|Posted on July 21, 2010 at 1:12 AM|
Life, Myth and a Six Shooter
There’s always been a cultural fondness towards the Old West – a purely American concept (though that’s not entire accurate) about manifest destiny, the gray areas of morality and humanity’s conquest of nature and the worlds as its whole. Oh, and lots of guns and bullets, we can’t forget those. There was once a time when the world west of the Mississippi River was this overwhelming, frightening, uncharted land that tested man’s determination, if not mocked him in his attempts to understand and control it. Before that was the New World, before that the Atlantic Ocean and so on and so forth. There’s always been this desire for progression and searching the unknown. Many cite the “old west” as the last frontier...I would say the final frontier but that would require a Star Trek pun and I can’t think of a good one at the moment.
Red Dead Redemption captures the period in human history just before industrialization, right when guns were no longer one-shot muskets and were becoming more deadly, assembly line factories were emerging and when people legitimately debated on whether or not those goofy “automobile” things were better than horses. It’s a time when communications were emerging with telegraph lines, electricity on the cusp of being in every home and the lands to conquer were lessening or, at least, becoming mapped out for the final time. Out with the old, in with the new, if you will. As they say, it is the “end of an era.” That era is what our culture has always had a fondness for. In actuality, the fondness stems more from the myth of that bygone era than the actual desire to want to live there. That mythological, fable-like quality is what we know best thanks to pulp novels and especially though film which more or less shaped all we know about it to this day. They play up the fantastic, such as men in black, quick draws, heroes and saloon brawls, and downplay the disease, poverty, ignorance and racism.
They probably got the violence right, though.
The Old West, and the western genre in general, have always represented something humans have always been fond of: moral ambiguities and blurred lines of right and wrong, not to mention that desire of searching for something. Anything, really. Sometimes even your purpose in life. Sure, you have your bandits, thieves and marshals, but they aren’t so easily defined in this time and in this place. It’s more a loose idea of wanting a civilized land in a land that, simply, isn’t quite there yet. It’s the building of it, those decades before it’s really achieved, that fascinates us so. There’s immoral men wrecking havoc, moral men trying to stay as such and all the fighting along the way with pistol on your hip and just enough coin for a shot of whiskey. It’s the same reason myths and legends fascinated the Greeks and Romans – The quiet drifter is our Hercules or Achilles or a gang of banditos our Trojan Army. It’s larger than life as we now see it with glazed-over eyes manipulated by decades of fiction writing, tall tales and movies. It’s something you dream and fantasize to partake in. Now you can.
It’s one thing to watch a gunfighter in a movie or see these tales come to life, it’s another thing to participate it in and, in a grander scheme, feel a part of it and partake in its living and breathing world. This is the element that videgames are able to incorporate that no other medium can, and is a shining example of why videogames are their own form of artistic expression that allows it to be distinguished and, hopefully in a few more decades, actually respected. To “feel” the tension on whether or not you can save someone, to look over your shoulders when walking down a street and look into store windows of a gunsmith, to get on a horse and gaze upon a landscape that hasn’t existed in a hundred years and explore it and feel as though you are there...these are the elements that videogames can achieve and that its critics don’t quite realize...and these are the elements that Red Dead Redemption excels in.
The game taps into our already ingrained fondness of the period and the myth and absolutely exploits it. It’s the game you’ve always wanted but never really realized you wanted it until you started playing. You ride up to a town, hitch your horse and walk into a saloon to order a drink. An out-of-tune piano plays, men eye each other from across poker tables and the local whores hang out in the shadows. You’ve seen this scene a million times, but you’ve never really been a part of it. You’ll just watch someone like Alan Ladd, John Wayne or Clint Eastwood (or Michael J. Fox) do it. The thought going through your head is “that’s so cool” as a gunfight usually stems from it.
