The Dreaded Backlog: Red Dead Redemption

Welcome to THE DREADED BACKLOG! It’s incredibly easy to buy video games, but it takes a lot more time to play through them. All of us have a backlog of good gaming intentions that need to be fulfilled. Together we must overcome the overwhelming threat of THE DREADED BACKLOG!

(Up front I would like to say that my posting this article was not deliberately timed to the teasing of a second game. I am not that cynical. Sometimes the world just times itself that way. I’ll take the extra hits to the site all the same though.)

Red Dead Redemption is the greatest game I have ever played. In spite of how obviously great Rockstar games are, I usually tend to avoid them. I find the controls too weak to justify the allowance of cruel checkpoints. Often in the past I have dipped into GTA titles, enjoyed a few hours and then fallen out with them. Although I have heard that these grievances have been addressed in more recent titles, so the fault is solely mine now I guess. Regardless of these feelings towards past Rockstar games I was willing to give Red Dead (I know it’s not actually the first in the series) another go, because I love Westerns. I have a large collection of Westerns on DVD and Blu-ray branching across all the subgenres, directors and even country of origin (check out Australian cinema’s recent output). Just to repeat myself: Red Dead Redemption is the greatest game I have ever played, and I would feel that even if I hated Westerns.

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The cover shooting in this game is basic and sometimes a little unwieldy and the checkpoints can be cruel. They’re better than the checkpoints in GTA titles at the time however. Both the slightly off shooting and somewhat cruel checkpoints are actually appropriate in Red Dead. It creates a sense of tension. Small failures add up fast and result in death. This is what the Western genre does better than anything else in cinema and Red Dead has captured this tone through gameplay, rather than cinematics. Many lesser studios fail at this. The horse riding is just enough like driving a car to be accessible, but different enough that you feel like you’re on a horse, relatively speaking. The ability to match speed to other riders is innovative. It makes me wish other open world games would allow you to match your car’s speed to city traffic automatically. The fact you have to manage your horse’s stamina during chases and horseback shootouts also adds to the tension. It’s said that a good action sequence in films is one where the protagonist has to ‘spin multiple plates’ (think the tank chase in Last Crusade where he has to deal with saving his father from the tank he’s trying to destroy whilst fending off Nazis and so on). Red Dead is great at making action sequences fun by this same rule of plate spinning. Every element of the game (shooting, riding and so on) is made very simple as to allow for complex, but accessible, moments.

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It is hard to separate the sheer variety of gameplay moments from the world Rockstar has created. You can travel from a John Ford-esque quieter and safer towns in ranching country, to a Spaghetti Western version of Mexico, then to a more civilised town evoking the best of Peckinpah’s ‘end of the West’ films. All of the assorted villains and heroes fill these areas: gunslingers, corrupt lawmen, corrupt foreign and domestic armies, snakeoil salesmen, bounty hunters, cannibals and the helpless in need of saving. Each of these encounters has its own varied kind of desperation, be it the hopeless or the criminals whose world is coming to an end. The look of each of these environments is great. The visuals hold up even today and it is a world I have only ever seen remotely paralleled by the recent current gen Mad Max title. The lighting and attention to detail in every environment is also rich. Mexico’s spaghetti Western tone is brought to life by harsh overlit lighting, whereas the ranching land isn’t too bright as to remain hopeful, which reflects the sadness of its era somewhat ending. The towns are slightly too dark, as their new clean and technological advanced nature is treated with a degree of cynicism and corruption. There are also some lovely dank and swampy shit hole towns scattered about. The world is also very BIG. Big for a game then and big for a game now. However, it’s just the right size. Rockstar has managed to pull off a Goldilocks balancing act with the world size and then filled it with trains, saloons and brothels and cacti.

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The gameplay and world all result in one great attribute in the game’s favour: CHOICE. You can choose to ignore the helpless being robbed, or save them or help the robbers. You can go completely rogue and become a despicable outlaw or be a moral saint (I committed only two crimes in the entire game, both were necessitated by campaign objectives). You can also be anywhere between the two points. You can even choose to bribe away the bounties on your head, or wait for the lawmen and then slaughter them The game has a generous helping of side missions, each with dedicated full stories and cut scenes and often multiple outcomes. My favourite activity was to go bounty hunting. I would always take my bounties in alive. This required so much plate spinning: you have to take out the bounty’s friends, then rope him up whilst he’s shooting you, then get him on his horse before back up arrives and then make it back to a town over vast distances whilst fending off said back up. Some side missions were simple small pleasures, like taking the night watch in a local town just for a small bit of extra side cash. I adored the inclusion of the ability to disarm during classic Western standoffs rather than killing, this again provided extra tension. My only issue with any of the above is that I had to reload the game sometimes before it saved because I killed lawmen (not wanting to ruin my saintlyness). This always happened when they were chasing down a man and the mini-map nor visuals gave any indication of context (as it does with horse thieves for example). I couldn’t see on screen that they were lawmen either, something a first person perspective would reveal, with no feature for the third person perspective to make up for. Just to defend my eyesight: my TV is a fairly new 42″ LG that I sit slightly over two metres away from, so I had a better view than most players had back in the time of release. However, a simple save reload solved this problem and at least it furthers the moral ambiguity of getting involved in things that don’t concern you.

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Essentially Red Dead Redemption could be one of the greatest games ever made without a story, just pure game. However there is also a story. Thankfully it is one of (if not the) best told in the medium. I won’t harp on too much about how good it is seeing as its ending is famous even to those who haven’t played it. Thematically the game’s moral lesson is that of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance viewed through the violent happenings of a Quentin Tarantino film, with appropriate levels of injustice to the protagonist. The story manages to weave in the characters of a dozen different subgenres into the same world, everybody in this world is fun or fun to hate, there is plenty of quirk, plenty of lightness and dark and the protagonist is great. John Marston wants to have a better life and is sensing the end of the Wild West, he wants to civilise himself. Marston is the best example of how to make a protagonist in a video game that lets you live anywhere on the moral spectrum. They’ve created a human character with strengths and flaws who could believably be a monster or a saint or whatever in between. Rockstar have somehow managed to obliterate the dissonance between the character’s nature and the player’s actions. In addition to this there is an amazing variety of clothing and weaponry with which to equip John. I was going full Man With No Name whilst in Mexico and then suited gentleman towards the end of the game when the Wild West was truly winding down. It’s impressive when a game lets you add to the cinematicity with your own choice of mise en scène.

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As an experience Red Dead Redemption is both empowering and humbling. Both cool and horrific. It captures the moods and themes of various subgenres and weaves them into a single whole. It has the innocent nobility of classical Hollywood Westerns where it was about ‘civilisation’ versus ‘savagery’. The moral ambiguity of Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns. Then the leanings of Revisionist Westerns critiquing both the former two. All of this is backed up by specific soundtrack choices to evoke (and subvert) these genre tropes. Red Dead Redemption is narratively and thematically rich. However its greatest achievement is capturing this through gameplay rather than cutscenes. I will never forget having to stop a friend’s cattle from charging off a cliff during a thunderstorm. I will never forget sneaking into the back of a fortress in a snake oil wagon before unloading a mounted machine gun. I will never forget avenging my father’s killer, because I will never forget John Marston.

The greatest and best game I have ever played.

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(Best thing is that I’ve still not played Undead Nightmare, so I have plenty more to come. I think I am gonna do it on backwards compatibility as apparent it works better that way, another thing in the game’s’ favour.)

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