Go West! In the open air...
Go West! Where the skies are blue...
Go West! This is what we're gonna do...
So you're reading a story/watching a movie/playing a game and someone, usually The Protagonist, has to embark on a journey somewhere. Maybe The Hero has to go rescue the oppressed, maybe it's a family migrating to a place where they hope to live better lives, maybe someone has to escape a powerful enemy. Whatever the case, it's very likely that they'll be headed west.
Several circumstances conspire together to make west the direction to go:
Going west means our hero(es) will be coming from the east, which means the sun will rise behind them. It is widely accepted that the sun is a metaphor for light and all that is good and righteous. Similarly, dawn is a metaphor for new beginnings and hopes. So going west is a sort of Visual Metaphor, showing that our hero is bringing new hopes for better life with them. Furthermore, from a cinematic prospective, it makes for a very heroic and awesome shot.
Another reason has to do with recent history. When the European nations entered their expansionist periods, they started going north, east, and south. To the west was a vast and dangerous ocean. When Europe was running out of room, they tried going west and found a continent that was entirely new. So "west" became the direction of exploration, challenge, and great rewards. As America became colonized and then independent, and the United States purchased the Louisiana territory, west was STILL waiting for European-descended explorers, and held challenge and land for anyone who could defend their territory. This concept was further promoted by the discovery of gold in the western and northwestern mountains, prompting the Gold Rushes as people flocked successively further and further westward to seek riches and fortune on the frontier. These events are still recent in a sense to the human race, and so "west" has become associated with "frontier", "adventure" and "unknown" tropes, and the braving of great risks for great rewards.
In the Eastern world, the passage of the great ocean seemed impossible, so Japan was the furthest East one could travel. If one wished to explore new things, then West to the mountains is where you had to go.
Note: this trope is for when the journey west has symbolism and meaning beyond just "Character X happens to go west". For examples to count, they have to imply a new life, a quest or an adventure of some sort. If our heroes are heading west only at the end of the plot this is Riding into the Sunset.
This trope is frequently used to start a Cowboy Episode. A Left-Justified Fantasy Map can lead to this if the characters are interested in crossing the sea. For the video game equivalent see When All Else Fails, Go Right. Contrast Eastward Endeavor.
- Mushrambo: The heroes head west to Shinzo, where the last human city is, in order to save humanity. Also throughout the show Yakumo repeatedly says something along the lines of "always going west, to Shinzo".
- Princess Mononoke: While defending his village, Ashitaka's arm becomes infected by an angry forest god. The Cool Old Lady who heads the village sadly expels Ashitaka, advising him to journey west to the great old forests, there perhaps to plead for forgiveness from the other forest gods.
- In the post-apocalyptic movie The Book of Eli, Eli has been told to go west until he finds a place where the titular book will be safe and useful.
- Gangs of New York: Jenny talks of her desire to leave New York for San Francisco to start a new life. At the end of the film, she and Amsterdam do just that.
- Inverted and parodied in the comedy Wagons East, where the failing settlers hire a wagon master to help them leave the West, and return to the homes they left behind when they tried frontier life.
- In The Godfather saga, Michael Corleone decides to leave New York and its old organized crime ventures and moves to Las Vegas to build a legitimate business empire. He's successful at that, but loses his family in the process, prompting him to eventually go back to New York. His rival Hyman Roth explains that the founding of Las Vegas was a genius idea, a city built out of a desert stop-over for GI's on the way to the West Coast.
- Journey to the West is an ancient note Chinese story about Xuanzang and his mission to find the scrolls of Buddha and bring them back home. He and his protectors go far west, beyond the mountains, to find the scrolls. The reason for Xuanzang heading west is fundamentally geographical, as he traveled from China to Buddhism's place of origin in India. Given its age, it's most likely the Trope Maker of significant westward journeys.
- Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief: The prophecy given before the quest starts with "You shall go west, and face the god who has turned".
- The Lord of the Rings: Inverts this as the heroes journey east and then south. Probably symbolic of the fact that they, in contrast to the vast majority of epic stories, set out to get rid of something rather than to find something. At the very end of the book though most of the characters do in fact travel all the way west—to either spend the rest of their eternal life there, or to die there.
