By Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez
The animated game as tragic western
he Western does not, at first glance, feel like a cinema genre that would lend itself favorably to videogame interpretation. Many of the conventions and expectations imbedded in the better filmed Westerns are heightened to an epically shattered tragic vision, not something usually associated with videogames. The evocation of the broken landscape alone, itself such a crucial piece of the Western's unique language, seems just beyond the animator's pen, something unable to be created, only captured. The videogame and the Western appear alien to one another, each incapable of living up to the demands of the other. This does not have to be, however, as an inventive and sensitive creative team at LucasArts have proven.
Outlaws, a game developed and published by LucasArts in 1997, is a magnificent distillation of the thematic spirit of "The Western Film." It particularly evokes Sergio Leone's famous Spaghetti Westerns but recalls everything from John Ford's haunting The Searchers to the popish television show Wild, Wild West. The wonderful credits sequence directly echoes the latter program's stylized opening.
We watch as a lone horseman rides through a series of inventive set-ups: the rider bursts through titles which flap apart down the middle like saloon doors, a mass of letters are corralled by the rider trailing a line of credits, and in the most ingenious little gag the titles are broken up into various pieces and colors to represent mountains, cacti and the sun as the diminutive rider, tucked away in a lower corner of the screen, gallops past. The music which accompanies this impromptu journey is ripped from a lost page of Ennio Morricone's notebook. We've heard these clanky, shimmering guitars, driving percussion and whistling tones before; they are the sounds of the desert and provide the perfect bridge from the opening sequence into the main narrative.
The scene opens with a close-up of a train bathed in steam, lurking amidst the fog like some ancient monument. The "camera" begins to track backwards as we hear the clanging sound of workers in the laborious process of building a railroad track. The track continues past a man's shoulder and is brought to a halt by a hand reaching into the frame to touch that shoulder, a perfect way to engage the player on both aesthetic and narrative planes. The next sequence introduces the viewer to the "big boss" type, the menacingly mustached representative of corporate American darkness who is determined to have his way no matter what. The "camera" pans along behind a row of faceless capitalist goons while "Mr. Shadow" continues his rant. This expressionist scene beautifully illustrates and plays on the old duality of the Western, the parallel between good and evil, or, as has been seen in the more complex Westerns such as Peckinpath's The Wild Bunch, a jaded, battered honor as opposed to the real world.
The next scene opens on a red landscape (harkening to the violence to come), a farm resting comfortably in the distance. Beneath a massive parachute of green leaves, someone can be seen swinging on a tree swing. A little girl's voice floats across the windswept plain. We are finally introduced to the hero, Marshall James Anderson and his family. It is the idyllic setting and another of the Western's often used prototypes, a happy scene about to be disrupted. Two villains lurk on a nearby hill, watching as the Marshall leaves. The peaceful scene is further emphasized by the animators skillful manipulation. In a beautiful sequence the creators show us three different angles of the girl on her swing. At first we see her from the side, then from above and finally from behind as she watches the villainous cut throats approach the farm. It is a touching series of "shots," the colors and the lullaby like music presenting a vision of paradise about to collapse.
We discover that Marshall Anderson was forced to retire after killing a men who he knew to be guilty but who he did not bring in for a trial. The creators give Anderson a Clint Eastwood voice and his chainsaw sculpture features to boot; he also has Eastwood's trademark bleakness. When a shopkeeper reminds the Marshall that he never killed an innocent man, Anderson remarks "I never met an innocent man." My goodness...
The scene shifts to a tracking forward shot of the farm house now painted, along with the landscape, a deep red, backed by a deep blue sky of twilight. Within we watch shadows move across the wall enacting the savage attack on Anderson's family. Another expressionist moment which effectively (and unexpectedly) underplays the actual display of violence to rely on the power of suggestion. The Marshall returns riding in the darkness only to find his house in flames, burning in the distance. He finds his wife near death and, colored in the red-orange-yellow glow of the fire, the symbol of the anger tearing him apart, Anderson has a vision.
We watch as he relives the killing of a man, presumably the one who he was fired for shooting. The sequence is murky and shifts like grease splattered sand; we are peering into a man's darkness. For this moment alone Outlaws stands apart from the pack as a significant creation.
Outlaws beautifully adheres to the conventions of the Western. The landscape is always revolving in expressionist turns to match the emotional state of the characters and the narrative. The characters are drawn from the eternal archive of archtypes: the jaded hero, the sinister power monger and the eccentric killers (which in this case is represented by the bespectacled, Bible quoting Doctor). The plot follows the powerful drive of revenge and gives the player something to hold on to while playing, giving them a sense of the importance of the quest. Outlaws is a wonderful example of what the medium is capable of and, unlike in last week's example of Jedi Knight, LucasArts manages to pay honor to the epic monuments by building a little temple in their shadows.
- Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez is a regular contributor to loonygames.
Credits: Pixel Obscura logo illustrated and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. Pixel Obscura is © 1998 Josh Vasquez. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited...we know where you live.