Red Dead Redemption: The Other Side of the Coin

A couple of days ago, I wrote about how Red Dead Redemption could be seen as a useful metric to demonstrate how far videogaming has come. Now I want to discuss the other side of that argument, how Red Dead Redemption represents how far videogames still have to go as a medium.

Let’s tackle the issues in reverse order

##The Ugly

As Emmett points out, despite being labelled an ‘open world’ game, Red Dead Redemption does not offer the player a particularly satisfying level of immersion and freedom. There’s very little actual ‘openness’. It’s hard to play this game and not feel an amount of disappointment with the enormous gap between what is possible in the game and what you wish was possible. As with almost every game I play (especially these open world, sandbox games), the first thing I did with Red Dead Redemption was to test just how far I could push the game until it breaks. This gives me a feel for the ‘rules’ of the world I’m in. I started running around, knocking things over, knocking people over. I wanted to see if there was any way to get the non-player characters to react to me in the world. Nothing happened. I spent five minutes pushing one NPC into a fire, and again, nothing happened. One of the face-buttons on the controller allows you to ‘interact’ with NPCs; however, this could be more accurately described as a button that allows you to “tip your hat and say ma’m”. It does nothing else. This is the extent of your ability to interact with the majority of characters beyond shooting them deadEven this isn’t final. I can’t think of the amount of times I shot the poker players in Armadillo only to have them re-appear the next day.

And while I praised Read Dead Redemption for the range of possibilities it presented, the game offers little outside the realm of prescribed activities. Apart from the hilarious bugs, very little emergent behaviour is possible within the strict videogame framework. Despite being traditionally one of the most popular activities in westerns, your character cannot rob a bank. One could argue that this is intended to keep your character in line with the game’s narrative (similar to why you cannot hire a prostitute in this game, despite it being one of the most famous features of its Grand Theft Auto cousins). Why, then, can none of these things be done during the game’s epilogue, when none of these rules apply?

On the other hand, perhaps this criticism is unfair. True ‘openness’ is virtually impossible to achieve without the assistance of a real games master behind the curtain – as in Jason Rohrer’s Sleep is Death – or a virtual one – such as the kind of thing we’re approaching with Left 4 Dead’s AI Director. On the plus side, at least the game’s setting helps give the lack of activity a sense of reality. For me, one of the most frustrating parts of Grand Theft Auto IV was the way in which the city appeared to be a bustling metropolis, a living world, yet the vast majority of the buildings were just flat textures draped over geometric shapes which you couldn’t interact with. Plus, with the crowds of people in GTAIV, there was enough character model repetition to break any sense of believability. It’s hard to take a game seriously when it randomly sends a herd of identical characters coming your way. Red Dead Redemption at least does away with these unbelievable flat-textured districts populated by clones in favour of a more believable barely-populated expanse of prairie. This at least makes sense within the context of its setting.

##The Bad

In my previous post, I mentioned how Kane was criticised for not having enough for the player to do. However, no-one complained about the weak-sauce narrative that supposedly tied the entire thing together. Maybe this was just a product of its time - ‘story’ didn’t seem to be a major concern in 1986 (the year that gave us Crocodile Dundee, Cobra and Police Academy 3: Back in Training). Or maybe it’s just that no-one thought a videogame could or should have a good story, so it was just taken as given that any story tacked onto a videogame would be a pile of ass. Who cares about story when shit blows up good?

First of all, let’s call a spade a spade. It’s 2010 and the story of Red Dead Redemption is no great shakes either. An outlaw, trying to mend his ways but brought back out for one last job. If that sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because it’s also the plot of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, a film that the developers return to again and again. Along the way, Read Dead Redemption touches on themes of manifest destiny, the taming of the frontier west and the whole Conradian question of whether civilisation is actually just savagery with a nattier dress sense. Again, these are themes that we see time and again across the entire Western genre. When Red Dead Redemption actively attempts to tackle these themes, it demonstrates just how immature videogames are as a storytelling form. For example, as a mouthpiece for the supposed dangers of scientific hubris and the inherent savagery hidden beneath civility, Harold MacDougal is handled dreadfully. There is no subtlety to any of his conversations. It’s as if Rockstar were so afraid that people might miss their point with this character that they decided to hit the player over the head.

