Whether it’s the unique environment or its potential to be the home of intriguing characters, the Wild West has captured the imagination of the entertainment industry for decades. There are several westerns ranked among the most iconic movies of all time, with video game developers taking inspiration from those classic films by using the Wild West as the setting for some of their work. While we also see increasingly fantastical and dystopian universes depicted on our screens, the often-gritty world of the Wild West continues to appeal.
Few names from the movie industry can command as immediate and widespread recognition as that of John Wayne, the actor who was instrumental in bringing westerns to a broader audience. Westerns began to regularly draw the crowds at American movie theaters in the 1930s, with Wayne starring in a string of seminal pictures across the next couple of decades.
While Wayne is remembered predominantly for his work in westerns, some of his 1960s contemporaries used their forays in the Wild West as a springboard for international acclaim. Clint Eastwood rose to prominence for his performances as the ‘Man With No Name’ in Sergio Leone’s legendary Dollars Trilogy, which culminated in 1966’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Eastwood would go on to achieve Wayne levels of fame, although his work as the ruthless cop Dirty Harry may be his most memorable role.
The likes of Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and Eli Wallach also all have westerns to thank for sending their careers on upward trajectories. Given that classic westerns are among the most iconic movies of all time, with The Good, The Bad and the Ugly coming in at a lofty 9th place in the IMDb Top 250, modern filmmakers have felt a need to explore different thematic ground to those definitive cinematic portrayals of the Old West. Dead Man (1995), The Proposition (2005), and Django Unchained (2018) all approach the idea of a western from distinctive perspectives, giving fresh takes on the Wild West.
The Old West in gaming
While modern filmmakers stray away from directly recreating the world of those classic westerns, modern game developers have no need to tread so lightly around the Wild West depicted in those 1960s films. The most notable example is Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption franchise, which adopts a straightforward but richly detailed approach to its portrayal of the Wild West.
You half expect Wayne or Eastwood to stroll on screen at any moment, such is the quality of the homage to those classic westerns. However, the Red Dead Redemption series stands out with the level of agency given to the gamer, with players able to explore the world at leisure and live out almost every aspect of life in the Wild West.
2018’s Red Dead Redemption 2 attracted particular critical acclaim for its painstaking detail in recreating the Wild West, allowing gamers to experience an otherwise unattainable time and place. The game proved to be one of the defining releases of the decade, but it is far from the only successful western-inspired title of recent years.
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The western influence in a range of games
Outlaws of the Old West is a survival-themed MMO developed by Virtual Basement, where gamers have to fight off the classic threats of the Wild West: dangerous animals, vicious bandits, and fellow gunslingers. Outlaws adopts the same approach as RDR2 of trying to drop players into a realistic recreation of the Wild West displayed in those classic westerns.
Hunt: Showdown places a greater emphasis on the more violent elements of life in the Wild West, with Crytek’s 2019 release formed of multiplayer match-based gameplay. Players are tasked with ridding Louisiana swamps of terrifying monsters – not necessarily the type of action that you’d see in a John Wayne movie.
It is not just console games that have been swept up in the Wild West craze. Games Warehouse’ Wild Bandits online slot merges classic reel-based action with a cowboy and outlaw theme, with dramatic shootouts forming part of the bonus elements in the game. Zeetech’s Wild West Gunfighter brings western themes from the silver screen onto a mobile screen, with the gaming app focusing on criminal enterprises in the Wild West.
You could argue that the stories of 1960s western movies and the scope of Red Dead Redemption will never be beaten. The challenge for video game developers and contemporary filmmakers is finding new angles on the genre. That is an area where movies like Django Unchained and games with a narrower focus on the Wild West have succeeded. It will be interesting to see where the entertainment industry goes next, but one thing is for certain: there will always be a desire to go west.