Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Bang! and the mythology of the Old West

The "Old West" of American history is one of the more remarkable episodes of cultural myth-making in human history. The height of the era is generally considered to last from the end of the Civil War until the beginning of the 20th Century, although the entire story of Manifest Destiny and the settlement of North America naturally took longer.

The Old West plays a big role in the self-image of Americans and its image abroad and holds a continued fascination here and overseas. Despite only lasting a few decades in real life, the Old West has proven to be an inexhaustible source for storytelling for more than a century.

One of the most unusual characteristics of the Old West's mythology is that the myth-making was contemporaneous with the historical events. Even as settlers poured west dime novels chronicled their adventures in fictionalized form and actual people often featured in the stories. William "Buffalo Bill" Cody actually organized a hugely popular travelling show in the late 1800s that included famous folks from the Old West such as Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull. His Wild West show even performed in Europe "before the crowned heads." Perhaps Cody's show explains the continuing European interest in the period.

It's ironic that so much of the myth-making is centered around the lawlessness of the frontier. Indeed, many of the most notorious characters were simple criminals, members of nothing more romantic than a gang. Murder and robbery figure prominently and violence was common. When there wasn't civil violence to contend with there were constant flareups between Indians and settlers as they native population was inexorably pushed back.

The whole era is obviously a fertile one for conflict games, and there have been some notable ones over the years. While there aren't an overwhelming number of game titles with Old West themes, many of those that have appeared are quite popular.

Although based on actual historical events, it seems that games about the Old West can't escape the influence of the mythology. Although published by a wargame company, for example, Gunslinger admittedly includes a lot of Hollywood and dime novel style aspects. Yet Gunslinger's wargame roots keep it pretty close to the real thing. The recent Cowboys seems to aim to be a Gunslinger Lite, and very much in the tradition of man-to-man skirmish wargames.

At the other extreme, the Munchkin-series card game The Good, The Bad and the Munchkin just tacks Old West terms onto the tried and true RPG-based "Dungeon Crawl" game. It's mildly amusing but still a pretty big stretch.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the American Old West is global culture is the prominent role played by Italian filmmakers in its interpretation with the famous "spaghetti Westerns."

So it shouldn't be any surprise that an Italian game designer created a card game based on the Old West that capitalized on that tradition to create something that's turned out to be a big winner.

Bang! doesn't show much resemblance to the actual Old West, but it does capture a lot of the flavor of the Old West as seen through the lens of Spaghetti Western directors and it ends up being a loving depiction of that genre.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not a big fan of Westerns or cowboy-themed games, so it should come as no surprise that I'm not disappointed at all that popular culture is now almost devoid of references to this period. Kids don't play Cowboys and Indians anymore (just as well, it never came out well for the Indians), and children are much more likely to have a lightsaber or a toy hunting rifle than a six-shooter and hat. Very few movies (and no big-budget films) involve the Olde West, no television programs other than those popping up like sickly weeds between "Secret Weapons Of Hitler's Sex Life" and "Top 10 Tanks Of The Wehrmacht" on the Hitler Channel.

    Me, I liked Bang! well enough the first time I played it, but it's an era that we'll forget in about twenty years when all of the kids that ran around pre-Sputnik are gone or can't remember anymore. And that's exactly the time when the Old West will get hot again, because if there's one thing marketers do well, it's recycle ideas ad nauseum.

    One thing genres like this make me wonder is how our current era will be portrayed in the popular culture in thirty years (think "Swingtown" and "That 70's Show"). It seems thats about the length of time we can look back and laugh at our hair and clothing without cringing.