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The Sublime in Stillness: Meditations on Red Dead Redemption

rdr diez coronas

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.

rdr armadillo

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.

rdr john marston 01

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.

rdr torquemada

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.

rdr bear

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.

rdr poker

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.

rdr deadeye

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.

rdr john marston

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About Joseph Berida

Joseph likes video games. He also likes writing. Do the math. He hates math.

2 comments on “The Sublime in Stillness: Meditations on Red Dead Redemption

  1. windnvidia3d
    10 November 2013

    Agree: Red Dead Redemption (as a hardcore PC gamer) is my all time favorite Console Exclusive Title; I’ve completed it 5 or 6 times now – each time striving for 100% (only did it twice; but plan on another play through soonish) – I end up spending 100’s of extra hours playing poker with the gambling high stakes outfit just so I can cheat and get caught – be challenged to a duel and honorably shoot the gun out of my challengers hand rather than kill him; allowing any accidental bad deed I had done to be grinded back up – along with the enjoyment of spending endless time playing mini-games in the most “Living” Sandbox genre title to this day. GTA V IMO is not “Living and Breathing” – Red Dead Redemption was and IS. – Also being an oldschool PC Gamer; and mostly used consoles for J RPG’s etc (NES-PSX era); I am very fond of the accuracy of a mouse and keyboard – and its a definitive requirement in a multiplayer title; Thus I rarely will play any titles multiplayer on the consoles (usually because The same game is also for PC which I can crank up to ultra settings with my insane PC (SLI 780 GTX’s, AMD 9370 8 Core CPU at 5.0 GHz Liquid Cooled; 6 240GB SSD’s, 16 GB of 6-7-7-18 timing G.Skill Trident X Ram – etc etc) but when titles such as Red Dead Redemption and The Last of us come along; Multi-player on the consoles can be accepted and enjoyed in my shoes.

    Red Dead Redemption (I still say) that if it was released on PC now it would sell like hotcakes on steam; and multiplayer would be even greater than it already is due to how excellent the game modes, weapons, and map designs are for the specific game modes (and how excellent free roam ended up being after content was added to it) It would be my most played MP game of all time beating Quake 3 eventually most likely (laughs) but… with that said on my PS3 the MP for RDR is second to none on the consoles and I’ve invested a vast amount of time in the seemingly endless game modes (or in free roam creating your “Own Gamemodes” xD) -Then with The Last of Us (A title I re-purchased a PS3 for; due to it being an exclusive which came out during a time of some major PC release so I never finished it; I am working on that in between my e-sports gaming right now and live-streaming as I do) – I just got to Pittsburg in the Single Player; and I spent about 10-12 hours in the Multiplayer around the launch time; (I havent jumped back in but hope to see it populated) – Was glad that the one life centric mode offered Counter-Strike feeling pressure (CS GO is an instant classic) – while the main (until tickets run out) style ends up with the same urgency by the end of your life tickets; but over-all allows for more flexibility in your play; either way its refreshing in a world with far too much emphasis on the Multiplayer of Call of Duty (which is arguably a title that ruined a generation of Multiplayer Gaming – Right as it was at its creative and innovative peak prior to the MW obsession stretching to obsurd heights with MW2 – if it died down prior and never re-gained momentum then the industry could have recovered sooner – instead CoD 10 was just released and is rather awful; the fans seem to realize that as well – while Battlefield 4 is stunning and polished; balanced and tactic based feeling far superior in fluidity to its previous titles; Ghosts new engine some how goes backwards feeling far more clunky; lazy; and “unbalanced” (its a joke…) than not only any CoD title, but any Multiplayer title…

    Counter-Strikes engine remakes over the years finally hit perfection with Counter-strike Global Offensive, and Quake 3 still lives on very much so with it’s browser based Quake Live which launched in 2008; and is about to go client based (meaning it will be on Steam’s F2P list… = more e-sport tournaments and an even larger audience pull.) – These are easily the two “perfectly” balanced Multiplayer titles ever created – Even playing field at all times; especially in Quake 3/Quake Live. – CoD un-wound tight balance with endless weapons with various stats which then had dozens of unlocks per weapon to change these variables even more – kill streaks that changed the entire playing field and focused on specific “ME ME MEEE!!!” mindset in a supposed TEAM oriented and TEAM based game series.

    it’s nice that titles like RDR do the whole “Here’s TDM! And it’s balanced due to everyone having the same weapons and can learn the same weapon spawns around the map to get a better jump.” and The Last of Us with “Slight use of the CoD load-out; but it doesn’t end up changing balance until you’ve been able to invest time inside each individual match – thus the balance is changed by your own skill initially prior to getting the more powerful additions”

    Anyway rant is over. RDR is a true classic and my favorite console experience. I believe nothing will be able to top it.

    • Joseph Berida
      13 November 2013

      Thanks for the very impassioned comment! Glad to know we both share the same enthusiasm about this gem of a video game. I’ve yet to actually try the multiplayer for RDR because I jumped into GTA V soon after I finished the single player and Undead Nightmare. I also thought that there wouldn’t be much of a point going back there now because of everybody migrating to GTA Online. I’ll definitely try out the MP soon just for the experience, as I’ve found myself not finding any interest in playing GTAO nowadays (which will be the subject of a new post SOON). My friend and site founder Lukas has been wanting the game to be ported to the PC forever, but he’s a realist so he’ll eventually get around to buying a PS3 for it.

      I’m also very happy to see that you’re enjoying The Last of Us! It’s my new personal favorite (SORRY RESIDENT EVIL 4), and I’ve written at length about it three times already in this site. Check out my review here which is spoiler free so you can read it without having finished the game yet. Once you’re done, you can also read this other article I wrote about how much I love the Ellie character compared to Elizabeth from Bioshock: Infinite despite their similarities.

      TLOU’s multiplayer is also pretty damn good! I’ve been playing it the moment I finished the single player, and I haven’t looked back since. Lots of people are still playing it so that’s a testament to its quality. The recent release of the first map pack DLC and the introduction of Interrogation mode a couple of months back definitely helped keep the player base. Take a look at my “review” of the mode if you still need convincing to get back in the action. Hit me up if you wanna play and you can add me on PSN.

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This entry was posted on 24 October 2013 by in Features and tagged , , , , , , .
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