Have you ever noticed that a lot of post-apocalyptic themed films, videogames, books, and other entertainment media splice American Western elements in? Not only that, but have you noticed that these splices make a lot of thematic sense? The mix of Western-style clothing, weaponry, and storytelling with the desperation, desolation, and rebirth of society in the Post-Apocalypse is a prevailing trope in post-apocalyptic fiction, particularly in videogames, and for good reason.
It’s really quite simple: the contexts of the wild-west and the post-apocalypse have a great deal in common. The post-apocalypse reintroduces the frontier to society, except instead of the lawless, undeveloped, untamed frontier of the Wild West, we find the frontier of the post-apocalyptic or nuclear wasteland. Equally anarchic, the wasteland is a frontier reborn from the familiar, redefining cities as undiscovered ruins, highways as untamed, littered paths, and power as violence. Emptiness in landscape and the necessity of the threat and execution of violence to keep order (or to obtain power) are particularly central to this crossover. Bandits occupy both spaces equally, and the environment as well as the creatures that inhabit it are an equal threat. Neat huh?
Films like Mad Max and books like The Road and A Boy and his Dog illustrate similarities in how their (wild-western and post-apocalyptic) stories are told, in the clothes characters wear, and in the actions of those characters. A grey area of morality is often highlighted as everyone looks out for themselves and everyone does what they must to survive in the hostile environment. The greater good is often challenged by the characters’ desires, and whether actions are taken to benefit all or just the protagonist’s will (sometimes both), violence is always a culmination or solution.
Lets check out some games that suggest this trend:
Fallout: New Vegas (Bethesda)
Just look at the cover above. There's a figure in a duster carrying a revolver. The game already lets you know it has some heavy Western influences. Talk about a merger, even the locale (regardless of its post-nuclear status) just rings wild-west. A prison break and a countryside overrun by escaped inmates directly opposed to the law? Check. A town taken over by outlaws and in desperate need of a new sheriff, a perceived as penultimate authority by its ability to use violence? Check. A local populace that would rather keep to their own way of keeping law—through threat of violence—than surrender autonomy to a foreign power (think local ranchers and towns against corporate interests like railroads and monopolies)? Check again! Heck, even the character you create and grow can be customized to be more effective with wild-west themed weapons like hatchets, dynamite, revolvers, and lever-action shotguns and rifles! Add in the ability to make “evil” and “good” choices in a world of grey—everything you do affects someone—and the wild-west is incarnate within the nuclear fallout. Cowboy hats and leather trenchcoats are included.
Rage (id Software)
A less direct reference, Rage tips its proverbial cowboy hat to the wild-west in the form of artistic design and basic themes. One of the main establishments has a sheriff in garb that, though certainly ad-hoc as post-apocalyptic dress goes, is more akin to the wild-west than science fiction. The mayor wears a top-hat and a blazer. Bandits claim territory and terrorize anyone and everyone. Wild creatures will eat you (mutants replace mountain lions). One of the weapons you receive is a revolver rather than a modern or science-fiction pistol. A bow and arrow? How about a crossbow! Okay, that’s a stretch, but Rage feels pretty Western, anyway.
Wasteland and Wasteland 2
Here we have another post-apocalyptic setting in Las Vegas. The original Wasteland’s protagonists were Desert Rangers and conducted themselves quite like a posse of sheriffs. The title “Desert Ranger” itself alludes to the wild-west tropes of the desert and the ranger: a lone gunman with a chip on his/her shoulder attuned to the wild landscape. The sequel is practically a retelling of the same story, in the same setting.
The Last of Us
This title feels like a western in many senses, particularly those I've already covered, but the soundtrack itself—minimalistic, focused on spacious percussion, synth drones, and acoustic guitar—helps give the game a very western feel to it. Check out a previous post for the review of the soundtrack.
Are there any other examples that you can come up with?