Telling Tales


Stories are impor­tant. They’re older than lan­guage and as wide­spread as human­i­ty. Stories are how we attempt to rec­on­cile the gulf between our inter­nal selves and the exter­nal world; they are the bridges between indi­vid­u­als. Even the sim­plest piece of human com­mu­ni­ca­tion, take a cave paint­ing for exam­ple, says an excep­tion­al­ly pow­er­ful series of things- ‘I was here’, ‘I saw this ani­mal’, ‘This ani­mal is impor­tant to me’, ‘I’ve fig­ured out how to use paints’, ‘I’m aware that other peo­ple may see this paint­ing and think of me’, ‘It is impor­tant enough that other peo­ple think of me that I will take the time to paint’. Stories bypass the bod­i­ly lim­i­ta­tions of being human, they can be in many places at once, they can live for­ev­er, they evolve and adapt with­out dying.

Games aren’t known for the com­plex­i­ty of their sto­ries. By and large they tend to be side-thoughts, func­tion­al excus­es for where the devel­op­ers want­ed to take their game­play. There are the odd gems here and there, of course, but for what is osten­si­bly a nar­ra­tive medi­um there is a wor­ry­ing lack of sophis­ti­ca­tion. Imagine, then, my sur­prise when in a cut-price down­load­able Wild West FPS, the lat­est in a series that has ranged from decent enough to utter shite, I found what may well be one of the most nuanced uses of nar­ra­tive struc­ture I have ever seen. This, ladies and gents, is Call of Juarez: Gunslinger.

This arti­cle won’t be too spoi­lerif­ic but I will be look­ing in some detail at the first level of Gunslinger, which is avail­able to down­load as a demo. Alternatively you could take a look at this playthrough, com­plete with inex­plic­a­ble attempts to mount a cow. Or if you don’t feel like either, read on! I’ll give a lit­tle sum­ma­ry of the action.

In the game’s pro­logue, Silas Greaves, noto­ri­ous boun­ty hunter of the past, walks into a saloon in Abilene. In the bar, Greaves regales the other patrons with his sto­ries in exchange for booze, with one par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed party- the naïve young Dwight. This is where the play­er steps in, tak­ing con­trol of Greaves in the past to fight his way through Pat Garrett’s armed mili­tia who are in a shoot out with none other than Jessie James. We briefly fight along­side James and then make off alone in search of a mys­te­ri­ous fig­ure Greaves has sworn to kill. Approaching a barn we pass some chick­ens and a scare­crow and inside find Garrett him­self. From here Dwight takes over the nar­ra­tion for a moment, fin­ish­ing the story as he read it in a Dime Novel- Greaves and Garrett go ‘toe to toe’ in a duel. We play this duel as the first of a recur­ring mini-game in which the play­er must use one ana­logue stick to focus on the oppo­nent whilst con­trol­ling his gun hand with the other. The object, of course, is to shoot and not be shot. Once the play­er has beat­en Garrett, Greaves once again takes con­trol of the nar­ra­tion. That’s not how it went at all! The game rewinds, vis­i­bly, to the chick­ens and the scare­crow and we once again enter the barn, only to be sucker-punched by Garret. Greaves blacks out and the level ends.

The most inter­est­ing and uncom­mon aspect of this scene is the rewind. This is the first exam­ple we encounter of a theme that will repeat through­out the game, in which Greaves’ uncer­tain and unre­li­able nar­ra­tion caus­es the world to shift and divert. At times, whole sec­tions of game­play will revert to an ear­li­er point as Greaves decides that’s not what hap­pened, at oth­ers the very land­scape will reassem­ble to reveal a con­ve­nient lad­der or door­way through which to escape an impos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion. The over­all effect, of course, is to paint Greaves as a typ­i­cal Unreliable Narrator, but it also opens a series of inter­est­ing lines of thought we might pur­sue.