Few characters in the game are handled much better than MacDougal. For the briefest of moments, I thought Rockstar were demonstrating an understanding of subtlety with their handling of the relationship between Vincente de Santa and Quique Montemayor. The first time you meet them, there is a brief look between the two of them that makes you think “hey - are they together?” It was so brief, so easy to miss that I thought maybe I was either imagining it or reading too much into a few keyframes thrown in by a bored animator. A few more interactions and it is hinted that, yes, these characters are in a homosexual relationship. But just like with MacDougal, the game eventually gives over, afraid that you might have missed those hints, again hits you over the head with the point: these characters are gay. This isn’t even the worst of Read Dead Redemption’s crimes against characterisation. Marshall Johnson is little better than a slightly less hateful (but similarly, slightly less nuanced) version of Unforgiven’s Little Bill Daggett. Landon Ricketts is clearly the bastard son of Lee Van Cleef and Sam Elliott. The snake oil salesman, Nigel West Dickens, well… well, he’s just a sophomoric creation lacking any sort of nuance or wit.

As well as the characters, many of the game’s missions are also lifted from films. For example, the stampede scene from Red River becomes an entire mission in Read Dead Redemption. Another involves rescuing Bonnie MacFarlane from hanging, just like in Hang ‘Em High. Robbing a train full of ammunition? The Wild Bunch. The side-mission where the player must save a person from being hung by shooting the rope is obviously taken directly from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Except without any of the tension or narrative support. Throughout the game, you are asked to save prostitutes from being sliced by some knife-wielding cowboy who, just like in Unforgiven, took offence at the prostitute laughing at the size of his penis. Unforgiven turned hat event into the inciting incident of that film. Red Dead Redemption treats it like a throwaway joke.

Against direct comparisons to film (which it seems to openly invite), Red Dead Redemption falls completely flat. The lack of originality in its storytelling is only exacerbated by the ham-fisted way in which it is executed.

##The Good

With that said, what these films fail to achieve and what Rockstar seem to pull off so easily is to provoke an emotional reaction to its themes. The Wild Bunch can make you think about the end of the era of the outlaw cowboy, but Red Dead Redemption can actually elicit an emotional response to this same theme. The reason Rockstar succeed where the movies fail is because of immersion. Your own experience is central to Red Dead Redemption, and placing you inside a well-realised world helps colour your experience.

Mise-en-scene is an enormous part of storytelling. I’m a huge theme park nerd, and my favourite part of any good theme park ride is the pre-show area, where you queue to actually get on the ride. To stop punters getting bored, the creators of theme park rides often litter the queuing area with props which create atmosphere and allow the punter to construct their own story before they even get on the ride. When it’s done well, the scene-setting transforms a good ride into a great ride.

Videogames have the ability to create a level of mise-en-scene that film, as a medium, has no hope of replicating. Red Dead Redemption is filled with incidental details that serve no explicit storytelling purpose but just enrich the atmosphere of the game. Props that tell stories, if you want them to. For example, although it isn’t beaten to death in the game, Marshall Johnson is a widower. If you want to, you can find his wife’s gravestone in the local graveyard. This allows the player to fill in the gaps and construct a back-story for Johnson, more than actually comes up in the course of gameplay. Likewise, the environment is dotted with things for people to find. For example, the ‘Mystery Site’ at Repentance Rock has become famous precisely because there’s no explanation for it. It’s just there for players to stumble across and flesh out their experience. A film, on the other hand, is limited in how much it can put on screen. It must be judicious in its mise-en-scene. Too much and it can be confusing. As huge a fan as I am, Terry Gilliam sometimes tries to cram so much on screen at once that his films become visually distractingThe Adventures of Baron Munchausen is one of my favourite films of all time, but I think I’ve only twice managed to watch it in one sitting. Every other time, my brain just shuts down from overstimulation.

