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[This post was written for RRoD, and appears there in a nicer font]
In my first piece about Red Dead Redemption I heaped on some praise about the random encounter system, and I justified it existing in a world where the narrative was to be assumed to be “gamey”. I did this because Red Dead Redemption is terrifically fun. It is, and remains a very good game for a multitude of reasons. I love it. I listen to the soundtrack when I drive to work, and I’m nagging my friends to play online with me. I would like you to remember that I think that after you’ve read what’s coming next.
As someone who is somewhat obsessed with the handling of narrative in games (it’s more or less all I talk about) it wasn’t going to take long for me to stop ignoring what I knew was clearly broken, and admit that there’s a fault in my dream Western game (it’s especially hard for me after the disappointment I was inevitably going to feel after Alan Wake, which I haven’t brought myself to write about yet – this is sort of my Obama Game). Perhaps “broken” is too strong a term. Maybe a better way of describing it would be that it’s like looking at your reflection in a broken mirror – the image is fractured into several pieces, each only showing a fraction of your reflection, and all the pieces combined still fail to create a coherent image. All the parts are there, they tessellate, and yet the whole they create is corrupted merely by the fragmentation. By that I mean Red Dead Redemption tries to create the image of the Complete Western Experience, it has all the parts from the source material, it’s fitted together rather well, and yet perhaps because of that the game fails to create a coherent universe. No great western has had all westerns in it, and Red Dead Redemption’s vacillation on this has undermined it overall.
I am by no means an expert on Western literature or film. I grew up on a healthy diet of westerns (as any kid should), later I read more authentic accounts of what life was like at the time from the men carving their living from the land, and as you’d expect the maturity of movies and books I was engaging in increased over time and now I have a taste for the western in all its variant forms. There’s majesty to the west, may it be subtle or awe inspiringly huge – there’s also a sparseness and a vastness that must remind you that you are but a speck of dirt in the scheme of things. There’s an isolation that inevitably makes all towns into stages for a play, and it is an utterly compelling land – where man is left entirely to his own devices, lawless and free and bound only by his moral chains. Examinations into that land and the men and women in it may never lose their appeal to me. It’s not surprising that from this rich well of ideas and this hot fire that forged America as we know it, that fiction of all kinds was created in its setting.
Over the course of the last century countless western movies have been made, and several sub-genres have emerged that reflect the prevailing mood of the time they were made. The classical western, optimized by the work of John Ford, concerned itself with telling a story against the backdrop of social and industrial change. The Iron Horse (John Ford’s 50th film, and arguably his best silent film) may be the first point of reference in RDR – establishing quickly (and not all that subtly) that it is a time of both social and economic change (1911 in the game, though it’s the mid 1800s for The Iron Horse). The message it batters you with is that central government isn’t liked by some people and not all these people are your stereotypical southerner – though I feel it’s not resolutely about this, but using it as a way of giving you a sense of place, unlike Ford, who I think made his films about society, or at least the lone man’s conflict within society and the larger themes extrapolated from that. The reason I think that is because these little rants about central government are used by whatever character you’re traveling to a mission with to remind you why you’re here, and as far as I’m concerned, like with driving conversations in GTA4, conversations handled in this somewhat throwaway manner are generally there to provide exposition and fail to provide anything else – no one meditated over a complex political issue while galloping a horse. Trotting, maybe.
To say RDR is basing itself off John Ford would be erroneous – it’s much too modern in aesthetic for that. Rather, I believe it takes its main narrative cue from the revisionist western. An era of western that is at once a nod to John Ford’s work and a move away from it, the revisionist western uses its setting (and sometimes biopic) not specifically tell a story of place, but of the psychology of the characters involved. Ford used his characters as puppets to tell the story of the world, but the revisionist movement inverted this, to use the West to tell the story of man. When you think of GTA4, it’s easy to see how a psychological revisionist western by Rockstar is almost a no-brainer. Of course it should be made, it’d be amazing. It’s a pity that they didn’t go all the way with this. I would be proclaiming this the best game ever made if they had decided that Red Dead Redemption would focus its sights on the likes of Tombstone, Lonesome Dove, Unforgiven, or Pat Garret and Billy The Kid (my own dream game would be to make something like Jeremiah Johnson, but it’d be a lonely, lonely, experience). What it did instead was cast the net so wide that loses all focus the moment you step off the trail that is the main story and, more irritatingly, sometimes while you’re on it.
