villains, not to mention quests through expansive open landscapes, are common. So what gives? Where are all the Western games — or, to be more precise, where are all the good ones?
Growing up in the ’80s, the most prominent Old West title was “Custer’s Revenge,” a 1982 Atari 2600 rape-simulator in which the goal was to make Custer — decked out in only a hat, boots and bandana, and sporting a giant hard-on — have sex with a nude Native American beauty. The fact that the game even made it onto the console indicates that the medium’s early days were a lot like the Wild West. But quality titles featuring gunslingers and bandits have remained in short supply since. Unless you wanted to seek out an interactive version of “Back to the Future III” (and really, why would anyone want to do that?) or the film footage-centric action of “Mad Dog McCree,” a laserdisc light gun game marked by lousy sets and acting and controls that made you want to point a six-shooter at your own temple, video games have given Western fans few worthy opportunities to live out their desperado dreams.
Anyone even a little familiar with John Ford and Howard Hawks’ classics or Clint Eastwood’s neo-Westerns can recognize the genre’s video game potential for trigger-happy combat, exploration and high drama. But only in recent years have games even come close to capturing the rugged, violent, epic spirit of the Western, and even they’ve been met with indifference by a fan base more interested in the umpteenth urban-gangbanger odyssey or “Aliens”-redux sci-fi blaster. The fringe position of Western gaming titles is particularly frustrating given the way its film counterparts keep bouncing back into the zeitgeist.
The closest a Western game has come to making serious waves was 2004’s “Red Dead Revolver,” put out by “Grand Theft Auto” publisher Rockstar Games, which modeled itself after Leone’s opuses and provided a narrative filled out with straightforward, satisfactory shootout mayhem. But for all the anticipation (“a Western from the guys behind ‘GTA’!”), the game itself is underwhelming, with so-so graphics, a blah story and uninspired gameplay sabotaging a solid evocation of the Old West. The other recent would-be Western great was “Gun,” Neversoft’s 2005 attempt to make an open-world saga. Despite an engaging storyline, which included a quest to find a lost city of gold, and a superb voice cast (including Kris Kristofferson, Ron Perlman and Lance Henriksen), the game suffers from wonky controls and so-so side missions.
“Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood,” which was released late last month, is a sturdy first-person shooter prequel to the original “Call of Juarez,” a ho-hum 2007 title from Ubisoft set around the Mexican border. Still, it’s an entertaining diversion that feels a lot like the same old thing dressed up in dusters and wide-brimmed hats. What it gets right — including a “bullet-time”-ish feature in which you flick the controller’s thumbstick as if cocking a revolver’s hammer, and showdowns where the proximity of your hand to the gun holster helps determine success from fatal failure — is undermined by the conventionality of the rest of its action, all of it too narrowly conceived to convey the literal and emotional scope of the best big-screen Western epics.
Thanks to decent sales of both “Red Dead Revolver” and “Gun,” developers do seem motivated to keep trying their hand at Old West-set tales, and to be sure, those two are light years ahead of their predecessors. An in-the-works sequel to the former sound particularly promising, committing to a more fleshed out, wide-open landscape you’ll be able to explore GTA-style. Still, game mechanics are going to have to work in tandem with storytelling and visual to produce the kind of rousing experience needed to change the Western’s status as low man on the game genre totem pole. And that’s only going to happen when game companies do what studio sometime manage to, and let go of the belief that Westerns appeal only to a niche audience and put more creative and financial commitments to these titles.
Westerns may never become the video game world’s reigning genre. But as evidenced by the cyclical come-backs of cinematic cowboy tales, there are plenty of critical and commercial windfalls to be had, provided publishers pony up the time and resources toward making something transcendent instead of something that’s just tolerable.
The Sandbox, a column about the intersection of film and gaming, runs biweekly.
[Additional photos: “Red Dead Revolver,” Rockstar Games, 2004; “Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood,” Ubisoft, 2009