Red Dead Redemption: The last great Western

From the same development team behind Grand Theft Auto comes Red Dead Redemption, the story of an ex-outlaw named John Marston who has been given a second chance at life. Set at the end of America's Wild West, Redemption is a truly ambitious effort from every angle. Does Redemption hold water on its own, or is it just Grand Theft Auto on horseback?

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6 min read
Watch this: Game trailer: Red Dead Redemption

From the same development team behind Grand Theft Auto comes Red Dead Redemption, the story of an ex-outlaw named John Marston who has been given a second chance at life. Set at the end of America's Wild West, Redemption is a truly ambitious effort from every angle.

Does Redemption hold water on its own, or is it just Grand Theft Auto on horseback?

Too many generalizations have been made that label Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto as the same game. Sure, at their basic cores the titles are similar, but on the surface Red Dead Redemption does a much better job at creating compelling narrative and emotionally charged characters. A big reason for its success is the time period in which Redemption does a convincing job at recreating.

Players are thrown into the end of the iconic Old West, where everyone knows one another and all there is to do is travel from town to town on your horse. It's because of this that everything your character does in the game carries that much more weight with it. Everything has a consequence and Redemption does an impressive job at making you think twice before acting.

Red Dead Redemption (photos)

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The main exposition of Redemption takes a healthy amount of time to fully unravel, which allows for plenty of opportunities to explore the desert. We really enjoyed the fact that no side mission is meaningless because every action is documented via fame and honor, two of the game's RPG-style metrics. For example, the more "known" your character becomes can dictate whether he'll receive a discount at a general store. If he becomes more feared, people on the street will look the other way in passing. Redemption also incentivizes the player to cooperate with certain tasks and complete specific side missions in order to unlock bonuses like new outfits.

As we mentioned earlier, each character is impressively fleshed out with some voice-acting performances (Marshall Johnson immediately comes to mind) rivaling those of live-action dramas. The dialogue is calculated, believable, and is arguably the best display of human interaction as told through a video game.

It's probably a bit too early to crown Red Dead Redemption as game of the year, but it'll no doubt be a top contender come December. It should be experienced by any gamer (of age) who longs for a story with legs and appreciates the cinematic production value very few titles are able to achieve.

Rockstar Games

I never played Red Dead Revolver, the prequel that enabled the existence of Rockstar's current Western. That didn't stop me from appreciating Red Dead Redemption, because the mechanics and styling are out there in other games. Grand Theft Auto, most definitely, but also Fallout 3 and Borderlands, to some degree. Even recent Zelda games. Riding a horse around an open prairie gave me more than a few Link flashbacks.

Setting a sandbox game in an open desert world such as the American West emphasizes open space, loneliness, and time between way stations. A lone person becomes an event. This is the similarity I felt to post-apocalyptic games of late; in fact, Redemption has quite a strong thematic pull to such games. It also has a little too much GTA in its mission system. That's small quibbling, however, as the overarching world history of the West circa 1911 is far more compelling than modern-day New York.

There's a huge graphic leap that's been made here, from the riverboat opening onwards: vistas attain near-photorealism, and details seem finer. Character acting also feels bumped up a notch; although satire still remains, Rockstar seems to have put some of its high-stereotype characters on the back burner--or, at least, toned them down a little.

Rockstar Games

Getting lost in side quests, finding lone folk in empty patches of cactus, feels as central to the game's purpose as the "main" story: nothing much is explained at first, and maybe it's best that way. Redemption, from the titles down to the Morricone-style musical riffs, is clearly tipping its wide-brimmed hat to hard-boiled, pared-down Westerns. "Shoot first, ask questions later," as the saying goes. Riding between towns is as much a part of the game as the towns themselves, a return to a bit of that wide-open feeling that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas introduced. Here, at least, you can camp out and skip to towns if you're not up for a 10-minute gallop.

After playing poker, gathering herbs, rustling cattle, patrolling ranches, and finding outlaws, however, I concluded that simply exploring and increasing my reputation was more interesting than any story reveals, anyway. Redemption's not about destinations, it's about the ride. And, control quirks aside, it's a really good ride.

There are a handful of uniquely American narratives, chief among them the frontier story of America's expansion into the West. A popular enough meme for the much of the 20th century, the Western itself has been out of favor since the '70s, perhaps not coincidentally the same era that birthed the first generation of digital natives. That makes it doubly interesting that the freshest take on the Western we've seen in decades comes in the form of a video game, Red Dead Redemption.

The last gasps of the nonironic classic cowboy (such as John Wayne in "The Shootist") were shot down on the dusty main drag of a one-horse town by an internationalized spin on the genre, the so-called Spaghetti Western (a subgenre that burned brightly but briefly, flaming out at about the same time).

To this day, our perception of the "Western" owes much more of its DNA to Sergio Leone and Franco Nero than to John Ford and Gary Cooper. Those Italian/Spanish/French/etc. international co-productions looked at 19th century America through an international lens, an idea never more important than in today's hyper-connected, essentially borderless world.

Rockstar Games

Video games are, like film, an international medium. At its core one should consider gaming's Japanese roots, which still broadly influence the art form. Even today, much of the most interesting work in interactive entertainment is being done in Europe. But the subject, or at least setting, for the majority of games is still America (with outer space a close second), which has become an international cipher of sorts, for others to decode as they see fit. That's why it's so fascinating to see urban America filtered through the French influences of Heavy Rain, and the American Northwest as imagined by the Finnish in Alan Wake.

Though Red Dead Redemption was developed by an American creative team, the American West it presents is one filtered through that international view of the Western genre, with its twangy guitars, religious iconography, and dark anti-hero operating in a moral vacuum. (The Mexican revolution, as seen in the game, was also a Spaghetti Western staple).

And just as the classics of that genre (suggested viewing: Sergio Corbucci's "The Great Silence") left an indelible mark, so does Red Dead Redemption, pushing the boundaries between open-world action/adventure and story-driven role-playing games.

The game allows itself the rare luxury of unfolding slowly. It takes hours to make any real progress, and the lonely rides between towns and settlements are evocative of the great isolation of the grassy plains. It's the inverse of Grand Theft Auto's bustling nonstop cityscape, and equally well-executed.

Interestingly, there's also a thread of genuinely American (as opposed to internationalized) political context running throughout. Despite a story credited to Rockstar's British ex-pat co-founder Dan Houser, there's an almost Tea-Party-esque flavor to the characters' political conversations, with friend and foe alike agreeing on the evils of centralized government and taxes, and decrying the lawman and lawbreaker as flip sides of the same coin. It's about as far from the classic unambiguous "good guys wear white" 1950s Western as you can get.

Rockstar Games