So I bought a copy of RED DEAD REDEMPTION just to see what it would be like to play a Western video game. Games in the genre are few and far between, in the same way there aren’t many Western in the movies these days. The reason the Western died out as a popular genre was because it could no longer take the social changes in America that began after the Second World War and continued way into the 1970s. The Western had been a popular folk-myth for the birth of America, solidified when movies came along.
The imagery and archetypal struggles between Good and Evil, as established most famously by John Ford in movies like STAGECOACH and MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, against a landscape about to be tamed by civilization was primal and simple. As America entered the Sixties and Seventies, with the Vietnam War and Watergate, the times became more cynical, too much to sustain the black-and-white struggles between Good and Evil that the Western typified. Morally ambiguous wrinkles and variations were already starting to find their way into Westerns by the 1950s in movies directed by Anthony Mann starring a meaner, more ruthless and obsessive Jimmy Stewart like THE TIN STAR and WINCHESTER ’73, reflecting the darker mood experienced after the War, the same cultural circumstances that saw a rise in crime movies that fit the Film Noir genre (though it was really French critics who identified the genre and came up with the term) and culminating in MAN OF THE WEST, which features the one of the most complex heroes in a traditional Western in Gary Cooper’s Link, a former outlaw-gone-straight and confronted with the lawless viciousness of his former gang. Even John Ford started to cover darker and more complex territory like THE SEARCHERS, where John Wayne’s veteran obsessively hunts for the niece who was kidnapped by Indians, possibly to kill her for going to the other side, or THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, a brilliant commentary and deconstruction of the Western myth.
It was really the Spaghetti Western that blew apart the traditional homilies of Good and Evil by introducing outright amorality and murderousness in its heroes, or rather, anti-heroes. As pioneered by Sergio Leone in the DOLLARS TRILOGY starring Clint Eastwood, the nameless gunslinger wasn’t fighting for the status quo but was out for a buck and good times, the latter of which often involved gunning down all any number of bad guys. Then the Spaghetti Westerns made by other directors introduced more overt left-wing and outright Marxist undertones by commenting on the corrupt encroachment of capitalism on the West and often using the Mexican Revolution as an analogy for advocating Leftist Revolution in movies like A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL and even Leone’s own A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE (alternative titles: ONCE A UPON A TIME IN THE REVOLUTION and DUCK! YOU SUCKER!). On top of that, Spaghetti Westerns were also unafraid of throwing in masses of gore and brutality, more than Hollywood would normally dare during the Sixties.
By the late Sixties, Hollywood began to assimilate ideas and images from Spaghetti Westerns. Sam Peckinpah was the first director to truly aestheticise violence in action movies with slow motion and blood squibs in THE WILD BUNCH even as he lamented the End of the West and the nihilistic romance of the doomed outlaw. With Vietnam, the Kennedy Assassination and then Watergate, along with the studios trying to retain audiences in light of television becoming big, the Western started to wane, with experimental and iconoclastic entries like THE HIRED HAND and THE MISSOURI BREAKS, or ULZANA’S RAID and PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID entering greyer and greyer areas as the genre strained more and more under the weight of the moral ambiguities, until the failing box office indicated that audiences weren’t into Westerns anymore. It was Clint Eastwood who proved most successful in bringing the ethos of Spaghetti Westerns into Hollywood Westerns in movies he initiated, like HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, THE OUTLAW JOSIE WALES,. PALE RIDER, and most recently UNFORGIVEN. Nowadays, a new Western is a rare thing and a bit of an event rather than a regular occurrence in movies. The basic images and ideas most kids and people under 40 have about Westerns these days really come mainly from the Leone Spaghetti Westerns and the Clint Eastwood movies, especially UNFORGIVEN.
Which brings us, finally, to RED DEAD REDEMPTION. Made by the same producers of the GRAND THEFT AUTO games, this is an immersive game where you get to play at being in a Western. It is also a repository of every single Western genre convention imaginable, like the final time capsule for the Western. The hero, John Marston, is a former outlaw forced by the feds into going after his former gang, which forms the main hook of the game’s story, and is lifted right out of MAN OF THE WEST and THE WILD BUNCH. I haven’t played the whole game yet, but virtually every scenario you’ve ever encountered in a Western movie is in this game, from tracking bad guys to collect a bounty on a wanted gang member, hunting a horse thief, defending a ranch from gangs, saving horses from a burning barn, helping a crazed gravedigger hunt for lost treasure, dealing with a drunken Irish bullshitter, helping a conman sell snake oil, racing horses for money, encountering an effete writer from the East Coast who wants to write florid penny-dreadful novels of Western heroism, helping a marshal and his men raid an outlaw camp, you name it, it’s probably here in this game. You even get to venture down to Mexico and end up participating in a revolutionary war complete with corrupt generals and machineguns. You get to overhear conversations about the corruption of government and big businesses moving in on the West and seizing land. You get challenged to gunfights, play poker, you even get to hunt wildlife when you feel like it. In a nod to UNFORGIVEN, you even encounter random incidents where you have the option of saving a hooker from getting slashed to death by a misogynist maniac. I’ve lost count of how many would-be slashers I’ve shot already. Oh, and you also get to pick flowers and herbs. You can even stop and admire the very pretty sunsets in the desert.
As I played through the game, I experienced a surreal sense of frisson, that decades of Western movies has been collated and catalogued into this compilation of Greatest Hits you get to play through again and again, the Western as virtual amusement park. More than just fun gameplay, this is about experiencing the genre in a kind of loop that keeps going for as long as you keep the game switched on. You get to be a psychopath or a hero. You get to be in a more traditional Western or a Spaghetti Western. You can ignore the main plot and just wander or ride around the landscape shooting things and having random encounters all over the place. You could use the game as a kind of primer for finding out which movies it took its moments and stories from, though I’m not sure gamers are really that bothered. It’s addictive and fun, and I wonder if this is what people really want out of genre all along, story is only really the excuse. Nearly 100 years of movies have boiled down to this.
Westworld is here.
Riding along at email@example.com
© Adisakdi Tantimedh