Once Upon a Time on the Screen – Wild West in Computer and Video Games

Tero Heikkinen
tero.heikkinen[a]uniarts.fi
Project planner
University of Arts Helsinki

Markku Reunanen
markku.reunanen[a]iki.fi
Lecturer
Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture

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The Western theme in computer and video games remains a little studied topic, despite the competitive nature and visibility of Western-themed entertainment, rodeo, fairground games and the game-like qualities of popularized Western stories. On the one hand the Western appears as a game genre in itself, with activities ranging from pistol shooting to horseback riding, but on the other hand it is a broader audiovisual thematic that can be pasted onto diverse kinds of games. Western-themed arcade games first appeared in the 1970s and, since then, the Wild West has been represented numerous times in video and computer games. The main focus in this article is to examine how Western themes were utilized and replicated in video games and how the reduction of these themes were often played to the extreme – in other words, how the West was remediated across different media.

 

Introduction

In this article, we examine Western themes in computer and video games[i]: What characterizes a Western video game? How was this genre born and how has it evolved since then, especially during its formative phases in the 1970s and 1980s? We address these questions by examining how the well-known Western imagery was reinterpreted in the face of the growing capabilities of digital platforms, and the increasing scope of video game productions. We also discuss whether a broad thematic such as the Western can even be considered a distinct video game genre by a means other than as an audio-visual overlay.

Our view of Western video games arises from a media theoretical standpoint. We use the concept of remediation (Bolter and Grusin 2000) as a starting point to bring into focus the historical coming to being of the Western in the video game medium. The concept of remediation is well applicable here, as we are dealing with multiple transformations from older forms of media into the digital domain. Films are likely to be the most important source for Western video game visuals and narratives, and cinema has served as our main frame of reference in understanding what constitutes a Western in the first place. In light of the theory of remediation, the production of Western films is a complex webwork of studio practices, with Western literature as an important precedent: many films are in turn based on books and short stories. Just as the transfer from literature to film needs to repurpose the source material, the reworking of Western themes to the video game medium required a reinvention peculiar to that environment. We examine video games for their own take on the Western themes, observing the presence and absence of common topics seen in films.

The Western film itself has been reinvented in various ways throughout the 20th century. The earliest Hollywood productions can be considered classical Westerns, as film critics and theorists recognize that a major change took place around the time of the Second World War, with films like Stagecoach (1939) indicating a “Western renaissance” (Schatz 2003). To André Bazin, the emerging themes in what he calls the “superwestern” – High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953) cited as exemplars – could be traced to the war, introducing social, moral but also erotic themes not often present in the earlier, more adventure-oriented films (Bazin 1971, 149–152). Philip French (1977, 13), in Western: Aspects of a Movie Genre, considers the post-war Westerns “varied, complex, and self-conscious”, whereas most pre-war Westerns extolled the virtues of the frontier expansion uncritically. The more starkly revisionist Western coincided with counterculture, the Vietnam War and the critique of US policies (Arthur 2003). The European Western, especially the Italian “spaghetti” Westerns by Sergio Leone introduced new visual and aural styles to the genre (Frayling 1981). A further extension to the development of the genre has been suggested by Skerry (2009), who calls the later developments post-revisionist and apocalyptic. Films like Dances with Wolves (1990) and Unforgiven (1992) would not only revise the classical view but incorporate a self-conscious look back at the entire evolution of the Western genre that was now available for hindsight (ibid.).

To summarize the above discussion, the Wild West is a geographical-historical frame providing a “cultural, economical and ideological purpose” (Cooke, Mules and Baker 2014) that drives the motives in a Western-themed production. The frontier setting in fiction can be considered an alternative space for different norms, especially notions about justified violence (Falconer 2014). Although the Western film is an apparent movie genre, some refuse to see genres as having well-defined boundaries and essential features, as Western motifs can be translated to other settings (Wood 1986, 62; see also McGee 2007, xiii–xviii). In this sense, the West is a more abstract setting that brings to the fore the role of the individuals within broader power-conflicts in a certain way, regardless of the actual historical and locational cues shown. For example, French (2005) discusses the “post-western” films that were made in the 1960s and 1970s, citing Hud (1963), Junior Bonner (1972) and Coogan’s Bluff (1968), all of which were set in contemporary times, yet made allusions to the (disappearing) past.

Video game histories (Kent 2001; Donovan 2011) make little note of the Western theme, or underestimate the number of releases (Saarikoski 2004). Past research on video games has, for the most part, focused on a few Western games as examples that support a more generic argument. Among the most prominent cases is the otherwise unremarkable Custer’s Revenge (1982) that has become a symbol of sexual violence in games (for example Herz 1997, 68–69; Dickerman, Christensen and Kerl-McClain 2008; Kangasvuo and Meriläinen 2009). Recently, Western in video games has been used to examine the notion of a video game genre, asking what consequences a Western scenario has for first person shooter (FPS) gameplay (Clearwater 2011). Buel (2013) has used the Western to examine video games’ ties to cinema. To Buel, Western video games introduce play structures that correspond and counteract with the filmic conventions of the frontier struggle, paralleling the civilization and wilderness with the ordered cut-scene and an open world gameplay (2013). Yet, with such a wide spectrum of approaches toward the Western film and an inclusive definition of what constitutes a Western, it is meaningful to ask what Western video games are like, and whether they form a corpus comparable to Western cinema.

