The planets have aligned again and Rockstar Games, the video game studio behind the groundbreaking, trend-setting Grand Theft Auto series, has given us Red Dead Redemption, a new entry in their Red Dead Western series and another prime demonstration of the “sandbox” style of game setting they pioneered.
Red Dead Redemption is about John Marston, a retired outlaw who in 1911 is coerced by federal agents into hunting down his old compatriots. It’s a story of gentrification, calling up varied works like The Wild Bunch, Deadwood and Unforgiven, with a mythical West slowly coming to heel under telephone lines, automobiles and growing federal control.
Bureau Chiefs Benjamin Birdie, David Campbell, Kevin Church, Ken Lowery, Andrew Weiss and Dorian Wright got the game on release day or shortly after, and have gathered to talk about the game’s tone, story, successes and shortcomings.
KEN: The game’s stats tell me I’m a little over halfway into the main story, so I feel I’m more or less capable of calling Red Dead Redemption a qualified success.
First and foremost it’s a beautiful game, in subtle and surprising ways: you get early on that this is The West, and it’s a more or less authentic take on different parts of Texas and Mexico at the time, and you move on. But every now and then you’ll be, say, riding along with an NPC just having a conversation when you hit a breathtaking vista at sunset or sun-up. Or you’ll walk into a town and stop, just to take in the ambient conversations and sounds of people (and their beasts of burden) going about their days. These are moments of remarkable yet understated lucidity.
If there is one thing Rockstar does better than anyone else, it’s create a sense of place. That’s because they understand that “place” isn’t just about physical space: it’s about the people, the color palette, the music direction, the outlook and the attitude. Place is tone, and Rockstar’s understanding of that is what puts them so far ahead of most of their competition.
DAVID: I think that’s the real key to Red Dead Redemption’s appeal–it’s an utterly convincing and recognizable game world. All the game elements work together seamlessly to create an immersive environment, something everyone talks about but you rarely see. The weather, time of day, sound design, population of critters, photorealistic environment, minimal UI stuff on screen–it all just works.
As proof of the game’s quality, Red Dead Redemption passed the Gary Test. My dad Gary sat next to me on a couch watching me play for a few hours the other night, and he was utterly entertained. We skinned coyotes, stopped a runaway herd of cattle in a storm, tracked down some bounties, got horsejacked, stopped a lynching, and just generally had an awesome time. This is a guy who couldn’t sit through five minutes of Arkham Asylum gameplay.
“It’s like playing a Western movie,” he said, which pretty much sums it up.
If a video game can pass the Gary Test and keep my dad engaged for an evening, it has succeeded not just as a game, but as a work of pop entertainment.
KEVIN: The immersive, interactive world has been covered by everyone else and I can’t really add anything to that, but I want to mention how full of character this game is, even as it plays with tropes and stereotypes from the spaghetti western genre. There’s honorable lawmen, Mexican warlords, and desert freaks a plenty, but none of them feel worn-out or cliché when you meet them. In an interesting choice, particularly for Rockstar, the hero John Marston isn’t just a Clint Eastwood pastiche: he’s a family man who stays faithful to a distant wife and son as he seeks the titular redemption.
I’m about at the same point Ken is — a bit over halfway through — and I’ve got to say this isn’t just Grand Theft Horse like some of the pundits have said. This is a game that creates a world you want to return to and experience, the equivalent of a fine cinematic experience that still embraces what this particular medium can do so well.
That said, the minigames are horseshit, particularly Liar’s Dice. I hate Liar’s Dice.
KEN: Man fuck Liar’s Dice.
ANDREW: I have been so busy enjoying the multplayer Free Roam mode that I’ve barely touched the singleplayer game.
There is something beautiful about shooting a random stranger’s horse out from under him with a hunting rifle, then snapping off a quick and final head shot as he scrambles for cover in the sagebrush while vultures circle overhead.
