If I had an opportunity to make a film from any genre, it’d be a western. From The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to Unforgiven, I find the westerns to be fascinating. Not only in films by the way, but in other forms of visual art too: series, comic books, and video games alike.
The greatest of them all—in my opinion—is a video game. No surprises here, I wouldn’t be talking about Red Dead Redemption II otherwise. Rarely a video game had been so cinematic. For me, it sums up everything I love about westerns. an immoral character who fights for himself in a world deprived of law, yet doesn’t hesitate to make moral actions and protect the weak. Superb landscapes of the American West with canyons, red mountains, lakes with snowy mountains in the background, and more. This is part of why visual art is a must when immersing myself in a western story. The locations are intertwined with the genre. It’s as most—if not more—important than the outfit. It’s a blank page, waiting to be filled with stories.
So the idea alone of walking those landscapes just as if a were there got me hyped. The idea of a video game also makes a lot of sense here. The player will be writing his own story in the world created by the designers. Red Dead Redemption delivered on that part, setting a likable anti-hero on a quest of redemption. It resulted in an unforgettable ride. Fast-forward 8 years later, RockStar Games delivered a prequel with much higher ambitions. It was set to explore the past of the protagonist from the first game. And boy was it an experience… The video game truly made sense to me. Neither film no TV series could have achieved such a deep involvement in both stories and characters. If anyone ever thought video games were the next step in films, this is it.
Filling the blank pages
A western needs a good story. That’s the single most important ingredient in making a good western. Having a blank landscape opens infinite possibilities on how to approach a narrative in a western, and somehow it seems everything has already been told. Fortunately video game is more a collective art form than any other. A single screenwriter can write a film, a writer’s room can write a show, but a video game requires constant collaboration between the narrative and the design teams. Each individual can bring his ideas on the table, and its usually just stuff they just want to see—or in this case do. And they also need to take into account an essential part of a video game narrative: the player’s journey.
Like What, Writing Silly Stories?John Marston
The player somewhat takes the place of a film director as they decide what he’s going to do next with the story. He’s essentially writing his own, just as colonists and pioneers were writing the story of the United States back in the 1800s. The game world is there for the player to explore as he sees fit, filled with singulars characters that produce a sense of reality to it. The player also decides on the protagonist’s morality: Arthur can do both moral and immoral actions, which affects how he’s perceived socially. A kick in the guts or a coin to a beggar makes the difference. That brings me to one of the most important ingredients of western: character.
Action defines character
Back in the good old days of the John Ford and Howard Hawks classic westerns, films were essentially following the good guys against the bad native Americans. The hero always protected the weak from the bad guys. Then the genre evolved with the spaghetti westerns and the like of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, where the line between bad and evil started to fade. Italian filmmakers like Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci redefine the genre, influencing American directors like Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood to make revisionist westerns (or anti-western) in which the morality of the protagonist isn’t aways as cristal clear.
Just Do One Thing Or The Other, Don’t Try To Be Two People At Once…Arthur Morgan
My biggest takeaway is how western writers/filmmakers define their characters. Arthur (but also Blondie from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, or Pike from The Wild Bunch) is set up at the beginning like an immoral character. He’s an outlaw, living a selfish life of crimes to enrich himself. Yet as the story progresses and Arthur’s character arc gets defined, that line begins to blur. Arthur makes moral actions, saving not only his friends but standing for them. Furthermore, the player can also do good deeds in the story world, giving a coin to a beggar or helping a lost woman finds her way to the nearest town. For me, it makes a lot more sense in a video game where actions impact an honor system, which will later influence the ending of the story.
Creating an unforgettable journey
It’s been 10 years since I first rode to Fort Mercer to confront Bill Williamson into giving himself up. Yet I remember John Marston’s story more than any other western story either from films, TV series, or comic books. The creators managed to tell a coherent story filled with unforgettable moments in line with what the child in me wanted to experience like a cowboy in the old west. Gold mines, coach robbing, gunfights in a canyon, they were all there. But it wasn’t just the child in me that was fulfilled. The young adult also found a profound story of a family man facing the choices he made in his life. A life that I waited for more than 8 years to experience. I was confronted with an even more thorough and heartfelt story about friendship, trust, and even family.
This is what makes a great western for me: a great story in which to immerse myself, alongside memorable immoral characters who make moral actions in a world still fairly untouched by humans. The video game medium is perfect to tell that story. It allows more characters and a longer plot than a film, with engagement from the audience unequaled by TV shows or comic books. Red Dead Redemption II couldn’t have been told otherwise. Its story is made of arcs consisting of beats. Each beat contributes to the bigger picture, defining character arcs. A mission isn’t just another episode of the week, it’s the next beat that’ll move the story forward. A story lasting 50 and more hours. An unforgettable journey. Red Dead Redemption II is the cinematic experience I never knew I wanted.