I was lucky enough to get in on an advance version of Westerado: Double Barreled, a remake by Ostrich Banditos of their Adult Swim browser game Westerado. I wrote all about Westerado a while back, and I have plenty to say about the differences between the remake and the original—and what the differences mean to me as a game designer, and what they mean to me in terms of game genre theory—but let’s get the most superficial facts out of the way and work from there.
Yes, It’s Awesome
Double Barreled has all of Westerado‘s gorgeous visuals, fantastic music, and clever writing. You can see for yourself how cool it is by watching some gameplay footage, or playing the original, but I’d like to give special attention to the “gunversation” system. You can draw your gun on anybody, anytime, and the controls are the same outside or inside of conversation: The J key draws or holsters your gun, the K key cocks the hammer, and hitting K again pulls the trigger.
Anybody you threaten in this way reacts realistically, but the experience is just as tense for the player, because it’s so easy to hit the wrong key and accidentally murder a person whom you only meant to spook. As I said about the original: Westerado makes typing on a keyboard feel like drawing a gun on a tactile level that I haven’t experienced in any other game. Well, except now there’s Double Barreled.
(As I thought back to how much I loved this mechanic in Westerado, I wondered: Did I unconsciously steal the “point your gun in mid-conversation” idea for use in Taco Fiction? No, Westerado is from 2013, and I wrote Taco Fiction in 2011. Westerado’s version is cooler, though.)
Double Barreled really is essentially the same game, except there’s more content, and it’s more polished. I complained about bugs in the original, and there are a few glitchy bits in the version of Double Barreled I’ve played (an incomplete version for press), but they’re few and far between in proportion to the expansion of the game’s world and the corresponding geometric increase in its complexity.
The Large West
For a browser game, Westerado was ludicrously ambitious in its scope. The number of parties (the Oil Tycoon, the banker, Miss Hat, the Indians…) and their connections formed a world that could only be fully understood after you’d played the game maybe a dozen times. Double Barreled adds several new factors to the mix, and I have yet to finish investigating the full extent of their interactions. It’s not Skyrim-huge, but it’s very impressive, especially knowing that Ostrich Banditos is just five guys.
Those guys could have made things a lot easier on themselves, too. It would be easy to block off the western side of the map until you’d completed some quest, and the number of possible sequences of events would be cut in half. Add a second gating mechanism, and the possibility space (in a world containing the same number of characters) becomes very manageable indeed.
But Ostrich Banditos had the chutzpah to say “Nah, let’s say players can go wherever they want as soon as the game starts; we can handle it,” and then they did handle it. When I do find a bug in Double Barreled, I’m mostly impressed with myself, because it means I was finally able to find something the team hadn’t accounted for. Their respective scales make Westerado and Double Barreled into an interesting case study, one which asks “How small can an open-world game be?” Each game is smaller than a GTA or an RDR, but they definitely go above and beyond the minimum requirements.
The density of possible interactions in the world is especially noteworthy when contrasted with the barrenness of the world itself. A true Western needs sweeping arid vistas, lonesome peaks, silent canyons—it needs a bunch of empty space in between the places where stuff happens. In this respect Double Barreled‘s world design is basically perfect. As in the real Old West (and, more importantly, in the fictional Old West), civilization and wilderness aren’t truly separate environments; they fade into each other. The far reaches of the landscape are expansive enough to feel real (and accomodate a wealth of secrets) without making it a pain to trek across them.
A Digression About Traversal
But I do have a pretty high tolerance for trekking across the far reaches of landscapes. If you listened to the Bronze episode of Clash of the Type-Ins, you heard me arguing with Emily Short over the experiential legitimacy of “GO TO [ROOM]” commands in text adventures. The same discussion applies to fast travel in open-world games, and to Double Barreled in particular: If the physical, locational essence of the Western is in the traversal of wide-open landscapes, isn’t it antithetical to its source material for this game to let you warp from one town to the next?
Ostrich Banditos handled this very cleverly. When you hop on a horse to jump across the map, you enter a scene where you ride the horse across a wide-open landscape for a few seconds. You even retain control over your character on what is essentially a loading screen: You can gallop up and down the screen, you can fire your pistol at nothing, and you can reload your weapon, which is really convenient. This wide-open landscape is also the setting of various on-horseback gameplay segments (when you’re protecting a stagecoach, or attacking a stagecoach, etc.). Westerado and Double Barreled handle fast travel by making it represent traversal visually and mechanically.
Okay, Back To The Point
But Double Barreled is a bigger game, and this entails a few other changes. Westerado didn’t save your progress. This was fine, because the game was small enough that if you died, or closed your browser, you were losing maybe half an hour of time invested. Starting over repeatedly was the point, because there were so many different ways to do things.
There are even more ways to do things in Double Barreled, but if you die in Double Barreled, you don’t start over completely. You lose half of your money, and time rewinds a little bit. (When and how the game decides to save itself is a mystery to me.) Only after beating the game once do you unlock the ability to enable “iron man mode”, i.e., permadeath. Having permadeath turned on by default in Double Barreled wouldn’t work: The world is bigger, so you put more work into it, and even after an hour of play compared to Westerado‘s thirty minutes, there’s too much to lose.
From this I could make a case that Westerado qualifies as a roguelike and Double Barreled does not, but that kind of fine semantic distinction isn’t as interesting as the experiential difference: In Double Barreled, the point is not so much to start over repeatedly and try to do things different ways, but to run all over the map and try as many things as you can inside of one save file.
I said about Westerado that each time I played it, I constructed a new Western, with a tone and an overarching theme of its own. I could attempt to reach my character’s goal with a minimum of bloodshed, or I could be as violent and monstrous as the villain I sought. I could reach the climactic battle and eat lead at the critical moment, so that all my struggles were for nothing, or I could turn my back on vengeance and buy a little cottage to share with Miss Hat.
Because death is not permanent in Double Barreled, the player-constructed narrative loses a lot of that focus. When you fail, you just come back and try again, or you try something else, and the huge number of storylines blend into each other. This is a bit unfortunate, but it all falls out of the grander scale of Double Barreled.
I Ran Out Of Stuff To Say
Westerado: Double Barreled hits Steam on April 16th. I might have more to say about it after it’s released. You should probably buy it. I don’t know how much it’s gonna cost. I do know that I’m gonna buy the soundtrack. Thank you for your interest.