KEN: This hits on what I like about the game: We’ve all played it for a week now, and for the most part we’ve had different experiences. When I read that multiplayer offered levels and experience points with a progression in avatars, weapons, mounts and so on, it read to me like we were essentially getting two games: RDR the single-player, and RDR the MMO-lite. I’ve barely scratched the surface of MP–I’m still getting loading problems, and anyway I don’t care about levels if I’m not riding with my posse, namely you guys–but I’ve gone deep into single player… and still haven’t done all the hunting, herb-gathering and other mini-game-playing you guys have.
It’s an interesting thing. All the “random encounters” you hit in the greater world (saving a prostitute from a client with a knife, fending off ambushes with honeypot lures, and the like) add a lot to the feel, and you never get quite the same experience twice. On the other hand, I think Rockstar could have taken a page from Fallout 3, which is my new benchmark for sandbox games: everything in Fallout 3 was scripted and planned out to some degree, even the relatively contained world events that didn’t affect the greater story. You got the feel that every place you discovered would offer you something new, rather than a recycled event.
I still help out every civilian who comes to me, but I feel like they missed a chance for some flavor in the greater world.
DORIAN: I think the biggest flaw that I’ve come across so far is the same one that affects most of the Rockstar games I’ve played; there’s a slightly schizophrenic nature to the experience. They want to make these big, expansive, open world games where you can go anywhere and do anything, and that’s what their audience wants and responds to.
On the other hand, Rockstar also seems to want to be taken seriously as narrative storytellers. So in the midst of this big sandbox game, you’ve got a storyline that’s very on-rails, where your options are extremely limited and you often feel like you’re being led around by the nose. If you’ve been playing John Marston as a murderous asshole who kills everything that comes into his sights, the moment you trigger a story mission you become this passive guy who just does what people tell him to do. It’s not game breaking, but it can be disconcerting if you haven’t been playing the game the way Rockstar apparently intended you to.
KEN: Agreed. There’s some debate in video game circles about what makes the “best” kind of sandbox or RPG games: Those where the protagonist is a tabula rasa upon whom you impose your designs and will, and those whose actions and design are more controlled by the developers. Rockstar’s decision to have more control allows them to have a nuanced story that goes “how it should,” and as a result they create some of the best stories around… but it can be very limiting.
The easy contrast is to the Mass Effect series, where every action legitimately changes how everyone else reacts to you forever after. There’s also Fallout 3, which I mentioned before, where one of your very first decisions can result in the complete destruction of a town and all the people in it. Heady stuff. In comparison, Rockstar’s method of guiding you through the story–and allowing the critical “choice” element to only show up in a few areas that don’t really matter–can seem quaint, a relic of the last console generation’s shortcomings.
The trade-off is that they do tell a hell of a story. I just wish Marston was less passive, less put-upon, as if everything he’s doing is a chore or an errand. He’s in this story against his will, and it’d be nice to see some passion from him.
BENJAMIN: I’ll chime in with an admiration for what Rockstar are so relentless good at this generation: cutscenes. There’s no other game that I’ve played that allows the kind of subtlety in animation, performance, and even editing that theirs do. Scenes linger on, characters sigh and take their time. While sometimes their stories might not necessarily add up to a perfect narrative experience, nearly every piece along the way is fantastic.
It sucks that Final Fantasies get Movie Theater modes and not Rockstar games.
KEN: On another note, RDR shares with GTAIV a relatively new development in Rockstar’s sandbox games: combat is actually kind of, you know, fun. There’s still a fair amount of stickness and clumsiness to the controls–boy howdy does Marston like to mosey when I’m trying to turn around in the midst of a heated gun fight–but the cover system is workable and way more organic than Mass Effect 2; in that latter game you’d know combat was coming as soon as you turned a corner and saw a bunch of crates lined up neatly like Tetris blocks. In this, the environment is just there to be exploited.
Which makes multiplayer a hoot. I’ve only really gotten going that one time with you guys, but I can easily see myself becoming addicted to team-based play like that. We were riding, shooting, sniping, progressing into box canyons, laying siege to forts and holing up in Mexican towns while the Federales tried to get in at us. To be blunt, I love that shit. When a bunch of you guys loaded up in a stagecoach and I rode alongside on horseback on our way to the next place to attack, I got chills.
