Monday, 16 August 2010

On Redemption

Full of abhorrent violence, harsh countryside, beautiful vistas, and the romantic fantasy that seems to have been created to mask the truth of such a evil time, the Western setting is a personal favourite of mine in film and books.

For this reason I was fascinated to what path Red Dead Redemption would take. Rockstar’s previous works with Grand Theft Auto gave me the impression it might be a cynical, parodying experience - lacking the grandeur, depravity and majesty that the Old West deserved.

In this respect I was pleasantly surprised. Red Dead is a sober tale - it has its humorous moments but these are dark guffaws rather than the bludgeoning satire prevalent in previous games. With this stable footing I expected the game to commit itself completely to a tale of the old frontier dying at the feet of the 20th Century.

As a videogame this seemed to be the case with a first third that introduced John Marston as a man with dark past seeking to atone for his history (ever-so similar to GTA IV’s Niko Bellic).

It’s a cliche to have a character like this but hell - Marston is a likable protagonist, bolstered by solid voice acting and a consistency that Niko Bellic never. With such a solid state of tools the American world of 1911 is built with care and beauty. The discovery of all the open-world trappings that Red Dead can offer - from hunting to random encounters - is only matched by the meaningless pleasure of watching the sun set over the rolling plains.

I’ll happily admit that I was swallowed completely by RDR’s creation of a West that seem to burgeon with potential. Random instances of brutal violence, the corrupt or ambiguous law-makers and Marston’s own journey to obtain his quarry via herding cattle and breaking horses all seemed to make sense in their own contrived videogame way.

That Lonesome Dove-style animal husbandry with Bonnie Macfarlen could have seemed out-of-place but the pedestrian pace of the opening allowed an exploration of all these aspects in a convincing way. I probably wouldn’t have bothered with the open-world challenges had the first act been a roller coaster shooter.

The stereotypical caricatures from Rockstar also made an appearance. Both Seth and Irish feel spawned from the same stallion as Brucie or Little Jacob - idiotic comic relief that’s as subtle as the bludgeoning satire of the closet homosexual or Jamaican pot-smoker.

I must admit to enjoying their presence. West-Dickens adds that spirit of deceitful endeavour and this first act shows glimpses of the overall metaphor the game puts forward - of the old giving way to the new in a bloody and resentful fashion.

It’s conclusion was satisfying and the promise of Mexico convinced me that the story would take a darker turn, show me the depraved violence of that ever-volatile state and turn towards a realistic West rather than a romantic one.

Those Mexicans

Every Grand Theft Auto that I’ve played is an over-long operatic experience that sags during its long journey, requiring patience and tenacity to reach the conclusion. This is nowhere more evident than here. Moving to Mexico promised much and delivered very little in the way of atmosphere and content. Looking back, it seems a pointless diversion to bridge a gap that might have been better served extending the land north rather than south.

In Cormac MacCarthy’s Blood Meridian the description of Mexico and the violence that takes place there is brutal and sickening. Set sixty years before this game it’s an unflinching portrayal of the Glanton gang that roamed the country during the 1850’s, murdering and scalping Apache Indians and Mexicans alike.

I did not expect Red Dead to try and reach a similar level of unforgiving violence but the tame nature of the power struggle between Reyes and the military offers nothing more than videogame tropes. It’s an unfair comparison to make between a classic American novel and a videogame - but Red Dead’s potential was there to create something evil, to dare the censors by showing what life was really like in such an unstable time. Instead we get turret missions to mow down Mexicans like an arcade game and the only melodrama is weak and predictable in the form of Luisa and Reyes.

To me it shows how videogames revert to type when faced with the potential that the medium can offer. RDR could have turned a corner here - showed Mexico with more bite and steel than just a series of repetitive missions that never strung a narrative together.

With so much emphasis on Marston’s past I would have thought it wise to include some of that as actual gameplay. A flashback, a reminiscence or even a whole Mexican-length section that enabled you to understand what Marston was trying to put behind him and what friendships he was sacrificing.

The Final Push and SPOILERS


The last act almost redeems Red Dead for its middle-age frailties. The town of Blackwater is an example of the modern world encroaching on the wildness of the previous century. It’s disappointing that this isn’t explored in more detail with the series of McDougal missions the only time Red Dead touches upon the modern age and the past explicitly.

After the first climatic conclusion I was fascinated as to the path the story would take next. Spending time on your farm and performing the husbandry tasks learned in the first act gives a sense of symmetry that finally started to make these characters mean something to me.

Though the final conclusion makes little practical sense - why would the army use over 60 soldiers to take down a man who posed no threat? - it’s metaphorical meaning is plain. John Marston represent the old West, of horses, cattle and duel in the dust. The army and government agents with their horseless carriages represent the future and slowly erasing the past with their own blood-soaked methods and motives.

The sober end to the game shows that redemption was achieved by John, but in vain. The better life he seemingly sacrificed his life for ends with his wife’s death a mere three years later and his son exacts revenge as a killer (just like John) before the final credits roll. (If you decide to take on the Stranger quest at Blackwater station).


What stands out after these acts is how incredibly stupid John Marston is. After being betrayed by his original gang (a point that’s belaboured several times) he proceeds in being deceives by nearly every single character he meets. Twists and surprises make up the better half of a great videogame experience but when those betrayals can clearly be seen well in advance then it serves to only weaken the main character.

To have survived so long in America would have taken some level of awareness and yet because this is a videogame we have to suspend disbelief to the man’s basic intelligence.

This is where story and videogames have an unhappy marriage and I feel it will only be highlighted further as games develop. As a story Red Dead falls short of challenging literature in any way - maybe it shouldn’t even try - but I feel it has the potential to tell as bleak and as frightening a tale as Blood Meridian.

What it lacks is the directorial focus a vision requires. Such is the nature of an open-world environment.  A linear game may perhaps lack the breadth and freedom that Red Dead Redemption achieves but it might create an impact I feel would serve the subject matter better.

It also lacks the kind of antagonist a strong story sometimes requires. Blood Meridian is full of monstrous characters - from Glanton’s bloodlust to Judge Holden’s dispassionate mastery over every man and beast he meets. Even the protagonist of the Kid is revealed to be the immoral centre of the novel that makes it so terrible and gripping.

The implication that Marston was part of a Robin Hood gang is ludicrous and it undermined my basic belief that he was a realistic character. Even if such gangs existed the real redemption sought by Marston should only come from someone who had been a common or monstrous criminal. Did Robin Hood seek redemption in later life? No, figure’s such as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment or, heaven forbid, Darth Vader are examples of meaningful redemption. Rockstar should have dared to make John Marston a stone-cold killer, maybe even letting you play as him during that time and then sought his peace within the frame of the main game.

Again, it is unfair to judge Red Dead by such lofty standards but I feel its a testament to Rockstar’s efforts that I’m able to refer to other media works in comparison. It had the potential, just like GTA IV, to tell a mature story and wrap that tale in an atmospheric setting that didn’t stumble or fall. But just like Niko Bellic and his search for redemption in America, John Marston’s Red Dead Redemption falls that cacti spine short of perfection.