It does that here, but instead of saying “that’s so cool” you end up reaching for the gun yourself and shooting down five men in the place. Then you belly up and ask for another whiskey at the bar. That’s an experience hard to recreate, but Rockstar has in grand fashion.
This is the experience you want. Trust me. You do. Even if you don’t realize it until you first get off that ferry in Blackwater, soon get shot down, rise again like a phoenix and look to impact your revenge (and with some government plot that feels tacked on, but I digress). The open nature of the game, covering numerous areas of what we relate to the old west and to its people, cultures and ways of life, is a strong fit that helps draw you in even more, make you feel "cool" or "heroic" or "villainous" at your discretion. Even if it is the glossed-over Hollywood version of it all, it certainly isn’t a glossed-over, atmospheric experience.
If there’s anything that no person can deny with Red Dead Redemption, it is that it's a technical feat and visually stunning. The seamlessness of this entire world is something it absolutely needed to reach success - a linear structure goes against the entire concept of the Old West in the first place. It’s fine tuned both in grand scope and in small detail as you ride miles on your horses, enter a town, get off, enter a saloon, go upstairs, enter your private room and then go to sleep. There’s no cutaways, it all moves smoothly as you transition, but more importantly is how natural it all feels and how this element is probably the best, perhaps overlooked, quality of immersion that Red Dead Redemption brings to the table. Not once does it try to remove you from it, save for the save screen and cutscenes. It's all intuitive and non-nonchalant; putting far more focus on the world, its selling point, and the archetypal western characters within it.
This captures the old west as you want it to be captured. The sweeping vistas and attention to detail impresses even in the final hours of a playthrough. The sunsets in the evening, that early morning glow through treebranches, the rolling clouds and painting-like quality of the sky, the rain rippling puddles and even details such as footprints left on dirt roads or grass and brush rustling as you walk upon it. There’s variety too, and it absolutely captures the elements of Mexico, the southwest, the arid deserts and the great plains, throwing in a forest or two for good measure. I used to live in many areas this is meant to depict and there were more than one occasions where I felt as though I was transported back to the midwest and those rolling hills and far horizons or to west Texas and that dry, waterless land of rock, dirt and rattlesnakes.
It's populated by familiar faces we've come to expect from this setting. The drunk, the whores, the immigrants and washed up gunfighters. The corrupt politicians or Marshals trying their damnest to keep some sense of law and order in their small, sun-soaked towns. John Marston, our protagonist, is himself a familiar character yet at the same time he's not. He's more a melting pot of many leading men in western movies (notably Shane). He's kind, even if you're doing bad things, and intelligent though he's sometiems mocked he's less intelligent than he appears to be. He's often calm, calculating, and it's easy to see the influence of Spagetti Western hero stereotypes coming through. His story is a simple one, though a bit convoluted in its telling, but he's an overall likable lead to control and go through this place and time with. You need someone who is distinct yet not too written - he is your window after all and it needs to not draw too much attention so as to allow the atmosphere to envelop you.
The atmosphere, an increasingly important attribute of games these days because immersion is so important, is absolutely perfect. Combine these grand visuals and characters with the ambient audio of birds, insects, wild animals, stiff breezes and rickety wagons and you have something that shows effort and passion to suck you into its world from its creators.
I had considered commenting on the story, but I figured "why bother?" You wouldn't play this game for the story anyways, and it's something you've seen before, as I said. It's just that, now, you're involved in it. The selling point is the setting and atmosphere, the story is just something to drive you to do something in it. It's basic, told mainly through long rides across the countryside with other characters where everything from religion to industry to morality is discussed. It's not deep, but it is interesting and shows a little more complexity in the world you're trying to find your way through.
Story in a game like this is more used as a tool to enhance the immersion and interaction. I've played quite a few open-world games, but for some reason, I find that Red Dead Redemption does it better than any of them. I think it has to do with the fact that it fits hand-in-hand with the concepts of the western in the first place. Look out into the wilderness and go explore, or find good (or bad) deeds to do. I buy it a hell of a lot more in this setting than I do an urban one where someone will call you to go bowling. Red Dead Redemption is more about discovery. You find the things to do, and the roll into more things to do as you meet more people through the story. Rarely do things just suddenly appear.