In this study, we examine a number of video games throughout the period ranging from the 1970s to today, building a timeline of game releases. The list comprises 383 titles, of which 315 are computer and video games (see Appendix). Most of them have been published commercially. The games originate from all over the world – most notably the US, UK, and Japan – so they also provide for comparisons between national differences, if any. The timeline was augmented with a small number of pinball[ii], target shooting and reaction cabinets in order to contextualize the development of digital games.

The most important primary Web resources for building up the timeline were the Internet Movie Database, Lemon, MobyGames, The International Arcade Museum, World of Spectrum, and Wikipedia. Initially, the search process started with evident keywords, such as “cowboy”, “revolver” and “West”, and proceeded when new related keywords popped up in the discoveries. When analyzing individual titles, we played them when realistically possible, otherwise falling back to video captures, reviews and screenshots. Finally, reoccurring observations concerning Western-themed representations, narratives and game mechanics were grouped together in order to assess their most common characteristics.

Here we have confined ourselves to video games that deliver an impression of a Western setting, whether ostentatiously historical or referring to a more constructed, fictional American frontier. Our emphasis is on the emergence and expansion of the video game medium in the 1970s and the 1980s. The study was preceded by an extensive viewing of Western movies, with the intent to sensitize us to the presence of stereotypical Western representations and plot devices in video games.

The Birth of the Western Video Game

Wild West shows, frontier theatre, and dime novels already coexisted with the actual frontier, feeding romance-hungry audiences in the East and in Europe. These supplied later cinema, television and comic books with ready-made representations and apocrypha of the West and its heroes. (Hall 2001.) In the days of the early cinema, Western films were seen as cheap entertainment, but by the 1940s a number of works had proven their worth as A-grade movies, ushering in a Western renaissance (Schatz 2003). By the 1950s, Western shows in the United States had reached rapidly expanding television audiences.

Western themes were codified, ubiquitous, and well-known by the time electronic entertainment hit the market. Even the earliest novelty games introduced horse racing, hunting and gunfights. (Kent 2001,10.) In part, the mechanical arcade games also continued a tradition already present in the old West: roulette, wheel of fortune, and the “one-armed bandit” all involved mechanisms of sorts. Among war, sports, and exotic themes, the West provided a convenient setting for later arcade game cabinets. Luck-based games relate to the fickle fortunes at the settler trails, saloon games, and the gold fields, while shooting games and rodeo machines are more rooted in the skills supposedly required at the frontier. Before video games, the simple mechanical and early electronic games could not directly replicate film and book narratives, but rather relied on the popularity of the theme and provided action experiences reminiscent of those seen on the screen.

Video games were preceded by Western-themed pinball machines and various electromechanical target and reaction games that provided Western thrills in an amusement arcade format. Especially pinball can be considered as one major precedent for arcade video games (DeLeon 2014). Target shooting games might only have had a token silhouette of a cowboy as a reference, whereas both Mr. Top Gun and Mr. Quick Draw from 1961 introduced a life-size animatronic Western bandit. A browsing through of themes at the Internet Pinball Database shows that cabinets could be adorned with cartoon casino pin-ups of cowgirls or female Indian[iii] chiefs, but also more wholesome rodeo, cattle riding, and campsite scenes. The imagery in pinball machines is one source for associated images in video game cabinets and packaging rather than for game mechanics, as the Western theme does not seem to have impacted the pinball gameplay in markedly visible ways.

Figure 1: Early Western video games were typically digitizations of previously mechanic cabinets, with dueling and target shooting. Gun Fight (1975) and Wanted (1984).
Figure 1. Early Western video games were typically digitizations of previously mechanic cabinets, with dueling and target shooting. Gun Fight (1975) and Wanted (1984).

Arcade spaces, where the early commercial video games were played, were a direct descendant of the pinball and mechanical arcade. The 1970s games can be considered as hybrids of video and mechanical elements, which provided a formula for the digital video games (Figure 1). The transition to video format was not an abrupt change, as some target shooting games included a contained box with complex lighting and display effects, which from today’s perspective already resembles a video screen. A true Western video game, Gun Fight (Taito, 1975), positioned two gunfighters against each other, with a wagon and cacti between as cover. The two-player screen composition, complete with ricocheting bullets, suggests the game is an extension of Atari’s Pong (1972). Yet, there seems to also be a direct precedent, as Sega had already published its own mechanical Gun Fight with a highly similar concept in 1970. The limited ammunition and relatively elaborate “death scene” already suggest a thought-out Western game mechanic. Various “fast-draw” type electronic games also allowed two players to compete, the electronics serving as an unbiased arbiter.

As video game consoles and home computers began to proliferate, interactive electronic Western entertainment entered homes as well. Target shooting was brought to television screens with the second generation of Pong machines, albeit usually without a specific Western theme. Already Ralph H. Baer’s pioneering Brown Box prototype from 1968 – later developed into Magnavox Odyssey – featured a Winchester-like rifle for target shooting (Baer 2005, 55). Coleco’s Telstar line of TV games from 1977, such as the Ranger and Arcade variants, featured quick draw games and light gun revolvers in the Western style (ibid., 142). The earliest home computer games were mostly imitations of earlier arcade games, especially the Gun Fight duel format was indiscriminately copied as small company knock-offs and type-in listings in hobbyist magazines and computer game books.

