There’s something about the Wild West that has captured our cultural attention for over a century. For as long as there has been film, there have been Westerns. And the same is true for video games — reaching all the way back to the likes of Oregon Trail.
With Red Dead Redemption 2 boasting some of the deepest and most immersive storytelling ever, we thought we’d take a look at why the Wild West is such a rich, fascinating setting.
Most Westerns are set in the latter half of the 19th Century, from the tail end of the American Civil War to the introduction of the automobile. In big cities industrialisation had transformed how people worked, sending many out onto the American Frontier in search of their next big opportunity.
Standing firm in the way of this hope was the land itself — harsh, punishing land where nothing is given, and everything costs you in blood, sweat, and tears. It’s a place where survival can sometimes be a zero sum game — either them or us — and our hero’s morals are tested by a baking sun, scarce water, and by those with fewer scruples.
And because stories thrive on conflict, it’s no wonder that the Western continues to draw us in to this day.
The Spaghetti Western
The works of Sergio Leone stick out to many as the defining features of the Western in cinema. His Man with No Name Trilogy transformed the Western from its “White Hat/Black Hat” roots — where the heroes were clean cut and the villains were dastardly — into the morally ambiguous characters we see today.
There wasn’t a clear good vs evil dichotomy at play. Leone’s characters were three dimensional, and while we had our protagonists and our antagonists, the stories were never as simple as ‘the bad guy’ or ‘the hero.’
Arthur Morgan, the protagonist of Red Dead Redemption 2, exemplifies this storytelling approach. He runs with the Van der Linde Gang, a haphazard group of outlaws who rob and cheat and steal and kill. But RDR2 has an honor system embedded deep within it, and Arthur doesn’t have to be a ‘bad guy.’ If you choose, he can help people out in a number of ways, and doing so will change how the world in general reacts to him.
The scores of Ennio Morricone — now famous in their own right, but for decades attached tightly to Leone’s works — still resonate today with moviegoers. Quentin Tarantino employed an 85 year old Morricone to score his Western Epic The Hateful Eight, but Morricone’s influence reaches further still. Ramin Djawadi describes the Italian composer as one of his heroes, and that is evidenced in Djawadi’s work on HBO’s Westworld.
Woody Jackson, Rockstar’s award-winning composer, found inspiration in Morricone’s work too, folding its influence into the 192 pieces of interactive score in Red Dead Redemption 2.
A Long Shot
There’s something special about the way Westerns are shot, too. Wide-angle shots set our protagonists — in groups or alone — against a backdrop of empty nature, showcasing both the natural beauty of the setting and the relative loneliness of our heroes (or antiheroes). It’s a classic in Western films, and it reinforces the feeling of a lone fighter against impossible odds.
The Neo-Western films Hell or High Water and Wind River are perfect examples of this, one using the baking hot desert of West Texas, the other the desperate cold of winter in Wyoming, to isolate its characters and raise the stakes immensely. It’s a reminder that the real villain in West is the elements. That the struggle to survive is made all the more difficult thanks to mother nature’s cruelty.
Red Dead Redemption 2‘s cinematic camera system borrows heavily from the same techniques to dynamically deliver these shots at the push of a button. Your horse will ride to its destination while the camera switches between wide shots to showcase the gorgeous handcrafted countryside Rockstar has built for the game, and the effect is so perfect you may never want to fast travel. Just watch out for bandits!
Wealth for Toil
The reason the Western remains such a pervasive element in pop culture is because it represents the idealisation of the American Dream. In the Old West, frontiers-people worked hard, and they carved a life out for themselves. There’s something oddly romantic about completing a hard day’s work in the outdoors — especially as more and more of us feel trapped indoors studying and working.
But over time, the idyllic version of the Western has warped to better reflect the true state of that Dream. The Western championed by Sergio Leone shows us that not everything is as black and white as we first thought. And in the shades of gray are some of the most iconic pieces of cinema ever.
The appeal of living the life of a cowpoke might make sense as our worlds get more complex each day. The best Westerns remind us, though, that life out on the range was anything but simple. Better to be a tourist in that world than to live it, at the end of the day.