An arid wasteland gives way to a small, ramshackle town as tumbleweeds blow past and a rattlesnake slithers by. The bustle of the town is interrupted by a herd of horses bearing a revolver-toting gang of criminals who claim the town as their own to do with what they see fit. Their leader steps forward towards the center of the one-street community, waiting patiently with his hand on his gun. Suddenly, a striking, striking presence appears sporting a star-shaped badge that reads "Sheriff" and stares down the ringleader. They pause, gaze at each other for a moment, then, once the sun hits its highest point, attempt to fire a single shot at one another. The sheriff is faster, as the ringleader grabs his chest and crumples to the ground. The rest of the gang is rounded up by the sheriff's posse and hung just outside of town.
If this sounds familiar, then you've probably seen one of the countless Western movies or TV shows that were created in the past century. But even though they seem reliant on staid tropes more than most genres, it still remains one of the most beloved across multiple media even today. And now that we're seeing it appear in video games, it can tell us much about how different groups of people perceived the concept and implemented it in this new medium.
In truth, Western tropes consist of two main components: setting and characters. The setting of Westerns is probably the first thing people think of when they imagine of the genre. The image of endless desert and heat-baked plains punctuated with small settlements, cattle ranches, and railroad tracks evokes feelings of freedom and suggests a blank slate upon which a future could be built. It also suggests hardship and a lack of wealth as the settlers of the land work to expand civilization as we know it, producing a tougher stock of American. This environment also espouses both absolute law and absolute lawlessness, and the tension between the two often forms the main conflict in Western media.
It's these values that developers implement Western settings to capture, though some are emphasized more than others. Games like Gun and Red Dead Redemption attempt to give players the full experience by letting them run around in a controlled (though vast) environment containing every single trope one comes to expect from the genre. Very little real estate is devoted to towns, as the rest is sweeping plains with an odd isolated house here and there. Absolutely every inch of these worlds are built to allow players to ride horses across. And little details like Red Dead's "Dastardly" achievement, which sees you tying a woman to some train tracks, only adds to the attempted authenticity. Developers clearly bought into the romanticism of the Wild West, as that's exactly what they're trying to replicate in games by creating these worlds.
But it's not just traditional Western settings that try to capture the West in a game. Borderlands, the loot-grabbing first-person shooter, takes place on a backwater planet full of treasure hunters taking jobs to scrape by as they seek out their big score. The fact that there's no organized government evokes the freedom that the West represents, complete with corporations taking the place of criminal gangs as they do what they see fit to the planet and its inhabitants.
And then there are the characters that populate these romantic vistas. John Wayne and his ilk, supposed products of living in the harsh, unfinished West, defined masculinity for an entire generation, with their rugged, unshaven exteriors, Stetson hats, and worn boots which proved to be a reflection of the land itself. The archetypical cowboy, who saw roles as cattle herders and sheriffs, proved to be as much of focal point for the genre as the setting. But other characters, like the schoolmarm, bartender, undertaker, and criminal, also fleshed out the setting, allowing stories to form and providing the mostly-empty region with life.
Red Dead Redemption's John Marston is an obvious take on this archetype. He's a tough, humble loner who wanders into the problems of a criminal-plagued region of the West. But characters of all stripes associated with cowboy culture can appear outside of the usual Western setting. We've seen this in other media, like Cowboy Bebop's menagerie of bounty hunters, but it's also worked its way into settings that are similar, yet share almost none of the usual tropes. Many first-person shooter protagonists, like Halo's Master Chief, possess the same stoic resolve as the cowboys of old. The towns in the Fallout series feature people who behave very similarly to people in the Wild West: guarded, hard-working folk who need a lawman to clean up their town. And Revolver Ocelot of Metal Gear Solid is a clear transplant of a gun-slinging varmint who feels right at home in a gang of criminals. None of these games take place in the West, but these characters ensure that the parts where they're featured feel like they are, at least for a moment.
It's in the West that we find freedom, determination, and true grit.
The truth is these two elements are inexorably linked. When we experience a Western setting, we immediately think of the John Wayne and the stock townsfolk of every ramshackle town in the West. And when we see a loner sheriff-type attempting to clean up a town of its criminal filth, we're taken to the picturesque prairies and deserts of the Wild West. It's rare that we see a disconnect between the two, like with Sony's Wild Arms series of Japanese RPGs. The game's setting is a sci-fi-meets-Western world, driven home by the very Western opening music. But though several characters possess stock qualities derived from established archetypes, the dominant feeling that permeates most of the games is that its anime influences override its Western ones more often than not, especially when it comes to the characters and story. It's clear that the developers very much loved the setting itself, but the homage stopped at the window dressing of the game. It does, however, provide a different cultural viewpoint into what qualities of the genre are valued in other parts of the world. Though the anime elements dominate most of the series, the determination of the protagonists is emphasized as the defining characteristic, indicating at least some of the spirit of the Western came through. After all, it's one element that Westerns and anime share.
Whether or not a game is a Western is hardly the point. Though we have relatively few examples of bona-fide genre, its influence can be seen in a much wider array that you'd expect. It's not dependent on how many games attempt to slavishly copy the formula that's worked for decades, but rather in the sentiment behind the times and the sheer idealism on display that truly shaped many of the games we play today. After all, it's in the West that we find freedom, determination, and true grit.