Early Western video games owed much to their mechanical predecessors, as both the game content and the pictorial embellishments were part of a continued tradition. Physical machines were remediated for the new computer chip and video screen based media, whereas arcade cabinets and video game box covers featured similar film-influenced imagery. Crude two-color displays required game designers to condense the Western thematic to an unprecedented minimum. As video game platforms grew in complexity and capacity during the 1980s, it became possible to offer more advanced themes than mere shooting. The variety of Western games began to expand, and the game mechanics settle into subgenres of their own.

A Genre and Its Typology

The discussion on genre is well-developed in cinema studies, leading to an understanding that a genre is not simply a means of categorization for a particular medium but a system of audience expectations, recognition, and understanding (Neale, 1990). In video games studies, there has been a certain reluctance to compare the video game to earlier media, aligning game genres along the ludological rather than narrative or thematic axis (Clearwater 2011). Apperley (2006) is particularly critical of seeing genre as a simple remediation of visual representations from other media, suggesting a move toward an understanding of genre based on differences of interactivity. This would mean privileging player activity as the defining aspect of a genre, whereas the theme or milieu might even be seen as superficial and uninteresting for analysis. Setting aside the debate on the importance of narrative and gameplay, more in line with the earlier genre theorists Clearwater calls for an understanding of a genre as a conceptual tool for positioning a set of works in a broader social context and industrial production. (Clearwater 2011.) Furthermore, in the age of increasingly online video game commerce, a “genre” can also be considered a tag or a keyword with direct economic consequences, as customers search among a multitude of similar products to find games of their liking (Kemppainen 2012).

A Western game can usually be recognized through the chosen esthetic and standard paraphernalia (Figure 2). Therefore, we could also claim that we are talking about a general theme instead of an actual video game genre, as in many cases the only similarity can be found on the Western icing that has been poured over a set of otherwise unrelated titles. On the other hand, the Wild West setting does imply a set of mechanics that clearly favor certain types of games and, in general, tone the outcome. For example, gunfights, outlaws, and horseback riding are so internalized and productized that it is hard to imagine a Wild West themed game that would not use at least one of them as their building block. To conclude the genre discussion here, we propose that Western games could be called a thematic genre, orthogonal to and overlapping with gameplay-based genres (cf. Junnila 2007, 35).

Figure 2. The West as scene- and mood setting material. Law of the West and Gunfright.
Figure 2. The West as scene- and mood setting material. Law of the West and Gunfright.

In spite of the controversial nature of the concept, we have chosen to examine the Western game as a genre of its own to highlight its obvious debt to its well-established predecessors in other media. It should also be noted that remediation is not simply a process of filtering down of other media representations, as remediation acknowledges the importance of building the new forms from the old, leaving traces of that construction on the outcome (Rajewsky 2005). With the lens afforded by remediation, we seek to include both thematic and gameplay aspects as equally important for the formation of video games. In the following, we will examine various game types[iv] that clearly connect to the Western thematic.

Two of the oldest types of Western games are target shooting and duel. “Target shooting” refers to reaction and accuracy games, where you simply try to hit a target, not an uncommon scene in Western films either. The first wave of digital target games was presented at arcades, most notably Atari’s Outlaw (1976). Home computer versions followed in the 1980s, even though they were limited in their means, most often lacking a physical gun, save a couple of exceptions, such as the French West Phaser (1989) and British Gunslinger (1990) that both came bundled with a light gun. The popularity of target shooters faded after the 1980s, but some occasional titles have been released after that, too. The more recent examples utilize relevant new inventions such as the motion-tracking Wiimote, or a touch screen commonly found on mobile devices.

“Duel” games usually consist of two figures trying to take each other down with revolvers – obviously a remediation of the countless colorful duel scenes seen in movies. As of now, it seems that the first digital duel is Taito’s aforementioned Gun Fight (also known as Western Gun) from 1975. The game was clearly influential and inspired a wagonload of successors, such as Atari’s Outlaw (1979) for the VCS/2600, plus several clones on home computers. Quite interestingly, there is a considerable amount of British duels for the ZX Spectrum line of computers. One clear explanation for such popularity is their simple technical implementation: a two-player game does not require artificial intelligence, and moving two characters plus a few bullets onscreen is within the reach of any moderately seasoned programmer.

Yet another type of Western action is the numerous shoot ’em ups that, again, owe a lot to the gunfights seen in movies. Among the earliest representatives of these games is Nintendo’s arcade cabinet Sheriff (1979) where a lone lawman shoots bandits, not unlike Taito’s classic Space Invaders (1978). 8-bit home computers had their share of shoot ’em ups: High Noon (1984) for the Commodore 64 is among the better known, together with Ultimate’s isometric Gunfright (1986) and Outlaws (1985), which added another cliché, horseback riding, to the mix. Technical development and trends can be clearly observed in shooters. TAD Corporation’s semi-3D Cabal (1988) was quickly followed by the similar Blood Bros. (1990) where modern soldiers were replaced by cowboys and Indians. First person shooters (FPS), initially popularized in the early 1990s, got a Western-themed icing in Brooklyn Multimedia’s Westworld 2000 (1996) – a belated tie-in with the 1973 sci-fi movie Westworld. The Red Dead (2004–) and Call of Juarez (2006–) series took Western FPSs to game consoles, and added movie-inspired role-playing elements to the mix.

