Critical Intel

Critical Intel
History and Legend in Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

Robert Rath | 25 Jul 2013 16:00
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In Gunslinger, Silas's massive exaggerations and invented narratives fit comfortably into the tall tale tradition. The fact that he takes the concept to an extreme - battling literal armies of brigands and Native Americans - not only reinforces the falsehoods inherent in gunfighter narratives but also serves as a device to explain game mechanics (bullet time and waves of enemies, for instance) that would never happen in reality. It's an impressive feat of narrative gymnastics that allows Techland to make an arcade-style historical shooting gallery without misleading the audience.

There are some disadvantages to this approach, though. One of them is that all of the real historical information comes in the form of collectables hidden throughout the game, and many of them are a little too tucked-away for such fast-paced gameplay. Players could easily get sucked into chaining attacks and miss the historical information, negating the game's main theme. Also, designing Wild West outlaws after legend rather than historical evidence means that some characters can come off as less interesting than they were in real life. John Wesley Hardin comes to mind in particular, since he walks into the game with little introduction and his historical information card isn't particularly well researched. His visual appearance is great - unlike many of the historical characters in Gunslinger, Hardin's character looks pretty similar to extant photographs - and he even retains his signature cross-armed pistol draw, but other than a reference to his gambling habit there are few clues to his character.

This is unfortunate, since Hardin is so fascinating. Hardin was too young to fight in the Civil War with his older brothers. His anger at the Confederacy's defeat, and his inability to take part in the conflict, seems to have been a major driver in his angry, violent tendencies - a fact the game never mentions. Unfortunately, it's not the only research failure in the game's background information. Several "Nuggets of Truth" contain incorrect information that could've been easily caught with simple fact checking. For example, the game describes Allan Pinkerton, founder of Pinkerton National Detective Agency (which we discussed previously in the context of BioShock Infinite) as an Irish immigrant, when in fact he was Scottish. Likewise, dime novels became popular in the 1860s, not the 1960s. These small mistakes are part of an ongoing problem for the Polish Techland, which has previously had trouble with English-language text, particularly in the atrocious, racist and embarrassing Call of Juarez: The Cartel, where the subtitles sometimes came completely unmoored from the dialogue. Textual typos are a small quibble and easily fixable, but it serves to undermine the trustworthiness of the game's historical information.

Despite those stumbles, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger succeeds at being a fun, gunpowder-fueled romp across the Old West. The fact that Techland went the extra mile to create an interesting narrator and engaged with historical trends is just fudge on the sundae. Rather than go with another gruff, no-nonsense protagonist, Techland created a man who was all nonsense, who not only makes the game world richer but is clearly of his time and place, indulging in false gunfighter narratives and embracing the wild hyperbole of the American tall tale. It's a storytelling coup, one of the most fun games of the year and goes a long way toward redeeming the brand after the disaster that was Call of Juarez: The Cartel. Indeed, it's amazing what can happen in a game when historical settings and ideas are a foreground, not a backdrop.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher who has filed his last six columns from six different time zones. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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