Reviews: Red Dead Redemption

Rockstar's Redemption

Y'know, for years I lumped Rockstar together with all the rest of the companies that make good, if brainless games whose greatest ambition are half-hearted attempts to appear as if they've got something to say, and in some respects I still do. But Red Dead Redemption came a bit out of nowhere as not only a truly conscientious Rockstar game. Hell, we're halfway through this decade and there's still scant little competition it faces in terms of being the decade's greatest game. (How much of this is owed to the perceived lacklusterishness of the decade thus far up to you, however.)

The marriage of Rockstar's open world sandbox gameplay and a Western setting is nothing less than a match made in heaven. In fact, its non-stereotypical approach to the setting—from the snowy north mountains to the dusty, arid plains of Mexico, and everything in-between—makes it probably my favourite open-world setting in video gaming. I could just ride around the entire map just looking at all the little details (and indeed, I have). And the typical feelings of open-world emptiness are mitigated by the fact that it feels true to the era, too. And that dynamic, atmospheric soundtrack... it's just perfect.

I won't deny peoples' complaints that the story elements of RDR are massively derived from various classic Western works, but tropes are not bad, as they, uhh, used to say. Featuring an instantly classic grey-area protagonist in John Marston—a "feck-ugly man, but not a bad one"—it's a pretty dark story about the end of the American Frontier, and the cost of societal "progress." It's a little undercut at times by Rockstar's typical plodding plot progression: you have to do favours for what seems like at least fifteen different characters that inevitably take ages to result in anything (if they don't turn out to be dead ends altogether), but it's got it where it counts. Its entire ending act is one for the ages. As a huge fan of Ford, Peckinpah, and Leone, this has my whole-hearted stamp of approval.

Also featuring one of the few online modes I've ever really liked and devoted a significant amount of time to, Red Dead Redemption is the total package in every sense of the word, and the best Western-related piece of entertainment produced so far in this millennium.

Not Quite Art

Red Dead Redemption would be a really good game if it didn't try so hard to be every Western ever made. It wants to be a John Ford Western, a Peckinpah Western and a Leone and Eastwood western at the same time. The fact is there are many different kinds of Westerns with its own tradition and what we see in Red Dead's plot and story is the most cliched ones imaginable, with the usual signposts of corrupt civilization cutting down raw wilderness that Ford tackled in his sleep, the Outlaw sent to hunt his former comrades like Robert Ryan in The Wild Bunch which is also the source for its borderline offensive Mexican section.

If Red Dead wanted to be art, well it could be if it settled for Howard Hawks' Red River, that's a movie about moving Cattle across a vast terrain and the parts in the game I like are the ones in Bonnie Mac Farlane's ranch and the ones at the end with John and his family. Everything else is stuff we've seen or seen parodied a million times and all of it done with more wit and panache. Rustling cattle, bucking horses, keeping wild animals off the farm and the incredible friendship between Mac Farlane and John, which is the only new and true thing in the game, are stuff that video games are made for. Ideally, this should have been a Zelda game, Majora's Mask for instance, shorter in focus, more cheerful, more domestic and less interested in trying to be Mr. Art with a Capital A.

This is Rockstar's big problem generally, they are great when they try not to be great, and when they aren't aware that they are great. Red Dead Redemption is a game that suffers from this.

Interactive art

First of all, this review has spoilers. If you haven't played, play it. Now. This is one of the most emotionally engaging games I have ever played, with a brilliant story, fleshed out characters, and superb atmosphere. You may hear people complain about gameplay issues, and there are some legitimate flaws in this game. But if you are looking for a wonderful example of video games as art, look no further than RDR.

Let's talk about Roger Ebert for a second. He claims that the reason video games are not art is because of the interactivity between the work and its audience. People have really criticized him for this statement, but to me it is an example of a man who deeply understands his own medium (film) but then assumes all other mediums follow the same logic. Every artistic medium has its own unique features, and one of film's most defining aspects is the almost total lack of interaction with its audience. Even in live theater, the audience contributes with their applause. In film, the audience is always in the moment, usually without even an intermission to pause and reflect. This is also why film is so powerful, especially as propaganda: Birth of a Nation would not have worked as a play, because it would have depended on the audience's responses, which could very well have prompted boos.

Other mediums have different levels of interactivity. Paintings, for example, are extremely interactive: letting people look at a still image for as much time as they care to, and drawing their own conclusions about it.

RDR is a perfect example of how to use interactivity to deliver an emotional point. Spoilers ahead. In RDR, you spend the whole game in the shoes of John Marston, and as likeable as he is at the beginning, the player starts to become at ease with him as the game progresses. The player becomes emotionally invested in the character. And then he dies. And the game KEEPS GOING. You play as somebody else, and never get to hear John's voice again. It's somebody else spurring their horse, or shouting profanities at outlaws. John's absence is felt in the game in a way that is not possible in film, because the player had not only an emotional investment in him, but a personal one. Nobody needs to say "I wish John was here" because the player feels it. It's one of the saddest, most powerful reactions I've ever had to anything.