The US Civil War (1861–1865) is a central theme in a number of Western movies. Even in films that are not directly about the war, the conflict is still present when characters reminisce of the past or wear wartime clothing. Most digital games that deal with the Civil War are either turn-based or real-time strategies (RTS) – it is actually rather surprising that the theme is hardly ever utilized in other kinds of games. One probable explanation is that the war is a rather delicate and divisive topic, which can only be addressed from a distance: squares depicting faceless units attacking other squares. Strategy games’ visual style and turn-based logic quite obviously continue the tradition of earlier board games as well. The neutrality is further emphasized by the possibility to choose sides at the beginning of the campaign (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Rewriting history in North and South (1989). 8-bit visuals give a detached perspective to a union advance in Johnny Reb II (1986).
Figure 3. Rewriting history in North and South (1989). 8-bit visuals give a detached perspective to a union advance in Johnny Reb II (1986).

One of the earliest examples of the Civil War strategy subgenre is SSI’s The Battle of Shiloh (1981), which was followed by tens of others during the following decades. At the one end of the spectrum, there are lightweight RTSs, such as North and South (1989), based on the Belgian comic Les Tuniques Bleues, and at the other end “serious” turn-based series[v]. By the late 1990s Sid Meier had become a household name, and his two simulations were published with the titles Sid Meier’s Gettysburg! (1997) and Sid Meier’s Antietam! (1998).

Adventure games, including text-based ones, have been placed in a Wild West context, as it is so obviously applicable and full of suitable ready-made narratives (Figure 4). Text adventures, or, interactive fiction, follow a somewhat different logic from action games as they focus more on riddles (Montfort, 2005,15). Even if Western protagonists are not often detective-types, mystery and secrets do feature in Western adventure films. Taking the purely textual adventures one step further, Sierra On-Line, known for its Leisure Suit Larry and various Quest series, used their game engine to create Gold Rush! in 1988, and in 1993 the humorous Freddy Pharkas: The Frontier Pharmacist. Gold Rush! contains direct references to the early Oregon Trail (1982–) series, where the protagonist drives an ox-wagon across the country and is subject to various lethal hazards that bring the game to an abrupt end. Other instances of Western-themed adventures are Lost Dutchman Mine (1989) and the horror game Alone in the Dark 3 (1994). Nowadays, after its heyday in the 1990s, the point-and-click genre has also received nostalgic treatment, as illustrated by the Finnish Fester Mudd: Curse of the Gold (2012), which does not hide its roots in the old Sierra On-Line and LucasArts games (see Kuorikoski 2014, 236).

Figure 4: Compared to contemporary action games, text adventures could offer detailed historical narratives and varied situations. Gold Rush! (1988) and Legend of the Apache Gold (1986).
Figure 4. Compared to contemporary action games, text adventures could offer detailed historical narratives and varied situations. Gold Rush! (1988) and Legend of the Apache Gold (1986).

Nintendo’s electromechanic arcade shooter Wild Gunman (1974) displayed Western-themed film clips using two projectors and paved the way for later digital games with a similar desire for perceived immediacy – “taking the player there” (cf. Bolter and Grusin 2000, 80–81). LaserDisc, dating all the way back to 1978, was an early attempt at using optical media for movies and, eventually, even interactive content. According to our findings, Konami’s Badlands from 1984 is the first Western-themed LaserDisc-based “interactive movie”, not unlike Cinematronics’ well-known Dragon’s Lair (1983) in its presentation: the simple game mechanics consist of watching pre-rendered animation clips and pressing the right button at the right time – nowadays also known as quick time events (see Wolf 2007, 99–102; Donovan 2010, 106–108; Skelly 2012). Mad Dog McCree featured real actors and was originally released in 1990 at the arcades, and later ported to a number of platforms ranging from the Nintendo Wii to Sega CD. Even though LaserDisc itself became obsolete in the course of the 1990s, its legacy lived on in various multimedia CD-ROM-based games that let the user view video clips and, quite mechanistically, select between options that took the story forward.

Figure 5: Western-themed card games. Governor of Poker (2008) and Dead Man’s Hand (2012).
Figure 5. Western-themed card games. Governor of Poker (2008) and Dead Man’s Hand (2012).

In addition to the main types of Western games, there are others that do not easily fit into any category. In several cases, the Wild West theme has been poured on top of practically unrelated products; among the clearest instances of such branding are various card games that are otherwise normal representatives of their respective genre (Figure 5). On the other hand, card games, most notably the iconic poker, are an integral part of the Western lore and at times incorporated as minigames in, for instance, adventure games.

During the approximately 35 years of Wild West themed games, some genres have disappeared and others have appeared. The changes have, obviously, been largely driven by technological development, but commercial reasons and the general trends of popular culture have affected games equally much. For example, LaserDisc games caught attention with their full-motion video in the 1980s, were remediated to the CD-ROM, and eventually faded into oblivion, as 3D technology matured and the audience became disillusioned with essentially simple multiple choice or reaction games: the last traces of LaserDisc can be found in the republications of old titles on contemporary platforms. Likewise, duel games, popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s, all but disappeared as video game consoles and computers became capable of more advanced formats. Wild West first person shooters can be considered as part of the same continuum; enabled by the increasing computing power and popularized by well-known hit titles. Some subgenres, such as Civil War strategy, are of a more lasting nature and, judging by the last 30 years, will stay with us for years to come.