Consider, if you don’t mind a bit of gram­mar talk, the tense in which the game sit­u­ates itself. A nar­ra­tor using the past tense is hard­ly unusu­al in any sto­ry­telling for­mat, in fact it’s the norm. But the norm is also for that story to flow con­tin­u­ous­ly through begin­ning, mid­dle and end, cre­at­ing the sen­sa­tion that the play­er (or indeed lis­ten­er, view­er, read­er and so on) is inhab­it­ing or observ­ing the pro­tag­o­nist dur­ing the events described. Take the orig­i­nal God of War, in which Kratos’ adven­ture is nar­rat­ed in the past tense by Athena, yet in play­ing we feel very much in the moment, we do not regard the action as being a pre­vi­ous event. In such cases the past becomes the present with the nar­ra­tion echo­ing down from some indef­i­nite future. In a direct refusal of this con­ceit, Gunslinger puts a big ol’ road­block between then and now by dis­turb­ing the flow of its nar­ra­tive with these moments of revi­sion and at times, it is hint­ed, plain inven­tion. The play­er can­not sus­pend her belief regard­ing these events when the actu­al fab­ric of time and space is being treat­ed so dis­re­spect­ful­ly. Only in one place can some­thing like that occur- the brain. The game’s shift­ing real­i­ty sit­u­ates its nar­ra­tive very much in the mem­o­ry and imag­i­na­tion of Greaves, there­fore main­tain­ing a link with the present tense moment of the saloon in Abilene, 1910. Reinforcing this are the reg­u­lar inter­jec­tions from Greaves’ audi­ence, always attract­ing the player’s atten­tion back to the actu­al telling of the story. Never are we play­ing as Greaves in the late 1800’s as he cavorts mur­der­ous­ly across the Wild West, we are always Greaves’ mem­o­ry of him­self.

Except, we’re not. Gunslinger may in fact be doing some­thing much more com­plex with its nar­ra­tive than I at first gave it cred­it for. As I’ve out­lined, the sto­ry­telling is led by Silas Greaves and the actu­al moments of play­er con­trol are sit­u­at­ed with­in Greaves’ per­spec­tive dur­ing the events he describes. But some­thing in these early moments of the game doesn’t quite ring true to that. When Dwight takes over the nar­ra­tion the game fol­lows his ver­sion of events up until Greaves cor­rects him, set­ting up that inter­est­ing moment when the game rewinds on itself. What if we aren’t play­ing from Greaves’ per­spec­tive at all? What if we’re play­ing from Dwight’s? This actu­al­ly explains the revi­sions and rearrange­ments that hap­pen in real-time dur­ing the game equal­ly well, if not bet­ter, than play­ing from Greaves’ own view­point. They become an active process with­in the mind of Dwight in response to the way Greaves’ is telling his story. Thus, for Dwight, the ‘truth’ was that Greaves and Garrett fought a duel that day up until Greaves cor­rects him. The rewind we see is Dwight’s mind active­ly revis­ing that truth and over­writ­ing it with new infor­ma­tion. Likewise, Dwight’s imag­i­na­tion can be seen react­ing to Greaves’ words as and when new infor­ma­tion comes to light. Later, Greaves will some­times find him­self trapped or ambushed with nowhere to run when he’ll sud­den­ly spot an exit. What the play­er sees is a gap in the rocks or a lad­der or such­like phys­i­cal­ly emerge where there was no such thing before. Now, from Greaves’ per­spec­tive the geog­ra­phy would be constant- that gap would have always been there, he just wouldn’t have noticed it. But in Dwight’s imag­i­na­tion the gap can­not exist until it is men­tioned, hence the demon­stra­tion of it com­ing into exis­tence.

