Introducing a hands-off preview session of upcoming RPG Weird West the other day, creative director Raf Colantonio offered a short, sweet summary of its central design principle: "Say yes to the player". We were to expect no arbitrary canyons disguising linear levels here, he promised, nor quests designed to funnel us into binary decisions. Instead, we were to look forward to a literal wild west of open decision-making; a persistent world with its own internal rhythms, through which we would be free to mosey in whichever style we fancied.
Inevitably, then, when the demo (played by game director Gael Giraudeau) got underway, I glossed over the bleak discovery of the player character's son, shot dead by eerie cowboys, and commanded Giraudeau to pick up a dead wolf. It seemed the right thing to do, given the whole "say yes to the player" thing. And to be fair to Giraudeau, he picked that wolf right up. He carried it around for a bit, dodging a tornado in the process, before finding an egg in a haystack, chucking it in the air, and shooting it with a gun. Not bad, Weird West. Not bad.
In case you're unfamiliar with this sort of do-anything ethos, it characterises an unusual supergenre of game called the "immersive sim". It's a confusing bit of taxonomy, as it has very little to do with simulations or immersion, at least as one would usually expect these terms to be used. Simply put, an immersive sim invites the players to approach problem-solving laterally, taking advantage of the intersecting behaviours of things in the world to achieve desired outcomes - your Deus Exs or Dishonoreds, for example. Or you can just revel in their complexity and emergent chaos, as I'm usually more tempted to do.
Of course, some sims are more immersive than others. And so, in a move I appreciated, Colantonio provided a handy chart, positioning Weird West alongside some well-known staples of the genre. Given Colantonio was one of the co-creators of Dishonored, it's worth noting he's trying something considerably more open-ended with this project.
Weird West will not, however, be an open-world game. Instead, as befits its top-down, isometric-ish presentation, the game comprises a galaxy of self-contained maps, positioned all over a big, 1990s-Fallout-style map. As far as I understood, you're not limited in any way with regards to how you explore this wilderness - you can go where you want, when you want.
Indeed, even as Giraudeau left the opening homestead to go and talk to a local sherriff about the son-slaying bandits, he happened upon a mailbox containing a strange letter, hinting at eldritch goings-on in an entirely different location. Since drifting about getting into fights is one of the classic cowboy hobbies, this feels encouraging.
"No magical respawning, here. And if you happen to have killed a plot-specific NPC? Whoops. You'll just have to find an alternative way to progress."
And of course, even when you're not in one of Weird West's play areas, it will keep doing its thing without you. NPCs will have their daily schedules, strange things will occur, weather will happen, and all the rest. What happens if you wander into a town and gun down every living soul with a blank, dead-eyed rage? The town will stay abandoned. No magical respawning here. And if you happen to have killed a plot-specific NPC? Whoops. You'll just have to find an alternative way to progress. Again, lateral thinking and that.
What perhaps intrigues me most on the subject of persistence, is that while the game has plotlines for five separate characters, you play through them in a set chronological order. This means you can interact with, and even recruit, characters you have already played as, or are yet to play as. It also means that each subsequent chapter of the game sees you starting fresh, but in a world that you've already been raising hell in, as an entirely different person. You could bury a wolf, or a egg, for example, like a little time capsule for your later self to benefit from.
Oh, and when I said that if you shoot up a town it will stay abandoned, I wasn't quite telling the full truth. Empty places may get repopulated over time by various factions of settlers and ruffians. Or by pigmen. Pigmen are quite a big deal in Weird West. Indeed, one of the five characters you play over the course of the game happens to be one - that's him in the header image.
According to the designers, the intention for the game is to start out as a fairly played-straight western, and introduce more strands of strangeness as the game goes on. As the trailer at the top of the post has it, "The deeper you dig, the stranger it gets". And sure enough, as I watched Giraudeau pursue the case of the player character's gunished son, interrogating one of the captured marauders at the sherriff's office and then being tipped off to the location of the gang's badlands hideout, things got odd.
Stealthing around by the entrance to the hideout, the player character eavesdropped on a conversation between the gang leader and some sort of fluid, silvery wolf... thing? According to the devs, this malevolent entity was a "siren", although I'm taking that designation in a figurative sense, since it was not in any way a mermaid.
I've not seen much more of the game's Westiary, besides some coyotes which attacked in a random campfire encounter. Nevertheless, I'd go in expecting some Lovecraft-adjacent cosmic horror trappings (or William-Hope-Hodgson-adjacent, in the case of the pigmen), blended with the "incest-related mutant" tradition that so often emerges from the confluence of Westerns and horror.
I'd also, quite frankly, go in expecting a really dark time. I knew from Weird West's initial teaser trailer that it was going to be both gorgeous and spooky. And while it certainly lives up on the looks front, with elegantly understated use of unexpected colours to disquiet (not to mention an aesthetic drawn from tonally-heavy French comics from the 90s), it's a lot spookier than I'd counted on.
Despite my early presumptions, there's no tongue in cheek element to Weird West's horror at all. It plays things completely straight on that front, and even watching someone else play, I got a strong sense of how unsettling and sinister the game's world was to inhabit.
When I asked the developers which particular westerns they had drawn inspiration from in building the game world, I already half-knew they were going to cite Bone Tomahawk. This was both a good and a bad thing. Because while I would contend that Bone Tomahawk is, honestly, a masterful piece of direction and an extremely effective film, it's also utterly fucking horrible. Seriously. Whether it's the hideous gore, or the extremely uncomfortable take on the Western genre's historic portrayal of Native Americans (I've seen the argument made that it's not, in fact, a racist film, but I'm emphatically unconvinced), Bone Tomahawk is the very opposite of easy watching. Still, like I say, for whatever value you choose to attach to it, it's a movie with one hell of a powerful atmosphere.
If Weird West can carry some of that potency, as I've already seen it do, without becoming quite as brutally distasteful on its descent into horror, I think it could be something really special. Even - and indeed especially - if I choose to play it as a game about carrying dead wolves about the place.