On its surface, Red Dead Redemption is just another open world sandbox developed by Rockstar to continue their long running (and gradually stagnating) series of similar games. But, when you dig into the game, you find out that this is definitely true. I have no idea why I am having a good time playing Red Dead Redemption other than these two reasons I have divined in the last few minutes: 1) the game, gameplay, and story are at least solid and functioning and 2) I love Spaghetti Westerns.
Now for the first part, I think that Red Dead Redemption is a good game. It has the tried and true mechanics of exploring a novel open world area, finding missions to complete, completing some off the beaten track search quests, and getting those all important collectibles. All of that just with horses instead of cars. The freshness of the setting gives a lot of leeway this day in age after so many drive around the city murdering people games. The same thought occurred to me as I played through 2012’s Sleeping Dogs which takes place in my current home Hong Kong. A novel location (i.e. not LA or NY) can go a long way in this type of game. I have to think, though, this reasoning raises a huge question of why the Elder Scrolls games are so popular when it’s just more mountains and dungeons, but that may be for another entry.
One advantage that Red Dead has, for me, over other sandbox games is the diagetic appropriateness of the many side paths that are opened up. These include marksman challenges of hunting nimble wildlife, huntsman challenges where big game are sought, outdoorsman challenges of harvesting local fauna, and treasure hunting. All of these activities fit very well with the setting of the open plains and what we are used to seeing in westerns where macho men try to shoot the head off of a pin and other similar challenges. It’s a lot more fitting than shooting pigeons in New York or whatever, at least.
But what really sets the game apart, for me, is the mildly contemplative and meditative down times between missions where John Marston simply rides his horse from one oasis of humanity to another. Gone are the pedestrians who stupidly walk into the road, other cars that drive erratically, and constant vehicle accidents requiring Austin Powers-style maneuvers to get out of glitched out places. Every ride is pleasant and calm which gives a nice up and down rhythm to the game. That’s not to say nothing random may happen like encountering a stage coach being held up or a lost traveler, but these are also optional and have no in your face “YOU MESSED UP” signs if you choose not to do them. The game has a great flow where it seems to be played at the pace of the player and not what the game wants the player to do. Even with fast travel options which I usually take in this type of game, I always find myself riding under the stars and dazing out to the rhythm of the horse’s hooves.
Which brings me to the other major reason I like the game: it appeals to my love of Italian Westerns. People always say “I like westerns”, but for me there are two types of “westerns” people: those who like American westerns starring John Wayne or Gary Cooper, or those who like Italian or “Spaghetti” westerns starring Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood, or Franco Nero. I don’t know why I’ve always preferred one to the other, but the general bleakness, nihilism, and general atmosphere of many of them spoke to me in a silent way. In many ways, Red Dead is a love letter to Spaghetti Westerns with its general aesthetic, but not overly so. In fact, I’m sure I am projecting most of it onto the game, but I still appreciate the company attempting something new that could have failed. I don’t know many people, personally, who enjoy westerns and the idea of travelling great distances by horse instead of a souped up hot rod that can get there much faster does seem dubious, but it works here.
John Marston is an excellent enigmatic figure that fits the bill well. An amalgamation of many leading men of Westerns, both American and Italian, Marston is a tough guy with a good heart and silver tongue which is how I enjoy playing almost every role playing game such as Fallout or Baldur’s Gate. Red Dead takes the role playing out of my own hands and lets me just sit back and enjoy since the character seems to be designed to suit me. All of my actions have followed from this basis as I performed honorable deeds and brought justice to the west. I guess you could be a nasty criminal, but this would cause a pretty severe disconnect from the overall direction of the story so far. I will see how it progresses as I continue to play (I have only completed one "chapter").
In my backlog quest I have met with many games that touched me in an internal or human way, but this is not one of them. I think it is a good game and I would recommend it as a good way to pass the time, but don’t look for any higher meaning here.
As of posting this entry I have decided to lay the game down for a while which I will write about later.