Candied, crushed sago't gulaman
Ever since Grand Theft Auto III showed the gaming industry how much chaotic fun one could have in a massive 3D city twelve years ago, “sandbox” games in the GTA mold have focused on giving players nigh-limitless freedom to cause as much widespread havoc as possible in these virtual urban sprawls. Cars are meant to be hijacked, pedestrians are to be run over, gang members are obvious drive-by targets, stores are just asking to be robbed, and hookers are employed then swiftly forced a refund. Any semblance of law is circumvented with a high-speed chase/demolition-derby across the metropolis ending either in a conveniently located auto shop or in a defiant last stand of bullets and bombs amid twisted metal and dead pigs. One black loading screen later, and it’s back to the carnage.
So Red Dead Redemption stands as a sort of oddity compared to Rockstar’s main billion-dollar crime franchise and all the other games the series has inspired such as Saints Row, True Crime, and Just Cause. It certainly shares similarities in structure and mechanics. You are dropped into a massive detailed world populated by innocents, criminals, and lawmen which you can interact with in a number of ways, and you have the option to take on missions from important characters or go about your own merry way rampaging through without a care for where the plot might go.
What kept me from actually doing any of the latter unlike the many times I’ve gone for wanton destruction in the GTA games and Saints Row the Third for no apparent reason is, I believe, the choice of setting.
Set out west at the turn of the 20th century with modernity encroaching on untamed wilderness, former gunslinging outlaw John Marston is a man running out of time. He is forced to do the bidding of the budding Bureau of Investigation, chasing down his old gang buddies who left him for dead across the vast expanse of New Austin, all the way down south to Nuevo Paraiso in Mexico, and in the confines of West Elizabeth, running into strangers with sincere/sinister requests along the way. All this he does so that he may finally lead a simple life with his wife and son on a modest piece off farmland, to grow old and die in peace.
Marston’s story marks the refreshing change of pace in Rockstar’s offerings, as he longs not to build an empire or take bloody revenge. He doesn’t even hold grudges against his former partners-in-crime who betrayed him. His pursuit is strictly business between him, Bill Williamson, Javier Escuella and ringleader Dutch van der Linde. This tempered approach extends to dealings with the many authorities, opportunists and desperate denizens looking for his help. However, he is still very much capable of violence, threatening those who try his very generous patience and, of course, exploding in thrilling outbursts when the player has to perform his/her “gamer duties” in quests.
His character though is ultimately a product of his environment. Born to a prostitute mother and a rowdy illiterate Scotsman, both of whom died when John was young, he was raised by Dutch and his gang, learning to live the life of the outlaw to survive. Their justification for their crimes was “revolutionary”, spreading the wealth for financial equality so to speak, and he was taught to read and treat men with enough courtesy. Certainly, the Wild West and the philosophical enlightenment of late 19th century America clashed to create such a character.
Then there’s the actual world Marston resides in. Because of its historical and geographical setting, Rockstar had to do away with the labyrinthine network of streets stretching out to fast-moving freeways and snaking into seedy alleyways of urban decay, with rushing vehicles, noisy citizens and hair-trigger gang-bangers and policemen jam-packed between brightly-lit high-rises and commercial properties.
In Red Dead Redemption, civilians are concentrated into pockets of civilization with a general store here, a saloon there, stables in the back, and the quintessential Rockstar cultural satire held very much in check with only a handful (or two) of characters acting out the blatant racial and gender insensitivity of that particular period. It’s hard to sneer too cynically at a time yet untouched by mass consumerism, vapid self-indulgence and existentialist crises, so the criticism is mostly leveled at the smug, righteous and exploitative authority figures, a stance that is never overbearing or totally misguided like that of the GTA games.
Outside the town proper, it’s all wide open lawless land with only dirt trails and singular railroad tracks to lead you back to “safety”. You’ll be traversing most of it on horseback, too, and digging your spurs deep into your steed will still take you some time to get to your destination. The view makes it all worth your while, though. Not since Shadow of the Colossus have empty vistas looked so damn beautiful to me.
I exaggerate when I say empty. Wildlife does inhabit everything in between towns. Deer spring along the prairies, wolf packs stalk the forests, snakes slither under brushes, buffalo roam the great plains, and birds of different feathers glide over sun-soaked skies. Hidden beneath carefully-placed landmarks are buried treasure, the likes of which many gold diggers lose their sanity over. With no car radio to keep you company, delicate guitar strums and soft horns blend in and out of the ambient sounds that you barely take notice how much it builds the lonesome yet awe-inspiring atmosphere. It’s no shame at all to just get lost in the looking for specific herbs; hunting and skinning all kinds of game from unassuming elk to wily foxes and rabbits to dangerous mountain lions and bears; or just discovering a nice little spot to start a bonfire and watch the stars.
The silence does get punctured with the occasional human interaction as you travel the land. Sharpshooters call you out to live target practice, sheriffs ask you to rope in convicts broken loose from prison wagons, and seemingly distressed maidens lure you into highway robberies. You can even stumble across gang hideouts, taking you straight into an impromptu rescue mission of a farmer’s daughter or an unlucky deputy. Rockstar deftly balances nature’s calm with man’s uncertainty, leading me more to acts of heroism than selfish risk-taking.
That’s not to say that all moments with the human AI are all action. I can’t count the hours I’ve spent playing the addictive minigames littered throughout the towns, none of which involve violence (except nicking your own fingers or getting caught cheating in poker). Horseshoes, Five Finger Fillet, and the card game classic Texas Hold ‘Em among others had me in a sort of quiet trance, having to gauge distances, memorize patterns and make the right calls to win. The systems for these contextually relevant world-building asides are smooth and simple, and I can’t help but pour in time to master them, enjoying all the frustrations and victories all the same.
Momentum shifts are a part of one of the core gameplay elements, too. A holdover from the original Red Dead Revolver, Marston has a tactical advantage over his foes with the Deadeye ability. Activating it slows down time significantly while letting the player aim and paint enemies with precision, allowing unparalleled control over gun battles wherein Marston is usually outnumbered. Upon release of the activation button, he fires off shots hitting his targets exactly where you indicated, leveling the playing field within a matter of seconds. There is a limit to how much you can use it, though, so there is still urgency within those long seconds. It’s essential to winning both firefights and duels, and the exhilaration of dropping six shooters before they can fire a single bullet is unmatched against any of the easy destructive thrills of the GTA games.
Near the end of the game, John Marston gets to live out his dreams of a happy retirement with his family. Like the first couple of tutorial missions in the beginning, you’re wrangling horses, herding cows, driving wagons and hunting pesky critters. Although he takes some adjusting, learning to be a father to a young man he never had much time for, there is contentment in his work. He isn’t perfect, but everything he did to get to that point he did for his family. Everything I did as John Marston, helping out those in need while making a name for myself by being one with the Wild West, made him a fine man. I was happy for him living out those moments of peace. It was my only consolation, knowing full well stories like these never end in sunshine and rainbows. There was no truly escaping his violent past, and the changing times had no more room for his kind.
I finished Red Dead Redemption for the first time about five weeks ago. I’ve since gone through Rockstar’s latest masterpiece Grand Theft Auto V, and put in about 10 hours in Volition’s own take on the genre with Saints Row the Third. Both games have been highly entertaining experiences – GTAV for its sheer scope and peak polish; SR3 for its non-stop over-the-top insanity (which I am confident in assuming will be one-upped by its 2013 successor) – but their sociopath central characters and their explosive ascents to controlling plastic pessimistic parodies of our own age ultimately ring hollow next to Marston’s dying West.