Red Dead Redemption
Well, here we are. After nearly a month of playing every day (quite often, ALL day), today I finally concluded the story of Red Dead Redemption – possibly my favorite game of all time. That’s right… it has been said. Unlike any other story-driven game I’ve played before, even open-world ones, even though the game is "over" I still can’t wait to finish writing this and go back and keep playing (well, it’s a little late, now.. maybe tomorrow). Sure, there are still some little details left to complete, but more than anything, my continued interest in returning to this world after others would consider it done, ironically, is actually because of the story itself. But I’ll get to that later ;).
Now, after the first week of playing, I wrote a post exalting it and the numerable game-play impressions it had amazed me with, so I’ll try not to rehash that here (and trust me, ask me about it sometime and I’ll talk for days… that’s why I’m trying to show some restraint now). Many folks refer to Red Dead Redemption as "Grand Theft Auto with horses", but it’s really not. Okay, so it kind of is, but it’s very much a game unto itself, as well. GTA IV and Redemption certainly share the same style-pedigree, but there’s a little something different in this Western – the world, itself.
Obviously, the fact that this is set in a much different era than modern times is a major point, but even within that scope, the world is alive in ways that GTA just isn’t supposed to be. This truly is the wild west, with huge open expanses teeming with life. Walking down a city street, the only real danger my character faced was crossing a road against the light, however in south-western North America in 1911, the dangers increase ten-fold. Let’s just say that in the dead of night, in the middle of nowhere, is the last place you want your horse to die – and when it happens, it’s kind of terrifying. As time went on, the once-frightening threat of cougars became slightly watered down as I became rather adept at killing them, though they were then replaced by the fear of bears. This isn’t a horror game, though. A huge part of what makes this world so charming is the gushing love I talked about in my first post about it… it’s just beautiful. Just about every guy I know has at least some interest in the Western genre, and this game actually lets you play in it. There have been games on this subject before, but Redemption is on a completely different plane, just in terms of scope and depth. The amount of things one can do are really extremely impressive. When I first started the game and saw mountains in the far distance, I became giddy realizing that I could then get on a horse and RIDE to those mountains. As I said, though, I’m trying to refrain from rambling on about it TOO much ;).
But what about the story? I’m getting there. First, though, I do have to list a couple of complaints. ZOMG, WHAT?? I know. For as great and popular as Red Dead Redemption is, it has become almost as famous for its many glitches. There were a couple of times when I was witness to an invisible horse in a cut-scene or something randomly hanging in the air where a person was once holding it. I’ve even seen men riding horses half-sunk into the ground. Any game has weird little hiccups like this, but sometimes they took me out of the moment. Near the end of the game, I was rescuing someone, and on the ride back their dialogue wasn’t audible. I was able to find out what he was saying through the saved conversation in the menu, but it was a bit of performance that I missed all because of a glitch. Also, there are some specific animals that I am sent to hunt, that I was planning on saving until a little later (a wolf and a bear), but missions during the game brought me into contact with them so that I had to kill them during the mission or end up dying. These little things weren’t HUGE, but they were enough to mention. The only reason they really even stuck out was because I love this game so much. I loved escaping into the epic old west, and these errors momentarily took me out. Except for the fact that there aren’t trains in the multiplayer world… that’s just annoying.
Speaking of multiplayer, I think how Red Dead Redemption implements it is awesome. Taking the game online places you in the same open world of the single-player game – only with up to 15 other players running around, too. There are regular matches, too, like any shooter, but having an online free roam mode in a Western is even more fun than in a city. I have repeatedly (and only half-jokingly) said that if I had a great amount of money, I would buy all of my friends this game – and a PS3, if necessary. Taking to the hills in a stagecoach with a friend is more fun than I can tell you… especially if you then accidentally take that stagecoach off a narrow train bridge you’re trying to drive across and die. But, all of this is just in the name of fun. I’ve certainly played fun games before, so why did I proclaim this as contender for my favorite game I’ve ever played? The story is the answer to that question.
As per our usual spoiler-free agreement, I’ll get into dirty details down below, but from the very first moments of the game, I was absolutely hooked. This game has no cool opening music sequence (as it’s predecessor, Red Dead Revolver, and most GTA games do). No, instead the single-player story has an opening title sequence to start the game. It opens on a beautiful shot of a ferry on a river, with a haunting piano tune filling the score. I almost got misty right then and there. Then a crane carries a car off of the ferry and onto land, and the piano continues. This story is very much about the end of the wild west. For everything I said above about the dangerous and unruly environment, the story itself is about the containment of that wilderness. Like GTA IV before it, it’s also about punishment, forgiveness, family, grace – and redemption. Yeah, I’m talking about a video game. As I told Nick’s mom tonight at dinner (hi, everybody), video games have come a long way. As the story goes along, we get to know our main character, John Marston, fairly well. Slowly his tale is revealed, and like a good, classic Rockstar character, he is someone who is trying to right a wrong. This time, though, it’s HIS wrong. He’s a former outlaw who is being forced to hunt down former cohorts. During his quest we come across sneaky peddlers, alcoholics, greedy revolutionaries, lonely spinsters, and a whole cast of other characters, all with their own sad stories to tell. While the fun and adventure are definitely present, this game shows us a dying West – a solemn place filled with death, disappointment, and regrets. While I talked about wanting the lead character in GTA IV to end up living a happy, redeemed life, I wanted it even more for Marston – his motives weren’t revenge, but something else entirely.
