thoughts on futuristic/alt-historical Westerns

I’m creating a (scenario? setting?) that’s best termed as a “Mars Western”, because you know I love Mars.

I think the Western presents story tropes that have value (albeit critically). Man WIth No Name, the Deputy, the Eastern Dandy, etc. I don’t think the Western is exclusively and entirely the stories of the, well, genocide and war that happened at that time. [I might be just an apologist here that needs to get with the program. That’d be a fair criticism.]

I used to think that porting the Western tropes to a fantastic/alt-historical setting is a way to have the tropes without the horrors. (And I’ve totally made this argument back at the Forge circa 2004, lol.) However, I’m coming to like this idea less and less. Even if we jettison the tropes that are tied to racist/imperialist attitudes, to create a Western without the Indian Wars may in fact be erasing the Indian experience from existence, so ultimately going even further than said wars.

And then again, I think back to Shadowrun, which (if I recall) had a plot element of “duuuude the american indians came back isn’t that awesome go shamans”. I have taken this to be a fundamental game design lesson of how to be embarrassingly tokenizing. I also don’t want to specifically make a plot point in alt-history that specifically recreates those crimes. I feel stupid of dragging POC into the future just to do more bad shit. That’s dumb.

Here’s a recent idea I had for my “Mars Western”: It’s 20X6, and the colonization effort on Mars has been largely transnational. However, there’s a dead colony out in the Hellas basin (“Colony One”) that was the most populous hub and that was largely autonomous of the trade corporations that set up most of the later Mars colonies. Some refugees/exiles of Colony One survive still.

The point of the above: I’m not revisiting specific atrocities, but I am still tying this setting to an underlying current of horror and turmoil. If you’re want the narrative of the frontier, you need to taste the blood in your mouth; you need to hear the crash of a war machine to which you are implicitly tied. Our demons follow us to new worlds without compromise.

So… does this work? Or is this another case of misery tourism, or erasing history, or worse?

ETA: Here’s the writeup I had, for more context.

It’s 2062, and it’s a wild mess out on the Martian frontier. The “Free Mars” crowd is raising a ruckus, while the scientists are tweakin’ the weather with a ferocity. (And the fate of Colony One? A subject you’d best avoid.) But this doesn’t concern a ‘slinger such as yourself: you just need to recover a shipment of H2O from some of the most unsavory warlords on Mars. Greed, revenge, redemption and death await on the red dunes.

[spacerpunk] and youth

This game is so deeply soaked in the narratives and ideology of youth subculture. I started writing this in 2004, in the waning days of college.

It’s getting closer to playable, but it may be too late. I’m old enough that I cannot look back at that mindset without a critical eye.

[spacerpunk] evolving setting

I’ve been talking at length with a friend, and got some insightful feedback.

* My setting carries and 90s aesthetic to the point that some of the built-in conflicts – e.g. the freaks vs the Corporation a la cyberpunk – seem dated in the modern era, or indeed would have seemed dated in 2002.

Oddly, this counts as a half-success. My work does pull from nostalgic memories from the late 90s/early 00s of certain fragments of subculture that I’m reconstituting in zero-g. And yet, I still want to go for retro and relevant, rather that purely a throwback. More balancing to be done.

* It’s a given that spacerpunks are generally part of the fringe of this society. But why? There is the natural youthful impulse to rebel and find your own path, but there needs to be more motivation than tourism to get someone to risk their life for life with a hopeless ship and a feckless crew.

* I’ve tried to put shards of existing pop-culture into the various splats, scrapbook-like. However: there’s simply more of it than I can handle, and trying to port all the fun parts of pop-culture into the game is both subjective and doomed.

* By design, I’ve tried to let all the setting content of the game be generated through play and oracles. The universe is a decentralized network of islands.

As a side-effect of this and/or my nostalgic punk influences: the game has a decidedly suburban bent! In a decentralized world, there isn’t necessarily a Core to which all are drawn, and the lack of that blocks out some stories. I’m not yet sure if this is okay, or if I want to create a canonical equivalent of “the City” to which spacers are drawn. (Then again: worlds are created randomly, and we can let a hub emerge organically.)

Setting design is hard.