Narrative choice in Law of the West


Filed under Game trail;
leave a comment.

The console gaming world is in a tizzy over this past week's release of Rockstar Games' Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR2), an open-world adventure game set in the Old West. To commemorate the occasion, Rhain Radford-Burns of OnlySP (Single Player) produced a historical chronicle, "The Origins of Virtual Gunslinging — History of Western Games (Part One: 1971–1994)" (a timeline that would exclude Lawless Legends). The hunting scenes in Oregon Trail earned a mention, of course — but so did another game I'd never heard of: Accolade’s Law of the West.

Law of the West (which can be played online in the Internet Archive) features four settings from a frontier town: the bank, the saloon, the Wells Fargo wagon, and the train depot, each populated by cowboys, teachers, deputies, desperadoes, and more. Each scene introduces a character who interacts with the sheriff and then departs. After eleven of these vignettes, the player is given a score based on community relations, crimes prevented, and romantic success.

Most notable is how the player engages with the townsfolk. While some gunslinging does occur, this action takes a backseat to dialogue. For each line a citizen delivers, the sheriff chooses from one of four responses, resulting in a branching dialogue tree. This plot device is common in modern adventure games — not only in indie titles developed in the Twine game engine such as Depression Quest, but also mainstream games from BioWare's Mass Effect to Telltale's The Walking Dead to Dontnod's Life Is Strange.

But according to Wikipedia, this gameplay mechanic was unprecedented at the time (emphasis mine):

The actual gameplay mostly concerns the Sheriff discussing with the various characters via a selection menu similar to those in contemporary graphical adventures. For each line the other character says, the game offers a selection of four different responses, and the discussion progresses depending on the chosen response. Law of the West marks the first use of this now-common interaction style.

If true, then it's fascinating to discover that such a well-known narrative device debuted in 1985 on the Apple II from a company that went defunct in 2000. To this day, the choice to engage with non-player characters instead of blindly shooting them is something players yearn for. In Chris Plante's review of RDR2 for Polygon, he describes one scene:

A crowd watches a public hanging. After the execution, the crowd disperses, and I find the victim's mother weeping in the mud. I want to console her, but for whatever reason, the game won't let me "greet" or "antagonize" the distraught mother. The only option it gives me is to pull a gun on her.

Maybe someone at Rockstar should've studied their history and learned the Law of the West.

Leave a Reply