This game is amazingly cinematic. Characters talk about life. They develop relationships with each other – good and bad. When one of these characters gets killed, it’s sad. There is attachment, both to the individuals, to the main character, and to the world itself – all of which are dying in one way or the other. Rockstar drives home this cinematic feel by including a couple of songs in the actual gameplay. The first time it happened, as I rode my horse into Mexico for the first time and a song started and continued for the next few minutes as I took in the new landscape… well, it was one of greatest moments I’ve ever had playing a game :). As I’ve seen a few people online say, it just doesn’t feel right calling this a game – and it’s for reasons like that. While GTA IV surprised me by its having tragic storyline, Red Dead Redemption surprised me even more. For those who may play it, remember that it’s not over until the credits roll, and when they did… I cried. Like I might at the end of a beautiful and touching movie, I am not at all ashamed to admit that I cried. First a song played, and it was a great one, but what really hit me in the waterworks was when the haunting piano tune from the opening of the game repeated itself here at the end. And yet, because of how the game ended, I have a new lease on being able to continue on exploring this world. Sorry I can’t tell you why here, as it would destroy the experience and surprise for someone else, but I absolutely loved it. People have complained about the ending, saying that it ruined the game for them (not completely, I’m sure, but enough to complain). I disagree, though. There were a great number of people who complained about how The Sopranos ended, but as a fan of the series I realized that it was the perfect ending. Red Dead Redemption goes out the same way. It never betrays itself, and it creates a compelling story that kept me interested the entire time – even if it was sad.
Red Dead Redemption has taken days’ worth of my time, and I’m sure it will take days’ more. I suppose I didn’t do a very good job of keeping things succinct, but I really couldn’t help it. This game, on every level, blew my mind on a regular basis. In terms of gameplay, aesthetics, character, the score (my GOODNESS, the score), environment, technical power, and especially story… I absolutely loved this game. When GTA IV ended, I asked where Rockstar would go next. I couldn’t be happier with where they ended up :).
P.S. Bonnie MacFarlane, I love you.
Warning: There be spoilers below!
I may also talk about GTA IV, too. In fact, I definitely will. In fact, I will right now…
When that game ended on a note of tragedy, I realized that Rockstar had done something I was not at all expecting. So, with Red Dead Redemption, I was kind of expecting the same thing. The storyline is that Marston is being forced to hunt down his former gang members by the federal government as his family is being held prisoner. He has no real choice. That’s what makes him such a great character – this isn’t revenge or anything of the sort… he’s saving his family. I honestly thought his family would die, and that I’d be wandering the wilderness by myself again. Whoops.
No, they had other plans. Instead, the main character ends up sacrificing himself for the good of his family. That’s right… the main character dies. After a very sad cut-scene of his falling to his knees, body riddled with bullets, I took control of a new character – his son. This whole game is about John Marston trying to save his family, and he does. The only way the government would ever leave them alone is with him dead, and so he dies willingly, and from that, his spirit lives on through his son… quite literally, in the sense of gameplay (his accrued abilities, clothes, weapons… but it works PERFECTLY with the story). It’s one of those things that people either love or hate, and I’m in the love category. Before it never felt quite right taking too much time between missions because of what the story was – it wasn’t some guy trying to get revenge or make money, it was a main character trying everything he could to save his family. Now, though, I’m in control of his son. The story is over, and I am free to live this character’s life out however I wish. Folks have said that he’s not as cool to play as, and that’s because he’s only 19… he hasn’t yet become the grizzled man his dad had, yet with the final act of revenge against the now-retired government jerk who killed his dad, young Jack Marston sets himself down the same path. So, no, he may not be there, yet… but he will be :).
Beyond the ending, there were just layers upon layers of depth and character throughout the whole game. Bonnie MacFarlane is a rancher’s daughter (never married) who saves John’s life in the beginning. They develop a bond, but there is certainly a hint at something more. When I thought that John’s family might die, I imagined he could be with her. Life’s not quite like that, though. Near the end, John goes with his wife to see Bonnie a final time during a ranching mission, and as the happy couple ride away, we stay on a very lingering shot of Bonnie as she watches them go. She even shuffles her foot in the dirt before walking inside. It was adorable and sad. That’s how the whole game was, though. Men seeking fortune died or found nothing. A Mexican gal who thought the revolution leader was her true love (though, when I find him having sex with some random chick, I know she’s wrong), gets shot and it’s really sad. Innocence, throughout the entire story, is constantly tossed under the train, if you will. Heck, even the end finds Jack’s youthful innocence gone as he carries out one final mission in the name of the wild west, to avenge his dad. While GTA IV was a tragedy that made me want to stop playing for a while, Red Dead Redemption was filled with tragedy from beginning to end. It wasn’t a sudden tragic ending that left me gutted, ala GTA IV, it was the simple fact that a dying old west was filled with tragedy anyway. Jack won’t be following in his dad’s boot-steps as a criminal, but he will be the same strong man that his dad was. So, this time, in the midst of tragedy, we have redemption.