Critical Intel

Critical Intel
History and Legend in Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

Robert Rath | 25 Jul 2013 12:00
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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.

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