I've been thinking a lot about Kane, an early wild west game that came out on the Commodore 64 in the mid-80s. Actually, I doubt if it even counts as a 'game' by today's standards. Really it was just four mini-games - shooting birds (or rather, 'birdies'), riding a horse to the right, a shoot out, and then riding a horse to the left. The game wasn't particularly flashy, nor was the narrative wrapper that supposedly connected these mini-games (essentially, the plot of High Noon - "Kane" being the name of Gary Cooper's character in that movie).
Despite the flaws, I fucking loved that game.
I loved it because I was 10, and this was a game where I could pretend to be a cowboy. And when you’re a ten year old boy, all you want to do is to be a cowboy. For me, the small numbers of actions in the game actually added to the effect. I mean, what the hell else did cowboys do but shoot things and ride horses? That was just me, though. The Spectrum magazine, Crash, criticised the game for the limited amount of things you can do in the game, saying "it would be fun if there were about 10 more sections to battle through".
Playing through Rock Star’s Red Dead Redemption, I couldn’t help being reminded of Kane - one of the first games I ever played and definitely the first cowboy game I ever played - which then got me thinking about how far videogames have come. If you were to jump in a time machine and show this game to my ten-year old self (on a 60" HD LCD TV, natch), I can guarantee you I would have quite literally shit my pants.
While Kane was mostly played in static screens, with just four types of activity in the entire gameWell, two, if you want to be persnickety about the qualitative distinctions between riding left instead of right and shooting birds instead of dudes, there’s no shortage of activity in Red Dead Redemption. In my almost 35 hours of playing RDR, I never once felt bored or like I had nothing to do. There were always animals to hunt, outlaws to kill (and loot), horses to lasso and women to hogtie and place in front of a fast-approaching train. I love the amount and variety of possibilities that the game throws at the player. I've finished the story and I still have things to do, such as killing grizzly bears with my hunting knife.
What I love most about the Red Dead Redemption is the way it feels like a real, living world. I was always stumbling across little things, micro-stories that felt like they were happening completely independently of me and my actions. For example, while riding around Aurora Basin, hunting for bears, I spotted a man kneeling on the ground. I rode closer and saw that he was kneeling next to the body of a dead woman and bawling his eyes out. As I stood there, watching him cry, he took out a gun and shot himself in the head. I was completely stunned by this. I didn’t know what to do.
(I got off my horse and looted his body.)
I'm not particularly proud of my actions. All I'll say is that we all have our own ways of dealing with grief and kleptomania is mine. But let's just think about this: the amount of effort and number of man-hours put into crafting this one tiny, incidental scene in Red Dead Redemption probably outweighs the total amount of effort and number of man-hours put into the entirety of the making of Kane. And this was just a background action, something that would (apparently) happen whether I’d seen it or not. I could have missed it. I could have just as easily chosen to ride past the man without checking it out. It didn’t need to be there, but Rockstar put it in there because it fleshed out this world.
It's easy to be jaded about these things (and I definitely felt a bit disappointed the second time I came across the suicide-man) but my goodness - we've really come a long way. No wonder my ten-year old self would have shit his pants.