After weeks of searching I’ve finally cornered one of the ghosts of a past I’d rather forget. I used to run with him in a gang, but I left that behind long ago. I tried to put everything behind me: to change and live a good, honourable life. I suppose I also tried to adapt to a fast-moving world where railroads and bureaucrats and technology are making us gunslingers of the past obsolete. But then again here we are, and I’m pointing my six-shooter into the eyes of another man, like so many times before. Before I have time to react he’s managed to escape, and I’m chasing him through a besieged military fort on the Mexico-side of the San Luis River. I fire a few times at him, but they’re mostly warning-shots. I’ve been ordered to take him alive if I can, and anyway: he’s a man I once called friend, regardless of how much time has come between us.
A little under a minute later I’m chasing him on horseback, and I pull out my revolver, aiming it at his horse. I can see the muscles on its flank move back and forth, up and down, as it runs, and I fire three shots into the hind quarters. It crumples to the ground, and I leap off my moving horse, lasso already spinning above my head, ready to tie up the man I’ve chased across what feels like half of Mexico. But my quarry is already dead: I can see from the blood seeping from his clothes that at least one of my bullets went astray, whether in the fort or atop the horse. I suppose the fall from the animal killed him outright. I take him back to the fort and place his body in a holding cell, and though I tried my best to keep him alive I sure as hell don’t feel too good about myself right now.
The fact that Red Dead Redemption can make you feel like this; make you go out of your way to take someone alive, make you emphasise with your target, and make you hesitate to pull the trigger at that most crucial of moments, is testament to its obvious and almost unparalleled strengths; it’s almost a masterpiece of modern videogames. At the most pivotal moments of the game I was fully drawn in by the plight of John Marston, whom you play as, who has had his family kidnapped by government agents for his past crimes, and who needs to hunt down the members of his old gang of outlaws in order to secure the freedom of his wife and son. And though throughout the course of the game you’re presented with fantastically realised events of world-changing importance (for much of the game’s middle portion Marston finds himself embroiled in a peasant’s revolution in Mexico) it’s the small-scale human drama that has the biggest impact.
Red Dead Redemption can be described as Grand Theft Auto in the Old West: It follows the system of a largely linear main story set in a huge, open world the player can explore and interact with at their leisure, and this open world also houses a large number of tasks and adventures the player can engage in outside of the main story. As well as all this, it follows the Rockstar Games tradition of relying heavily on rather masterfully-done cutscenes to move the narrative along. But the feel of Red Dead Redemption differs hugely from any of the past GTA games, in that the Grand Theft Auto series has always sought to portray the bustling, fast-paced nature of modern city-life. Red Dead Redemption, set in the dying days of the Old West, feels completely different even though it shares the same basic structure: It’s all wide-open spaces, vistas of a sunset over the rolling plains of West Elizabeth, and a feeling of loneliness.
The world you explore is phenomenally impressive: not only is it really something else graphically and aesthetically speaking, as you gallop through the Mexico wilderness, or mosey on down the Main Street of the town of Armadillo, but it really captures the atmosphere of the Old West as we know it through films and comics and literature. The wilderness is filled with an impressive sense of space, without feeling empty, and the towns are packed with smoking and gambling, prostitutes and bar-bums, food stores and gun-smiths, and incidental detail that’ll occasionally made me just stop and look around, trying to take everything in. The soundtrack also adds greatly to the sense of place, and drama throughout the game, including a few licensed songs used at specific moments throughout the storyline that are well-chosen and well-timed, to the point where two of my most memorable moments in the roughly twenty hours the game lasted consisted merely of riding my horse through the desert, or the foothills, and listening to a song quietly play. This sense of atmosphere extends to the cutscenes, which are consistently written with an understanding of convincing dialogue, pacing, and the feeling of the time period in question. They also show off an impressive attention to cinematography that is largely absent elsewhere in the medium. Rockstar clearly understands and is influenced by cinema to such an extent that I kind of want them to make a bloody film, just to see how it turns out. And yes, maybe more videogames should be looking for a more interactive way to tell stories, instead of relying on cinematic techniques and flourishes, but there’s certainly room for games relying on cutscenes, especially when the writing is as good as it is here.
And speaking of the writing: John Marston is probably the most interesting and convincing videogame character I’ve seen in years. Rob Wiethoff, the actor who plays Marston, is convincing throughout, and I’d say that any emotional engagement that comes about as a result of playing the game is at the very least partly a result of his wonderful portrayal of a complicated, flawed character. The cast of actors is mostly superbly talented, though the writing behind some of the lesser characters isn’t always strong: the Irish stereotype, named Irish, is occasionally interesting, but he lapses into stereotype for stereotype’s sake most of the time. Similarly, the head of the Mexican revolution, Abraham Reyes, is quickly shown to be a rather flat character, and I found myself able to predict with great accuracy both his character arc and the outcome of his attempt at wresting power from the authorities within minutes of meeting him. In some cases, especially with Reyes, I feel that Rockstar thinks it’s being far more clever and subtle than it actually is. But as I said, overall the writing is hugely impressive, and Rockstar really captured an impressive atmosphere with the game.