- The Silmarillion contains a story called "The Great March", about the elves trying to escape the corruption of Morgoth. The Valar help the elves reach Valinor, a paradise untouched by evil, while the elves must cross the continent on foot, and ride an island across the western sea.
- At the start of the second series of Warrior Cats, the main characters receive a sign that they must head toward a place where the sun drowns in the water each night—i.e. journey to the west, toward the sea.
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The heroes head west twice—once to Emerald City and again to defeat the Wicked Witch of the West.
- The Anabasis chronicles the March of the Ten Thousand from deep inside the Persian Empire to Greece.
- Redwall: In Mossflower, Martin the Warrior and his companions travel west from the Mossflower Wood to the mountain of Salamandastron, looking for a smith who can fix his sword. Part of the riddle that guides their journey tells them to follow the setting sun. Other books also feature westward quests to Salamandastron, which sits on the coast of the Left-Justified Fantasy Map.
- Book 2 of Son of the Mob starts with Vince, Kendra, and Alex making a cross-country trip to California, where they will be starting college. Vince's movie script version of the scene describes them as Riding into the Sunrise for symbolic reasons, but Kendra points out that would be impossible since they're going west.
- The The X-Files episode "Drive" has Agent Mulder drive stricken Patrick Crump due west at high speed. Crump and his wife lived near an antenna array that caused their inner ear pressure to escalate. Driving fast due west through the Earth's magnetic field was the only way to relieve the terrible pain.
- In Vikings, Ragnar Lodbrok is an ambitious man of humble origins who is dissatisfied with the established Norse practices of tending poor homesteads and raiding bankrupt villages to the east. Instead he looks west, dreaming of the riches and glory that await anyone brave enough to sail the open sea.
- The Village People have a song, "Go West", where the "west" in the song is a paradise the singer is inviting people to join him in going to. It was later covered by the Pet Shop Boys.
- Tom Waits has a song, "Goin' Out West", where the singer is trying to escape his current life and start a new one "out west", where people will "appreciate him".
- Warcraft III: the plot gets kicked off when the Prophet urges Thrall and later Jaina to take their people (orcs and humans respectively) to the previously-unknown western continent of Kalimdor, as the eastern kingdoms are lost to the Undead. By allying themselves with the local night elves, they can oppose a sufficient force to repel the demonic invaders.
- The initial scenario of the campaign mode of Railroad Tycoon 3, called "Go West", is set in the 19th century and requires the player to connect Boston and Buffalo. The next mission connects Cleveland and Saint Louis, and the third one finally connects Salt Lake City with Sacramento and San Francisco before 1875.
- The Oregon Trail: The game puts you in the shoes of a pioneer from the 1800s and has you pack your wagon with goods, weapons and provisions and set off with your family from Independence, Missouri, on a long, difficult journey following the westward trails across the Great Plains, the deserts and the mountains. The trek is absurdly dangerous, but those who survive to see its end will be rewarded with a new life and a homestead in the promised land of the fertile Willamette Valley, on the westernmost coast of the North American continent.
- In Chasing the Sunset Leaf's party is headed west because that's the direction the big flood swept his father towards.
- Looking for Group: After several Good Job Breaking It Hero moments Cale decides to Walk the Earth in search of good deeds to be done:
Richard: Can I ask you something?Cale: I know what you're going to ask. What do we do once we reach land? We turn everything over to the authorities, then we head out from town to town, village to village, and city to city, we'll do some good. Whenever, wherever we can. The whole time, travelling west. Always heading west. I will make that right. But first I need to earn it.
- Fievel's family does this twice. An American Tail tells the story of their travel from Europe to America, as they escape the cats of Russia. Then the sequel, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, has the family continuing to a midwest frontier town where "cats and mice live in harmony".
- In The Land Before Time, Littlefoot is told to follow the Great Circle (the sun) to find the Great Valley, meaning that it lies west.
- The following quote, attributed to Horace Greeley:
"Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country."