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August 16, 2005

Gunslingers and Samurai

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Deadwood: Season One¹ Sanjuro The Twilight Samurai

It's certainly been remarked before that there are a lot of similarities between samurai films and Westerns; indeed, some of the greatest Westerns were inspired by films by Kurosawa, including A Fistful of Dollars by Yojimbo and The Magnificent Seven by The Seven Samurai. (Sanjuro, which I recently watched, is itself a sequel of sorts to Yojimbo; another parallel can be drawn with the spiritual successor For A Few Dollars More.)

It's fairly obvious with even a little bit of thought why there should be such a close correspondence. After all, both genres deal with violent historical periods where life was fairly cheap. Both deal with time periods that are distant enough to be romanticized and yet not so distant as to be forgotten or undocumented. Both eras came to a close at about the same time, with the Meiji era in Japan beginning at roughly the same time as the West becoming more civilized². Both times deal with questions of honor and moral ambiguity, with hired guns and ronin facing off across moral lines. Both genres also point a bit to the souls of their cultures -- with Westerns portraying the lone individual surviving by his wit and skill, and samurai films portraying men bound by honor and code and tradition.

Both genres are also highly malleable; periods of great violence at an individual scale³ lend themselves to all sorts of investigations. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a single murder causes one man to lose his grip and become a bum, while another rides the coattails of the fame it grants him to become a Senator. This is similar to Twilight Samurai, where a single event causes a man to overcome his concerns about a marriage he would make for love. Both are capable of morality plays (for example, The Ox-Bow Incident4). Both have enjoyed cycles of popularity, with periods of reinvention and rejuvenation; in getting a television series in Deadwood, it's my hope that Westerns may get another here in the States.

But enough about similarities.

One of the things I find interesting as a gamer are the differences between the Japanese market and the American market, and one notable difference is that these two genres are reflected differently in the games made in their native countries. In short, while there are several games reflecting samurai culture in a given year (Dynasty Warriors, the Onimusha series, games like Way of the Samurai or Musashi Samurai Legend), Western videogames are comparatively rare. I can only think of a few, and even then, I need to stretch a ways back (Outlaws, Red Dead Revolver, er...).

Why is this? I'm not certain, but I think it's probably about the guns. Why play an action game with guns where the pistol only carries six shots and the machine gun has to be left in a fixed position? Also, a hip young friend of mine tells me that Westerns just aren't cool anymore. I certainly hope the film genre doesn't die out altogether, though Clint's gotten a little old to get out there riding horses, and I'm not aware of any other stars who could even revive the genre anymore.

Whereas gracefully wielding a katana is eternally cool, as Kill Bill points out.

In the end, I'm not even sure I want to know why. What I really want is a few more Western games, though preferably not ones that drag in other genres to try and make them cool. I have high hopes for NeverSoft's Gun, which comes out this fall.

¹I suppose I should change my category names to DVDs rather than Movies, since I don't want to add something about television. I'm not going to, even though I suppose I should. But for anyone who regularly reads it, read Movies as a broad category. :)
²The Meiji era (beginning 1867) was a time at which Japan began to modernize; by 1876, samurai were forbidden to carry their blades in public. By the early 1890s, most of the Western territories such as Montana or the Dakotas had gained statehood, and with it legitimacy and the rule of law.
³As opposed to the scale of warfare, I mean.
4There's another interesting point to be made about The Ox-Bow Incident, and that's that it was adapted from a play. I actually think there may be another interesting blog post about adapting films from plays and the problems that that caused film and television early on -- since we face some of the same problems with videogames. But that's for another time.

Posted by Brett Douville at August 16, 2005 09:03 PM


Your friend is right. There are no Western games for the same reason that there are no longer any Western movies: people no longer connect with the genre. Those few that do are not likely the sort to play video games.

