What’s better for a video game setting than the Western? You have lawless towns and societies where might makes right; justice is found through the barrel of a smoking revolver, and mysterious strangers know how to do what needs to be done to keep everyone else safe. You have horses, saloons and wide swaths of countryside that are dotted with small settlements and not much else. There are plenty of rogues to shoot, innocents to help and an environment that will drive you wild from thirst — if the rattlesnakes don’t get you first.
The Wild West is all a pop culture myth, sure, but it’s a myth that fits so neatly into the modern idea of what makes a good video game setting, it’s shocking how rarely it’s been used as such. The first Red Dead Redemption game made us cowboys eight years ago —Red Dead Revolver is a full 14 year old — but one of the only other series that took full advantage of the genre is the now-forgotten Call of Juarez franchise.
Heck, one of the best Western video games is still Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, which wraps all the myth-making up into a sort-of fantasy shell and provides one of the best plot twists of the original Xbox era.
But I struggle to even think of other Western games, much less worry about which the best are. Is Mad Dog McCree really better than Sunset Riders? The answer is no, but that’s beside the point.
Despite the feverish popularity of Red Dead Redemption — whose fans have been demanding a sequel almost immediately after launch — the Western has remained one of gaming’s most obscure genres. It often feels like we’re drowning in shooters set during gigantic wars, historical or fantastical. It’s common to see games set during the modern day, or something close to it; even the time-skipping nature of Assassin’s Creed can sometimes make the games blend together. As open-world games continue to earn massive audiences, though, the quintessentially wide-open West is still left behind.
This scarcity is refreshing. With few exceptions, we haven’t had our fill of games with saloons and steer-wrangling and tumbleweeds. What’s even more refreshing is that it’s unlikely there will be a run on Western content after Red Dead Redemption 2 is out (and most likely sells in massive quantities), making its arrival even more unique. Its sister series Grand Theft Auto has spawned any number of imitators, but very few companies seem willing to take a run at creating anything that would go against the gold standard’s Rockstar Games set for Western games. We not only know that there hasn’t been another open-world Western game in eight years, but we can also safely assume that there won’t be another one for just as long.
This isn’t particular to video games; there’s rarely a glut of Western films or TV shows either these days. Heck, Deadwood may be the most famous and popular modern example of Western genre fiction, and we didn’t get enough of that (at least, not yet). Ditto the sci-fi Western Firefly. It’s not like we’re drowning in Tombstone sequels. Good Western pop culture is often defined by scarcity, with each new and notable release an oasis in the desert.
So why does Red Dead Redemption 2 feel so important, rather than just popular? That it’s one of the rare examples of the genre, and in a series that has also done the genre best when it comes to gaming, is a big reason. We’re not only ready for a new Western video game — we’re hungry for it. It’s rare that hunger ever builds this intensely in gaming, an art form where we’re used to having as much of whatever we’d like as we’d like, and to get it on whatever schedule we can afford.
But Westerns? Open-world Westerns? It’s the perfect genre, and there have never been enough games in it. At least this year, for better or worse, there will be one more.