Thursday, February 03, 2011

Red Rider

Phew! My first PS3 game on my new HDTV and new home theater system was a doozy. Not just a graphical and audio tour de force, but an incredibly involving, complex, and gripping story as well. I know, I know, as usual I'm behind the gaming curve, but I'll add my voice to the chorus of praise and acknowledge that Red Dead Redemption is one of the best games that I've played in a long while.

It comes from a great lineage. It's a Rockstar game, the same outfit that won me over with Grand Theft Auto III had kept exceeding my expectations with each subsequent entry in the GTA franchise. In the abstract, there's a ton here that feels familiar: an enormous free-roaming environment, with bridges that start out closed but gradually open up as the plot progresses; a series of safehouses containing ammunition that you can find or purchase; a combination of "main" story-driven missions and a seemingly endless variety of unofficial mini missions; a ludicrously enormous arsenal that you carry around with you at all times; a variety of steeds that vary in speed and handling; and on and on.

And yet, in all the ways that matter, it feels completely different from the GTA series. The setting is a big first impact, of course: the wild West is filled with scrubby desert, wide open prairies, imposing mesas, and other such settings; the settlements are almost all tiny shacks, and even the largest city doesn't have any building taller than two stories, in start contrast to the skyscrapers that fill the horizon in GTA. Beyond that, though, the attitudes and characters are a radical departure from what we've seen before in GTA.


Most of what's great about RDR comes from its protagonist, John Marston. Rockstar does an incredibly job at storytelling here, and I think they make a great case for the narrative possibilities of gaming here: more so than any other medium I can think of, games have the potential for "showing, not telling" a character's personality, thoughts, and feelings. At the beginning of the game we know only the barest facts about Marston: he used to run with a gang, and has been forcibly recruited by US government agents to track down and apprehend some former members of that gang. That's it; not because he's inherently mysterious, but because that's all that's happened so far.

We learn more and more about Marston as the game progresses. Often, the most important and surprising revelations come out in the quiet spaces within missions, when Marton's riding with someone else to a faraway destination, filling the time by chatting with one another and trying to suss out the other person.

Marton is unlike any protagonist in the GTA series. (Sidebar: the media consistently gets GTA wrong, as each protagonist [I cannot say "hero'] has their own personality and motivations, and they're impossible to generalize. I think most people stopped paying attention after Vice City and assumed that every game is about Tommy Vercetti. In fact, CJ was a deeply loyal and passionate striver who sought to pull up a community around him; Tommy was a nihilist; the Silent Dude from GTA3 was a cold man whose thoughts bent towards revenge; and Mr. Sad-eyed Niko from GTA4 was a man who had been through the darkest experiences of Tommy and emerged on the other side, convinced that nothing of value could be found in a life of violence but unsure whether it could be found on the outside.) Marston is married, and had been raising a son on his ranch prior to the start of the game. Now, like the GTA games, there are still more than a few prostitutes to be found wandering the major population centers; unlike those games, though, Marston responds to their come-ons with quiet demurrals. "Thank you, but I'm a married man," he'll say; or, "I bet, but my wife would kill me." There's a constant, abiding moral presence that's unusual and compelling in this framework.

I am very curious, incidentally, about if and how the game changes if you skew evil. The game has a traditional one-dimensional honor system, where good deeds (capturing criminals, safely ending duels, rescuing hostages, etc.) will earn you positive honor, while evil deeds (robberies, shooting your own horse, bribing eyewitnesses) will lower your honor. I stubbornly stuck to the good path, and so I have an elevated opinion of John's morality, which seemed to be born out in the cut scenes. I do wonder if and how my opinion would have changed if I had tried to become an evil man. Would John's lines have changed at all to match my actions? Or would I have just interpreted them in a different context, and so come up with a different idea of the man? All that to say, the following generalizations may not hold water, depending on how you play the game.

John seems to be a world-wise and yet fundamentally decent man. He's done horrible things in his life; growing up as an orphan in a gang, he murdered people, robbed banks, and made a mess of things. He thought at the time that he was doing good; under the charismatic influence of Dutch, the gang leader, he believed that they were fighting the evil oppressive system and helping the poor underclass. Still, now that he's free of the gang, he recognizes the futility and wrongness of what he's done. He knows that he can never be forgiven for it, and can't make up for it, but he CAN try to control his future actions to make a better, more honest life for himself and for his family.

Before I get too far into the plot, let's talk about gameplay a bit.

Guns are fun. The auto-aiming works well: not so easy that you can pull off free shots, but as long as you're aiming in the approximately right direction, locking on will almost always grab a valid target in range. One complaint: I would have really appreciated some indication that I was about to shoot an innocent or, um, my horse. It didn't happen often, but there were a few times that I blasted away, only to discover that I had the wrong guy in my sights.

Horses are AWESOME. While I love GTA, by the time I played GTAIV I was starting to get a bit sick of the automobile. You can only go through the trading-up experience so many times before it begins to lose its luster. In GTAIII I had a bunch of fun trying out crazy jumps, figuring out how to drive along the elevated train lines, doing mid-air aerials, and the like; by the end of GTAIV, I was taking the taxi everywhere, grateful to escape another lengthy commute.