Archetypes and Stereotypes

The West strongly implies a cast of characters peculiar to the setting, and the question arises how the player and the characters came to be represented in a digital medium. Arcade cabinet visuals and early console game cartridges were bolstered with printed images of cowboys and gunfights, which was also largely the case with the preceding mechanical games. The earliest video games could only depict characters as stick figures with rudimentary cowboy hats and revolvers, in dire contrast to films with their colorful cast of actors. An immediate problem in recreating a Western feel in a digital format was that early visuals needed to be very repetitive due to hardware limits, whereas Western films tend to delight on the raggedness and detail of the era. To illustrate this point, Civil War uniforms in games are usually identical, whereas in films and in reality the clothing was much more disparate and mismatched (Mollo 1983).

Figure 6: “Wanted” posters provide opportunities for closer characterization and mood setting. A poster is used in the attract mode of Wanted (1984), whereas in Wild Bunch (1984) the poster has been integrated as part of the gameplay.
Figure 6. “Wanted” posters provide opportunities for closer characterization and mood setting. A poster is used in the attract mode of Wanted (1984), whereas in Wild Bunch (1984) the poster has been integrated as part of the gameplay.

The 1980s’ game platforms could display more visual detail compared to their predecessors, and home computer games could also offer more diverse play settings, not constrained by the requirements of arcade cash flows. This meant that elements that previously had a more superficial role could now be integrated into the gameplay (see Figure 6). More complex Western character depictions would also emerge. Gunfright (1986) features a sheriff, searching the maze-like townscape for the wanted man. The villain is simply a goal to be found and shot down, but the townspeople come in two varieties: a shivering, cowardly townsman who points at the villain’s general direction, and a faceless, gliding long-skirted lady. The former plays a crucial part in facilitating the game aim, but also distills a familiar townsfolk stereotype. Law of the West (1985) for the Commodore 64 presents a first-person static view of a Western town, with a scenario partly derived from the movie High Noon (1952) (Figure 7). The player meets diverse characters: trigger-happy villains, but also a bar singer, a school teacher, town doctor, a child and a reluctant deputy. These confrontations are negotiated through a multiple-choice discussion, which may lead to a reaction-based duel and other outcomes.

Figure 7: Western characters and scenery in the 1980s computer games. Law of the West and Gunfright.
Figure 7. Western characters and scenery in the 1980s computer games. Law of the West and Gunfright.

In these early games, a most minimal cast of characters would include the (sheriff) hero and an army of generic hoodlum villains, sometimes Indians. As the example of Gunfright and Law of the West demonstrates, the 1980s computer game could already expand the scope of characters and even suggest their appropriate role in a Western setting, made apparent through the gameplay itself (see Figure 7). The duel and target shooting gameplay elements had at the same time become higher-tension sections rather than main content. Today’s content-heavy games, such as Red Dead Revolver (2004), Helldorado (2007) or Six Guns (2012) can practically refer to every possible – racially inspired – character stereotype and the associated plotlines (Figure 8).

Figure 8: Player characters Pablo Sanchez, Hawkeye and Sam Williams in Helldorado (cf. Figure 6).
Figure 8. Player characters Pablo Sanchez, Hawkeye and Sam Williams in Helldorado (cf. Figure 6).

In addition to ethnicity, also gender is a defining character of Western game casts: women in general are rare occurrences, and a female protagonist – or a villain – is almost an impossibility (cf. Dickerman, Christensen and Kerl-McClain 2008; Kangasvuo and Meriläinen 2009). These observations do not differ much from those made of video games in general (ibid.), but there seems to be an aversion to using female protagonists even in more recent Western games[vi]. Helldorado, with its multi-character system could cast one woman as a predictable temptress, whereas in the shooter Wild Guns (1994) the player could choose to play either “Clint” or “Annie”. In older games, women appear as side characters in naively depicted roles, either as a sweet innocent girl to be rescued, or a “naughty” saloon singer. The traditional rigid gendering has been questioned and mocked by two recent indie titles, Calamity Annie (2008) and Even Cowgirls Bleed (2013), which both feature homosexual and feminist themes practically never seen in Western-themed games.

At first sight, studying film licenses might appear as an effective route to examining the remediation of the Western subject matter in video games. However, likely due to the general failure of the Western film at the box office in the early 1980s and onwards (McGee 2007, 235), Western film licenses from early video game era are virtually non-existent, and have remained scarce thereafter. Furthermore, the early generations of machines were not very conducive for creating Western worlds. Especially the widespread Atari 2600 platform was notoriously poor for recreating film visuals (Montfort and Bogost 2009, 119–120; Aldred 2012). Later, only a few films, such as Dances with Wolves (1990), have made the blockbuster status in the New Hollywood era (Neale 2003, 52–53), but possibly as a more serious work it was not accompanied with associated video game merchandise.

The first Western licenses do not relate to mainstream movies, but to comics and animation. Comic books, cartoons, and parodies offer a repertoire of condensed themes and exaggerated clichés that would also provide source material for games. In 1987, the sci-fi animation BraveStarr was brought to the computer screen, whereas Coktel Vision adapted French Western comics Lucky Luke: Nitroglycerine and Blueberry the same year. BraveStarr can be described as a generic action game with a bolted-on license, but both Lucky Luke and Blueberry attempted to recreate some aspects of the comic book medium on a computer screen, interpreting that format rather than film. Notably, these two games also both represent and remediate a European interpretation of the West, as opposed to the dominant American one.

