The Greatest Games: Red Dead Redemption (2010)

Red Dead Redemption (2010)
Developed by Rockstar San Diego

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.

The Greatest Games: Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018)

Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018)
Developed by Rockstar Studios

Where the Grand Theft Auto series has almost always descended into absurdity, Red Dead Redemption serves as its mature younger brother. RDR2 pushes certain elements of realism so hard that it almost reads like parody of the modern AAA open world game. Some of the choices seem detrimental to the experience. Not including real fast travel in such a massive world is absolutely bizarre. Despite open world games tending to lean toward endless possibilities, there’s a specific way Rockstar wants you to engage with this game.

By pushing all these various elements, what Red Read Redemption 2 lacks in instant gratification is replaced by a sheer sense of scale. The constant retreading of the same roads helps form a familiar land, and there’s always something just off the main path to check out. Additionally, I simply find riding horses over the land a fun experience. Where most open world games offer a land for the player to conquer, Red Dead Redemption 2 instead seeks to overwhelm. This world is not an endless playground but something which must be survived.

As far as gameplay goes, the dead eye mechanic is Red Dead Redemption’s central selling point. Arthur can freeze down time and focus on a cluster of enemy’s, then unfreeze time and shoot them all at once. In addition to making massive gunfights more manageable, this is also a neat way of capturing the feel of old western movies. RDR2 also subscribes to Rockstar’s philosophy of including a little bit of everything; there’s loads of minigames to play and devices with their own unique mechanics.

Acting as a prequel to the original game, the player takes on the role of Arthur Morgan. He belongs to a gang coping with the end of the Wild West. There’s no place in this world for these people anymore, so much of the game finds them constantly relocating. This aimlessness really mixes well with the world, with each act change truly feeling like a distinct moment. The slow rides across the land give ample time for long conversations. This band of outlaws really feel like an old team in the midst of falling apart. This is one of the great traditional narratives in gaming, and there are some shocking twists taking full advantage of the game’s ‘realism’ bend.

These outlaws get up to a bunch of crazy schemes, and being able to play a part is a joy. This massive world is covered in perfect locations for its hundreds of shootouts. By always trying to include a little bit of everything, Rockstar ensures every mission has its own unique gimmick. From the classic bank robbery to train heists and hot air balloon trips, RDR2 keeps the player on their feet.

There are also loads of memorable side missions which have a tendency to go further off the rails than the main plot. During one memorable encounter, you meet a Nikola Tesla expy who recklessly experiments with new technology. There’s also dozens of oddities scattered across the land, from a house which has been struck by a meteor to various horror creatures. Hunting is highlighted by the inclusion of a bunch of legendary animals which offer great rewards; the variety of animals in this game is impressive. There’s always something to find.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is about as ambitious as video games come. The fact they intentionally avoided common quality of life mechanics while including almost everything else is a striking decision. Some people won’t enjoy that tedium, but it results in one of gaming’s true epics.