What do you think of when you picture the Wild West? Growing up in the suburban United States, my conceptions were solidified across multiple forms of media. I read stories in school about Pecos Bill lassoing tornadoes, and watched movies where he defeated every enemy by shooting off their trigger finger. Cartoons like Rugrats and Spongebob showed me stereotypical interpretations of what it meant to be a cowboy, complete with the ridiculous hats and boots. I went to rodeos or touristy frontier towns on vacations, watching pretend gunslingers test their quick-draw in staged performances while my grandparents looked at tacky merchandise in a souvenir store. Across all of those experiences I subconsciously absorbed what it means to be a “Wild West” story, and one of the key elements of those stories was the presence of indigenous peoples, or what I would have referred to at the time as a Native American or, more likely, an “Indian.”
I have a distinct memory of visiting a farm where an old barn and some hay bales had been converted into a play area for visiting children. The game of choice was “Cowboys and Indians,” one of many children’s pretend games which essentially just boils down to “form teams and pretend to shoot each other.” The antagonism between the men of the frontier and the native people of the areas they were settling was one that played out in many western stories, and it was a theme I was familiar with throughout my childhood. While some stories did highlight individual indigenous people as being helpful to the cause of brave and noble cowboys, as a collective these tribes served as the villains in most of the media I experienced as a kid. It wasn’t until I was in high school that anyone dared to flip the script. “What if the dudes who showed up out of nowhere with guns to attack the people living in harmony with their ancestral lands were actually the bad guys?” Learning about the dark side of America’s western expansion was an eye-opening moment for me, and it served as the beginning of a long journey of seeing the history of my country from the perspectives of the people most harmed by it.
Most Wild West stories I have seen come down strongly in favor of expansion and do nothing to challenge the perception of settlers as heroes. So when I started Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, I was already bracing myself for a story that would be at best a stereotypical, uncritical look at the idea of the Wild West. But it became clear relatively early on that Stranger’s Wrath had more to say than simply singing the praises of the American West. The game has strong themes concerning the conflict between the natural world and the industrial, as well as examining industry from the perspective of those whose land is stolen from them in the name of expansion. So let’s examine the ways in which the game explores those themes, from the subtle to the direct.
One of the more subtle ways in which we see nature versus industry playing out is in the aspect of the game which originally drew me to play Stranger’s Wrath in the first place: the live ammo system. Stranger is not your typical wild west gunslinger, and one of the first lines we hear him say is that he doesn’t like guns at all. Stranger’s weapon is a crossbow which is capable of firing living creatures at enemies, with each creature having a different effect based on its biological properties. Stranger doesn’t battle enemies who have this same system of ammo – instead, they utilize more industrial tools like firearms and explosives. Stranger literally uses nature as a weapon against the forces of industry.
This plays out in the environment too, with Stranger able to turn the tide against opponents who are superior in numbers and in weaponry by utilizing the natural environment to hide or set up traps. The characters who represent industry try to tame the wild; Stranger, representing nature, instead works in harmony with it to stop them. It is no accident that the bad guys in Stranger’s Wrath aren’t able to swim. They seek to control the water because water unmakes them and has power over them. It has a mechanical purpose in allowing you to use bodies of water to assist you in defeating enemies, but it also works together with the storytelling to reinforce the themes of the game.
I think it will be helpful to look at the story of the game in its full context, which means discussing spoilers for Stranger’s Wrath. In the beginning the player is given a simple premise: Stranger is a bounty hunter in need of a significant operation. You hunt down outlaws and collect their bounties in order to make the money to have the procedure done. During the various hunts that Stranger undertakes during these early hours, you begin to learn various details about the game world. There are creatures in the setting referred to as natives occupied the land before the clakkers who live there currently. During your mission to rescue a particular clakker by the name of Eugune Ius, we see the perspective of the industrialized world about the beliefs and practices of the native people (called grubbs).