Horses restore the sense of wide-open exploration and possibility. This is aided by the landscape: instead of navigating paved streets and parking garages between buildings, almost all of RDR is one big open space for you to ride around in. There's a huge sense of freedom when you race through a prairie, or dodge trees in a forest. There are paths, yes, and you'll spend much of your time on them because they speed your travel, but few physical barriers will dictate where you CAN travel.

Horses are also a new experience because they present another mind that you work in cooperation with. A horse will refuse to be "driven" over the edge of a cliff: it will pull up short and whinny, or take the reins from you and plot a course parallel to the drop. Over time, you learn to trust and rely on your horse. When it whinnies, you know something is freaking it out; it might be scared from gunfire, or because it hears a rattlesnake nearby.

I also love how you acquire horses. The early GTA games basically forced you to be a hoodlum, since you needed a car to get around and you could only get one by carjacking or stealing. (Hence the name of the game, of course.) In RDR, it's possible to steal a horse - "jacking" it by pulling off a passing rider, or stealing it from a hitching post - but it's never necessary. At any given time you typically "own" a horse, and you can summon it to you, no matter where you are, by simply pressing the up button, which whistles for it; the horse will come galloping over to you. If your horse dies, then after a short period you can whistle for a new horse.

And, how do you get new horses? Horse-breaking! The Wild West is filled with wild horses. Fairly early on in the game you get a lasso, and learn how you can chase down and rope a wild horse; after this, you can mount it, play a mini game of bucking bronco, and after acquainting it with your body, it settles down and accepts you. Once you do this, you can purchase a deed for that horse breed from a general store; then, switching horses is simply a matter of selecting the deed and whistling for it. Different horses have their own characteristics; generally, more expensive horses are faster, and I think they may have different amounts of stamina (how long you can make them gallop) and health (how much damage they can take before dying). Horses also have different personalities, although I'm not sure whether this is determined by breed or by individual. Some horses are affectionate, and will follow you around when you're exploring on foot; others are stoic and will generally stay put; still others are restless and will wander off quickly. Some are very nervous and will rear up at the sound of gunfire, while others are braver and stay put. All these little actions do wonders for the believability of the game.

Speaking of the lasso... another excellent character note in the game is the different way you can choose to fulfill your objectives. Namely, in most conflicts with other people, there will be both a lethal and a non-lethal solution. The lethal one is obvious: shoot them until they're dead. The non-lethal one is a bit trickier. In a duel, you can often (not always) target the character's hand or weapon; this will disarm them, making you win the duel and sparing their life. In other situations like bounty hunting, you can capture the prisoner and bring them back to justice. This is a little tricky at first: it took me a while to get the hang of roping the enemy while he's shooting at me, then hogtying him, sticking him behind the saddle, then riding him back. After the first few times, though, I got totally hooked. Hogtying turns out to be incredibly fun! I would always take on the dinky little random missions (chasing down thieves, retrieving stolen horses, etc.) just for the pleasure of hogtying someone.

Ooooh... this isn't gameplay, but I gotta talk about the music. It's pretty incredible. I'm accustomed to the GTA setting, where you have a car with a radio, and can pick your tunes whenever you're driving; on the rare occasions when you're on foot, you only hear the ambient noises around you. In this game, there's ambient music in most places. It tends to be pretty subtle and low-key, in keeping with the character of the area. But, once you get to West Elizabeth... wow! In most respects, West Elizabeth seems much nicer than Nuevo Paraiso and New Austin; it's more civilized, has more people, far more green grasses and plants. But, the music you hear here is absolutely chilling. It's jarring, slightly dissonant, very menacing. It seems wholly out of character from the gorgeous surroundings. As you continue the plot in West Elizabeth, though, it begins to make more sense. The music is reflecting the subtle evil of the place, the institutionalized wrongness that it represents.

Okay, this is a good place for some


I just recently beat the game, so that's what's foremost on my mind now. It seems pretty clear that there are two places where they could have ended the game before they did. The obvious dramatic peak is with the death of Dutch. Now, Dutch is a pretty ambiguous figure: he's crazy, a murderer, and homicidal; and yet, he's the closest thing to a father that John Marston ever had, and Dutch's charismatic talk about power and struggle seem proven true by later events. Still, when he dies and Marston gains his freedom, that's a great emotional note to get out on.

I did really appreciate the extended set of missions on the ranch, and kind of wish that the game had ended with these. It's a return to the superior experience of mundane life; Cincinnatus returning to the farm after his battles have ended. It's fascinating to finally meet Abigail and Jack after gradually learning about them second-hand throughout the course of the game. You actually see them, and get to know them better. Not saints, not perfection, but decent people who are struggling to do their best with the situation they've inherited.

