A masterpiece of setting.
I never thought I’d be so moved by a game’s placement of shrubbery, but here we are. Red Dead Redemption‘s desert is so vital and articulated that it stood up to a level of scrutiny I’d never lobbied at a game world before. You see, the desert is a special place to me. Growing up in southern California, those blistering, barren expanses always served as a rough but oddly inviting next door neighbor, an alien world of mystery and danger mere minutes from my suburban home. Like many American males this past century, its lore and legend captivated me from childhood onwards. So, I was skeptical: Could a mere simulation really capture the subtle range of emotions I felt for this land? Could it capably contrast the desert’s awe-inspiring, church-of-nature beauty with its unfeeling, Herzogian brutality? Could a computer environment do justice to the dozens of films and novels that already richly encapsulate the Wild West in the popular imagination?
While I expected good things from the fairly impeccable Rockstar Games (although I’ve never touched Redemption‘s spiritual predecessor, Red Dead Revolver), I was not prepared for just how much this game gets right, and how emotionally satisfying that attention to detail is. This is a game in love with the desert for all the right reasons, that tempers its eye candy with a death-baiting hostility and vice-versa. You don’t need a geographer or ecologist to tell you that certain natural elements are heightened, if not outright ignored. This is still a video game, after all, but it’s one that is accurate in spirit and deliberate in what it includes from its setting’s real world inspiration, and that should be what matters. I scoured the landscape’s details for flaws, but everything I observed — from the swaying of wild flowers in the breeze to the way puddles accumulate in hoof prints during a nasty thunder storm — was magnificent, every twig and rock placed so perfectly that I got chills doing nothing more than surveying the horizon. Red Dead Redemption‘s Old West is designed to elicit genuine emotion and highlight the universal themes of Western mythology. Years from now, when we’re all strapped into our Valve-approved virtual reality helmets, playing games that look so real you might actually be able to reach out and touch them, Red Dead Redemption will still resonate as a viable world. It’s a virtual reality with higher aims than looking pretty.
So it’s a shame that none of its characters will shut up long enough to allow me to enjoy the breathtaking world they live in. Red Dead Redemption takes place in 1911, the twilight of the unruly Old West. You know this because technology is slowly usurping the simpler way of life — trains snake through the desert like imposing, serpentine hellspawn — and a turn-of-the-century town, with its cold, cobblestone streets and dull, square buildings claustrophobically sardined together, hangs over the land like the government officials constantly watching over protagonist John Marston. But you also know it’s the dying days of the Old West because pretty much everyone you encounter will tell you as much. The inhabitants of New Austin and its surrounding regions are a chatty bunch, and they have no problem roping Marston in to a horseback ride’s length conversation about Big Thematic Issues like morality and honor and the advent of these newfangled motor cars. If Rockstar was trying to fashion a piece of pro-nature propaganda, they succeeded; the pure bliss of Redemption‘s sight-seeing and survivalism is too often trampled by its single-minded caricatures’ long-winded musings. (What’s even more depressing is the dialogue and voice-acting are probably still in the upper echelon of cutscene-heavy games!)
What makes the constant yammering even more heartbreaking is that, when allowed to speak for itself, Red Dead Redemption‘s story is a more than serviceable Western yarn, one indebted to the leisurely, old school film classics of John Ford and Howard Hawks as well as the more en vogue hyper-violence of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch or Clint Eastwood’s grim, steely Unforgiven. (Although I suppose saying a Western narrative takes from Ford and Hawks is about as helpful as saying a fantasy story borrows from Tolkien.) It’s a classic revenge tale, with a handful of twists: John Marston, a former bandit now trying to clean up his life for his wife and son, is forced to track down and capture his former gang members for the equally dastardly United States government. They have his family held hostage, you see, and Marston’s only chance of seeing them again is to play bounty hunter and atone for his supposed sins. The hunt takes him through hell and high water, and in the game’s bravura sequence, across the Mexican border. I’m not familiar with singer-songwriter Jose Gonzalez, but the use of his song “Far Away” as Marston surveys the unfamiliar Mexican terrain for the first time is as effective a scene change as I’ve seen in any medium, and an example of “video games imitating the language of film” done right.
Unsurprisingly, the execution doesn’t always live up to its cinematic ambitions. Rockstar’s pubescent worldview — so perfectly in sync with the gleeful abandon and blunt satire of their Grand Theft Auto III era games (seriously, has there ever been a better mesh of sensibility and setting than Vice City?) — doesn’t have the light touch to render their newer creations three-dimensional or sympathetic. The developer’s view of humanity is so cynical, filtered through so much aimless grittiness and adolescent passion for extremity, that you wonder if anyone employed by the company has ever even spoken to someone not weaned on a frat house’s DVD collection. The best example of how tiresome this tone becomes is in the game’s “Stranger” sidequests, in which Marston lends a hand to a vast array of low-lifes and degenerates spread across the land. These encounters are like a never-ending casting call for that scene in Dead Man with the insane fur-trappers and Iggy Pop in a dress, but no one auditioning understands the wit or absurdity of the scenario. It takes a lot to make me pine for assisting simple, good-natured townspeople in a morally unambiguous RPG, but by the time I brought back flowers to a seemingly innocuous old man only for him to give to them to his rotting, unburied corpse of a wife — and this was immediately after assisting a man who wanted to do unspeakable things to his horse and another strongly implied necrophiliac, mind you — I was ready to stick to the (comparatively) nuanced and believable folks Marston meets on his main journey.
