Thursday, October 9, 2014

Law of the West - Ask First, Shoot Everyone Later
If knowing is half the battle, then I wasn't even aware that there was a battle to be had.

You might have inferred from reading its crazy-long entry (which wound up running on three-times longer than planned) that Shadowgate represented my first experience with text-driven video games. While I consider it an important cornerstone in my growth as an ever-receptive enthusiast, it wasn't truly my introduction to games that put reading comprehension ahead of button-pressing acumen. No--that honor instead goes to Law of the West, which I discovered while sampling disk after disk of my brother's large Commodore 64 collection. 

Before Law of the West came into my life, I had a pretty skewed perspective on text adventures in general; I felt they were primitive, inherently boring, and didn't constitute "real" games. Staring at a static screen for hours on end trying to decipher the meaning behind cryptic text descriptions and crudely drawn visuals didn't sound at all appealing, and I was just as apt to ignore the genre. That said, it's difficult to summarize why I took so strongly to Law of the West, a true text adventure, so readily, but I'll try my best.

Also not among my favorites were Western-themed productions, and I'd usually run screaming at the sight of a bunch of cowboys rendezvousing at the ol' saloon and yakkin' about rustlin' cattle, chewin' tobacky, and all that gold in them-thar hills (mostly, I'd immediately sprint out of the room after wandering in to find that mom was watching Bonanza again). So Law of the West, you'd figure, shouldn't have lasted beyond the "Load" screen; however, something about Law of the West's title screen managed to capture my interest. It had to it both a welcoming vibe and a pleasing aesthetic--a straw-colored depiction featuring a revolver laying across from a Wanted poster and a catchy Old West-style theme that had a nice beat and a whole lot of spirit. I imagine it put me in a good mood.

At the least, I didn't see any reason to snub it. I mean, I hadn't yet stumbled upon what I'd call a bad Commodore 64 game, so continuing past this title screen seemed worth a shot.

The opening scenario, with its cold, darkly shaded setting and static third-person perspective, looked so different from the norm that it almost begged to be thoroughly investigated. Though, I couldn't have guessed where this game was taking me.

Our first contestant, a rugged, scary-looking gunslinger, strolled out from the saloon and spoke to me in a rather confrontational matter; not surprisingly, I was inclined to respond by ignoring the four-line dialogue tree located on the screen's bottom portion and instead promptly pulled out the sheriff's revolver, which I was happy to learn could be aimed anywhere onscreen, complete with accompanying unnatural arm movements. When it became apparent that threatening the ornery cowpoke with my suggestive arm contortions, alone, wasn't enough to incite a response, I instead began exploring the dialogue tree. More so than my propensity to quietly menace subjects with my firearm-waving, I thought the ability to choose a demeanor and drive conversations in any direction I pleased was a compelling feature.

Law of the West seemed to be all about tact and the player's sensitivity to other people's feelings. So, naturally, I spent the entirety of my first session trying to draw out nasty responses and baiting my opposition into gunfights. "Now that's just pointless," I imagine you're thinking. Well, yes, but only if you overlook its merit as a fine introduction to modern police training.

I mean, I had no idea what my goal was, or if one actually existed, but I wasn't concerned about such--I was having too much fun with Law of the West's surface material to even consider it. Oh, it had a game-ending "Congratulations" screen with a final score listed, but I couldn't guess as to what the symbols meant or if they signified accomplishments or failures. Since we didn't have manuals for any of our C64 games, I had no way of knowing what victory entailed, and games in this era rarely explained their rules in-game.

Regardless, it became one of my favorite C64 games, and I returned to it a lot not just for the general silliness but because I was genuinely intent on exploring the game's depth of possibilities through proper manipulation of the three-step dialogue trees. I knew that certain characters could be coaxed into divulging information about the planned bank robberies they'd heard about (or heard rumors about), but I figured it was an isolated thing--that my goal was to simply play nice and survive the day. That's how I played it, and that's all I needed it to be.

I actually had the most fun with Law of the West after introducing my friends to it; I couldn't wait to demonstrate for them some of its more "hilarious" aspects, like how you could antagonize the subjects to the point of meltdown and shoot them dead before they could even take two steps onto the scene, triggering the game's admonishing "Hey! Aren't you a little trigger happy?" 

We also thought it was funny how the characters sauntering in the distance (including those riding stagecoach) would quickly scram the instant the sheriff's gun was drawn, which would have been presumptuous of them had we not always desperately tried to shoot them (to no avail, since they were immune to bullet fire). Though, like any act repeated ad nauseam, our reckless gun-toting started to get a little old after the first few dozen times, so we decided it was best that our trigger-happiness be reserved only for special occasions.

I've never actually seen a real gun, by the way, so don't be alarmed. You go ahead and put that phone down.

There weren't many characters in Law of the West, but all of them were memorable to me--none more so than Willie, an abrasive kid who liked taunting me with his knowledge of a "secret." Maybe it's because I knew kids who acted just like him, but I found Willie to be highly annoying and would usually resort to throwing insults his way, typically drawing out the response, "Up yours, sheriff!" It was shocking seeing that kind of language used in a game. "Kids aren't supposed to say things like that!" I'd think to myself. "Adults, maybe, but not 6-year-olds!" (Oh, I'd learn soon enough that they say much worse.) Until then, the closest thing I'd seen to vulgarity in a video game was Q*bert's word-bubbled character-string as painfully expressed whenever he'd collide with an enemy. I'd usually wind up shooting him out of spite.

