Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Game I've Been Waiting For My Entire Life

Red Dead Redemption is quite possibly the most impressive gaming experience I've ever had. It rivals Ocarina of Time, Ico & Shadow of the Collosus, Portal & Half-Life, and BioShock and, in many ways, exceeds them. The reason I mention these particular games, aside from the fact that they are among my favorites, is that Red Dead Redemption behaves in similar ways, artistically and mechanically. Only the games mentioned above have ever provided me with such a strong emotional anchor, ushered me into their world so thoroughly, prompted me to think differently about my own, and, after the experience ended, left me feeling as though I have taken part in something beautiful, real, and unique. Red Dead Redemption is already one of my favorite video games and easily one of the greatest achievements in this and any other medium. And it must also go down as one of the best westerns in the history of the genre.

Before Grand Theft Auto IV's Liberty City I never fully believed in the worlds most free-roam games offered. It is one of my favorite genres because it allows a player the most amount of freedom and choice with how they experience the game. However, the immersion is almost always easily broken. The NPCs often seem like lifeless placeholders or the buildings are nothing more than a series of blocks with differing skins meant to fool me.

It wasn't until I saw a cop chasing a crook on foot, shouting into his radio for backup through the Liberty City streets as I rode by in my newly stolen car as Nikko Belic that I realized how rich and alive Liberty City was. Seeing this little event made it seem as though Liberty City existed independently of me. The streets buzzed with life and excitement long after I turned my X-Box off. This is a thrilling notion, and a unique one, that games like Morrowind, Red Faction: Guerrilla, or Just Cause simply cannot tap into because of their technological and artistic limitations. It is also an artistic flourish no other medium of art and entertainment can similarly recreate, except for, perhaps, a good book.

The worlds of the best authors stay alive in our minds long after we set their pages aside and so too can a good video game's world like GTA IV's or Red Dead Redemption's. The difference is that I can literally visit Liberty City or New Austin and even become the author of these worlds, in a sense, contributing to the stories and creating them as I want them to be instead of being a passive interpreter. When you turn a movie off, it's over and that world, no matter how interesting or engaging, will always be confined to the 2 hours you view it. When you close a book, your imagination can do great things, but you're aware of the fact that it's only your imagination and that it may be at odds with the author. With GTA IV and with Red Dead Redemption, it's different. I can't help but believe these worlds are still thriving long after I've visited them and that their characters are living out their lives as I live out mine. And, thanks to improved physics, even better writing, and a level of unparalleled originality, Rockstar succeeds even more so with the world of Red Dead than their previous attempts.

That one moment in GTA IV (the cop chasing the suspect) is a simple issolated incident among a few others that occur randomly and rarely in Liberty City. It merely worked to flesh out the game world, but it didn't necessarily impact the gameplay. In Red Dead such events are turned into a key gameplay feature that works to imbue the game world with life in an unmatched way, provide players with a constant moral dilemma, and an enjoyable distraction and challenge. There are a wide array of unique events, some subtle, some grandiose, all uniquely western in their appeal and shockingly gut wrenching. These events, as well as the "stranger quests" service the thematic and moral aspects of the game rather than the actual narrative itself. They work toward fleshing out John Marston as a character as much as the world, and provide a commentary on the past, present, and future of the human race. From opium junkies, angry pimps, needy nuns, whores used by bandits as bait, horse-thieves, gamblers, to a lone gunman cradling the body of his dead wife, ready to shoot himself in the head, Red Dead Redemption manages to offer players a variety of experiences unlike any other video game, and all of it occurs in real-time as you're simply roaming the countryside. These events are not a part of a story and they're not preempted with a cutscene. They are simply a piece of the world and you are forced to deal with them however you see fit.

Such events occasionally shocked me even more than what happens in the main narrative. I stumbled upon a man trying to save his daughter from a handful of bandits. I stormed in, killed the bandits, and approached the house where the final evil-doer was holding the innocent young woman hostage. I burst through the door and took my time, wanting to observe the situation. Years of gaming had prepared me for this moment. Surely I would have enough time to take the scene in, observe the young woman down on the floor with a shotgun to her head, look up at the gunman, take aim, and send him to hell. That's what happens in video games. You're always permitted the opportunity to succeed. Very often the game will not actually allow you to advance until you do succeed.

But not Red Dead. Red Dead did not behave like any other video game in this moment. It behaved like real life. I failed. As soon as I burst inside the bandit unloaded on the young woman and she died in a blaze of red mist. "NO!" I screamed at the television. "You bastard! Die!" And I unloaded my sixguns with furious vengeance. The girl's father came running in and cried over her dead body. I sat with the controller in my hands, stunned, staring at the back of John Marston's head as he watched this poor woman die, and wondered how I could have been so careless. Why didn't I pull the trigger faster? Why didn't I move in a second sooner? She was dead and I couldn't save her and I felt sorrow. I had run the gambit of emotion in just a few seconds, going from absolute fear and rage to shame and despair. The game managed to elicit honest, real emotion from me.

