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Why Aren't More Video Games Westerns?

'Red Dead Redemption' needn't be the game that eclipses future Western adventures, and developers need to realize that.
April 7, 2016, 8:20pm

John Marston, the protagonist of Rockstar's 'Red Dead Redemption'

Exploring a present-day setting like New York, as we see in The Division, can be captivating, but video games aren't short of mammoth cities for players to get lost in. What is largely missing from the medium is the American frontier, one of North America's most interesting and tumultuous time periods. Lasting for a little over 300 years, from English colonial settlements in the 1600s to the Wild West's demise in the early 1900s, the era is filled with violence, romance, wars, infamous and beloved leaders, and even genocide. Issues and events wise, there's the fall of the Kingdom of Hawaii, the Civil and Indian Wars, slavery, and the mistreatment of Native Americans to name just a few.

This definitely isn't the case with other entertainment mediums, most notably movies and TV shows. The film and television industries, for several decades now, have taken advantage of this era's intrigue, providing viewers with a slew of captivating content based on frontier life and the Wild West. Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly remains one of the legendary director's best works. HBO's Deadwood series is a cult favorite, with several Primetime Emmy Award nominations and victories. The Leonardo DiCaprio-starring The Revenant, based on the brutal experiences of frontiersman Hugh Glass in the 1800s, was one of 2015's highest-rated films. It received 12 Oscar nominations, winning Best Director, Best Cinematography, and finally netting DiCaprio his first Academy Award for Best Actor.


Looking at the success both movies and television have enjoyed with the American frontier, it's confusing why game developers haven't tapped into this time period more often. Rockstar's critically acclaimed Red Dead Redemption of 2010 shows that this setting actually works in a video game. (Yes, other games tried before it, but none as expertly.) As one of the very few titles that lets you play as a cowboy-like character and explore the Wild West in all its glory, Red Dead continues to be enjoyed years after its release. It's regarded as one of Rockstar's best works, but instead of it paving the way for more American frontier titles, especially in the open-world genre, things have largely remained quiet.

It's not like there isn't enough interesting material to delve into. The fall of the Hawaiian Kingdom and, ultimately, its colonization by the United States in the late 1800s is an unusual, but interesting, time and place to set a video game in. This event led to the end of Queen Lili'uokalani's rule, the last monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii, with the US taking land and control away from indigenous people. It was essentially a violent coup d'état that resulted in the demise of a culture and a counter-revolution. Playing from the perspective of either a US or Hawaiian soldier could make for a game that touches on hot-button issues and sheds light into the harsh repercussions that resulted from the States' obsession with Manifest Destiny.


The entire westward expansion was horrific for indigenous people. Native Americans have, and still are, suffering a great deal at the hands of white supremacists. Their culture and people are moving closer to extinction every day. Video games rarely touch on this issue. The Trail of Tears and the American Indian Wars (of which there were quite a few) resulted in the deaths of thousands of Native Americans. Similarly, the United States' history with slavery is also surprisingly missing in games. While there are some titles that set in the Civil War, like Sid Meier's Gettysburg!, none of them really discuss racism and what life was really like for black slaves.

Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Revenant.' Still via Fox Movies

Mechanically, a game similar to The Revenant would work. Set it in the brutal frontier, with lush forests, harsh weather, and a focus on stealth, survival, and melee combat over stereotypical gunplay. Of course, there's also the Wild West. Who doesn't want to play as a cowboy or bounty hunter, with your horse and revolvers close by?

However, there's a risk involved with making games set in the frontier, especially the Wild West. Limited precedent means an uncertain market, and developers and publishers won't have guaranteed demand for these types of experiences. The only major example to go by is Red Dead Redemption and, while it was a huge hit, that can actually put others off exploring the same period of history. Rockstar nailed the Wild West setting so well that any developer and their game would inevitably be compared to what's seen as perfection. Rockstar set a high standard for Westerns that very few others will ever meet.


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The argument can also be made that Red Dead's commercial success is not just down to it offering players a different time and place to explore. The fact that the game was made by Rockstar, the company behind the Grand Theft Auto series, certainly helped. The studio has earned its reputation and the trust of millions of consumers over the course of several terrifically popular GTA games. Realistically, the next Wild West-set video game is probably Red Dead's sequel, which fans have been clamoring for. Rockstar has a wealth of options to choose from with the time period(s) and geographical settings it would want to explore, and Red Dead Redemption 2 will most likely consume the majority of the open-world market when it releases, just like Grand Theft Auto V did.

But without risk, there's no reward. Developers still have plenty of ways to differentiate their games from Red Dead. The American frontier has over 300 hundred years' worth of material. Red Dead was set in such a specific period, during the waning years of the Wild West and its cowboys. It was when technology and industrialization was finally taking over the United States, drastically changing the way of life for plenty of people, especially those not living in the original Thirteen Colonies. Technology was a mainstay much earlier out in the East, especially in cities like New York and Boston.

What's stopping developers from setting their games during the Wild West's golden years, when it truly was a free-for-all? Developers shouldn't fear Rockstar's dominance. This era of American history should be a source of inspiration, challenging for game makers to finally start exploring a largely untapped period, and enlightening and educating players in the process.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Once Upon a Time in the West are all regarded today as near-perfect Spaghetti Westerns. But that didn't stop directors Clint Eastwood and James Mangold from making the excellent and award-winning Unforgiven and 3:10 to Yuma decades later. Games need to make a similar move, stepping out of Red Dead's shadow to tell their own unique stories, drawn from a place in history overflowing with them.

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