As a side note, the whole subplot with Bonnie MacFarlane was beautifully well done. I mean... well, she's on the back of the map for gosh sake, and we all know what kind of women are usually on the back of Rockstar maps. Bonnie is really easy to like, and even admire, and in the early part of my game part of me was secretly wondering if Abby would die and John would "get" to marry Bonnie. Bonnie clearly seems to want this; she lightly flirts with John early on, then backs off once he tells her that he's spoken for. Her reuniting with John, and subsequent meeting of Abby, really pulls things together agonizingly well. Again, this game is all about showing, not telling. That last scene where she looks down and scuffs the dirt with her boot says more than pages of exposition.

(Tangent: I got a kick out of reading the newspaper. It just had this great, crazy tone. Anyways, I liked the story after you rescue Bonnie, where the paper refers to her as a woman in her 20s, and thus no longer marriageable and far past child-bearing age.)

Of course, the game doesn't actually end with Dutch dying, nor with John working on his ranch and bonding with his son. A hail of bullets comes. On the one hand, the motivations seem really unclear - why on earth is the US army chasing after John? What threat does he hold for them? But Dutch already answered that question. They're coming after him because they have to, because it's the purpose of the government and the law to fight enemies, and when they don't have enemies they'll create them. John, who has a credibly violent past and may have seen and heard too much about the work of the federal government, makes for a convenient villain.

I really love this game, but there are moments where I have to pause and wonder whether it's a paen to Tea Partiers.

Even John dying bloodied on the dirt, his weeping wife over him, isn't really the end. Again, this is a Rockstar game, and that means that after you "beat" it, you still can keep playing for as long as you like. And so they make a radical change and let you keep playing... as your son. From a gameplay perspective, you pick up where you left off; Jack has all your money and items and safehouses, and even your fame and honor. In terms of character and tone, though, it's quite different, and I haven't gotten used to it yet. Jack's a different person, more eager, less world-weary, with a mixture of cockiness and self-doubt. I'm still getting to know him. Sometimes he'll say something like his father used to say, but in his own voice, and it gets me.

No: the real, real end is when Jack tracks down his father's killer, and kills him. I'm tempted to say "murders him," but it isn't really murder, it's a duel. Still, it's the distilled, institutionalized violence of the West at work. As far as I can tell, there's no other path you can take: Jack demands vengeance.

So, just what is the "Redemption" in the title "Red Dead Redemption"? I think that John redeems himself. He gets at this during his conversations with Abby after he comes home; he recognizes that he can't ever make up for his past, but he (and she) can try to change for the future. Change is hard, and the forces of inertia and history keep pulling them back; but, I think that by striving to change, he redeems his life of violence.

The game doesn't end on that note, though. John sacrifices his life in order to save his wife and his son. We know what he wants for Jack: a stable life, a healthy life on the ranch, a peaceful life. Jack throws that away; he turns the wheel, and resumes the life of killing and revenge that his father had tried to shield him from. It's a bit tragic. Jack is playing out the role dictated to him by his culture, where insults must be answered in kind; for a brief moment, though, there had been hope that their family could move beyond that and forge a new path.

Random note: I think that the dates on John's gravestone are marked 1873-1911. That would make him 38 years old when he died. That puts him close to the life expectancy for someone of his time, place, and profession. I think it also makes him the most mature protagonist in any Rockstar game.


I was pleasantly surprised when I beat the game to discover that I was at around 98% completion; I haven't been that complete since I first played GTA3. That says a lot for the quality of the game, including the main thru-line, the environment, and the side missions; so much is so entertaining, that I wanted to fill up as much of my time as I could playing with all the cool stuff Rockstar had put in the game.

In GTA, I have a habit: as soon as I finish the first few orienting missions, I borrow (that is, steal) a taxicab, and then start driving around passengers. I can keep this up for a very, very long time... hours, or days. I do this for several reasons. First, it's fun; Rockstar has managed to make a very entertaining version of Crazy Taxi as a totally optional side-mission in their games. Second, it's a great way to earn cash early in the game, when you actually do need money to buy things. Finally and most importantly, though, those speedy, convoluted passenger routes do wonders for orienting me to the city. After I finish driving around a hundred or so people, I know the city streets like the back of my hand, and on any mission can drive quickly and safely where I need to go, because I've covered that route many times before.

My friend Brad was wondering how I'd adapt to RDR: without any taxis, how would I handle entering a new area? Well, the beat changes, but the song stays the same. Between the stranger missions, and the random encounters in the wilderness, and especially the ambient challenges, I had plenty to keep myself occupied. You range all over the terrain to find the right flowers; you engage in ludicrous challenges to prove your hunting prowess (kill a cougar with a stick of dynamite! kill three bears with your bare hands!); you keep your eye to the horizon while traveling, watching for the landmark that will match what's printed on your treasure chest. No, it isn't taxi-driving, but it's just as intense, lucrative, and educational.

RDR has several pieces of downloadable content, and I'll probably check them out at some point. I mean, "Undead Nightmare"? That's gotta be fascinating! In the meantime, though, I'll probably chase down a few more bounties, explore some more land, and try to wrap up that 100% completion. I almost never obsess over a game to that degree - once I "beat" it, it's over - but I can't bring myself to leave West Austin just yet.

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