Open world games come at a cost, though. You know what they are. If you read my review of Assassin’s Creed II, you know I came across some problematic glitches. Well, though Red Dead Redemption is far more refined in terms of controls and technical feats, you certainly feel more “in tune” with what you can and can’t do on screen, it probably has glitch issues ten-fold. This is to be expected, especially graphical glitches, but there’s a handful that are pretty inexcusable: instant mission fail and an odd disappearance of the save ability.
The instant mission fail pretty much happens for one of these reasons, and they are sadly common.
I can forgive the graphic glitches, such as animals stuck in the ground or cloth clipping into objects. I can overlook the rather dumb AI glitches, such as your horse getting stuck behind a tree or bad guys not realizing I’m using the same boulder as them for cover and just squat there. I can even forgive my horse mowing down civilians as it runs towards me when I whistle, killing them, and then putting a bounty on my head as a result. Even the time I shot at a tree and a half-dozen horses flew out of the branches and disappeared high into the sky, or the one moment I pushed the jump button and launched into space, believe me, I can list a few dozen easily. Sure, I can get by those...
...but the minute you have something so seemingly trivial end up ending your game and it happen four times...that’s when I take issue.
Speaking of all those missions, that's pretty much the standard for gameplay in an open-world. For the most part, the story-related missions are varied and interesting. You'll meet those archetypal characters of all sorts, some far more important to the story, and do their related missions that, often, would correlate and swing into another person's. Hijacking a train, taking on a small army, or just reuniting two lovers. It's all well thought out enough.
You then have the mid-level missions, known as "Stranger" missions. These, too, are great in variety (they seem to be a form of a fetch quest, usually...it covers it well, though). These are necessary, but are enjoyable because they will often explore something that the main story does not when it comes to the western genre. A man willing to trade his slave for a horse or another man trying to find his muse in making movies. It's all interesting and helps expand the world.
I only wish these Stranger missions were greater in number and the ones that are implemented rounded out a bit more. They all just come and go. A few characters will crop back up, but eventually they'll disappear and you'll never see them again and wonder whatever became of it all. Did the wife of the man you killed go off to kill her husband's mistress? Did the movie house operator ever get that movie off the ground? Last I saw him, he was moping in a Union Station camp seemingly waiting for another mission to be coded into the game. Whatever happened to the guy that you kept rescuing? That seemed to just flat-out end right there. There's certainly a sense of non-completion to some of them.
Also...the guy with the flying machine....wow, was that a waste of time or what? The game has you travel every corner of the world only to have the guy jump off a cliff and die. Funny at the time, but in hindsight, that's just padded gameplay hours collecting items. I'm actually a bit angry at that now. Where's my whiskey, barkeep?
Oh, right...back in reality, now.
Finally, the smaller missions are generic, and purely optional. You'll usually find these just riding around the lands and they often consist of preventing a kidnapping/horsenapping, rounding up some fleeing criminals or saving someone from being unjustly hung. Of course, you only assume it's unjust because someone rode up to you to tell you - no need to ask questions, I guess. Outside of that, you have your "always-on" missions, where you achieve small little goals to increase your rankings as a Hunter, Sharpshooter and so on. These are there for the completionists, and in some cases you can actually gain enhancements in doing so, but mostly they are tedious and trivial and you kind of wish more variety was put into them as much as the main missions. They feel tacked on, at best, and unlocking an extra costume or two isn't really worth tackling.
When it comes to game like this, and those glitches are to be expected, it’s a matter of everything else outweighing them. Other than a rushed final few hours, everything else Red Dead Redemption achieves not only overshadows those problems, it still has those elements more than polished.
