This article was originally published in the Den of Geek Special Edition Magazine. Click here to view the full issue!
Illustration by Hannah Kneisley.
We know that the romantic image of the Wild West in pop culture is a lie.
If there were ever cowboys in white hats whose guns only spoke when the law’s justice remained silent, they paled in comparison to the number of average men prospecting for just enough money to get by. For every outlaw who died at the hands of Wyatt Earp, there were many more who died at the hands of a doctor unable to amputate a limb or treat an infection.
Despite our knowledge of the hardships of the era, we still gravitate toward Western fantasies. In 2010, Rockstar Games released Red Dead Redemption, an open-world Wild West epic that is often regarded as one of the greatest games ever made. It is believed to have sold somewhere between 14 million and 16 million units, according to the Cowen & Company research firm. This makes it one of the top 50 best selling games of all time.
And it’s not just video games that are capitalizing on this revitalized infatuation. In 2016, HBO debuted Westworld, a drama about the adventures of rich tourists in an artificial theme park designed to resemble the romantic image of the Old West. Across all platforms, the series drew an average of 12 million viewers during its first season, a record-breaker for any HBO freshman effort.
These two entries into the long-running history of the Western myth are especially interesting because of the nature of the era in which they made their debut. They’ve achieved great success at a time when the average person is well aware that the Wild West fantasy is a lie. In fact, these works almost glorify the worst parts of that lie by ironically perpetuating racist portrayals of Native Americans. Their success is far from an anomaly, however, and we cannot simply write them off as guilty pleasures. No, the success of Red Dead Redemption and Westworld is based on an often unspoken factor: our desire for control.
We live in an age of infinite possibilities hindered by a burgeoning belief among young people that they are more powerless than ever. In 2016, the unemployment rate for millennials in America was 12.8 percent compared to the national average of 4.9 percent. A 2016 AP-NORC poll showed that 55 percent of American voters felt helpless about the upcoming election. One in five millennials admit to battling symptoms of depression.
The feeling of being in control cannot be underestimated. An extensive study conducted by Rutgers University Professor Lauren A. Leotti and her colleagues found that those inexperienced with exerting control in their daily lives may cease to believe that they are able to “produce desired results.” This same study suggested that those who lack the perception of control may seek to gain it “in any way possible.” As ominous as that sounds, the key word in that observation is “perception.” Rather than actual control, Leotti argues, “Perception of control is likely adaptive for survival.”
In terms of perceiving one’s own self-made control, there are few historical venues more significant than the Old West. The American West was founded by those tired of the lack of opportunities in the industrialized east. Any man could claim 160 acres of land by working on it for five years. Later, the gold rush inspired hundreds of thousands of people to forgo traditional labor in hopes of striking it rich with just one great find.
Call them fools, but many of those who went west did so because they realized that in a land comparatively free of aristocratic influence, traditional law, and strict government oversight, they had a better shot at achieving whatever they wished. Let the government worry about manifest destiny; they had control over their own destinies. If the foundation of American romanticism is the so-called “American Dream,” which states that every citizen has an equal opportunity for success through hard work and determination, then it’s not hard to see why so many have fondly looked upon the Wild West as the definitive time period in American history.
In Red Dead Redemption, control is more than an idea. Control is quite literally in your hands. You guide protagonist John Marston on a journey to claim his freedom by hunting down the outlaws he used to run with. In reality, however, players often gravitate to places just beyond the game’s narrative boundaries.
Red Dead Redemption offers an exceptional story for those who wish to pursue it, but many will find themselves drawn to bar brawls, gunfights, and aimless nights spent wandering the open range. In many ways, the game’s astounding success can be traced back to the fact that it was the first successful piece of entertainment of its kind that allowed you to live out your own Wild West adventure rather than serve as a passenger on someone else’s journey.