The fact that I'm able to tell this story from experiencing a video game, and the fact that this is only one of a hundred stories I could tell, demonstrates that there is no question of whether or not Red Dead is a work of art.

The experience is not without its momentary flaws that the gamer in me simply can't ignore, however. The challenges, especially the later ones which require the player to melee two cougars, are simply a grind with very little reward. I spent the majority of my final hours searching for skunks and racoons, and it seems like the game simply cuts back on the supply of such animals when you're looking for them and this, very simply, isn't fun. Hunting is enjoyable on its own, and provides a self-sustaining economy. But it's not really hunting. It's just shooting animals when you see them, if you want to shoot them. It would be nice if some tracking were involved and if the merchants actually had more than a few items for sale. Once you buy everything up it seems as though the stores are permanently sold out of everything and therefore permanently useless. The incentive to hunt and gain bounties does not go beyond the simple enjoyment one might get from the gameplay involved, when it should also revolve around a deep economic reward system. Also, when you're looking for a specific kind of animal, it would be nice if the bait you used actually attracted that specific type of animal. I spent an hour riding around looking for two more raccoons to complete a challenge when I got the bright idea to use bait. Surely the game would somehow recognize I wanted to attract raccoons seeing as how it knew to shorten their supply upon activating this challenge. But no...bait attracts a random animal and is ultimately a crap shoot or useless in your quest. So too is the idea that some animals are nocturnal and therefore more likely to turn up at nighttime.

It's also occasionally difficult to keep track of the narrative. I like Rockstar's mission structure and am not suggesting they change it. I'm simply remarking that with three different kinds of quests occuring simultaneously, as well as an unending stream of random encounters along the countryside, I would occasionally find myself wondering why John Marston and his comrades were discussing certain things when missions started. It's easy to get lost and I'm not sure how this can be fixed save focusing entirely on the missions for one playthrough. Marston also becomes somewhat of a broken record by the end of the game, constantly asking where his wife is, saying he's done what he's been asked to do when clearly he should know that he hasn't by now and that his questions will yield no answers. Rockstar could find a better jumping off point for their missions, as well. Many times you show up at a mission and the characters jump right into a dialogue as if they haven't just seen Marston or as if they've just been talking with Marston and depending on what else you've been doing in the game during your playthrough it can either seem very pertinent or entirely out of context. If the cops who are holding Marston's family hostage somehow summoned John to missions as opposed to requiring the player to believe Marston continually shows up just as they're about to do something would allow for a more seamless transition between free-roaming and experiencing the story.

The physics, while amazing and innovative, are not without their bugs. Somethings are improved from GTA IV and others are not. Fire simply does not behave nor look nearly as good as it does in GTA, which is a big disappointment, and the horses can handle strangely and do strange things. Some of the horses random movements resultant from the physics are ingenious and really make the creatures seem as though they have minds of their own, just like Marston's John Wayne-Like gate which can result in difficulty to control with finer movements but simultaneously makes him seem more alive. So there's give and take with this unique style of gameplay. Ultimately I'd rather have it as it is than simplified in any way.

It's only when the horse jumps through a fence, runs into the water, or doesn't fall over after running directly into a rock that things come undone for a little while. While the textures of the horses muscles and manes are beautiful, I would have liked to have seen their actual collisions and controls handled like the cars of GTA IV. I realize with the shoulder buttons functioning as aim and fire that this is difficult, but I would have liked to have seen these animals just as fragile and ready to flip over as a Turismo. When one horse bumps into another they simply bounce off each other as if nothing happened and this is contradictory to the realistic world Rockstar has created. While there are so many objects that get in your way throughout the course of the game that it would be annoying to be thrown off every five seconds, it still would be nice to have the physics applied more carefully to these beautifully rendered animals. They feel a little too simple and stiff for the likes of this game, a little too much like Epona or the steeds of Gun, in addition to requiring a level of finesse that is, at first, difficult to grasp.

The gun fighting and cover system is a great improvement from GTA, however. Where Nikko's guns felt thin, small, and as if they were shooting spitballs, the guns of Red Dead feel heavy and affective. Duels are great once you figure them out and the large scale battles truly feel pulled right out of the great westerns fans of the genre grew up with.

Switching between guns could be much simpler, however. There should be a simple button press that allows players to switch between a primary and a secondary weapon. You could manage these two weapon choices in the main menu and decide which ones you'd like quick access too on the fly, as opposed to having to sloppily manage a weapon wheel in the middle of a firefight. I like the weapon wheel, I just wish tapping LB performed the primary/secondary swap I just described, while holding it down gave you access to the wheel.