Willie, not Q*bert.

I'd try to make nice with Miss Rose (the "Jezebel," as potentially identified), who would usually react disdainfully and reject my pleas, which was actually more insulting later in life when I learned what a "lady of the night" was. I'd be immediately complimentary to the Mexicali Kid, since I was sure that any other form of inquiry would get me killed. And Belle, who thought of me as a "tinhorn sheriff," would actually take kind to my advances before getting fed up and opening fire.  


I was sure to never kill the defenseless doctor--more so because I realized that doing as much doomed my chances of recovery if I got shot, since, you know, there would be no doctor there to treat me. Instead, I'd just intimate that he was a fall-down drunk and hope he'd forget about it. The deputy in our version was glitched out--nothing more than a walking cluster of jittery pixels. It felt weird conversing with a sentient pixel-cluster, so I established a personal rule: "By all rights, a glitched character or any such abomination must be shot on sight." It was a special enough occasion, I thought. And I really stuck to it--I don't think I ever saw past his initial dialogue tree until I played the game years later via emulator, when I finally got to see what he actually looked like.

Law of the West was an enduring game and followed us into our mid-teens; it stood among our favorite NES and 2600 titles, and we'd often cycle it into our routine. Moreover, I was so enamored with the idea of Law of the West that I created a real-world version of it, and my friend Dominick and I would often play this "home adaptation" in my den. The rules were similar: One of us, playing the role of sheriff, would wield my toy rifle (which made a really loud "ping" sound when fired) and settle on the couch, and the other would enter the room playing a random character--be it a someone from the actual game, a random celebrity, or a person spontaneously conceived. Successfully surviving any encounter would earn the sheriff a "prize" (one of the toys from my cardboard toy box near the 1979 big-screen TV).

But our version had more of a twitch factor to it: The sheriff could only fire if the subject became aggressive, lest he'd risk automatic failure; also, he had to be sure not to react to a "fakeout" (subject seemingly starts to lunge forward before pulling back) and miss out on a prize for firing without proper agitation.

If we ever got together today, I'm sure we'd agree upon the fondest memory of our time playing this home adaptation; it would have to involve our inclusion of the mugger from Deja Vu--a marginal character who we ironically emblematized. His appearances were often recurring, with either of us portraying him several times a game, and he had a special attribute designed to break up the action; that is, he could lunge forward, comically bellowing "Give me allllll your money!", and steal a prize from the sheriff. This act of thievery could only be thwarted with a quick jab rather than a rifle shot (as in Deja Vu), after which the mugger would be forced to flee, hollering "I'llllll be baaaaack!" while exiting. 

Also, the mugger apparently had powers similar to the agents from The Matrix, as he could assume the form of any currently appearing subject and suddenly rush forward without any in the way of warning, whether the character was in mid-conversation or just a few steps into its inconspicuous entrance-sauntering. So staying alert was key.

Unfortunately for the mugger, he was eventually usurped by our newly created, inexplicably championed character Dink, who was an amalgamation of the thieves from Golden Axe, this very same mugger (who thus became redundant), and current New York mayor David Dinkins. (You can read my Golden Axe piece to find out how Dink came to be.) I suppose the only difference was that Dink demanded magic rather than money, since he otherwise had all of the same powers.

Law of the West was another of those games that lost most of its appeal as time marched on and those old friendships dissolved. In fact, the last time I spent any meaningful minutes with it was the early 2000s, when I rediscovered it via emulation. It wasn't any more compelling to me than it was back when I was a kid, but I did figure out a few things; in my earlier time with it, I came to assume that the true goal was to interrogate every subject and solicit information about the Daltan gang's bank and stage robberies, but it turns out there were other means of points-gathering, like currying the favor of women and persuading trouble-making gunslingers to surrender their weapons. There was never any "proper" way to play, and it was always about experimentation.

I was really surprised to learn that an NES version existed, but the circumstances behind my finding out were terrible--I saw it in a video wherein the GoNintendo crew was cutting it up and treating it like some piece of trash they found on the highway. That really rubbed me the wrong way, as it always does when people dig up old games only with the intent of mocking them. There's far too much of that junk on Youtube already.

It has a few unique elements to it, like those troublesome bandits who appear randomly and can be taken out for bonus points, but it doesn't look or sound as good, nor does it convert well to the NES format. And it was only released in Japan for some unknown reason. It's a curiosity, at best, and certainly not a definitive version.

Save for a once-a-decade trip down memory lane, my time with Law of the West has long passed, but I can never forget all of the fun times and whacky hijinks (including our oft-played home adaptation) that were born from our exploitation of its unique style of play. As did Shadowgate, it demonstrated for me new ways of thinking and interacting, it taught me a bunch of new words, and moreover it revealed to me that games could be something more than what I knew. Hell--without its lingering influence, I might not have even given Shadowgate a cursory glance, and that would have been a travesty.

I might not have known what victory entailed in Law of the West, but I definitely came out of it a winner. In celebration, I leave you with the final tally as earned in the play-through that yielded the screenshots above.

I hope that's good, whatever it means.

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