DORIAN: I have to say that this is one of the areas where the XBox 360 community is really living up to their reputation. Playing on the public servers, I’ve never seen this much spawn-camping before, not even on World of Warcraft’s Player-versus-Player servers. Spawn, take a few steps, get killed by a higher level player with a sniper rifle. Repeat until you either finally get out of his area or give up and go play on another server. I’m only thankful that I play with the mic turned off for anyone who isn’t on my friends list.
DAVID: Well, shit, that really sounds fun. I haven’t even touched multiplayer at all, but I’m looking forward to it. I’m completely satisfied with the single player, glitches and all.
As you mentioned, Ken, combat is fun and fairly forgiving. The targeting mechanics and deadeye mode tilt most gunfights in your favor and Marston can take quite a few hits before he actually kicks the bucket. Marston also possesses an uncanny healing factor that allow him to quickly bounce back from shotgun blasts and wolf maulings, which is handy. They should have called the game Mutant Cowboy. And made people ride giant radioactive ostriches instead of horses. I’m just sayin’.
BENJAMIN: Yeah, auto-aim is almost too good sometimes. There have been a lot of fights I’ve been in that ended up at night that I just kind of shot where the reticle was hovering and killed everyone without once really seeing them.
KEVIN: This is something I’ve seen people complaining about: how “easy” this game is and how it’s not a game for gamers. (This was in the comments on Metacritic, so, you know, grain of salt.) Personally, I think Red Dead Redemption, GTA, et cetera should be a bit more accessible because they’re games that are going to appeal to a much broader demographic than the Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A Start crowd. If you want hardcore gaming action, you can go try to shoot at Andrew in multiplayer. Good luck on that.
BENJAMIN: Oh, for sure. I’d much rather be like “Ha ha! This’ like shootin’ fish in a barrel!” than “GOT DAMNIT I CAIN’T SEE A THING WTF.”
ANDREW: Auto-aim (or a wide targeting box) is a is a must for console shooters, especially 3rd person ones. If you don’t like it, you can always switch to expert…while I use auto-aim to find and kill you.
KEN: Rockstar has an interesting outlook on just how rigidly it wants to observe reality. There’s a lot of nice little touches that make the whole thing seem real–that your default movement state is a walk, not a run, which is all about form over function–but when they send you on the umpteenth mission that requires you first ride halfway across Mexico, it can get a little tedious. They’ve also skipped the “you ‘die,’ you go to the hospital” thing and just said that if you die, you die. Start over.
What is nice is that they’ve implemented a “checkpoint” system within missions, as many of the missions are multi-stage affairs that require you to do different things at different points. Did you manage to sneak onto the train but got gunned down once it got in motion? No problem, it’ll just start you off from the “train in motion” point, not the “sneak onto the train” point. Game designers: PAY ATTENTION TO THIS.
Since we began this roundtable, I have progressed through the last half of the game and officially beaten the main storyline. It’s some hours after the credits rolled and I’m still thinking about what’s going on here, and about how Rockstar plays with the word “redemption” and forced me to reconsider what it might mean.
This is not an easy task. “Redemption” is a word that gets tossed around a lot in both Westerns and the revenge drama, and usually it’s just a way to cram in some pathos in hopes that the story will linger for a little while longer. But here I think they’ve done it: for the kind of person Marston is, “redemption” can only mean closing the circle. Tying up all loose ends.
Much like Fallout 3 and Mass Effect 2–two games I feel exemplify the very best in video game storytelling–I find I’m hesitant to return to the game for hunting and herb-gathering and other such busywork after I’ve beaten the main storyline. I’ve experienced the emotional catharsis of the thing, followed its path from beginning to inevitable (yet nonetheless surprising) conclusion, had my spirits lifted and my heart broken. I figure, why mess with perfection?