I have previously observed that Red Dead Redemption feels like the serious counterpart to Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto franchise. Where the sequel pushed realism to the point of artistic absurdity, the first game manages to feel like a more mature experience while also maintaining the chaotic freedom of a sandbox game. The original Red Dead Redemption is simply Rockstar’s formula in its greatest form.
John Marston is one of their more compelling protagonists, a flawed man with a torrid history trying to escape a criminal world which keeps pulling him back in. Part of his appeal is simply due to genre – any point GTA tries to make can be lost in its overwhelming violence. These mass shootouts are simply the nature of the western genre, which helps make Marston more relatable. His position in the narrative helps establish sympathy – he is being forced into this macabre role by the government at the threat of losing his family. There’s a sense of fatalism which permeates this entire experience.
A big selling point of open world games is their massive maps. These worlds have only gotten bigger with time, but some games really lack proper emphasis. I don’t believe any open world game has had a stronger moment than the first time you cross the border into Mexico in Red Dead Redemption. Seeing the map suddenly expand beyond what you initially imagined was mind-blowing, and setting this to a gentle ballad by Jose Gonzalez sets a perfect mood. This is how you make each section of a map feel meaningful.
The controls in Rockstar games tend to feel a bit wonky, but RDR reached a high point without all the extra baggage of their later works. The Dead Eye mechanic was an ingenious system to implement in a style which until then had struggled with fluid shooting mechanics. Additionally, riding horses through the desert simply feels more engaging than holding down the gas button and breezing through a modern city. While Liberty City might offer more scenery, I greatly prefer not having to play a pedestrian dodging game every time I need to get from point A to point B.
Like every other Rockstar game, the missions are a grab bag of stray ideas. While there may be few which stick out among the pack, the simple fact is that the gameplay in RDR is so much better than their other games that these are a consistently strong experience.
The finale is Rockstar’s most emotionally resonant moment. Marston achieves everything to be reunited with his family. But in true Western fashion, nothing ever comes easy. It’s important that Red Dead Redemption is not set at the height of the Wild West but during its final breaths. Like Eastwood’s Unforgiven, this is the story of people being bluntly erased from a changing world. Many games have unwinnable fights, but the way this finale slowly builds toward Marston’s acceptance of this fate is unforgettable. After sending his family off to safety, Marston steps out and faces an entire firing squad. The game naturally goes into Dead Eye, a mechanic which until this point has given the sense of being superhuman. But it’s simply not enough against such a large crowd. There’s a reason Red Dead Redemption 2 had to be a prequel – when Marston goes out gun blazing, the Wild West dies with him.
Games will keep evolving technologically with time, and Red Dead Redemption 2 has pushed limits like few others. But technical complexity only does so much for an artistic experience; the original Red Dead Redemption simply does more with less. No other game has both captured and expanded upon the atmosphere of a spaghetti Western in this way. If RDR2 is a video game explicitly attempting high art, then RDR1 is a perfect slice of the type of genre fiction which drew us all into the medium in the first place.