Manifest Destiny: How Red Dead Redemption redefined the video game
Everyone’s story starts with a first true love. For me, for my love of gaming, and in particular for my love of beautiful and interesting games, that first was Red Dead Redemption.
I remember very clearly the day I first played Red Dead. It was July 2010, the summer of my first year at university. With nothing to do in Sheffield, and no desire to return home to rural Lincolnshire, I had gone to stay with my girlfriend in Leeds for a couple of weeks. She was working at her old job, earning some cash by covering for someone who had gone on holiday, and with her and her family out all day, I was left alone with a kitchen full of food and a PS3 for entertainment. It was a student’s paradise.
Leafing through her brother’s collection, somewhere between Fifa and Call of Duty I stumbled across Rockstar’s now legendary title. It sounded like my kind of game: open-world but story-driven, the tale of a penitent rogue’s road to redemption, and all set in the old American West. I booted up the Playstation, settled into my chair, and I’m not exaggerating when I say I barely left it for the next ten days. Let me be clear: it’s not that I had never played a game before Red Dead, nor that I had never enjoyed one. It is simply that I had never before been so completely enthralled. The following Christmas, I asked for an Xbox of my own. The rest is, as they say, history.
I am not alone in finding Red Dead such a revelation. Eurogamer’s Dan Whitehead described it as his game of the Xbox 360 and PS3 generation. Gamesradar’s Sam Edwards calls it “Rockstar’s Masterpiece”, unsurpassed even by Grand Theft Auto V (which has to date sold a staggering 80 million copies, making it the fourth best-selling video game of all time). So revered is the title that, when Rockstar first hinted at a sequel, teasing its Twitter following with nothing more than its logo silhouetted against a red background, the gaming community collectively lost their minds.
What is it that makes Rockstar’s title so remarkable? Set on the American Frontier of 1911, and capturing the dwindling years of the mythic Wild West, the game tells the tale of John Marston, a repentant former gang member and anti-hero worthy both of the grandeur of the Spaghetti Western and the complexity of the genre’s more recent reboots. When it released, therefore Red Dead offered a formula that is at once unique and destined for popularity. And make no mistake, it remains first and foremost an incredibly fun game to play; seven years after its original release, careering across a hostile landscape with little more than a six-shooter and a trusty steed is still as enjoyable as it sounds.
Yet for me, what makes Red Dead Redemption truly great is the fact that it pushed the boundaries of what it means to be a video game. Take its setting. To describe Red Dead’s landscape in words would barely do it justice. Few titles can boast such sweeping vistas, such diverse environments, and towns and farmsteads that each have a unique population and character. The game’s vast map consists of three fictional regions — New Austin and West Elizabeth in the United States, and Neuvo Paraíso over the border in Mexico — and each has the distinctive feel. New Austin, the first playable territory, channels the spirit of the classic Western, with cactus-filled deserts, towering sandstone peaks, cowboy-patrolled cattle ranches and lawless frontier towns. Nuevo Paraíso is similar in geography, yet its Hispanic population and architecture creates an entirely different atmosphere, perfectly recreating a country riven by Civil War. And West Elizabeth is a territory divided; home to the most modern of the game’s towns, yet also to the buffalo-grazed Great Plains and to snow-capped mountains whose forests hide elk and grizzly bears.
A dynamic weather system — from scorching heat to swirling blizzard, and fantastic thunderstorms that dramatically light up the skyline — further ensures that no two playthroughs are the same. You can easily spend hours just riding across this constantly changing landscape, and feel no need of a mission for distraction. Replaying the game over seven years and an entire generation in console development later, I’m still awed by the beauty of this game It continues to set the benchmark for how extensive and how magnificent a game’s landscape can be.
Another benchmark that the game sets is in the quality of its narrative. It is not merely in its landscapes that Red Dead takes inspiration from classic Westerns; its story is film-like to the extent that its cut scenes have been stitched together into a two hour long movie. The game follows the tale of John Marston, an outlaw-turned-hero whose punishment for the crimes of his past is to pursue his former gang members, or to be separated from his family. This mission sees him storm forts, ambush trains and fight for both dictators and rebels, and in this familiar tale, Marston is aided by a predictably unlikely assortment of characters. These include Bonnie Macfarlane, the rancher’s daughter who eschews high society for life on the frontier; Seth Briars, a treasure hunter whose madness drives him to grave robbery; Langdon Ricketts, a former gun-slinger living out his retirement in Mexico; and the shadowy Ross, the head of the nascent FBI that directs Marston’s efforts.