There are occasional bits of technical strangeness that can really pull you out of the experience (Though the engine usually puts out convincing character movement, especially with horses, Marston can move strangely at times, especially when running unarmed, and there are issues with moving to and from cover, and firing through windows during a gunfight), but it’s largely a solid game technically-speaking. The actual combat is something I have issues with, however: it’s mostly very capable, and every so often a gunfight, on foot or on horseback, can just come together in a stunning manner, but often its a little flat. It can feel like all you’re doing is hiding behind cover, waiting for an enemy to pop up so you can fire at him, and there are many, many missions where you’re speeding somewhere on horseback, only to face wave after wave of enemies on horses running at you, firing wildly. Not only can it feel a little uninspired, but the moments where you or an ally get shot five or six times, and you can actually see the big great holes spilling blood everywhere, can pull you out of the experience faster than I can come up with a pithy remark about this particular problem.
I am rather tired with games that try in many ways to be realistic, and then allow you to be a big old bullet-sponge, lumbering from place to place while bits of metal career into your skull. Mostly it works fine for what it is, but I would like to have seen an option for something different; like a Metro 2033-style difficulty mode where you and your enemies both do far more damage with each shot, with perhaps far fewer enemies also, meaning you have to play carefully, leading to a greater feeling that you’re really in a Western gunfight rather than playing about with water pistols. Finally, though Dead Eye Mode (an ability to slow down time and carefully pick your shots, allowing you to take out great numbers of enemies at once when used well) is a great help at times, and satisfying to employ, it’s just too easy to overuse. It can make things far too easy a great deal of the time: you can pretty much consistently take out five or six enemies, impervious to gunfire all the while, and then rinse and repeat without having to worry too much about your Dead Eye meter falling to zero.
So the fighting is a little uninspiring and problematic, but missions where you have to chase someone down, fight bandits from a moving train, and so on can be very impressive, and there are times when just trotting through the wilderness is near-magical. The inclusion of the ability to challenge or be challenged to duels, herd cattle, play poker, break in wild mustangs, and so on and so forth not only adds to the sense of being in the Old West, but also adds some much-appreciated variety outside of gunfighting, which can become like a crutch for many of the story missions. But while sometimes the actual missions can be by-the-numbers, the main pleasures aren’t to be had from the act of shooting people in the head very quickly and with great aplomb.
Instead, the main pleasure to be had from Red Dead Redemption is in the engagement with the storyline, and the incidental vignettes you’ll occasionally bump into throughout the world. John Marston’s journey turned out to be one of the best and most moving stories I’ve experience in a game to date, though it drags for a few hours in the middle, while you’re going about Mexico performing tasks for both the revolutionaries and the psychopathic government figures (which is problematic, in that it undermines Marston’s moral code a little, even though it’s clear that he’s making moral compromises throughout the story in order to save his family, and because it makes little sense for the government to hire a man known to be helping the revolution to go and slaughter revolutionaries). Overall, the story is one about change, a lack of change, savagery, and obsolescence. Marston and his old gang members are a dying breed; we see the technology and government creeping into the western states; irrevocably changing them. And this march of change feeds into what you actually do within the game, both within the story missions and often outside. The game is at its greatest, in fact, when its narrative and its interactive elements come together and form a compelling whole in this way.
We also see, later on, the plight of Native Americans, and nature against the forces of civilisation. It’s clear that peoples’ lives, and very ways of life, are being torn apart by these changes. And we see the callousness and ignorance which eventually will shape the land: A Native American tries to tell Marston and a famous anthropologist who’s come to study the ‘noble savages’ that the buffalo will be extinct in a few years from over-hunting, and that the march of civilisation comes at a price. The anthropologist replies that such extinction is impossible, obviously, due to the law of evolution, and throughout their interaction he treats the Native American as if he’s entirely incapable of understanding both the English language, and the nature of true civilisation. In his actions, and the actions of other characters, Rockstar Games captures the attitudes of many people a hundred years ago and many people today, as well as all the problems that come with such attitudes. And within it all, within all these grand and world-changing events, you have John Marston; a man who’s done bad things, who’s tried to change, and tried to make things right. But in the end he’s not allowed to, and his old life keeps catching up to him regardless of all his efforts to make things right. We’re taken on a journey showing the inevitability of the decline of the old ways in the face of the new. We come to the realisation that the people he has to kill or capture aren’t necessarily as bad as they’ve been made out to be. We learn a lot about Marston, and a bit about the powers that have manipulated him. It’s powerful, and poignant, especially towards the end, and when the end finally comes we know that it really is the end, not just of a story, but of an era, and a way of life.
Buying a newspaper in the town of Blackwater I read that the Native American ‘problem’ has been removed, the outlaw leaders of the Old West have been killed or simply removed, and civilisation is moving in. Civilisation, at any price.