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Where Are All the Western Video Games?

They’ve dominated movies, TV shows, and books, so why not video games?



Where Are all the Westerns

The barren, empty deserts and wide, rolling plains; the blistering, sun-drenched days and cold, star-filled nights; the feeling of isolation, wonder, and longing, so far out from civilization; the jangling of spurs and gentle whinny of your trusty steed – there’s nothing quite like getting lost in the Wild West.

A sense of freedom and exploration can be found in many open-world games – that spirit of adventure players feel when they spy a distant mountain to climb or mysterious landmark to explore, or when they hop on a horse and gallop over the horizon. But Westerns are different. Westerns excel at giving players this feeling of freedom, but they also offer something more – the chance to experience something lost to time, to tread the line between civilization and wilderness, and to feel a profound sense of longing for something they could never possess.

It’s a shame, then, that so few games grant players the opportunity to experience this lost way of life for themselves.

Image: Rockstar - There's nothing like exploring the wilderness of the Old West. Red Dead Redemption western game
Image: Rockstar – There’s nothing like exploring the wilderness of the Old West.

The History of the Western

The Western as a genre has had a weird history. It’s been around since the dawn of both mainstream film and television, spawned countless pulp novels and comic books, but has hardly made a dent in the gaming world. One could argue that this is because Westerns hit their peaks in the 1950s, shortly after World War 2, long before the birth of video games and back when the United States was redefining itself as a nation of honesty, hard work, and justice for all.

But even though they’ve never been as popular as they were then, Westerns have never truly been unpopular. Films and TV shows continue to crop up every year, and while there has been some increase in games taking place in a Western setting, very few video games capture that distinctive magic.

A Western is defined as a story set on the American Frontier – namely the expansion across North America, dipping into parts of Canada and Mexico for good measure – from anywhere between 1607, when the first settlers began to colonize the land, to 1912, the dawn of the First World War and the end of Wild West as we know it. To come across as a true, effective Western, this frontier needs to be a lawless place, hostile and sparsely populated, where even the most kind-hearted rancher carries an iron at their side to ward off any bandits keen on taking their cattle.

Image: Rockstar - The West was a tough place - one romanticised by many a good Hollywood movie.
Image: Rockstar – The West was a tough place – one romanticized by many a good Hollywood movie.

While simple on paper, these stories can deal with some very heavy themes. Manifest Destiny is one that crops up a lot in these tales, and one that many can’t get away from, especially those set towards the very end of the Wild West. This is, essentially, American imperialism – the belief that North America was destined to be taken over, that nature and the “savagery” of those who once called it home were to be cut back and controlled, and that its land and people were to become “civilized”. Red Dead Redemption highlights this theme perfectly, with the steam train John Marston rides at the start of the game symbolizing the death of the Wild West, and the people aboard echoing the tenets of Manifest Destiny without ever truly realizing its cost. There’s even a Trophy/Achievement called “Manifest Destiny” for killing the last buffalo in New Austin.

Westerns don’t have to be all doom and gloom, of course. Another major theme in good Westerns is that of Justice and Honour, of watchful sheriffs and wandering gunslingers, keeping the peace and saving the town from the bad guys. Of course, this can very easily slip into revenge and retribution territory, where instead of seeking true justice or trying to make the world a better place, the protagonist walks a darker path and only ends up making things worse. See the end of Red Dead Redemption for this.

Westerns also embody Freedom, and the ability to strike out on your own path in life. In the Wild West, if you work hard and never give up, you can be whatever you want to be. Out there, your past mistakes don’t matter, and by pulling together, you can get through any hardships the future might bring. But of course, the real frontier wasn’t so forgiving. Hardships like drought and disease could destroy a person’s livelihood in a matter of weeks, and with no real policing in place, a person’s past could easily catch up with them, if the person they wronged were willing to track them down for revenge.

So, while Westerns don’t have to be all doom and gloom, it’s better when they are. And the best Western games know this. Again, looking at both Red Dead Redemption and RDR 2. In these games, life on the American Frontier is tough, fame and fortune are not guaranteed to anyone. In fact, it’s a downright impossible goal, no matter how many hare-brained schemes Dutch tries to pass off as a genuine ticket to paradise and prosperity. Life itself is fragile, with friends and loved ones liable to take a stray bullet in an ultimately pointless gunfight or slowly succumb to a bitter disease.

Life on the Western plains is tough and lonely, and John and Arthur know that only too well.

Image: Rockstar - Life on the run wasn't as glamorous as it's cracked up to be. Red Dead Redemption western game
Image: Rockstar – Life on the run wasn’t as glamorous as it’s cracked up to be.

A Wandering Soul

Part of this isolation, this feeling of estrangement, of being out of place, comes from the fact that typical Western gunslingers very much resemble errant knights of old. Like Geralt of Rivia in The Witcher 3 or the Dragonborn in Skyrim, they wander from town to town, homestead to homestead, driving out bandits and helping those in need, but never laying their hat in the same place twice, never having somewhere to truly call home.

But knights errant fit well within their settings. In fantasy games and historical games, they’re not uncommon and the wandering knight feels like a viable career path. Knights errant do what they do for honor or coin, and the townspeople know and respect that. Lone gunslingers, however, are different. They do what they do because they are out of place, because they exist in a time that has long since moved past them. They are tolerated by the townspeople, not respected, and always viewed as an outsider. As a kind or capable soul, perhaps, but as someone who doesn’t belong in civilized society. Especially if it’s a tale set toward the end of the Wild West.