This same philosophy is very much in play throughout HBO’s Westworld. Many characters in the show claim that the appeal of the park is that it allows you to feed your baser instincts while fulfilling some vague dream of being a cowboy. If that’s the case, then why spend the money to go to Westworld instead of a brothel or a bar? Because Westworld allows you to truly become someone else, whose fate is entirely in your hands.
The great irony is that many of Westworld’s guests are, as Red Dead’s Marston put it, born “rich and dumb enough to enjoy their lives.” They have the resources to be who they say they want to be in both Westworld and their world. Many guests use the park as a simple playground, but others are drawn to the outskirts just like Red Dead’s players. They seek an adventure that feels unique to them.
While it’s true that the off-the-beaten-path attractions of Westworld and Red Dead are still the machinations of some unseen creator, neither the gamers who play Red Dead, the fictional guests who venture into Westworld, nor even the audience who simply watches the Westworld series, seem to mind. Why? Because it’s the perception of control that we seek in escapism. We are willing to buy into the fantasy of the Wild West so long as the source material somehow acknowledges that we as the viewer/player have willingly accepted the reality of that illusion. It is that quality of deliberate and accepted illusion which binds Red Dead to Westworld, and identifies them as the start of a new breed of Western fantasy.
In a strange way, this recent trend brings the appeal of the Western full circle. Remember that Western films of the 1930s and ‘40s, along with early dime store novels, were often quite absurd. They frequently treated folk tales as fact and starred square-jawed heroes capable of shooting eight evil men with six bullets. Yet audiences fell in love with these movies because they allowed them to escape overwhelmingly real terrors in the world. It wasn’t until the 1960s and ‘70s that a changing social structure inspired more filmmakers to start creating Westerns full of blood, anti-heroes, and moral ambiguity. Anything less was seen as a lie.
Now a new breed of Westerns is finding a way to acknowledge the fantasy without hindering our enjoyment of the genre. Red Dead Redemption draws more inspiration from the comparatively carefree Westerns of John Wayne’s earliest Oaters and the absurd Spaghetti epics of the ‘60s than it does from ultra-dramatic works like Unforgiven, a drama which Clint Eastwood felt said all that he needed to say about the Western. It is a dramatic game, but it celebrates the spirit of the Western more than it denounces it.
When the game does speak out against the era (its 1911 setting affords us the chance to see how antiquated the Old West had become in comparison to the rapidly approaching future), it is usually through the quick-witted remarks of Marston, whose observations on what is and what will be are almost too on-point. When Marston quips that “there won’t be any freedom” while there are guns and money, he does so with the authority of someone able to look back upon this time period with the clarity that only hindsight grants. It is almost as if he was designed to serve as the ultimate avatar for a modern player whose own knowledge of this era instills an attitude that borders on cynical. We can treat Red Dead as a power fantasy not just because of the opportunities it offers but because its attitude so often echoes our own.
Red Dead openly touches upon this subject matter, but Westworld is built on it. Characters in the show often find themselves hopelessly compelled by the park’s attractions even though they all know it is just a grand stage, and that their choices have been predicted to some degree by a grand overseer. They know it’s all a game, but it’s a game they want to play. It is that quality which enables these characters to speak so loudly to the viewers. Our favorite characters are often the ones who would play the game as we would. This includes those who latch on to the park’s “hosts” because they desire to see them break free of their shackles in this world of possibilities. In the end, it turns out that even those who rooted for a rebellion against the system were part of the larger game at play.
As tempting as it is to recommend that we cast aside our cultural fondness for this time period and the horrors it represents, this new breed of Old West power fantasy does instill hope that we as a people are becoming more able—and willing—to separate reality from fiction. That we may take what we need from the illusions of the West for whatever entertainment value they may hold and not lose our knowledge of the reality of this era. If we have evolved as the Western has, it is in our willingness to accept our popular perception of the West for what it is just as we can accept the perception of control in lieu of actual totality.
Or perhaps we all just harbor a desire to traverse open plains with our rifles and ponies. The frightening, exciting, and perhaps even inevitable future of the genre may very well involve an opportunity to discover that answer for ourselves, too.