In Defense of the Big Empty: Using the Great Plains as a Setting

The middle of America was once a highly romanticised and mystical area. As pioneers pushed through the Louisiana Purchase territory and carved states out of vast stretches of land; the legend of the west began. However, as the push to the west came to its conclusion and air travel became more popular these territories that once were on the spear tip of American society became ‘fly-over states.” Texas, Wyoming, New Mexico, and places of the like simply became swathes of land that folks could see out their windows while flying from some important east coast city to an important west coast city. The myth was debunked, the west no longer as wild and tame. Native Americans are no longer feared and wild warriors, they are a people trying to survive years of poverty and systematic neglect. The white Americans that live there are not seen as the honorable lawmen or dastardly bandits of the middle-1800s but as a conservative and simple folk that could not assimilate to urban life. The mythical west was all but forgotten, which is an incredible shame; especially in the video game medium.

For all the storied aspects of the west that have faded with time many still persevere. The western states are still as beautiful as ever. Video games have the unique ability to both show a beautiful place and have the player then interact with that landscape. ‘Walking simulator’ understand this part of the medium as they both present a setting and allow the player to explore it without relying too heavily on scripting or set-pieces. One of my group members mentioned Firewatch in a previous blog-post which is a perfect example of this. It allows the players to just sit and bask in the beauty of the setting, the action isn’t hurried along to the next platform or shooting gallery. Movies are able to do this with long, sweeping helicopter shots which remove the viewer from the action. Video games usually do not have the luxury of removing players from the action since it can create pacing and immersion issues. Therefore, settings tend to be in places where more people, places, and actions are happening at once. Grand Theft Auto is a beloved franchise because of how full the sandbox is. Creating chaos in urban landscapes is easy, not so much in big open plains. Creating sandboxes in the great plains area then has to become highly intentional and more involved. This is an argument I can sympathize with, screenshot hunting is only fun for so long and the game has to have a character outside of that. That is where the nature of the people who call this place their home pick up the slack.

In The Long Dark, a survival game you play as a normal human being whose will to survive is about to be put to the ultimate test. Whereas this game is set in the Yukon it could very easily be Wyoming or the Dakotas if wildlife and hypothermia are the main antagonists. The game captures the character of living out in an area like that; where toughness and fortitude are necessary to live. What games miss by not using a great plains sandbox is the fact that life in that part of the country is not guaranteed. Rural Washington does not have hot dog salesmen on every corner waiting to sell you health packs; In Texas, you don’t just have to contend with the police force when committing a crime, but with many of the town folks as well. We often times believe that the people of the wild west were hearty, but the people living there now are direct descendants and have been raised with many of the same virtues of self-reliance. These communities are close-knit and the people in them are, for better or worse, aware of what their neighbors are going through. It would be interesting for a game to explore town dynamics in one of these areas. Instead, it is much easier to rest on our laurels and make something more tried and true.

Our group is making a game on the wild west. People want to hear stories about banditos and gunslingers and that is more than fine. However, I think that there is a severe lack of service given to the great plains area of our country. It has all of the makings of a compelling story: conflict, both internal and external, survival, and almost tribal togetherness. It also has a gorgeous setting that has the ability to stop a player in their tracks. It would require going all in though. To capture the essence a developer would have to embrace the things that may seem boring. Only dealing with a couple of characters, a sandbox without filler, a soundtrack that revels in the solitude of the plains. Players may find it boring, but if done correctly could be something that throws a wrench in gaming conventions and returns attention to the ‘fly-over states.’

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