The Hall of Historic (Anti) Heroes


The use of historic figures in popular culture and video games runs a wide gamut. Sometimes they are employed to create an atmosphere of authenticity, Assassin Creed series, at other times they are employed for odd counterfactual commentary on the American condition, see Bioshock. This current exploration looks at the use of some seminal anti-heroes in Call of Juarez: Gunslinger published by Ubisoft in 2013 for all major platforms.  In this version of the Call of Juarez series, the central figure, Silas Greaves, relives his past exploits in a saloon in Abeliene, KS in 1910. His small audience is keenly interested in his life as a bounty hunter and his connections and friendships to real individuals from the late 19th century American West. 

Like many video games set in the American West of the late 19th century, the gameplay revolves around a lot of shooting and killing that is grounded in some form of violent vengeance. Reviews of the game were generally positive, particularly in light of the previous Call of Juarez, The Cartel, having been roundly viewed as a step backwards for the series. What many commentators enjoyed, and set the game apart from a typical FPS, was that the story was continuously told during shootouts and sometimes altered as Silas Greaves was questioned about the authenticity of his experiences by the saloon patrons. The particularly interesting part of this is that the game portrays Silas as not only a vestige of the past (and his past glories), but that his narrative of the past is questionable. In this sense the myth of the America West and the tall tales that were told and sold, both in dime novels and by consummate American heroes such as Buffalo Bill and Theodore Roosevelt, were unreliable themselves. This, however, proves a difficult stretch for the game, for even as it explores the authenticity of the lived past through story tellers of the American West, the characters that are employed in the story telling (Billy the Kid, John Wesley Hardin, Butch Cassidy, Jesse James, and others) are presented as not only real, but their stories as authentic.

In this way the mythic West is oddly and ironically perpetuated through a story teller who himself is exposed as unreliable and a liar, even if for his own purposes. This duality, the lying narrator within the construct of the American West alongside the presentation of presumably factual and realistic historical figures, can be particularly seen in the character of John Wesley Hardin.  During gameplay, Hardin’s introduction includes 3 main statements: “First kill at 15,” “Killed a man for snoring,” “and 40 more for breathing.”  The informational card for Hardin also mentions that “he was considered the best gunslinger alongside Wild Bill Hickok.” These are all bits of information that can be sourced from Hardin’s own autobiography published in 1896 after his death. At best, only the first can be discerned as historically accurate, and yet the reasoning and rationale for that murder is negated as its reality might distort the meaning and understanding of the mythic West.

Men like Hardin are often presented in popular culture, including video games, as individuals who had a salient and possibly worthwhile talent, in this case shooting a gun, that fits into a popular narrative but also popular forms of gameplay. This capacity and Hardin’s own narrative presented in his autobiography are that he never killed anyone except in self-defense. Hardin’s self presentation always portrays the way he was wronged and highlights that it was always necessary for him to kill, escape, or seek appropriate vengeance for a perceived wrong (e.g. snoring too loudly). Individuals such as Hardin are the anti-hero, but also the qualified hero. The qualities that are held up are his ability to shoot fast, survive, and act for self or filial protection. This gets to the crux of the problem of presenting men like Hardin as hero, anti or otherwise: His actions, when historically traced were encased in a racialized understanding of the Reconstruction era in and around Texas.

Hardin, and many men like him such as Jesse James, were connected to and exploited Confederate ideology after the Civil War to empower their murders. While not all of Hardin’s murders fall into this category, his early murders definitely do, including the murder of the unnamed individual when Hardin was 15.  In his autobiography, Hardin writes that, “the justice of the Southern cause was taught to me in my youth” (8). He makes it clear throughout the early pages of his autobiography that his views of the world were set, and when he met Mage (a freedman) on that fall day in 1868, Hardin could not help himself and shot and killed Mage with his Colt 44. Later, “Uncle Holshousen gave me a $20 gold piece… and told me to look out for the Yankee soldiers who were all over the country at the time” (13). There is a short report in the Freedman’s Bureau’s records of the killing, but little else that helps corroborate the story.  Hardin ran away as he feared that “to be tried at the time for killing a negro meant certain death at the hands of the court” (13).  He later claims to have killed several U.S. soldiers who chased him; however, there is no clear record of this event. Though the “murders” of the U.S. agents are dubious, his telling of the events and the perceived need to kill them, clearly play into his own sense of righteous indignation at having to possible explain himself for killing a freedman.

Men like John Wesley Hardin within Call of Juarez: Gunslinger are used merely as representational fodder of a perceived lost era. Gunslinger presents an interesting game mechanic that inscribes the use of lying and telling tale tells throughout, which might have served to highlight the disjunctive narrative within the game. In the early cut scenes there are even direct references to dime novels and the possible mythic representations of western characters. Yet, with the need to employ a gaming experience, the game itself comes back to using the myth so that gameplay is focused around helping or killing the anti-heroes with the quick draw, even if their guns weren’t really so fast, and even if their killing was often part of racial conflict.