Red Dead Redemption
Jim Kitses, in the opening pages of his influential study on the Western ‘Horizons West’, argued that the genre, one of the great American creations, was as important a creative force as the famous filmmakers – the likes of Ford, Eastwood and Peckinpah – who forged their best work within its conventions. In this respect the Western wasn’t something they transcended in the pursuit of their art, but instead a “dynamic partner”, an active canvas open to all sorts of wonderful, distinctive interpretations.
Red Dead Redemption emphatically subscribes to this theory. There are, after all, few genres whose flashpoints are as identifiable as the Western’s: the vast landscapes, the horses, duels, stagecoaches. They’re all here. By the same token there are few developers whose imprint is as recognisable as Rockstar’s: an acute understanding of the cinematic, superb writing, the baiting of moral guardians, an all-round mastery of open-world gaming. The result of their working together, Red Dead Redemption is something of an anomaly. It is as much of a eulogy to the death of the old West as, for example, Unforgiven, whilst simultaneously standing as the most refined example yet of that most modern of mediums, the sandbox videogame.
It tells the story of John Marston, a former outlaw whose past catches up with him when federal agents – who have kidnapped his wife and child – force him to hunt down his former gang. The synopsis underlines the morally bankrupt world that Red Dead Redemption depicts so well: the government is as brutal in its tactics as the outlaws, while Marston’s only allegiance is to his family (he frequently refuses the advances of prostitutes with the assertion “I’m a married man”). It’s telling that Marston’s tale is ostensibly framed as a revenge mission, in much the same way as Niko Bellic’s journey in GTA IV (both John and Niko also begin their respective games by disembarking from ships); Rockstar’s 2008 flawed masterwork is the obvious key reference point, but these early similarities soon give way to a game that ends up doing many things just that little bit better.
The narrative is, like in GTA IV, built on simple ingredients: a witty script packed with pathos and flashes of humour, excellent voice acting and unobtrusive cut-scene direction. You only need to play last year’s Assassin’s Creed 2 for evidence as to how getting these staples wrong can lead to a less engaging experience. In comparison Red Dead Redemption is so immersive – striking a superb balance between genre cliché and presenting a world that feels genuinely fresh, in a videogaming context – that it mostly succeeds in masking the fact there is little genuine variety or innovation to the core story missions.
A lot of this success is because the setting, all glorious vistas and dusty Mexican canyons, doesn’t allow for the predictable ham-fisted parodies of a contemporary Liberty City. GTA IV had already made steps towards a greater degree of gravitas, but here in Red Dead Redemption it’s the real deal. The romantic possibilities of the landscape, coupled with a subtle score, reach beyond the surface fiction; ironic that the most gratifying open-world to date should be one so barren and realistic.
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