I admire greatly their creation of a distilled west. The environments are huge, what I’m getting at is the inclusion of all the imaginable western tropes. I don’t mind a world full of that stuff – what I object to is when you overlay this with a narrative that ferries you around all of it. This is especially true in tone – certain western tropes just don’t go together, but to avoid hiding content they force you to give it all a visit – problematic when you force the brooding revisionist western to the top of the table, and then make me hang around with the “wacky” snake oil merchant, as it creates a dichotomy that breaks the mood. Another example is finding the lone girl in the wilderness yammering about god that you must find medicine for. She wouldn’t be out of place in the slightly trippy Seraphim Falls, or an acid western of the 70s, but here she sticks out like a sore thumb.
In GTA4 the issue with the narrative is that it negated what you did during your periods playing around getting up to no good. That argument is strangely mute here, as for some reason I have behaved myself very well in Red Dead Redemption – I have not been tempted to kill anyone for fun at all. The thing they share however is the main narrative still ignores what you have done, and it also decides who your character is for you. That’s fine for creating a cinematic experience, but perhaps a little jarring in an open-world game (especially one that is almost Fable-like in its RPG elements). As I said I have behaved myself as John Marston, but that’s only half of the issue. I am not compelled by the same forces John Marston is, so I may never engage with the character the way Rockstar wants me to. I have stated in the past that you do not have to “relate” to a character for a game to play well, and I still believe that. My most emotionally engaged moments in RDR have been times where I as a player was sucked into what the peripheral characters were feeling, not Marston (failing to save the rancher’s daughter first time still haunts me as a bizarrely poignant moment in my gaming career). The problem with my not sharing Marston’s motives has created a strange situation in my game. I am at a point where there is a fairly urgent need to get on with things in the story, but I am free to do what I want for now, knowing the story will hold off until I go to the quest marker. This means that I am now taking John on a flower-picking expedition across New Austin, while honing my rabbit-shooting skills. I am meant to be killing Bill Williamson, and ridding the state of a criminal and a thug so I can return to my beloved wife and child who I kept telling Bonnie (who I would rather settle down with) that I like so much. Instead I’ve spent an in-game month “doing stuff” and reading the paper. My John Marston is on a gap year, camping out in the wilderness like Henry David Thoreau “finding himself”.
There are also, and these are probably worse, moments where John Marston’s motives are different to mine. It’s an issue to do with a slightly janky concept of owenership when it comes to the horses (hitch it and it’s yours – you can’t hitch someone else’s horse for them), and Marston’s generally callous approach to all animal life. When hunting I thought it was generally the norm to respect what life you have taken, and respect the animal’s own deadly force. If anyone would appreciate that, I figured, it’d be John Marston, the educated outlaw – who would appreciate his allegorical relationship to hunted prey. Imagine my lack of surprise when skinning a massive cougar, he proclaims “What have you been eating?!” – about two steps away from Han Solo’s “And I thought they smelled bad………….on the outside!” Kerching: mood breaker. But thank you for reminding us all Sam Peckinpah liked blood. I’d like to see what John Marston does to a chicken for a laugh. For all this, however, I am willing to accept responsibility.
I would have played right through the story and then done it all again to get the rest the game has to offer, but it’s so very distracting, and the story, as I said, is a bit all over the place. The question is how much responsibility as a player do I take for my fractured experience? If they had created just the world with no set story, perhaps I could act out the Tombstone I wanted, but if I did anything else it would be entirely my fault. This way I can have a cinematic epic experience and do everything else without feeling like I’m writing my own interactive adventure book and playing it at the same time. I suppose that’s a good thing? Right?
I don’t need to talk too much on why I’m arguably a big idiot for liking the repetitive random encounters so much. I think we can agree that I love them in principle, and that they are still immensely fun for me at the moment, but there will a be a breaking point when I am tired of them because there are not enough of them. They do, however, mean that I will not got bored on a long trek (I am refusing to use fast travel), and probably never end up going to wherever I intend to go as I’ll have wandered off. I anticipate a weird moment in the future where I start the game again after a hiatus, stroll into Armadillo, and then be very comforted that Herbert Moon’s had his stuff stolen again.
