A saloon. An old man with a gun. A bright-eyed kid who has read too many dime novels. You know this setup, you’ve seen it before in a dozen Western movies – but that’s not where Call of Juarez: Gunslinger goes. Most recent films demythologize the Old West – showing the kid that being a gunfighter isn’t so great after all. Gunslinger runs the opposite direction, bringing us face-to-face with the legends of the West as remembered by creaky-jointed bounty hunter Silas Greaves. That sounds like the game throws history out the back of the stagecoach, but it doesn’t. Gunslinger strikes a balance between myth and fact, becoming a hybrid of American tall tale and a history lesson. It’s fascinating and fun to play, but even more than that, the game’s central conceit – Silas’ shaky narration of the events – teaches us in no uncertain terms about how the legends of the Old West formed through propaganda, hyperbole and greed.
Gunslinger begins in 1910 in Abilene, Kansas. Silas Greaves walks into a saloon – the dusty, dilapidated kind that’s embedded in the popular consciousness – and begins to tell his life story in exchange for drinks. Silas is a bounty hunter, known by reputation as a hard man, and the patrons are only too happy to listen to his stories. First the old coot launches into a tale about rescuing Billy the Kid. Next he’s facing down Jesse James and chasing the Wild Bunch. At one point, he guns down a hundred Apache warriors. His incredulous audience starts to question details, then challenge his version of events and finally dismiss him as a whisky-pickled madman. Silas plows forward and the story gets wilder, with his narration reshaping the game world as he remembers details and sidesteps contradictions. Entrances appear and disappear in canyon walls and ladders drop from the sky. At times, Silas jumps backward in time to correct misstatements or show what might’ve happened if he took one path rather than another. By the end, his tales become so unbelievable that it’s unclear whether the old bounty hunter is conning everyone or merely insane.
Techland’s decision to cast Silas as an unreliable narrator is brilliant. Not only do sudden changes of scenery and timeline give the gameplay a note of comic unpredictability, but the way Silas’ tale clashes with his the bar patrons’ memories – not to mention the historical notes the game uses as collectables – allows Techland to play with the legends while indicating that the portrayals are fiction. Basically, they play both sides of the fence. Billy the Kid gets introduced as a rockstar gunfighter who racked up “21 killed by age 21,” but his historical note states he only killed between four and nine people, some in legal or semi-legal circumstances. Jesse James can stop a train with his stare, but rather than a heroic Robin Hood, he’s shown in the historical note to be an ex-Confederate guerilla still fighting the Civil War (indeed, the James-Younger gang even used KKK masks for one train robbery). By showing this gap between the popular imagination and historical reality, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger says a lot about how legends were created in the Old West.
Postmodern westerns like Unforgiven love to play myths against reality. However, in most cases the theme centers around a grizzled gunfighter reluctantly taking a young admirer under his wing and teaching him that his dime novel dreams are a fantasy. Gunfighter reverses that dynamic. Silas promotes and creates his own legend, and in doing that, the game is actually fairly true to history. Most stories about lawmen and outlaws in the Old West are exaggerations – compelling propaganda shaped by the figures themselves as well as by their friends and enemies. Billy the Kid was an amiable but troubled 21 year-old who made bad choices, but when Pat Garrett gunned him down, the lawman’s subsequent book both served as a justification for the killing and to elevate Billy’s reputation – and by extension, Garrett’s. According to his own words, Garrett wrote the book “to correct the thousand false statements which have appeared in the public newspapers and in yellow-covered, cheap novels,” most of which, incidentally, cast Garrett as hiding in the shadows and gunning Billy down when he was unarmed.
Jesse and Frank James were merely ex-Confederate guerillas robbing banks – war criminals who’d killed and scalped civilians and unarmed Union troops during the war – until Kansas City Times editor and Confederate veteran John Newman Edwards decided to make the brothers a vehicle to espouse his anti-Reconstruction beliefs. Edwards published letters from Jesse and celebrated the brothers as heroes, lionizing them in editorials with hyperbolic titles like “The Chivalry of Crime,” where he compared them to the Knights of the Round Table and suggested that Northern authorities were the real criminals. The overstatement could become extreme. One Times issue included a twenty-page supplement of James-Younger Gang hero-worship that cast Jesse’s armed, violent Confederate insurrectionists as sympathetic victims – and Jesse was only too happy to take on the role, as it meant he could shelter with newfound sympathizers. Dime novels, cheap fiction magazines telling partially or wholly fabricated tales of the West, also took up the banner and pumped out stories about famous outlaws like Billy and the James-Younger Gang. Dime novel authors had a fairly cavalier attitude toward veracity, and had few qualms about changing facts to make their heroes more sympathetic or inventing exciting escapes and gunfights that would sell more books.
Other gunfighters took their legends directly into their own hands. John Wesley Hardin wrote his memoirs as a way to justify his enormous body count as a gunfighter, casting himself as a proponent of individual freedom and southern honor rather than a cold-blooded killer. According to Hardin, he lived by a gentleman’s code where he refused to be slighted or dominated, but unlike the British honor culture we’ve discussed before, Hardin took it as his gentlemanly duty to kill any man who crossed him. He killed trail hands he had fights with, multiple Texas State Policemen and had a penchant for murdering racial minorities. Once, when he was getting mugged, he threw his money on the ground then shot the thief in the back of the head when the man bent to pick it up. Many of the times Hardin claims to have killed in self-defense, he was actually pursuing the people he wound up murdering, or purposefully boxed himself into a situation where he’d be “forced” to respond with gunfire. However, many of the stories in Hardin’s memoirs are probably apocryphal – he claims 42 killings in the book, but newspaper accounts only record 27 of them. Some incidents, like a claim he bushwacked three Union soldiers and killed all of them, are impossible to confirm and may never have happened. In other words, Hardin may have padded his kill count to increase his reputation.
This sort of identity creation and promotion was a major trend among Old West personalities in the 1870s through the 1900s, and probably saw its ultimate form in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. The show was a riding and roping exhibition with some shooting and “historical” reenactments, usually ending with reenactment of Little Bighorn. The show toured America and Europe, recreating a false facsimile of the West for the masses while telling “true” stories from “Buffalo” Bill Cody’s former life as an Indian scout. But Bill wasn’t the only attraction – from Annie Oakley to Calamity Jane and Sitting Bull, the show had an entire stable of performers telling untrue or partially true stories about their pasts in order increase ticket sales.
All of this was, overall, accepted as a part of the American “tall tale,” a genre where the storyteller was allowed to take liberties with the facts and exaggerate, provided it served to make the story more entertaining and pass the time on the entertainment-starved frontier. In the 1880s and 90s, there were even social clubs where members were expected to tell inflated and untrue tales as a condition of membership, often known as “bragging contests.” One of these, the McGinty Club of El Paso, had a tradition that when a story became too over-the-top, the audience would shout at the teller, “But did you die?” at which point the storyteller would answer that yes, he had indeed been killed – an absurdist way of admitting the tale was a lie.
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.