Comic book frames, maps, windows, and minigames could be readily utilized on the early interactive platforms where animation and video playback were still limited (see Figure 9). This also meant the actions would be partly narrated instead of involving the player as a more active participant. Apart from licenses and attempts to interpret the medium on the screen, older games have a certain affinity with comic books with their streamlined visuals, switching between static screens and combinations of text and pictures. In contrast to action games, these approaches enable different storytelling devices and detail to the historical scenarios.

Figure 9: Western comic books interpreted on the computer screen: North and South and Blueberry.
Figure 9. Western comic books interpreted on the computer screen: North and South and Blueberry.

Despite the lack of licenses, unofficial references to films were made through borrowing titles. Already pinball machines in the 1950s and 1960s inherited their names from popular TV shows, such as Rawhide (1959–1965), Gunsmoke (1955–1975), Wagon Train (1957–1965), and Bonanza (1959–1973), without any apparent licensing deal or even visual reference to the series. Similarly, the computer games Wild Bunch (1984) and High Noon (1984) had relatively little to do with the respective source material. The High Noon game pits a solitary sheriff against a number of opponents and utilizes the soundtrack, yet plays fast and loose with the scenario, introducing horseback enemies and an overzealous undertaker not seen in the film.

In addition to movie name references, recognizable characters and scenarios have been used in games as well. The black-vested and white-shirted Kane (1986) seems to invoke the famous Gary Cooper figure from the film High Noon (1952), and Spaghetti Western Simulator (1990) brings out a hero called “Clint Westbound”. Sometimes the films are referenced directly: in Six-Gun Shootout (1985), historical and fictional gunfights could be re-enacted as tactical wargame scenarios, which include the famous gunfight at O.K. Corrall, the Jesse James raid at Northfield, and film settings from The Good, Bad and the Ugly (1966) and Rio Bravo (1959) (see Figure 10). Film references in games suggest how the Western theme in video games can rely on a complex external narrative (Juul 2001), not necessarily supplied with the game at all. An understanding of the Western genre and its conventions supports the often rudimentary actual game play experience.

Figure 10: Sixgun Shootout (1985) on the Commodore 64, with a selection of historical and fictional gunfights. Right: The scenario “El Siette Magnifico”.
Figure 10. Sixgun Shootout (1985) on the Commodore 64, with a selection of historical and fictional gunfights. Right: The scenario “El Siette Magnifico”.

One alternative to licensing is to use famous figures from the Old West[vii]. All in all, it appears that this route has been used relatively little. There are apparently no major published games about Roy Bean, Doc Holliday, Calamity Jane and “Wild Bill” Hickock, despite their continued presence in films, television series and other Western lore. It is rather more likely that a Western game hero is a recognizable Clint Eastwood lookalike, a testament to the influence of Italian Westerns and the later Eastwood-directed films.

The way video games have tended to simplify and further codify Western themes has also paved way to questionable depictions. The “cowboys vs. injuns” scenario has become separated from any reality, leading to thoughtless depictions of slaughter as in the mid-eighties arcade game Wanted (1984). Likewise, racial tensions and the mistreatment of Native Americans or African slaves are hardly ever brought up in video games, even though they are abundant in cinema. People other than white are rarely ever seen in earlier games with the exception of Indians and the occasional Mexican. Even if led by good intentions, these kinds of representations are devoid of conscious understanding of nativism, a form of emerging American nationalist sentiment to the exclusion of others (e.g. Higham 1977) that might undergird even the most innocent depictions. Through the technically necessary reduction and avoidance of touchy issues, early video games could even be seen as promoting a uniformly white America. Whereas older cinema might have unwittingly forwarded one-dimensional ideas concerning who an American is, for instance Heaven’s Gate (1980) and Gangs of New York (2002) address nativism directly. Positively thinking, the increased capacity to depict a variety of peoples in digital media, although initially in the service of replicating stereotypes, may eventually lead to more critical expression in video games, too.

Constructing a Digital West

An examination of Western video and computer games reveals the ways codified representations found their way into a format that was, in the beginning, very limited. The established cast of characters, objects and scenery that “belong” to the Western theme needed to be culled drastically in order to fit the modest platforms and low production costs. Looking at the transference and remediation of action sequences to games provides ground for further comparison and analysis, whereas the absence of some common narrative elements and representations in most video games raises questions not simply explained with technical limitations. The gradual shift from “engineering bound” to “content bound” game production, as described by O’Donnell (2012), further suggests that same explanations do not hold true across time. The following examination advances through Western video game scenery and objects and moves towards the comparison of broader stylistic subgenres, abstract themes, and their utilization in video games.

In as much as the game scenery could be static images, even the 1980s games were fairly detailed, such as the backgrounds in Law of the West (Figure 7). Already the first duel games’ backgrounds featured protective coverage that was operative in the gameplay. Later games, although not yet immersive simulations, began to build a more complex internal logic consistent with the chosen Western setting. In Gunfright (Figure 7), the play area is framed with visual Western elements: a wanted poster, a section of revolver cylinder chambers and telegram notes. However, the occasional cactus and tumbleweed act not only as support for the Western milieu; they are also deadly obstacles that need to be avoided. Picking up a horse speeds up the travel considerably and protects the sheriff from these hazards.