Posted by: Anonymous at August 16, 2005 10:29 PM

Well, he can't be entirely right. Deadwood got a couple of seasons so far, so there must be something still there. And though it's been a while since a decent Western's been made, the last one was really really great, winning Best Picture (Unforgiven, of course). I don't feel like you're going to find a lot of twelve-year-olds out there who think a Western's cool, but I really want to believe that there's still some appeal there for the 18-34 crowd.

Then, of course, there's the counterexample. *I* still connect with Westerns, just as I do with samurai movies. I like the individual hero, I like the codes of honor, and I like the moral ambiguity. I *flew* through those Deadwood disks about as fast as Netflix could serve them up. Granted, I think that was at least partly more for their spectacle than the genre, specifically. But certainly not entirely; the setting really is interesting.

So at least *I* still feel like there's something there.

I also want to note that there's other things that give me a little hope. Firefly, the science fiction series out on Fox a year or two ago developed a devoted fanbase, and that was an SF/western crossover for sure. And the Western theme has been mined in the last few years in some sibling industries (pen and paper RPGs, for example). It's not dead, but I think it's time for a rebirth.

Posted by: Brett Douville at August 16, 2005 11:02 PM

Deadwood's a great show. And even here in America we're getting a constant (if slow) flow of movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and Flying Daggers. Likewise, I think there's still room for an occasional Western show, movie, and game.

Though, as a sidenote, has anyone tried Samurai Western? (http://www.atlus.com/samurai_western/ ) It came out in June, but I've yet to snag it. Game Rankings says it gets a 59%, with user ratings giving it 6.8.

Posted by: Jeffool at August 17, 2005 01:08 AM

Clint may be too old to ride a horse, but he's not to old to lend his voice to a game...


Posted by: Clubberjack at August 18, 2005 01:05 PM

Jeffool-- I liked CT,HD and Hero, but I watched House of Flying Daggers last night and was much less impressed. Although I really enjoyed the "echo game" at the beginning with the beans and the dancing, the twists and turns at the end felt weak, the story just left me completely cold. Hero's battles felt inspired and magical, and I really enjoyed CT,HD's story, but Flying Daggers' just didn't do it for me.

Clubberjack-- I'm really curious to see what happens with this whole old movie movement that seems to be going on; my general feeling is that only top-tier licenses are going to succeed in the next generation of consoles (due to rising production costs).

The Warriors, Godfather, Dirty Harry... it's just plain weird. I'm not sure how well these will reach out to the 18-25 crowd; Dirty Harry is a little dated even for me. The last movie came out 17 years ago! Much of the videogame audience was in their pre-teens or earlier at that time. I didn't see any of the movies until a bit later, but then I'm a film buff -- I went on a Clint Eastwood tear in the early 90s and saw about everything he had done to that point.

Posted by: Brett Douville at August 19, 2005 11:01 AM

Excellent points. I've always been surprised that we've seen so few Western-themed games.

The just-released Darkwatch bears mentioning. It's got all the elements of a wild west shoot-em-up, plus (of all things) vampires and zombies. The developers got around the issue of obsolete weapons by adding a heavy dose of steampunk tech to the game, so there's an assortment of rocket launchers, chaingun turrets, and the like.

Posted by: A. LaMosca at August 27, 2005 07:51 PM

Thanks, Adam, I love your site. I've added it back to my newsfeeds -- somehow it didn't make the move to Maryland.

Anyhoo, I was sort of obliquely referring to Darkwatch in my final sentence -- too obliquely, I guess. My feeling is that the Western has an archetypal coolness to it which doesn't need additional blandishments. I'd probably feel differently if there were several Western-themed games out a year, in which case such experimentation would be welcome.

In the meantime, I guess I'll just keep dragging out my copy of Outlaws.