There is a definite learning curve with the game and its opening is purposefully slow. Red Dead does not usher you into its world with a great big bang. It does not try to wow you with explosions and gunfights as soon as you get off the train. It slowly and successfully lures you into the west and unlike Rockstar's other free roam franchise it actually makes you consider the weight of your choices.

While games like Fallout and Mass Effect and other similar RPGs attempt to make you care about your characters and feel the affects of your decisions, they ultimately amount to little more than meters and sliders telling you how good or how bad you are and provide you a few cool options depending on which side your scale tips. But you never actually feel as though you've made a choice the way you do in reality. You think and feel: I'm going to be a renegade so I can toss this guy out a window and that's gonna be fun or I'm going to get good karma so I can open up this cool quest.

Red Dead succeeds at exploring real-life morality and player choice where no other game ever has. While it does provide you a meter telling you how honorable and famous you are, it relies on the world itself and your interactions with it to indicate what kind of player you are and the affect your decisions have. It succeeds by, first and foremost, having superb characterization in the likes of John Marston. It then provides you a narrative that tests this character's morality constantly. It then provides you a world that tests this character's morality and your own morality. In creating such a convincing world, with such stunning graphics and such beautiful voice-acting and facial expressions, you really feel the emotional affects of a good decision or an evil decision. You witness it as an event, not a series of stats.

I shot a conductor on a train. The train stopped. The music became eerie and rain began to pour. All was silent save the grumble of thunder in the distance. I shot two innocent people who sat by a campfire and they screamed and begged for mercy. When it was over, Marston said, "I guess I'm not a good man after all". I stood on that mountaintop watching the sunset and wondered why I had just done that. I considered my actions and their meaning. I felt bad for killing those little NPCs.

Marston has other little sayings that not only question his and the player's morality, but subtly raise an existential dilemma. I once shot a beautiful horse in the head while roaming The Great Plains and Marston said, "Now why the hell did I just do that?". Later, I blew up a crate of dynamite that sent two innocent men hurtling through the air and he said, "I sometimes wonder why I do these things". I was floored when I heard these phrases, not necessarily because of the morality they address, but the nature of existence they address. I am a gamer. I am controlling an avatar, basically telling him what to do with my thumbs. But that avatar is subconsciously aware of me. I made John Marston shoot that horse and blow up that crate and he "wonders why he does these things" because he didn't want to do them. I made him do them. This gives John Marston a sense of will. And every time I make him do something horrible I am violating his free will. I am a puppet master, an intrusive god. Not only does this make him seem that much more alive, it prompts me to question reality itself. There are very few examples of art that actually manage to do this and manage to do it well.

Red Dead Redemption actually makes you want to prevent the chaos in the game world. It is the first game of its kind to make doing the right thing as rewarding and in many cases more rewarding than doing what is wrong. It's the only game to ever thank you for playing it. It's the only game to honestly acknowledge you in a way that isn't superficial. You can reach out and touch this game with a lasso, move through it and experience it, and it will similarly experience you and it's not merely there as an unrealized feature cooked up in the ambitious mind of Peter Molyneux. It's tangible and honest.

And it lets me jump from my horse onto a train. I've wanted to do that my entire life. Finally there is a game that does not show me such a stunt in a cutscene.

In addition to all of this players will find countless enjoyable distractions in the various jobs and card games at your disposal, as well as an extensive and rewarding multiplayer system that will keep us occupied for years.

The story itself is simple in its plot, complex in its themes. And when you think the game is over, it simply keeps going until you think it's over again, and then it keeps going. Like life. And the final missions in the north is where the game truly ascends to greatness. Where many games (and films) would end with the main character's quest accomplished, bad guys beaten, lessons learned and then fade out as he rides off into the sunset, Red Dead actually permits you to experience the fruits of your labor, to find out what happens after the credits roll. You are able, for a few wonderful days, to learn what John Marston has been fighting for. Some may find this a little jarring at first and even boring. But those who've appreciated Rockstar's excellence and artistry up until this point in the game will understand what the Hauser brothers and company are doing.

No other game has ever ended the way Red Dead Redemption ends. There are no cliffhangers. There are no carrots dangled so Take 2 can make more money on sequels. It is a satisfying conclusion that leaves one feeling drained and pleased, but simultaneously hopeful for the future and shocked by the sudden and unexpected direction the story takes.

No other game forces you to realize what you've been fighting for and how terrible it would be to lose it.

No other game has ever made me care so deeply for its characters, made me want to go back, make different choices, see if I can't set the wrong things right, and save those whom I could not save.

Only life can do that.

This is the greatest video game you will play for some time to come. It is a work of art in its own league, and the terms "video game" and"interactive movie" do not do it justice.

It is, very simply, Red Dead Redemption.

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