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The Sandbox: Western Expansion

The Sandbox: Western Expansion (photo)

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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.

07182009_RedDeadRevolver.jpgThe 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


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.