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.