This is, of course, the best setting for games – the death of the Wild West gives players the freedom to explore and take on missions and bounties as they see fit, but also labels them an outcast, keeps them at arm’s length, and lets them watch the world change around them, helpless to stop it. It lets them experience being the best at what they do, but in a way of life that’s slowly dying and a world that has learned it no longer needs them.

Image: Rockstar - A true gunslinger can never stay still for long.
Image: Rockstar – A true gunslinger can never stay still for long.

Surviving on the Edge of Civilization

There are a few good games set within the Western genre, like the First-Person Shooter Call of Juarez, or the 2005 Action-Adventure Gun. There are even games that play with the Wild West formula, like the nightmare-ridden Evil West, or the post-apocalyptic Western that is Fallout New Vegas. But nothing embodies that feeling of living in a world changing too fast to keep up than Red Dead Redemption.

The original Red Dead Redemption is set, literally, in the very last years of the Wild West, and its setting and story perfectly encapsulate both the feeling of wanting to cling on to what you know and the unstoppable march of progress. Everywhere the player looks there’s one rancher trying to survive by working the land the way their father did, and another, like the MacFarlanes, who hopes the new railway line will bring in enough new people and trade to keep them afloat. And its story plays heavily into the fact that in this new world, there are consequences to the actions of a person’s past. The newly formed Bureau of Investigation uses John to rid the new West of the cowboys and gunslingers who once ruled the roost, John himself included.

Image: Rockstar - John is a good man, but one put in some mighty bad situations.
Image: Rockstar – John is a good man, but one put in some mighty bad situations.

But it’s Red Dead Redemption 2 that proves the masterclass in presenting the downfall of the Old West in both broad and nuanced brushstrokes across its expansive story. In this epic tale, Arthur Morgan and his gang truly are outcasts. They start the game by hiding in the snowy peaks of the mountains after a high-stakes robbery gone wrong and things only get worse from there. These people – gang members and friends the player grows to love – are products of the Old West, people who don’t know how to adapt to the changes to turn of the century will bring. Or, perhaps, they just don’t want to learn. Over the course of the game, the gang begins to dwindle – members are shot down suddenly and without warning, or steal away in the night, never to be seen again; heists gone either right or wrong mean packing up and moving on somewhere new, and with each move, morale and the tents and camp itself start to fall apart; and Dutch, their charismatic leader, only grows more and more desperate. Their world is changing, dying, and they’re being left behind.

But there’s a beauty to it all, in both games. That feeling of estrangement isn’t entirely a bad one. Roaming the empty deserts and plains, chasing rabbits and deer through the dense pine forests, camping beneath a sea of stars, all alone, with no other soul for miles around – it’s strangely peaceful. A cathartic escape from the realities of life. A call back to a simpler time. And it’s easy to lose hours and hours just wandering through this world, no goal in mind. Just you and your horse.

Image: Rockstar - There's something simple and cathartic about living off the land. Red Dead Redemption western game
Image: Rockstar – There’s something simple and cathartic about living off the land.

As Wide Open as the Plains

So where are all the Western games? Why does Rockstar have to hold the monopoly on exploring the wild frontier? It’s true many developers may be afraid to challenge Rockstar for their crown, but they don’t have to compete directly.

According to famed Western author Frank Gruber, there are seven basic plots that all Westerns fall into:

The Union Pacific Story, where the tale revolves around the introduction and construction of a new piece of technology – typically a railroad – in a particularly isolated part of the West.

The Ranch Story, which is about ranchers protecting their homestead from attack – either physically, from wolves or bandits, or from afar from overbearing landowners or big businesses.

The Empire Story, where a new settler sets out to build their own ranch, business, or oil company from the ground up – a real rags-to-riches tale.

The Revenge Story, in which the protagonist must seek vengeance for a terrible wrong, typically involving a great chase or adventure to find the culprit – a popular tale that has seen many iterations across the genre.

The Cavalry and Indian Story, where settlers and natives fight over land and resources – a perceived “taming of nature” and Manifest Destiny story that is probably best left in the past unless handled delicately.

The Outlaw Story, another popular trope in which gangs of bandits and miscreants are central to the action – this could be taking over small towns, fighting other gangs, or even in-fighting within a band of outlaws.

And the Marshal Story, which focuses on a sheriff or lawman and his struggles, whatever they may be – bandit attacks, big business threats, alcoholism, etc.

So, while Rockstar and Red Dead Redemption have dipped their toes in many of these types of tales, they are so open to individual interpretation that the possibilities are limitless. Westerns don’t have to be big, sweeping epics – they can be small, contained, and carefully crafted affairs with Ranch Stories or Marshal Stories. They could even stretch into The Sims-esque settlement builders by going down the Empire route.

Image: Rockstar - The West is a big place. Big enough for all sorts of stories. Red Dead Redemption western game
Image: Rockstar – The West is a big place. Big enough for all sorts of stories.

Westerns are malleable things, open to all sorts of gunslinging, horse-rustling adventure, but with stories that always deal with human nature at their heart. Justice and Honour, Greed and Hubris, but above all, Freedom. The freedom to strike out and make something for yourself, to make a new life in a wilderness previously untouched by man, and the yearning to return to simpler times, simpler ideals in a world that will ultimately be claimed by “civilization”.

Games companies need to start taking risks because the Western isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and gamers need Westerns.

Max Longhurst is a keen gamer, avid writer and reader, and former teacher. He first got into gaming when, at the age of 8, his parents bought him a PS2 and Kingdom Hearts for Christmas, and he’s never looked back. Primarily a PlayStation fan, he loves games with a rich single-player experience and stories with unexpected twists and turns.