Whilst Red Dead certainly plays on the stereotypes of the classic Western, however, it also refuses to be limited by them. An unashamed shoot-em-up at its heart, the game equally explores the deeper issues that defined the dying days of the Wild West, the winners and losers in the imposition of federal government upon the Frontier, and a landscape on the eve of industrialisation. Nor is this a simple story of heroes and villains; Marston’s ultimate foe turns out not to be his former outlaw friends, but the Bureau that forced this mission upon him in the first place. Indeed, the game’s main narrative ends with Marston being brutally killed by his former bosses, his road to redemption proving futile at its very close. This is not to mention the quality of the title’s scripting, voice acting and score, which have won it scores of thoroughly deserved awards. All of this comes together to make Red Dead an object lesson in the story-telling power of video games.
And yet, many of Red Dead Redemption’s most important moments are not those that are pre-scripted by the title’s core narrative, but those that the player creates for him- or herself. The sprawling territories of New Austin, Nuevo Paraíso and West Elizabeth are not merely pretty backdrops to the action; if they themselves are living landscapes, they are equally landscapes to be lived in. An open-world game of unprecedented scale, the variety of side missions to be played alongside the main campaign remains staggering to this day. There are diverse mini-stories, each to be played at leisure and entirely skippable, and yet they offer some of the most memorable storylines in Marston’s saga. There are horses to break, bounties to be chased, stagecoaches to be robbed, and a range of animals to be hunted — from armadillo to buffalo — that rivals many a safari park in its virtual biodiversity. Indeed, one of the game’s most powerful sequences needs no dialogue, just the haunting melody of José González’ ‘Far Away’ as the player rides into Mexico for the first time. Hell, you can while away the hours simply playing poker, and still not feel like you’ve left the world of the Wild West.
It would be easy for such activities to feel largely pointless. Many a game employs an intricate series of achievements to challenge the player, yet offers little incentive to complete them, except for fairly shallow rewards, pride, or simply getting your money’s worth. What further sets Red Dead apart, then, is the fact that even the tiniest of acts can shape gameplay itself. Using both a fame and morality system, the in-game world subtly responds to the way that you conduct yourself. Will you set Marston truly on the path of redemption, rescuing strangers and returning his bounties alive to face justice? The Frontier opens its doors to you, with lowered prices and better rates of pay, your name on everyone’s lips. Or will Marston’s criminal past snap at his heels, as he murders innocents and robs banks? That’s your choice, but it’ll be a cold world to live in, and you may just find yourself the hunted rather than the hunter. What makes Red Dead Redemption so incredibly immersive, therefore, are precisely such consequences to your actions. When how you play is just as important as what you’re playing, no moment feels like a wasted one; it is not simply a story you play through, but one you write for yourself.
Red Dead Redemption is not a perfect game. Its portrayal of women is woeful. With barely three female characters who could be described as strong, and the rest largely divided between housewives and prostitutes, Rockstar did little to alleviate the gaming industry of its chauvinistic reputation with this title. Perhaps ironically, the game is equally a victim of its story-telling success. With such a powerful central narrative, yet equally such a free open world, the two can easily end up at odds, so that suspending one’s disbelief becomes increasingly difficult. It is hard to believe in Marston’s earnest desire for a peaceful existence if he is equally the most reviled outlaw in the territories.
And yet, I still find myself comparing every new game that I buy to this masterpiece of game design. Its magnificent setting, its engaging and complex narrative, and yet its simultaneous openness to the player’s imagination all render it a lofty example of quite what a video game can achieve. It is for this reason that Red Dead Redemption is truly special to me, and that I cannot wait for its sequel. It was not merely a title that I loved playing, but the first that made me realise the powerful potential of the video game as a a work of fiction and of art.