Gunfights, fistfights, bar fights. Horses and stables. Bandits, jails, and sheriffs. The flair and mystique of the west. Or, the bastardization of reality. West of Loathing uses it all, but unlike the silent cinema it takes after, there’s no allusion to the romanticized west.
Where once the written dialog of say, 1923’s The Covered Wagon told a story of wild adventure, West of Loathing’s title cards tell the journey of a stick person shoving their hand in a used spittoon. The same, but different. West of Loathing plays to the genre’s tropes, doing so in the way of the great lampoons. In fact, West of Loathing is the funniest western since Mel Brooks’ grand racial experiment Blazing Saddles.
It’s all done in black-and-white, not that stick people need color. Again, it’s a silent western in every way but the modern sensibilities of humor. Sometimes puerile, other times lurid, but mostly crude yet suave, West of Loathing’s energy derives entirely from its comic wit. There’s a dismally small turn-based RPG underneath, but no matter. Even this is taken forward via absurdity, not just that with which sees a depressed loner setting off from his boring farm (in Boring Springs) to a new life. Rather, the image of this stick person hacking away at gibberish-spouting goblins with only a cactus branch. Who knows how to brandish such a prickly weapon successfully? West of Loathing doesn’t care; it’s firmly in the parody realm of Airplane, going so far as to intelligently lift jokes, but give them new life.
When considering great interactive westerns, remember the technicolor-like vistas of Sunset Riders or the unsightly, appropriate grit of Red Dead Revolver. Both delight in their ways, and both love the subject matter’s violent flair. Shootouts on the street and showdowns at sunset, glamorizing death and lawlessness. West of Loathing though loves the absurdity in it all. That caricature of the old west being something to conquer rather than the unseemly, grotesque part of American history it was. So, West of Loathing does what any responsible person does when trying to repress reality – skewers it, and finds the humor in every facet of that period’s daily life.
Consider why the west here is drenched in skeletons – they came from somewhere; they’re not buried anymore. That’s clever subtext. In that, West of Loathing takes an unexpected crown, two of them even. The most riotous semi-text adventure of its time, and videogaming’s purest-to-form western. And it does this while hiding a boot in a bedpan spittoon.