Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is collection of dying things. It is set in Abilene, Kansas, in 1910, twenty years after the American frontier took form and killed the Wild West. The myth of the gunslinging outlaw is surging at this point, only because its culture is withering, as the last of the desperados succumb to old age and hard lives. Oral tradition is fading with them as news and history are spread by print and radio and not by mouth.
The story is a montage of memories, recounted by an old bounty hunter named Silas Greaves as he drains whiskey and entertains a few saloon workers and patrons. We’re alongside him for the length of his tale, though we only briefly step foot in the place. He is freshly archaic. He’s tired and directed by revenge. The time away from killing has made him look back, and he is vulnerable from the emotional weight of so many dead bodies. It is new to him. His charred voice narrates each chapter, and he strays from his stream-of-consciousness at times to converse with his audience or pee or have another drink. The dialogue is natural. Its delivery is delicate enough to soften the litany of Wild West clichés that make empty threats at satire but never commit to it.
The action advances in a sentence-by-sentence parallel to the story. Greaves is a habitual embellisher, and his spotty recollection makes him unreliable. His idiosyncrasies cleverly impact the player—he will often send you on short diversions that lead to inevitable death before pulling back and starting over and telling it true. Sometimes, he’ll recall being surrounded by dozens of bandits, caught in crossfire with no escape. The full scene will develop, with the player spinning, cracking off pistol rounds, and stringing along skillshots for bonus combinations before Greaves corrects himself and the scene rewinds to the beginning. The points that accrue for these combinations unlock skills that allow mastery of the weapons—a loose, possibly unintended evolution that traces the man’s path from blooming outlaw to legendary killer.
The relationship between the emphatic arcade style and the folksy storytelling is hypnotic. Each of his sentences foreshadows what will soon occur, and you work tirelessly to deliver on his story’s expectations. It is straightforward and exhilarating and compelling in the moment, but not beyond it. When his tale becomes larger than a highlight reel of gunfights and duels, there are only small hints of the emotional impact it is trying to deliver.
About two-thirds of the way through Gunslinger, you have to kill two men. They are brothers. They believe you killed their youngest brother, and vehemently intend to kill you. Earlier in the story, when you encountered the youngest brother, you spare him, but the two other brothers never hear the news. After you gun them down, Greaves waxes on how much different their lives would be if only they knew that their youngest brother was alive. This is a vast and incredibly deep sentiment. It casts a sympathetic light on what was, just moments before, two pissed off men pointing guns at you. Now they are dead and you are encouraged to check leaderboards and press “start” and get on with it. This is just a game of how Greaves shoots his guns, not one of motives and hurt and loss. It wants to be, but it is thin, like vapor.
Like so many video games, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger’s story only facilitates its main function: shoot things with excitement. There’s ambition to be something greater, but Techland compromised that ambition by not committing to it. The game mechanisms support the nature of enthusiastic storytelling, but they’re base and superficial. Each section is a procession of climactic shootouts that reward players for quick and skillful gunplay, perfectly orchestrated through the rosy retrospective lenses. Each section is dotted by Greaves’ vulnerable commentary on whether or not he is evil for killing all those men. Signifiers flash on the screen as enemies drop… x9 ×10 x11. It is an arcade, a midway shooting gallery, but it wants you to feel like you’re standing with Greaves, worried, counting the lives he has ended. It should feel like that.
James Hawkins was the founder and head editor of Bit Creature and former senior editor of Voice Media’s Joystick Division. He tweets @JamesHawk1ns.