Posted by: Brett Douville at August 29, 2005 06:19 PM

From the Blogged Out article:

... We'd argue that cool is about context, not some eternal metaphysical quality - Kill Bill is only cool because of Tarantino's uncanny ability to bestride trends in popular culture, from Hong Kong Kung Fu to the rebranding of older, hipper music. What Wild West games need is a context in which they are cool again. Perhaps the lack of popular interest is because recent Westerns have been more about reality and brutality than the cool of lone, chiseled-jawed heroes. HBO's phenomenal Deadwood TV series is illustrative of this: would anyone dare to make a game about managing whorehouses and swearing?

Posted by: BD in for Jim Rossignol at August 29, 2005 06:27 PM

I don't agree about Kill Bill -- while QT's use of pop culture and music are invaluable aids to creating his hip mood/groove, there's something essential and great about the katana all on its own. It's imbued with a high degree of cultural recognition, even among the older set¹.

For example, when Butch goes through a set of weapons in Maynar'd shop, he sets aside some more obvious choices, baseball bat, chain saw. When he reaches for the katana, the whole audience had a sort of hush when I saw it in the theater. That's the interminable cool, right there, so palpable you can touch it. To take something from our source, you can't really imagine a character going to a gunmaker for the best he can make -- but Hattori Hanzo fits in perfectly in what serves the same story role.

On Deadwood, I hear ya. Although... a sort of SimBrothel is appealing, along the lines of SimGolf. Lots of Sim characters, and when things happen, you have to deal with them with the controls you have. Man killed in a fight? Lower prices to get the booze flowing again. Rumors of plague? Protect the assets by raising the prices on ... well, Al Swearingen's probably better suited to making the suggestion. My kids might read this some day :)

¹Thanks mostly to Shogun, I've little doubt.

Posted by: Brett Douville at August 29, 2005 06:44 PM

I think there was a game called Desperados and the newere version Desperados 2 (innovative title!) is supposed to be out soon

Posted by: Apar at September 1, 2005 02:52 PM

I realize that this article is a bit old but I have over the past year come up with several concepts for an mmo title I believe would break a lot of molds wide open. And although the concepts I am trying to put together could work in any setting under the sun, as they are more about character interaction and development of a story, they are originally designed in a wild west format. I have no kought to try and actually develop this title but have not given up hope on finding a suitable backer(s). I don't really know where I am going with this other then if a fan of the genre with tons of backing would be interested in hiring me then hey do it lol.

any how I have to disagree with the western not being cool. You have classic character development and interaction before the days of instant messanges and high tech wizardry there seems to be a raw element that can connect people. its hard to explain and maybe todays youth is to modern americanized to know that it would be cool. A day and age where something new could be invented every week, innovation was everyday life and the wilds were yet to be tamed. In addition to this you cannot tell me that a western is not a perfect setting for an mmo especially one with a lot of PVP content. The lawlessness of the land the above mentined innovation and the sand box feeling you could get from a game like this i think could prove to be highly successful.

thanks better late then never ;]

Posted by: Karl at December 7, 2007 03:53 PM

Thanks for the comment, Karl. Obviously, I find the western cool... and when I wrote the article a couple of years ago it seemed like Hollywood was never going to get back to the Western.

And then along comes 2007, with 3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, No Country for Old Men (not strictly speaking a Western, but heavily influenced by both Westerns and noir), and more. Nice to see it back again for a little while.

That said, I'd love to see a better sandbox version of the Western than Gun, which I never blogged about because I didn't have lots to say. I played it at about this time last year and found myself disappointed -- it lacked polish, for sure, and I was extremely annoyed to discover myself locked into the final mission (well, I could leave, but I'd lose all my progress -- considering the difficulty, that was an annoyance) without any forewarning. I played all the side missions, but the space became a little stale after a while -- ambushes would always occur in the same locations and lacked variety. It was a bit like playing an MMO, but single-player, and without nearly as much content. The story was okay, but overall it didn't really do much for me.

In any case, if you do get interest in your Western MMO, be sure to post back here (and give me a trial account for a couple of weeks so I can drive all my readers to you) :)

Posted by: Brett Douville at December 11, 2007 10:33 AM