I suppose the point I was driving to that I let myself get derailed from is that all these trends in western cinema developed over time. It moved in eras of film, from the silent film, to the beginning of the talkies, to the pulp westerns, to their revival with Stagecoach and the classical period of westerns, to the revisionist and spaghetti westerns to the brooding psychological westerns of today. What RDR fails to pick up on is that these are all products not only of the time they were set, but the time they were made. Thankfully Red Dead’s soundtrack is unshackled from past associations bar the odd (unavoidable) nod to Ennio Morricone, but the content of the game – while reflecting on the social change in 1911, does nothing to talk about what it means as a game (as art) to us today, but alas apes classic (and not so classic) movies to create a vague feeling of unease the moment you try to apply logic to Marston’s west. But, as I said at the top, for reasons I hope to explain in another post I love this game. I just wish I definitively knew why.
A quick note: if you can get a hold of a copy of the soundtrack (it’s probably on itunes – I wouldn’t know, don’t have a ipod) you should definitely consider getting it. It is my favourite game soundtrack of the year, maybe the best since Machinarium, and god knows before that – Michael Nyman’s score for Enemy Zero on the Saturn?
Also I would reccomend you read Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry as it’s myt favourite western novel, and for non-fiction Charles A. Siringo’s A Texas Cowboy. Warning: Not really that many gunfights.
So there I was, having just shot and killed half the Walton gang, busting through the flimsy doors of their desert hideout – about to rescue a rancher’s daughter from the loneliness of rapists and outlaws. I burst in like hell with legs, and see there’s still one man standing over her with a gun to her head. I waste a split-second aiming. Crack. Too slow. She’s dead. In rushes the father to cry by the side of his dead daughter, and for some reason I lose 200 honour points as if I shot her myself. I feel gutted. John Marston failed.
Then, about an hour later, I ride through the same bit of country and find that this grim show is staged again, just as it was before. This time I remember to use dead-eye, shoot the bastard, and (having already taken other jobs to get my honour back up where it was) I pick up an additional 200 points, and earn a new title and get a duster coat. And she lives. SCORE! John Marston rocks.
It’s got “redemption” in the title because you always get another chance. The clue is in your stats in the game menu: “World events encountered” then “Unique World Events Encountered”. The game is letting you know there’s only so much it can provide, but it will keep giving you those moments time and time again if you know where to look. I went back to that fort at Twin Rocks because I knew there might be a chance to save that rancher’s daughter – it took me an hour to want to do it all again but a combination of my engagement with the situation, and Rockstar’s incredible work in creating an atmosphere in a game, left me suitably haunted by my failure to save that girl last time, and compelled to ride the bloodstained road to redemption. I would like to discuss how Red Dead Redemption manages to maintain the atmosphere and majesty of The West (though by flitting oddly through all its permutations), and somehow blend an action experience with RPG elements that in a weird way feels “arcade”.
It’s a testament to the elegance of the design that an open world game like this can support emergent game play, the narrative of the story, and still retain a very ludic feel regarding your actions (its like everything you do you are doing for all three reasons). I know people will tire of the comparisons, but to quickly mention GTA4 – your actions in that game outside the story had little or no impact overall. The situations that it could have worked in didn’t really exploit their setting in a game. The phone calls that led to your driving your friends around and hanging out with them could have but the reward/punishment for succeeding/failing in these things is detached from the core experience. They make up a stat buried away in the menu that no one cares about because the reward is limited anyway. Free taxi rides? Roman? Why am I not interested? The clue’s in the title. Grand Theft Auto 4 let the burden of these situations rest in your conscience – not your stats. Red Dead Redemption does both – your penalty/reward for your performance is in the same pile as for every quest/story mission for the whole game: money, fame & honour. Side quests they are in name, but they’re not marginalized by where they benefit you.
The way RDR splits up its content is key in the way it makes you care about what you’re doing, and also in how the world remains believable in its own fridge logic. Story quests are supplemented by a handful of mini-games; jobs (nightwatching or horse breaking); challenges (hunting, sharp-shooting, botany *cough* I mean survivalisim, and treasure hunting); strangers (with unique mo-capped, story-like cutscenes) who make up the traditional side-quest side of things; bounty missions which can be taken voluntarily or as a means of penance for your legal indiscretions; and finally, my favourites, the “random encounters”. When I say that, I am not simply referring to them in the strict RPG sense that they are an enemy, but much more curiously in the sense that they are occurrences that happened that for some reason keep repeating themselves in roughly the same place. They have little or no exposition, and are characteristically over in a few moments. Despite the story (which I’m enjoying, and I think has sturdy characterisation and the usual hallmarks of a Rockstar Game) my main emotional engagement with Red Dead is in these vignettes, these momentary shots of simulated spontaneity. They contribute to a whole world where the joy comes from it being a bit like the movie Groundhog Day – somehow a story and a narrative continue while the world repeats itself.