The panoramic, side-scrolling format was popular in the 1980s Western action games. In contrast to static images, the scrolling terrain and scenery was limited to more selective and repeatable elements such as wooden building facades, barrels, corral fences, Monument Valley Mountains and cacti. Kane (1986) and Outlaws (1985) both include elements of horseback riding, whereas Express Raider (1986) added train assault action more particular to the Western setting. Especially the horseback riding scenarios are reminiscent of filmic chases. Guns are shot from horseback, while dodging enemy bullets and at the same time ensuring the steed can cross obstacles (Figure 11). Iron Horse (1986) is another side-scrolling train assault game, although dispensing with the horseback riding. The scrolling horizontal panorama allowed a broad inclusion of Western-type action, but also a narrative backbone to the games, a beginning and a straightforward progression towards the end. The same could be said of vertically scrolling games, for example Wild Western (1982), but at least in Gun.Smoke (1985) the Western elements are more superficial, as the action is nearly indistinguishable from war games like Commando (1985).

Figure 11: In early games, horseback riding was seen almost exclusively within a Western theme. Outlaws and Express Raider.
Figure 11. In early games, horseback riding was seen almost exclusively within a Western theme. Outlaws and Express Raider.

The relative lack of commonly seen Western themes in games is noteworthy, as it reveals the way the video game has selectively remediated cinema. In the first instance, there are numerous details and typical scenes present in Western cinema, which have not made a transition to games, especially the early ones. These often relate to “adult” themes of violence, religion, sex and racial tensions. Hanging from the neck, singing a funeral hymn, downing a whiskey, cauterizing a wound with a hot knife, shooting a lame horse and numerous other clichés are present in a number of films, but never made a transition to the early games. Despite being a common theme in films, threats of rape are but only vaguely referred to in some recent games of the 2000s. For example, in the beginning of Six Guns (2012) the player has to protect a woman from villains.

The absence of broader movie styles in video games strikes as curious, too. Certainly Western subgenres such as the Italian Western, revolution “Zapata-Spaghettis” (Frayling 1981, 52), revisionist, acid and horror themes had been explored in film long before the 1980s. Yet, it seems that the esthetics and action in the 1980s games mostly refer to the classic 1950s Westerns, with other influences as a spicing. The exploitation of spaghetti imagery and sounds only truly begun in the 1990s, with Outlaws (1997) as a major milestone, and since then has been on the increase. This may, again, be initially explained through technical platforms: the recreation of Ennio Morricone style atmospheric music requires more nuanced sound capabilities than what was available on the 1970s and early 1980s console and home computer hardware, and exploring film techniques like the Peckinpah-esque slow motion only became sensible in the later 3D games. Some exceptions can be found in arcade games, where productions were larger and platforms technically more capable: Iron Horse from 1986 has Morricone-pastiches in the music and Italian touches in the characters and setting.

When it comes to more abstract motives inherent to the American Western, themes of justice and individual morality rise to the fore, presented as a kind of epic complete with superhuman characters (Bazin 1971, 145–147). Freedom of the individual and the (male) individual’s chance to mold his destiny and the course of history around him are also apparent. This extends to a sympathetic view toward criminals, outlaws, and mountain men, either outside or above the law. In contrast, collective lynch mobs and posses, easily incited to acts of violence, are rarely in the right, as seen in, for example, The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) and The Tin Star (1957). This duality resonates, perhaps unintentionally, with a typical game setting of a powerful single player character pitted against masses of faceless enemies. In early games, the player is explicitly cast in the role of a justified hero, even if the gunning-down of enemies raises questions about game morality to the observer.

Certainly, addressing morality in games has been mostly superficial, as the player can usually detach him- or herself from the gameplay decisions (Sicart 2013). It does not seem, for example, that anything like the code of justified killing presented in films (Falconer 2014) has ever been meaningfully built into games, except as a simple demerit resulting from shooting innocents. It could still be argued that a Western setting provides better source material for exploring morality in games than most other genres. As the Western scenario drives the kind of characters that occupy the game world, and the functions they perform within the game rules, this also becomes a way to introduce moral elements. The West is not only about presenting the player with artificial moral choices, but implying a setting in which frontier justice, technological expansion, the Civil War, and the treatment of Native Americans inherently belong.

Although Western films have frequently been described as political (Frayling 1981; McGee 2007), such themes have been approached warily in video game design. Apart from some isolated examples, social aspects of the frontier have not been utilized in video games. For example, the railroad provides a milieu and action setting for games (Figure 12), but that is the extent of its presence. This can be compared to the nuanced role railroad plays in the film Once upon a Time in the West (1968) (for further analysis, see Frayling 1981, 195). War games and simulations about railroad construction might even be more suggestive in this respect, as the player can explore and become invested through actual gameplay to the contingencies of military conquest and the logic of industrial expansion respectively.

Figure 12: The Western setting calls for an attention to detail. Railroad scenery from Helldorado and Express Raider.
Figure 12. The Western setting calls for an attention to detail. Railroad scenery from Helldorado and Express Raider.

The omissions discussed above point not only to the technical limitations for building narrative content for early game platforms. Rather, they suggest there are underlying motives independent of platform characteristics that have guided the Western remediation to no small degree. This initially points toward the quick financial returns required from the amusement arcade setting, forcing action games into a harmless mold of light entertainment. As the first computer games were mostly made in imitation of arcade games, a radical rethinking of the Western did not immediately take place in that transition, either. There are other equally likely reasons to this evident harmlessness, which we cannot possibly address in depth here: the (at least supposedly) young target audience, combined with limited means of expression, and engineering-oriented production (see O’Donnell 2012) are among the most potential explanations as to why the first games hardly featured any critical reflection on Western clichés and mythology. As a counterexample, recent indie games, as discussed in the previous section, have demonstrated that even highly revisionist takes are possible, especially when commercial constraints are not present.

