Westerado: a Roguelikesque Spaghetti Western

I haven’t played all of the games in adultswim.com’s online catalogue, but for the most part they seem rather slight. Burrito Bison Revenge is the best “launch-an-object-as-far-as-you-can” game I’ve ever played, but it’s still a launch-an-object-as-far-as-you-can game. It’s an arcade game.

Westerado is not an arcade game. Westerado, created by the Dutch studio Ostrich Banditos, is an open-world Western that you play in a browser—and I’d say it beats quite a few console and PC open-world games for depth, immersion, and freedom.

(That being said, I have not played Red Dead Revolver or Red Dead Redemption, and while I get the feeling that some of Westerado‘s touches may have been borrowed from that franchise, I’m in no position to guess which ones. I would very much appreciate it if somebody who’s been through both Westerado and RDR would compare and contrast the two.)

This Section Is Longer Than The Tutorial It Describes

The first thing that Westerado does right is the tutorial, which communicates the bare-bones backstory and the bare-bones controls seamlessly and efficiently. There are only really three verbs in this game: You run around, you talk to people, and you shoot things. Consequently, you open locked gates by shooting at them, which would not be intuitive at all if you didn’t watch your character’s brother do it in the tutorial.

The tutorial also establishes the game’s tone incredibly efficiently, mainly through the color scheme and the music, but also through the bold choice of working the credits into an early cutscene. This simple cinematic device communicates something complicated about Westerado‘s intentions: While a sloppier team might decide to make a Western game by shoving all the hallmarks of Western movies into an action game framework, the creators of Westerado decided to distill the best things about the experience of watching a Western movie and make them accessible through interaction. This layer of metatextuality will pop up unexpectedly throughout the game, but in a way that would only prove “distracting” to someone who’s missing the point.

The other wonderful thing about the tutorial is that it is skippable. This might seem odd, because the tutorial contains the bulk of the plot—if you define “plot” as “prescribed storytelling”—but that’s not the type of plot Westerado is interested in. The “plot” communicated by the tutorial is “You are looking for the man who burnt down your ranch,” and, as it’s really only an excuse for the real story of the game to get going, it only needs to be communicated once. You can compare this to a roguelike’s terse explanation that “You are looking for the Amulet of Yendor.

World As System

That’s part of why it’s so important to make the tutorial skippable: Westerado more or less is a roguelike, or a roguelike-like, because you will play it multiple times before you complete it successfully, and multiple times after that. There aren’t any random elements to the world except for the identity of the arsonist you’re after, which I suppose takes it rather far from the Rogue paradigm.

But in the way a roguelike like NetHack is a game of gradually learning its systems (how risky is it to read an unidentified scroll, as opposed to drinking an unidentified potion? That kind of thing), Westerado is a game about gradually learning the personalities, the motivations, and the plans of its characters. You have to figure out, over the course of many playthroughs: Who has any clues that will help me? Who is trustworthy? Who can I get away with murdering—and is murdering them a good idea? Who responds to threats?

Let me digress here to go on about your character’s gun. It’s very easy to use violence in Westerado, but it’s also usually a bad idea. Walking around with your six-shooter drawn will cause people to freak out and probably pull out their own weapons. While drawing a weapon in the middle of a conversation usually gets an amusing response, it often scares the other person enough that they won’t help you after that. Nobody ever stops you to warn: “If you kill me, you won’t be able to access all the missions I can dispense!”

But the game clearly wants you to feel like one bad hombre when you do draw that gun. Inside or outside of conversation, you draw with the J key, and the person it’s pointed at gets startled. Then you cock the gun with K, and it’s serious now, and your middle finger sits precariously on that K key, and yes it is definitely possible to accidentally pull the trigger on somebody. It has to be one of the most expressive control interfaces ever designed for a keyboard.

Freedom Through Aimlessness

Westerado is uncommonly expressive on a larger scale as well. A great example is the host of different ways you can interact with the oil tycoon who lives in the mansion west of town. He’s incredibly unpleasant, and after the first time I met him, I decided to try out the “violent psychopath” approach and shot him from across his office, spurring a wild action sequence in which I escaped the mansion in a blaze of gunfire, sparing only the tycoon’s wife.

I like to imagine that she was grateful, but when I talked to her later she just gave me the same line of dialog, ignoring the dead bodies lying all around her husband’s office. That’s NPCs for you.

When I approached the tycoon in my next playthrough, I figured out that to get him to pay any attention to you, you have to point your gun in his face while you’re talking to him. For this act of brashness I was rewarded by becoming the tycoon’s stooge, doing his dirty work and receiving in exchange a few vague clues about the man who killed my maw and burnt down my ranch.