As with almost all mission-based titles, pacing issues plague the campaign, especially in its early going. I’m not sure who enjoys the outdated cycle of being in control of a character for roughly two to five minutes, performing a rather straightforward task (usually laid out, down to which button to press, on the screen for you), then being “treated” to an equally long cutscene for the first several hours of a game, but it is still a common enough formula that it must work for someone. There is an odd lack of build in Red Dead Redemption‘s missions, as well; usually the task Marston sets out to accomplish is the one he ends up completing, with the occasional ambush being the only unexpected complication. Most missions play out as a series of and thens — Marston engages in a shoot-out and then rescues the villagers and then captures the bad guy and then rides after the train — when engagement and dramatic tension are built so much more solidly on ors and buts. The best action involves things constantly going wrong and getting worse for the protagonist; think of how insanely the odds are stacked against, say, Ripley in Aliens (the greatest straight action film of all time, in my humble opinion) as the film progresses. Being charged with a task and then carrying it out as planned (as an alarming number of Red Dead Redemption‘s missions progress) isn’t exactly white-knuckle storytelling. Thank goodness for Dead Eye, Marston’s almost game-breaking superpower that slows down time and allows the player to carefully choreograph elaborate gunfights. It elevates many of the game’s lamer missions by creating a sense of personal ownership of the one-sided bloodshed.
Yet for all these missteps, there are some major story elements that Rockstar impressively nails more than ever before. John Marston is their best attempt at a developed protagonist yet. There’s something inherently likeable and empathetic about him, his scarred face and gruff voice rendering him the sort of world-weary badass we need more of; he seems genuinely flawed, right down to his very appearance. And by casting him as an outlaw trying to clear his name, the game’s writers give Marston believable leeway to act in any number of contradictory ways, as required of a protagonist in an open world adventure. Somehow, it doesn’t feel wrong for Marston to go from robbing and killing an innocent passerby one moment to delightfully picking posies the next. It’s a testament to the fact that player characters can have genuine personalities and still be malleable enough to suit the needs of the gameplay.
And the ending. Oh my God, the ending. If there was ever a game pushed into the stratosphere of all-time greats by its final act, this is it. I would go as far to say the ending of Red Dead Redemption is one of the most powerful and lasting statements I’ve observed in a video game. After the final gang member is killed, Marston’s family is released from government custody, and he is allowed to begin his life anew with them on a humble ranch. This is where most games would end the tale, the loose ends completely tied up and the protagonist’s desires resolved. But life goes on, and Red Dead Redemption settles into a quiet, pastoral rhythm, where the simplicity of the missions becomes an asset instead of a hindrance. One day, Marston has to scare some crows away from the ranch’s silo. The next, he takes his son Jack hunting for the first time. This section is as intimate as a major release gets, and it of course ends in tragedy. The officials who originally recruited Marston become paranoid he might revert to his original life of crime, so they round up a posse to take him out. In a moment reminiscent of other games that take their protagonists past the point of no return — think Shadow of the Colossus — Marston’s death is not depicted in a cutscene. Control is handed back to the player, who will inevitably try to use their God-like Dead Eye ability against the gang. But that all-powerful spell, that halting of time that rendered Marston the Angel of Death countless times throughout the game, fails, and Marston goes down in a final blaze of glory.
Now, here’s where things get interesting. Flash-forward several years to find Jack Marston burying his mother next to his long-dead father. He bears quite the resemblance to his old man, but he’s still younger, softer. Jack sets out on a quest to find the government man and get revenge for his father’s murder. Unsurprisingly, he does so, but neither society nor the outlaw life Jack now seems destined for is celebrated in this conclusion. But it doesn’t even end there: Jack is now the player character in Red Dead Redemption, and the year is now forever 1914, not 1911. Several of the characters the player met as John Marston have died or moved on, yet many more quests and distractions remain for his son to participate in. Red Dead Redemption‘s world is so indelible that it outlives the player’s primary connection to it. Just like the real world — and just like the real desert, that unforgiving stand-in for death and spiritual pursuit in so many major myths and stories — the land of New Austin goes on just fine without John Marston, still marching toward progress, still engaging in the infinite push-and-pull between the wild and the civilized.
Red Dead Redemption is a sandbox game, so there are of course countless mini-games to try, new outfits to buy, and any number of useless trinkets and memories to purchase and compete for. You will find these distractions compulsively engaging, monotonously repetitive, or, if you’re like me, a little bit of both. I spent longer than I care to admit playing poker in New Austin’s many saloons, getting a kick out of bluffing my opponents and watching my fortunes rise and fall. There are also achievements in hunting and gathering plants, neither of which I pursued too far despite my overwhelming desire to ride off into the wild whenever the civilized world became too much to bear. As silly as it sounds, I found myself treating this fake desert the way you’re supposed to treat the real one: Take nothing out except what you brought in. (Okay, so I made a few exceptions when there were wolves after me.) This is especially ridiculous considering Rockstar made its name allowing players to create an unprecedented level of comic chaos in their highly rendered worlds. But I think it’s a testament to how simply wandering through Red Dead Redemption‘s setting is a transcendent experience. It’s not perfect, and too often falls prey to the usual modern game design disappointments. But conversely, what it does well could only be achieved through video games, and those elements, like my memories of the real desert, will stay with me a lifetime.
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