Figure 13: Games provide plenty of Western equipment to choose from. Wild Bunch and Six Guns.
Figure 13. Games provide plenty of Western equipment to choose from. Wild Bunch and Six Guns.

If the earlier games merely derived from a collective distillation of the Western theme and stereotypes, it is now possible to ask: What has the game medium added to the Western mythos? With video games, the question “What was it like in the West?”, at least implicit in many films, could now be delivered in first-person where a player’s actions have repercussions in the simulated game world. The player can now explore what-if scenarios first hand and even behave in ways unfit for a cinematic Western hero, returning to the straight and narrow via a saved position (Buel 2013). The player is faced with a choice of narrative, action and detailed management of equipment (Figure 13) not explicitly present in a Western film. Special equipment in films is almost inevitably plot- or character-defining, whereas in action and simulation games items are brought in play within the game rules. The player places his or her customized character inside complex gunfight and horse-riding sequences, which are played on a detailed Western terrain. The duel, target and riding elements that previously constituted a full game by themselves, are now only elements of a larger whole, suggestive of a complete Western ecosystem.

Conclusion

We expected the Western thematic to be an easily contained, marginal theme within video games. Even if true in the face of the total volume of published games, the amount of Western games was, nevertheless, surprising. In addition, there are numerous electromechanical, mechanical and pinball machines that we did not even seek to catalog extensively. While compiling the list, we also built a typology of Western games ranging from target shooters to role-playing games. Despite the initial assumptions, the Western theme is not confined to a particular era or country of origin. Our study did not reveal any striking differences between games originating from different countries, except that Civil War games are first and foremost an American phenomenon. Another national tendency is that Japanese game companies started fusing Western together with other themes earlier than elsewhere.

Western video games have been produced since the birth of the medium and are constantly being produced. In spite of their constant presence, they appear to hold a fairly minor position in the history of video games. One direction for further study would be to examine contemporary game literature and press: our current impression is that Western themes rarely made it to the covers of computer and video game magazines or books in the early 1980s, which favored “electronic” and technical themes seen more appropriate for the new medium. Among the most notable chronological observations is how the Western film disappeared from Hollywood’s limelight about the same time as video games emerged as widespread home entertainment. The more timely science fiction and martial arts fads supplied by films further pushed the Western underneath.

Comparing Western video games to cinema reveals certain similarities and differences. Despite some marginal exceptions, Western games did not grow to form a “classical” mainstream and a subversion of that mainstream, as arguably happened with the films. In our examination, we found that the duel and target games fell out of fashion as the sophistication of platforms increased. Early target games clearly evolved in competition or imitation with previous machines, much as fighting games, driving games, and first-person shooters have grown to become well-formed (non-thematic) video game genres. On the whole, there is little evidence of Western-themed video games critically reflecting on their predecessors, even if in most cases they have been obvious clones and follow-ups to previous titles. Novelty and innovation have tended to originate either from other media or another game genre. This could be changing as major releases (e.g. Red Dead Redemption) have set new milestones to which later games will, undoubtedly, be compared.

We found that Western games, too, come with their own fashions and fads. All possible styles provided by movies were not immediately utilized. Most early digital games hark back to the 1950s Western, whereas the visually distinct Italian Western began to have a major influence on games only in the 1990s. Later and current Western games appear to be going through a phase of comparative realism, genre-consciousness, and even “revisionist” themes, but also a fusion of science fiction, fantasy and horror elements – again something that gradually took place in cinema several decades earlier. The “realism” as seen in current-generation games could, therefore, be considered rather as remediation than a genuine attempt to provide a novel take on the frontier life.

Just like cinema, video games had to reinvent and remediate the Western thematic in their own terms. The films accentuate the unique and the improbable: a shot villain can fall a great distance into a water trough or a coffin for dramatic or humorous effect, a hidden gun turns the tables on a mass of enemies, the hero has the ultimate hand in a poker game, leading to accusations of cheating and an inevitable bar room brawl. As a video game relies on repetition and at least a modicum of simulation, these improbable events cannot be replicated multiple times without becoming unsatisfying and even more absurd than in the films. Instead, the players need to occupy themselves with minutiae and events not necessarily dwelled on much in other media, such as developing skills, managing and purchasing equipment, or mundane tasks made interesting, such as shooting rabbits. This kind of realignment brings out yet another potential “revision” of the genre, most likely in a previously unseen form.

 

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Appendix: List of Western-Themed Games

 

Notes

[i] Hereinafter referred to as video games for the sake of brevity.
[ii] For further discussion on the connection between pinball and video games, see DeLeon (2014).
[iii] We use the term Indian at places, as opposed to Native American, to be in line with the archaic language used in games and films.
[iv] Comparable to ludological genres, but we have avoided the double use of the word “genre” here as it would create unnecessary confusion.
[v] For example, SSG’s Decisive Battles of the American Civil War (1987–1988) and TalonSoft’s Battleground (1995–1998, parts 2, 4, 5, 7 and 9).
[vi] In comparison, female protagonists in movies are uncommon, but existent: for example Rancho Notorius (1952), Calamity Jane (1953), Johnny Guitar (1954), Cat Ballou (1965), Les Pétroleuses (1972), The Quick and the Dead (1995) and Bandidas (2006).
[vii] The Legend of Billy the Kid (1991), Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Circus (1989) and Gunfighter: The Legend of Jesse James (2001).