But I could have betrayed the tycoon, or I could have ignored him entirely. And these choices are all presented very naturally, which is to say that they aren’t really “presented”. There are no artless text boxes of the form “BETRAY THE TYCOON? [YES/NO]”. You express your intent by following directions or ignoring them, by engaging in conversation or engaging in violence.

When you finally find the arsonist, or more likely when you die in the attempt, the scene fades to black and the camera pulls back to reveal an audience reacting to the movie—”WESTERADO“—that just ended. You receive a rating on a five-star scale, and a snippet of critical reaction from “moldytatos.com” that roughly corresponds to your play style. There’s a numerical score that feels like it was included mostly out of a feeling of obligation, but it includes a modifier for “plotlines.”

This is the only place in the game where discrete tracks of interaction are referenced; in gameplay, it all melds together into the story of a man seeking revenge by following whatever leads present themselves as he wanders through the lawless West. When you “complete a plotline,” it’s not an accomplishment; it feels more like a trail has gone cold. You have to set out again and trust that someone else might know something.

Luckily, there almost always is something else to do in Westerado. I’d catalog all the different characters and interactions and weird secrets, but since I am nearing the end of this analysis I am obligated instead to list some problems that I have with the game.

Some Problems That I Have With The Game

First, I wish there was another female character with the complexity of interactions that Miss Hat has. I’m not saying this out of a demand for gender equality; it makes sense (to a certain extent) that, while working within the context of the Old West and Western movies, women can’t wield the same the same influence as men.

A lot of the generic NPC ladies ask for you to clear the bandits out of the graveyard, but when you report back to them after completing that quest, they just say “Oh thank you sir!” and I don’t even get a clue about my arsonist. The tycoon’s wife (I assume they’re married, since they live together, and otherwise it would be improprietous) feels like she was supposed to present another plot thread, but her invitation to come up and see her sometime doesn’t go anywhere.

The game is also really buggy. I’ve been trapped on the corners of level geometry; I’ve been locked out of quests because I talked to people in the wrong order. If you complete Miss Hat’s first quest while you have full health, the hat that she gives you will glitch up your hat-health bar, and your maximum health will be stuck at two hats instead of three.

Miss Hat’s second quest has to do with the two bartenders, and it’s particularly odd that this storyline is glitched beyond playability since the developers refer to it outside of the game as one of the mysteries you can solve. You can’t solve the mystery, because after Miss Hat asks you to go trick the bartenders, their conversation trees are wrecked such that you can’t say anything to them and have to cancel out by walking away.

My last complaint is more of a story, and it’s also basically a list of spoilers, so hopefully you’ve played through the game a few times by the time you read this.

Five Empty Chambers & Two Full Chambers

I decided I’d try getting through the game without killing anybody. I started out by unloading all but one bullet from my six-shooter—the bullet I was saving for the man who killed my mother. I went into the saloons and gleaned clues from the guys at the poker tables. I purposefully failed a bandit-shooting mission so that I could access a money-collecting mission. I helped out Miss Hat, of course. I told the oil tycoon I’d kill the rancher’s buffalo, and then I told the rancher about the tycoon’s plans.

Then I agreed to free some buffalo for the Indian chief, but this turned out to kind of throw a wrench in my plan because to open the gates of the buffalo pens I had to reload my gun and shoot the locks off. It kind of killed the drama of the single bullet.

But soon I had enough clues to identify the arsonist. I wandered around the area, keeping an eye out for his trademark hat and his trademark belt.

As I walked into the main town, a random NPC approached me. He had a map leading to my quarry’s secret lair in the mountains to the north. This hadn’t ever happened to me before; usually I’d just found the arsonist standing around with other bandits.

But I followed the mysterious man’s directions, and entered the lair. I found myself in a room full of men who did not match my description of the arsonist. There was a door leading further into the lair, but I couldn’t go through it.

That is, I couldn’t go through it until I murdered all the men guarding it. I had been so careful to pull off this non-violent playthrough, and the game had rewarded me by sticking me in a situation where the only way to progress was blind violence. And after that room was another room with another locked door and even more guys I could only interact with violently.

Well, I got my hat shot off until I didn’t have any more hats, and I died. I guess the message of Westerado that time through was something like: “In a lawless world, violence is both necessary and inevitable.” But there’ll be another message to whatever movie I make when I play again.

ADDENDUM: Actually you can totally bribe the guys in the villain’s hideout to let you through without having to murder them. Rad.