It’s hard to overstate the impact that Red Dead Redemption had on a certain type of film lover. There had been Western games before. I remember Sunset Riders kicking me and my cousins’ asses on the SNES when I was a little kid, and before that Gun.Smoke was an arcade and NES hit. The PS2 had GUN and Red Dead Revolver, and the original Call of Juarez had given hints of what a then current-gen console Western could look like, but nothing prepared us for Red Dead Redemption.
It was a John Ford fantasy brought to life. The romantic sweep of the great plains, the deserts of the US/Mexican border, and the last gasp of the Wild West were brought to sprawling, immaculately detailed life. Throw in Rockstar’s story about a man trying to atone for a past of black hat crime, and Redemption cemented a legacy as videogame culture’s great link to the old West.
With the announcement of Red Dead Redemption 2 earlier this year, we thought about what Western influences the new game could draw from. The original was deeply indebted to the filmographies of John Ford and Sergio Leone. If the plains segments were an ode to Ford’s beloved “oaters,” everything in Mexico was pure Leone Spaghetti Western. And if Rockstar doesn’t want to repeat themselves with the new game, here’s a list of unexpected Westerns that they can look to for inspiration to tell a new type of old West adventure.
The big selling point of Red Dead Redemption 2’s reveal was an image Rockstar posted of a timer with the silhouettes of seven men walking in front of a sunset. The implication there is that Red Dead Redemption 2 will have an ensemble cast ala Grand Theft Auto V. If that’s the case, Rockstar need look no further than the television miniseries of Larry McMurtry’s Western epic, Lonesome Dove, to see how Old West ensemble storytelling can be done right. And if Rockstar can come up with one character half as memorable as Robert Duvall’s Augustus McCrae, the game could be a real success. Let’s just hope we don’t have to play as any Jake Spoon equivalent. That might sour things a bit.
Perhaps the most powerful narrative decision Red Dead Redemption makes is the precise timeframe when you play. Most of the game intentionally plays with the image of an 1870s/1880s sandbox of the mythic West, but instead, the game takes place in 1911 in the years before the Great War. The West is disappearing, and everything you’ve done throughout the game represents the dying breaths of a whole culture.
We said that Rockstar needs to look to new inspirations for Red Dead and we’re aware Liberty Valance is arguably Ford’s masterpiece (the other choice is The Searchers), but if the second game wants to continue exploring the end of the Western era, Ford’s meditation on the need for law and the inevitable dissolution of the anarchic old West is the perfect story to study. Plus, there are few cinematic treats quite like having John Wayne, James Stewart and Lee Marvin engage in a two hour pissin’ match about who’s the real man in their dusty town of Shinbone.
Although there’s an omnipresent concentration on wacky humor and over-the-top action setpieces, Rockstar’s big tenthouse games have always tried to say something. GTA IV attempted to chronicle the immigrant experience of the American Dream. The original Redemption examines the price we’re willing to pay to atone for past sins. But GTA V was a major stumbling block in the Rockstar storytelling department with a narrative that mistook gleeful cruelty for anything resembling thematic depth.
If Rockstar wants to deliver another anti-hero/anti-villain tale in the new game, Andrew Dominik’s anti-Western magnum opus is the key to how to tell that story right. It chronicles Robert Ford, the man who killed Jesse James despite being part of his gang, and it’s a harrowing look at guilt, responsibility, and why we do what we do. If Rockstar wants to make a truly great story, this sort of moral clarity is a necessary first step.
Representation matters in games, and Rockstar has a miserable track record with queer representation. GTA V in particular had a disturbing amount of transphobic and queerphobic “jokes.” With a cast as big as Rockstar is promising, Red Dead Redemption 2 needs queer characters, and there’s no better text on how to integrate queerness into the Romantic landscapes of the West than Ang Lee’s film version of Annie Proulx’s short story Brokeback Mountain (a script that was co-written by Diana Ossana and Lonesome Dove’s Larry McMurtry).
Without wanting to spoil too much, the original Red Dead builds up to a powerfully tragic conclusion. Protagonist John Marston believes he’s made up for the sins of his past, but the universe feels otherwise. And Robert Altman’s anti-Western (you might be noticing a theme to this list) starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie lays out step by step how to establish dread and fatalism to this type of tale. Also, who can forget the anachronistic musical numbers in the original game, and Altman’s film showed how to do something similar to perfection with songs from the late Leonard Cohen.
One of the most popular parts of the original Red Dead was the zombie themed DLC, Undead Nightmare. Zombie stories are as played out as it’s possible to be, but Western horror stories are still a mostly untapped market. There isn’t a better Western horror film than Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects. The Assassin’s Creed franchise proved that games could toy with time periods without sacrificing their setting or genre, and if Rockstar is looking for some post-game content that goes in a really different direction, Zombie’s redneck horror is chock full of transgressive characterization, brutal violence, and undeniable style.
Magical realist Western fairytales are another rarity in the Western market. As much as we love Westerns, the formula of the genre is too often rigidly adhered to. Thankfully, The Twilight Zone was never afraid to get weird. In this episode, a beat down and guilt-ridden gunfighter is given one last magical chance to be the best gunslinger in the West. I don’t want to spoil the denouement of the episode, but the series found room to turn this fable into a needed morality play in a genre that too often glorifies violence.
The best part of GTA V was driving around Los Santos and the surrounding countryside. Where so much of the narrative felt like a misstep, the world Rockstar created in that game felt fully realized and vibrant. HBO’s Deadwood didn’t have any narrative missteps; it’s about as close to perfect as TV gets. But it also nailed the period and aesthetic details of its vision of a gritty and dangerous frontier town. The original Red Dead captured the boundless fantasy of Western landscapes, but its settlements left a little more to be desired. Studying Deadwood could ensure those parts of the game get the attention they deserve as well.
Alongside the seminal High Noon, the often overlooked The Tin Star is one of the best Westerns of the 1950s, with a considerable focus on the psychology of its characters. It follows pre-Psycho Anthony Perkins attempting to understand what it means to be a lawman from a retired sheriff turned bounty hunter played by Henry Fonda (and all the while taking heat from the local town who think Fonda’s character is beyond redemption). If Rockstar want another avenue to explore a story of redemption and figuring out for yourself what it means to do the right thing, The Tin Star is a good place to look.
Let’s be honest; Rockstar’s sense of “humor” has always been embarrassing. It’s too reliant on shock-jock tactics and crudeness ripped straight from the lunchroom conversations of 13-year-old boys. But, also, comedy is an integral part of the Rockstar experience. How do they solve this problem?
If The Devil’s Rejects is the best horror western of the last fifteen years, we haven’t had a better Western comedy than AMC’s Breaking Bad-prequel Better Call Saul. The series never forgets to utilize the striking Arizona desert for mesmerizing shots, and by plotting one man’s constant failures to break free from the expectations of family, his career, and his community, Better Call Saul is a clear-cut example of the primary Western theme: how to distinguish yourself outside the oppressive bounds of civilization. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny in the darkest, bleakest way possible. Rockstar hasn’t been able to nail that tone in a long time.
Correction: This piece originally stated that Annie Proulx cowrote the script for Brokeback Mountain with Larry McMurtry. Diana Ossana was McMurtry’s cowriter, and we’ve updated this piece to reflect that.
Don Saas is a music and games journalist based out of West Virginia. If you want to see his rants about movies and pro wrestling, you can find him on Twitter here.