you must understand i’d been working on an old west game of my own for three months — one of them actually in no-foolin’ texas — when messhof announced his forthcoming game would be about cowboys. WELL. i knew there was only one way to resolve this. the cowboy way. pistols at high noon.
three things saved mark essen’s life tonight. one, it was eight thirty when i got to his brooklyn showing of cowboyana. clearly well after noon. two, he is actually one of the creators i most admire and i think my trigger finger would falter at that critical moment. and three, his game, cowboyana, is actually entirely unlike my own.
it’s a two-player only game. the players are compadres, partners in crime — but the itching deserts of the old west do not abide friendship, and so each knows that sooner or later she will have to kill her buddy, her one companion.
this interpersonal drama is acted out in a series of vignettes in which the players alternately cooperate and compete. the players, red and blue, raid a train, shooting purple banditos as they leap from car to car, but at the end of the train is a horse that only one of them can ride. in a follow-up scene, one player is the horse, performing the strenuous task of galloping as her companion blasts buffalo or just enjoys the ride. in another scene the players must collaborate to pour glasses of whiskey — one turning the bottle, another moving it, and the whiskey typically splashing everywhere. another, drunken words motivate the cowboys to grab their guns and resolve their relationship the only way they can.
i particularly like reloading, in which each direction of the d-pad — or, presumably, the keyboard — corresponds to a different chamber of the cowboy’s pistol, and players must spin the barrel to reload all eight bullets. i also like messhof’s use of flavor text between each scene to establish not a clear overarching narrative but a tone that enables players to invent motivations for their cowboyanas.
we played the game on an enormous projection screen, everyone passing the controllers around (they were modded snes controllers, if you care), and the format of the game leant well to this — the episodic structure of the game, the lack of continuity between scenes, and the attention to crafting a multiplayer experience. flywrench and randy balma: municipal abortionist had also been set up, but i don’t think either of them work as well in that kind of venue (flywrench, in particular, demands an investment of time and persistence that i don’t think an hour-and-a-half-long gallery showing allows).
cowboyana, in fact, seems made for such venues. and i like the idea of the multiplayer-only game — videogames have been transformed, as the focus shifted from the arcade to the home console and personal computer, from a communal experience to an individual experience, and i would love to see more games facilitate social interaction than to encourage players to sit in their rooms alone.