Gunslinger is there­fore doing some­thing actu­al­ly very com­plex and rather sophis­ti­cat­ed with its nar­ra­tive struc­ture. The moments that you play are the evolv­ing recre­ations of one man’s expe­ri­ences with­in the imag­i­na­tion of anoth­er man, based on the tes­ti­mo­ny of that first man. That’s before you even add on the fact that both those men are fic­tion­al and the only one hav­ing any actu­al expe­ri­ences is you, so that the only gen­uine expe­ri­ence is the very one cast into doubt by the game itself. The game is toy­ing with lay­ers of per­spec­tive, using some neat lit­tle nar­ra­tive tricks to dis­turb the very foun­da­tions from which its own story is built.

The con­se­quence of all this is a game that fol­lows the BANG BANG BULLET TIME BOSS BATTLE REPEAT for­mu­la but man­ages to be about some­thing far more cap­ti­vat­ing. Gunslinger is fas­ci­nat­ed with sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, per­cep­tion and the flex­i­bil­i­ty of truth. It’s a story about sto­ry­telling. As Robert Rath observed with typ­i­cal astute­ness in his Critical Intel col­umn, this is a very appro­pri­ate path for a game about the Wild West to fol­low. Its slot­ting of the fic­tion­al into the fac­tu­al, (there was a Jessie James, there wasn’t a Silas Greaves, there was a Wild West, it wasn’t what we think it was) is a reflec­tion of the appro­pri­a­tion of truth that exists in all recount­ing of human expe­ri­ence, but has been par­tic­u­lar­ly notice­able in the Tall Tales of this peri­od of American his­to­ry. Rath also notes with inter­est the col­lectible cards that are scat­tered through­out the game, pro­vid­ing a more serious-faced his­tor­i­cal account of the peo­ple, places and events that fea­ture. These 4th wall-smashing cards once again under­line the fal­li­bil­i­ty of the account we’re being given of the game’s events, but also that of the received wis­dom regard­ing the peri­od. Heroes had dark sides, vil­lains were per­haps mis­rep­re­sent­ed and, so help me god, peo­ple shoot­ing other peo­ple actu­al­ly isn’t all that roman­tic and rarely, if ever, jus­ti­fi­able.

Gunslinger’s plot itself isn’t much to write home about, a fair­ly bland tale of revenge with heav­i­ly sign­post­ed plot twists and some fun cameos from the big names of the Wild West (lack­ing Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday, to my regret). The game’s tri­umph, (and a tri­umph it is), is an impres­sive meta-narrative sleight-of-hand that places the play­er simul­ta­ne­ous­ly in var­i­ous dif­fer­ent posi­tions along the process of the cre­ation of a story. We hear Greaves’ ver­sion of the tale whilst play­ing Dwight’s visu­al­iza­tion of that tale all the while read­ing out-of-character cards that demon­stra­bly con­tra­dict the very tale we’re play­ing. The nar­ra­tion is set in 1910 and, as I’ve men­tioned, the game never lets us for­get that that’s the sit­u­a­tion in the back­ground, but mean­while the events we play are from much ear­li­er. However, again, as they’re demon­stra­bly shown as false works of second-hand imag­i­na­tion, one could argue that the whole game actu­al­ly takes place in 1910 in Dwight’s head, moment by moment. This sub­tle set-up both presents Greaves’ story and draws our atten­tion to its man­u­fac­ture, par­tic­u­lar­ly the flaws of an unre­li­able nar­ra­tor and a lis­ten­er for whom the story is evolv­ing ad hoc. It’s not hard to imag­ine Dwight’s later story of the griz­zled old boun­ty hunter who walked into the bar, which his lis­ten­ers in turn imag­ine and adapt, cre­at­ing an ever-shifting nar­ra­tive which flows, unsta­ble, from mind to mind. Call of Juarez isn’t about a griz­zled old boun­ty hunter, it’s not even about the day Dwight met him. It’s about how sto­ries are born, and how they live.


Jim Ralph

About Jim Ralph

Jim Ralph currently resides in sunny Winchester, England. He'd love to hear from you, personally, with any thoughts on his writing or lucrative job offers.