Game development has come a long way during the art form’s life span. We’ve reached the point where games have little room for improvement from a visual standpoint thanks to huge leaps in rendering technology, and because of that, AAA games cost more than ever to develop. While the tech involved in such games is quite impressive, it can lead to times where it feels like developers are creatively stifled. It makes sense for, say, Activision to try and have a new Call of Duty game ever year, and the sales numbers are tough to ignore. But there’s something to be said for times when a developer is given total creative control over the game they’re creating, and often times, these games are slightly cheaper to make. The smaller budget means it’s less of an investment from the publisher, which in turn means they won’t be as controlling with the end product. I was reminded of all of this a while ago when I was playing through Call of Juarez: Gunslinger on Switch.
For a brief history lesson, the Call of Juarez franchise popped up some time during the mid-to-late 2000s, and was billed as a first person shooting franchise set in the old west with a focus on storytelling. In the interest of full disclosure, Gunslinger is the only game in the series that I’ve played, so I can’t speak too much to the franchise’s overall quality, but a brief search of the internet will tell you that the series had two generally well received games set in the 1800s, the eponymous first installment and its sequel Bound in Blood, before developer Techland followed those up with a game set in the modern day subtitled The Cartel. From what I’ve read of the latter, it seems to be a half-baked cooperative shooter with none of the storytelling chops of the first two games, and it basically killed the franchise, because when the scaled-back Gunslinger was released, it didn’t do well enough to warrant any more sequels. Gunslinger brought the series back to the 1800s and puts players in the shoes of Silas Greaves, a fictional gunslinger telling his life’s story to a small group of people at a bar, regaling them with tales of his gunfights and brushes with famous outlaws like Billy the Kid and Jesse James.
The idea of an unreliable narrator is common in movies, games, TV shows, books, pretty much any storytelling medium you can think of. Most of the time it’s used in service of some kind of gigantic plot twist, like in Fight Club or Silent Hill 2. In the case of Gunslinger it’s actually used as a means of informing the gameplay and to tell an entertaining story. There are an abundance of moments throughout the game where Silas will backtrack and change the layout of the level or replay events from a different perspective. For instance, in one level you make a mad dash through some mines before outrunning an explosion, jumping down a waterfall, gunning down ten men while you fall, then landing in the water only for a boulder to crash on top of Silas, killing him. At that point he comments on how he figured going through the mines was a long shot, so instead he went around them, and the level rewinds to a fork in the road.
Characters in the bar constantly ask him if that really happened, or try fact checking him with things they’ve heard or read about, and Silas typically answers with something like, “Well, you weren’t there and I was.” It’s a humorous nod to the very nature of Western storytelling, which is often filled with improbable events and impossible-to-win gunfights where the hero comes out unscathed anyways. Not only that, but it actually helps the game overcome a huge pitfall in shooter storytelling, particularly with shooters from the time. In a typical late 2000s-early 2010s shooter, you are capable of gunning dozens of enemies down and can shrug off bullets by simply hiding behind bushes. It’s horribly unrealistic (not that you should play games for realism), and the idea of taking a story seriously can often suffer for it. By using the motif of Silas telling his life story and fabricating events, those kinds of logic holes suddenly make sense. Weapons during the 1800s were slow to reload and clunky, and the idea of one man going up against armies and living to tell about it is absurd, but since he’s the one telling the story, of course he’s able to kill hundreds of men, and of course he can regenerate any damage taken to him. He’s telling the story, which means his rules go.
This idea of marrying his story into gameplay extends even further into the upgrades you can attain. I was actually kind of frustrated in the beginning, because, as I mentioned, it seemed weapons were slow to reload and shooting was just like any other FPS from the era. But as you go on, you attain upgrades that are laughably implausible in reality. Things like shooting a stick of dynamite out of midair, being able to refill your time slowing ability (which helps you aim more precisely) by landing head shots, refilling your clumsy revolvers in the blink of an eye, and even being able to dodge an otherwise fatal bullet all help you build Silas’s legend. By the end of the game, you’re capable of performing feats out of the most ridiculous stories you can think of, and not only is it empowering, but again, it reinforces the idea that Silas is making things up as he goes along.
It’s an extremely entertaining fusion of storytelling and gameplay, leading to plenty of memorable moments and lots of intense shootouts. It’s not that it’s particularly deep, but the game makes outstanding use of its creative ideas to deliver a shooter that—to me—is a lot better than it has any right to be. Sure, it’s not perfect; hit detection can feel weirdly imprecise at times, and boss fights tend to be more of a drag than enjoyable, but when taken as a whole, Gunslinger stands out from the at-the-time crowded FPS genre with its fun ideas.
While I can’t seem to find what the full development budget is, it’s clear that there was far less money put into it than the average Call of Duty title. Whenever you’re in a town, it becomes clear later on that the same town layout has been used over and over again, just from different angles and with different perspectives. The graphics are totally serviceable and even a little stylized, but are still far from what one could call high tech, and there are times where enemies can blend into the background due to the overall somewhat dull color pallet Techland went with. There’s sadly but a small handful of bonus content on offer, with some enjoyable score attack modes unlocking as you go.
The overall picture is one of a really enjoyable and creative game that takes the well-worn FPS genre and puts a cool Western spin on it, and I don’t know if we would have gotten it if the game had been a bigger, more expensive release. The more a publisher invests in a game, the more control they want, which can sometimes lead to stagnation. Sure, popular franchises like Assassin’s Creed have managed to reinvent themselves a few times, but there’s no denying that a lot of the really big budget stuff can tend to feel a bit samey. Call of Juarez: Gunslinger reminds me of the early 2000s, when a lot of major releases were able to stand apart from one another (it was highly unlikely that, say, anyone was going to argue that Prince of Persia: Sands of Time was too similar to Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory). I can appreciate a really high budget, gorgeous looking game as much as the next person, but every once in a while it’s nice to see a non-indie game studio drop something that has more creative freedom given to it and put out a game that manages to feel like it has a unique identity all its own.