Take for instance the shooting controls. For a western game, shooting a gun needed to feel intuitive and natural, not to mention easy and, hopefully, inventive. While I could take or leave the showdowns, the regular cover-and-fire or time-slow-down approach is not only easy to control but fun on top of it all. I actually hoped things might happen and I’d have to draw a weapon. Truth be told, the slow-down, or Dead-Eye-Meter, can make things really, really easy....but at the same time it’s really, really fun. Going through an area with six or seven guys shooting at you, hitting the Dead Eye Trigger and putting a nasty “x” on each one of their heads is thoroughly satisfying.
What’s more is that his only adds to the “feel” of the game. Here you are, more or less a Clint Eastwood type, doing those amazing things that gunfighters tended to do in those Spaghetti Westerns – no matter how fantastical and unbelievable they are. The controls are spot on, and though the camera might work against you in some tight quarters, you still feel as though you are controlling the arms, legs and hand of John Marston. Then you have the wide variety, from throwing knives to dynamite, to bushing out a sniper rifle (something that, I wish, more missions took advantage of) to a lasso that, surprisingly, you find yourself using a lot over the course of the game.
Unless you want to kill everyone. I was a “nice guy” and only killed the people that really deserved it. Even then, though, if a bounty is still alive when I shoot out his legs, I'll at least tie him up for a little extra coin..
Speaking of things deserved, like a lot of games these days, Red Dead Redemption implements a “morality” meeter. You can be honorable or dishonorable, and people tended to treat you differently depending on such. Truth be told, this is all pretty superficial. Marsden’s personality doesn’t really change much. It’s just an A or B scenario of doing things. Do you give the money to someone or kill them and keep it for yourself? Do you warn another person about people after them or take the bribe and move on? Overall, it’s a good idea and does add an element, but is superficial in its execution. That’s to be expected, though. This isn’t a role playing game where your actions will have a ripple effect. It’s an action/adventure game where you can just have a good amount of options to feel a part of its world.
This balances it all pretty well, however. Now I would love a dialogue-system and deep moral choices, Red Dead already has the set-up, plot and characters to really implement that, but I won’t hold the fact that it doesn’t do it against it. It does what it needs to do and does it well, far better than any of the Grand Theft Auto games by all accounts.
Adam Sessler, who was on the radio not to long ago, said that Red Dead Redemption is the game you didn’t realize was missing from your life. He’s absolutely right. People and gamers especially (I sometimes question if those two things are related) have always wanted a good western game, or something, to fantasize about being in the old west. It’s why places like Dodge City exist to this day. In the world of videogames, it’s been tried and never quite grasped fully. Usually it’s more the setting that people were want, wrongfully assuming as such, so most games just took basic genres, such as First Person Shooters or Beat-em-Ups, and just slapped in some saloons, six-shooters and cowboy hats. In reality, it’s not just the aesthetics, but the life itself. That openness of everything, the feeling of just you and your horse riding the countryside with danger at every turn.
Red Dead Redemption, though, went beyond even that call. It showed love of the setting and set out to create a world that no longer exists yet we’ve long been fascinated in as a culture. It’s able to have the character and just enough depth, a morality play of a dying, Old West ideology, to compel you. Glitches aside, its technical achievements and atmospheric beauty sets a standard and the voice acting and musical score give an added element that brings this world to life. It could use a bit more depth to it all, especially in terms of world mini-mission variety, collectible and unlockalbe things and just “more” of everything from horses, things to buy and wildlife. What’s there is good. Really good. But when the sequel arrives I hope it becomes even more grander than it already is.
And that’s’ what it really is about: grandness and myth. Despite the fact we all know the hardships of this time and the dangers involved, we’ve long admired it and probably pretended we were then and there at some point in our lives as our imagination lets loose. We’ve fantasized about it, thanks to Hollywood and pulp comics, television and country music. It’s the myth of the old west like you’ve always wanted to experience and, despite the hiccups and flaws here and there, you absolutely will.