Eugene Ius is clearly dismissive and critical in his explanation of the grubbs’ teaching, and presents them as unscientific beliefs closer to a religion than a presentation of historical fact. The grubbs “believed” that their water was protected by noble guardians known as the Steef. These steef protected the water until a demon called an oktigi began to kill the steef in order to steal the water for itself. Eugene considers the grubb stories to be hogwash and derides them even as he delves deeper into their ruins to study them. This helps the player to see that while the clakkers may not be directly responsible for taking the grubbs’ ancestral home, they are more than content to benefit from the industrial expansion and consider themselves to be superior solely on the basis of more “advanced” technology or a more “scientific” belief system.
We learn from Eugene Ius that the real explanation for the disappearance of the water is not a demon but rather the dam which serves as the primary source of industry for this part of the world. It is through the owner of that dam that Stranger finally gets a chance at making the moolah he needs for his operation. Sekto agrees to pay Stranger $20,000 for the head of a steef, one of the noble guardians of the water that the grubbs so revered. Stranger claims to be able to know where to get one, but Sekto doesn’t play fair. Sekto tips off his sheriff to go after Stranger, and that sheriff discovers Stranger’s secret: he is the very steef that Sekto is trying to find.
Stranger’s identify as the steef plays strongly into the game’s themes about nature and industry. In the beginning, Stranger is seeking an operation which will allow him to more easily blend in with the civilized world. But once his identity is revealed and the grubbs rescue him from the sheriff, Stranger begins a journey of no longer rejecting but instead accepting his role as a guardian of nature. Taking out Sekto isn’t just about revenge for the steef or claiming a bounty – Sekto’s dam is what ruined the ancestral home of the grubbs and allowed the clakkerz to move in and industrialize. Stranger is no longer using nature only as a tool for his own ends – he is explicitly allying with nature against a force that does not respect it.
The grubbs regularly refer to Sekto as a demon, and it is this that helps us to understand that Sekto is the oktigi from the stories that Stranger learned from Eugene Ius. The dam is Sekto’s curse, an intentional act of violence that stole water from the grubbs and put their whole way of life at risk. And his theft goes beyond just the theft of the water and the killing of the steef; when Stranger finally defeats Sekto and destroys the dam, Sekto himself is revealed to be little more than an octopus parasit, swimming off in defeat as his host body lays dying. Sekto’s host is the original steef who protected the water, and with his final breath he asks if the water is finally free.
Looking back at my childhood experiences with Oddworld, it is easy as an adult to see how anti-colonial themes run through the series as a whole. The villains in Abe’s story – the Glukkons – are always suit-wearing industrialists who care nothing for the natural world. Meanwhile, the native Mudokens are literally enslaved to perform the labor that allows that industry to flourish. Throughout the series, Oddworld shows its players the impacts of unrestrained greed and casual disregard for other life and the natural world. In Stranger’s Wrath, this is demonstrated through the decline of the grubbs and the decay of a land that no longer receives its vital water.
These themes are interesting ones in any time, but in 2020 they are perhaps more relevant than they were even in the game’s original release window. We live in a world where humanity is now forced to grapple with difficult truths about the relationships between nature and industry. In the United States specifically, the factories that now pour damaging amounts of chemicals and fumes into our planet were built on stolen land using the unpaid labor of a stolen people. And while most of us are not the oktigi directly responsible for this wide-scale destruction, we can easily fall into the role of clakkers who passively benefit from industry while the victims of our corporate overlords continue to suffer.
Stranger’s Wrath tells the story of a savior, a warrior who by their very nature is meant to protect the water and reclaim what was stolen from the grubbs. The manner in which he accomplishes this mission is dramatic and irreversible; justice in this case means unmaking the civilization that industry built. What would justice mean in real life? I won’t pretend to know the answer to that question, but I think it’s fascinating that Stranger’s Wrath dares to ask it. The fact that a series I once loved because you could perform a magical chant to possess your own fart cloud and use it to blow bad guys to smithereens created a game that shares a compelling story about colonial violence and the dangers of unchecked development is truly impressive, and it left me thinking about Stranger’s Wrath well after the credits rolled.