My obsession with the random encounters began in Armadillo – the first proper town you encounter in the game. Now so far in town I have had several encounters including being propositioned to a few duels, catching a few horse rustlers, catching a thief stealing from the cordial racist shopkeeper, getting horse-jacked, and saving a woman from a pack of wolves. My two favourite encounters, the ones I hang around outside the saloon or on the roof of the coach-house for, are somewhat more wild: Firstly, the moment four horsemen ride through town shooting rifles into the air dragging a kidnapped woman behind them through the dirt screaming “This is our town!!”, and secondly, the one that started my craze, a prostitute being attacked by a spurned man wielding a knife outside the saloon.
They captured my imagination, because – like with the hideout at Twin Rocks – I failed to act as decisively as I’d have liked. The first I encountered was the prostitute being stabbed. I heard the scream, saw the blue on my minimap (though I was standing right there), and for some reason I dicked around with the weapon-selection wheel, and decided I’d use the knife – because in my head that was potentially less fatal (I can’t speculate as to why I didn’t just punch him). By the time I selected knife and got close to him she was already dead. I then fatally stabbed him right after. A few moments pass while I bathe in my inadequacy as a person, then I sigh and loot the attacker’s body, and pay my respects to the departed. It is only minutes until the next encounter signified by yet another terrorised scream of a damsel in distress. On this occasion I had the great misfortune of standing in the middle of the road, and for suffering “gamer’s ego”. What is going on? And how can I be DIRECTLY INVOLVED?! This was not a blue-mark on my minimap, this woman was just a woman apparently. People were running scared into buildings. Any sane man would have done the same, but I apparently decided that John Marston is not a sane man. No, in fact John Marston finally gets his act together (after being trampled underfoot) as the posse are almost out of town and shoots one of them in the back, causing them to turn around and charge back into town. Then in the confusion he shoots several lawmen and has to evade capture. Then, apparently, John Marston has a bit of a cry about how he’s lost honour and goes to pick flowers for half an hour to calm down.
I didn’t know these things would occur over and over yet. The reason I headed back into Armadillo was because I thought there must be more things like this that could happen. I was right, as I listed earlier more things were on the cards, and thankfully – without me expecting so, I got my chance to save the prostitute. Walking by the saloon I found her being wrestled to the ground in the alleyway. I saw the flash of steel from the attacker’s knife and thought “We’re not messing about this time!” pulled whatever gun I had holstered (thankfully not a shotgun) and plugged him in the head. His knife flies from his grasp and lands a few feet away, harmlessly laying in a puddle. Then I am offered the thanks of the woman I saved, and she even gives me money. John Marston – you can be my hero baby.
It would take a few more attempts before the bandits dragging that woman would be stopped – primarily because I spent two encounters trying to shoot the rope like some hotshot. Eventually, from the balcony of the saloon, and once again by chance, I had the opportunity to swiftly kill them with my rifle. I was given thanks and honour. John Marston – doesn’t like women being dragged.
The reason these random encounters are much better than simply an enemy appearing is because you choose to get involved in them. They begin a story and let you apply narrative, and as many people have already been discussing, Red Dead Redemption is a game that makes great stories for gamers. In the last three paragraphs I told four stories of what I did in Red Dead, and each scenario offers dozens more variations on them. The shopkeeper’s thief for example – I killed him once. Then one time I hogtied him, and brought him back to the shopkeeper who started kicking him in the head. Then one time the shopkeeper said something racist before I could give him the prisoner, so I punched him in the head and chased him around town and hogtied him, freeing the robber. I got done on one account of abduction but sod it, it was worth it. Besides, the shopkeeper holds no grudges apparently.
So to restate my main point, Red Dead Redemption takes Rockstar’s emergent gameplay formula one step further by offering the player two things: One – the opportunity to make right our mistakes by letting us re-enact them (I would argue against it being a counter to engagement, as to play along you have to be immersed in their iteration of The West and drop your own preconceptions), and by increasing our own narrative experience of their emergent game play tools or props by granting them context – that is to say, offering us small “situations” – like the racist shop-keep’s thief – in the world rather than static things the GTA games use like stunt ramps. You may get a good crash off a stunt ramp, but you won’t get half as good a story of how you interacted with it as you will with the thief.
John Marston like’s Pina Colada, and getting caught in the rain.
Post Script: The “Red Dead” bit is because when it goes red you’re dead. I guess.