Similarly, while film places the audience very much apart from the action, but videogames literally puts you inside of the action. This isn’t someone else’s story, this is your story. Although everyone plays the same game, the way in which you approach this game allows you to write your own story. How many people came across grieving suicide man? How many did it while hunting beaver in Aurora Basin? How many did it having just survived an attack by a grizzly bear and a coyote? How many players actually came across the Mystery Site at Repentance Rock? Although I share experiences with other people who played Red Dead Redemption, my play-through is my story. While some people argue that this kind of immersion can have a negative effect, it’s also one of the medium’s biggest strengths.

From a storytelling point of view, immersion is a valuable tool that Red Dead Redemption often uses to its full advantage. Even without the overarching narrative of the cutscenes and interactions with characters – the traditional storytelling tools used in videogames – the game tells an entire story just using atmosphere and its immersion.

(Here’s where I’m going to have to get a bit spoiler-heavy. If you haven’t played the game to see “REDEMPTION” flash across the screen, you might want to stop reading now).

The opening acts of Red Dead Redemption take place in the classic image of the frontier west: one-horse towns with ramshackle, wooden buildings. Lawless places where storekeepers aren’t afraid to tell you about their hatred of the jews. These towns paint a picture. Just as the town of Deadwood was as important a character to that show as Al Swearingen and Seth Bullock, the frontier towns you visit in the game are as important to the story of Red Dead Redemption as Nigel West Dickens and Landon Ricketts. You spend a good twenty hours in this version of west and, at the end of those twenty hours, you come to appreciate it, you come to romanticise it. Although some might accuse me of overstating my case, I’ll say you actually develop an emotional attachment to this placeOn a similar note, I’d argue that the 12 or so lonely hours you spend in the world of Shadow of the Colossus helps you develop an enormous bond with your only companion throughout that game – your horse, Agro – to similar emotional results.

So, when you finally reach the town of Blackwater, the last section of the game – with its brick buildings, tea rooms and vision of modernity – you actually feel out of place. You feel as if you are, as Landon Ricketts says, a relic, an anachronism. I personally felt a genuine sense of disappointment that I’d left the west that I’d come to love, because as a player, you understand that version of the west. As a character, MacDougal might be clumsily written, but he’s a perfect cipher for the entire town of Blackwater - underneath his facade of physiognomy, MacDougal is a racist prick - perhaps worse than the shopkeeper in Armadillo because he believes his racism is scientifically justified (the shopkeeper just hates Jews, take it or leave it). Blackwater is probably more savage than any of the frontier towns you’ve visited – suddenly you don’t feel as if the things you’re forced to do are serving any sort of ‘greater good’, they’re just plain mean – but Blackwater hides this savagery under a facade of modern brickwork and electricity.

The experience of reuniting with your family at the end is difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t played through to this part of the game. Having been exposed to the viciousness and brutality of Blackwater and having finally put a (somewhat unsatisfactory) end to your outlaw days, a return to a more straightforward, rural life is incredibly affecting. You might not be taking on gangs of armed bandits, but the idea of spending a few hours tending to your herd, teaching your son to shoot – the quiet life – feels like a reward. As I pointed out, Read Dead Redemption essentially apes the entire plot of Unforgiven, yet for everything that film did right, at no point did it make me feel any sort of emotional connection to Clint Eastwood’s character. At no point did I have the tiniest inkling of what it meant to put down guns, leave the outlaw way of life behind and to settle down. For everything Read Dead Redemption did wrong, I understood this. I felt this.

In many ways, the twenty-four years that separate Kane and Read Dead Redemption are like the hundred-something years that separate the Lumiere brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat and James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar. There’s no question that Cameron trumps the Lumieres in terms of sheer spectacle, but it’s debatable whether his film actually represents a century of storytelling progress. The level of technological sophistication in Read Dead Redemption is leaps and bounds above that of Kane, but at the same time, there can be little doubt that the level of storytelling has also improved. Granted, we’re talking about the progression from virtually nothing to mere cave paintings, but it’s still a demonstrable improvement. But, more hopefully, there’s improvement in the right direction. Rather than simply aping films and filmic conventions, videogames are finding their own feet when it comes to storytelling. They are using the uniqueness of their own medium to their advantage.

It’s a start, right?