Nothing sells West of Loathing’s humor like a genuine creep-out.
Content note: this article contains mentions of blood and ritual violence
I am immediately leery of games billed as comedy or else characterized primarily as “funny”. Humor requires pacing and timing that doesn’t always jive with video game structures, especially when that game is an RPG with dozens of hours of content.
And yet, Asymmetric’s West of Loathing kept landing punchlines and pulling goofs without ever feeling trite. Chalk much of their success to understanding the tropes of both action RPG games and the Weird West genre, as they constantly toy with the conventions of both. Item descriptions, dialogue, world design, even battle animations wink and nudge the player until they, too, are laughing along.
Though, my moment of clear appreciation for West of Loathing’s pacing and tone didn’t involve spittoons or demonic cows or haunted pickle factories. Instead, I stumbled into an incidental subquest that prickled the hair on the back of my neck. Things got spooky, and I was not prepared.
Let me take you back there… to the massacre at Stearns Ranch.
I discovered the ranch while rambling in a general northward direction on my Pale Horse, my Pardner Doc Alice at my side. The scene was a dismal but familiar site. What remained of a once earnest homestead was but smoldering embers. No surprise for a ranch – since the Day the Cows Came Home, anyone dealing in animal husbandry had either run or been run’t off by those hellish heifers.
Undaunted, I hitched my ghostly steed and ambled inside the wreckage. Whole sections of the walls and ceiling had collapsed, exposing the interior to the harsh desert climate. I spotted scant remnants of a previous life: a cookpot still full of its last meal (burned beans), half of a bookshelf, and a surprisingly intact box of toys.
Books are enough of an oddity West of Loathing, so I hoped some treasure had been spared the flames. One small volume sat sheltered among the burned out shells, with an inscription on the inside cover that read “The Diary of Mary Stearns”.
Ah, shit. There had been children here, once. Stearns Ranch was not the first decimated location I had found, but it was certainly the first to portray the possible death of a child. This was new territory for the game, but my intrepid snake oil slinger (with a suitcase full of snakes, obviously) decided to crack the cover and read its contents.
Mary had found a doll who she believed was warning her and her family of their impending death at the cloven hooves of the Cows. Overactive imagination or some small divine providence? And what’s all this about a tea party keeping them away? Despite my growing skepticism, I read on.
I was now full on regretting ever stepping foot on this ranch. Whatever doll young Mary Stearns had found was no guardian angel, promises of protection be damned. Children were disappearing, and it was tearing what remained of this family apart. The last entry, written in a shaky hand, made it sound like one of the parents were the next guest to tea.
I shut the diary and tucked it into my bag. My eyes felt inexorably drawn to the squat box of toys on the floor. No, I thought. Best to leave now and bury this mystery in the ashes. Yet, my feet were already moving, and my hands were lifting the lid. I knew what to expect and still I recoiled at the site of a single toy within – a porcelain doll conspicuously spared from the fire.
I half expected it to lash out like a snake. That, at least, I could handle. Instead it sat there lifeless. Exactly as a child’s toy should. Violently pushing away any flighty notions, I decided to pull the string on the back if only to prove my logical mind correct.
The doll’s eyes listed into the back of its head, and the simple hinge of its mouth creaks open.
“Hi, I’m Grace! What’s your name?”
Without thinking, I answered. Stupid.
“Hi, Chase! You’re nice! Do you want to play with me?”
My legs turned to water beneath me, and I steadied myself into a crouch among the ash and dirt. My mind reached for anything that could possibly explain it knowing my name. Instead, I kept imagining that little girl, Mary Stearns, and what would compel her to write what she did in her diary.
I took a steadying breath before answering.
“Yes, let’s play.”
“Hooray!” the doll responded, the voice ringing hollow within its porcelain body. “Mary used to play with me, but we didn’t get to finish our tea party before she went away. Will you help me finish it?”
In for a penny…
Grace instructs me to fetch her cup from downstairs, using the phrase “peanut butter” to gain access past a cow guarding it. I might have laughed at the silliness of that, had I not just accepted a task from a possessed doll in the middle of a burned out farmstead.
I creeped outside, seeing the destruction of the Stearns Ranch in a stark new light. Had it been the Cows what done this place in, or was it the work of a vile spirit robbed of the conclusion to its tea party?
I stepped down into the gloom of the cellar, my lantern throwing shadows across a massive safe in the middle. Behind it, the stylized head of a steer was painted rusty brown. I felt for a door or a crack in the wall. I poked around for a mechanism or button or level but found nothing. Sheepishly, I approached the wall and whispered, “Peanut butter.”
I sensed the loosening of wall more than felt it. Something… gave way and I stepped through the seemingly solid stone and into a smaller caver beyond. An ornate altar topped with candles sat there, and at its center was Grace’s cup. Except it was a goblet, worked in ceremonial gilt and filled with a thick, dark substance.
I sniffed it cautiously. Yup, definitely blood.
Here among the sins and sacrifice of innocent people, I found my breaking point. There wasn’t any argument that could have convinced me to deliver that profane goblet to the doll upstairs. Mustering my strength, I lobbed it at the ground where it shattered on impact. Blood splashed across the ground and across the altar, and immediately the ground began to shake. Within the space of three breaths the entirety of the altar crumbled into pieces and then lay still.
Still riding the fumes of my anger, I clambered upstairs and returned to the toy box. Grace sat propped in one corner, and her eyes glowed a devilish red.
And then it was done. Grace, or whatever spirit had inhabited her, spoke no further when I pulled her string. The house was empty again, save me and Doc Alice kicking around the ruins. I found marked graves out back for little Mary and her parents, Jethro and Martha. Seems like a good samaritan laid them in their final rest before I arrived.
Good, I thought. Whatever happened here deserves to be buried and forgotten.
I rode off to further adventures and a return to West of Loathing’s often absurd sense of humor. The Stearns Ranch wasn’t the last spot of darkness (the Clown Carnival in the north has a rather regrettable freak show attraction), but it never again dipped so heavily into tropes of horror.
But that experience shaped the rest of my time with the game. Knowing West of Loathing had not only the chops but the wherewithal to dunk players into a legitimately creepy haunted murder scenario kept me a little on edge. Every time I opened a door and saw a goblin playing at being an Army captain, or a mine made of cow meat, or a man who wanted to coat my hat in silver, I sighed a little.
Humor is difficult for reasons I cannot adequately explain, but I know now that every laugh is made sweeter when it just as easily could have been a scream.