Beautiful, vast, and deadly; the iconic image of the Wild West is one of the most enduring to come from cinema. The perennial imagery of craggy mountain ranges, canyons that carve through the terrain, cacti-strewn deserts and rolling prairies established in films like The Magnificent Seven and The Wild Bunch have emblazoned the setting in the imagination; a dangerously alluring place both familiar and otherworldly, magnificent and treacherous, an invigorating concoction of majesty and menace that’s made the western a cornerstone of our entertainment since the birth of cinema.
What an achievement, then, to transmute this humbling, breathtaking, all-encompassing scope into a videogame that establishes and conveys the Wild West with great consistency. Red Dead Redemption is a brave undertaking indeed. At any point it could have gone so wrong – few cowboy videogames in the past, including Redemption’s own predecessor, have captured the enduring essence of the West with anywhere near the same scope as cinema – but Rockstar San Diego’s rendering of the American frontier is nothing short of absolute.
Bringing whole new meaning to the ‘open’ part of ‘open world’, Redemption’s is a gameworld as expansive and inviting as any we’ve explored, comprising the last territories in the outpost of the American frontier to be mapped, conquered, settled and tamed. Shanty towns sit amid vast expanses of barren wilderness, rural homesteads can be found hidden in sweeping grasslands and red sandstone monuments protrude from rough expanses of desert all situated beneath a vast sky of intense neon blues, smouldering oranges, silver greys, and any hue in between. You know San Diego has hit the nail on the head when you perch reformed bandit John Marston atop a mountain pass and watch as the slowly setting sun paints the sky gold and red, casting long, drawn shadows across the gameworld in its descent. Has Redemption captured the silent grandeur of the Old West? Undoubtedly so.
It’s taken until the current generation of consoles and the direct involvement of Rockstar for the Wild West to be portrayed with anything near the reverence it deserves. And yet it’s always been a promising setting for videogames. It was a time when disorder and uncertainty were a way of life, when criminals walked freely among civilians, when arguments were settled with bullets. Few settings could be more conducive to the rules of a videogame – particularly so when a developer like Rockstar is involved.
It’s unsurprising, then, that the indelible mark of Grand Theft Auto is omnipresent, Rockstar imposing a very familiar structure on Redemption’s lawless landscape. You take on missions from various locations, do dealings with a colourful and varied cast of characters, accompany NPCs on missions and listen to dialogue along the way (which changes on repeated attempts) go on seemingly simple missions that more often than not end in ambush… the list goes on. The core composition of the game is pure GTA, baring all the hallmarks of that series’ established design.
Nowhere is this more evident than in a cast of characters that ranges from stone-faced sheriffs to emaciated grave robbers – all of whom want something from you. There’s the flamboyant Dr West Dickens, a faux apothecary hocking his dubious nostrum to unwary punters; the wizened yet skilled veteran of the Frontier Landon Ricketts (a Revolver Ocelot lookalike if ever we saw one), and the agitated, cocaine-addicted anthropologist Professor Harold MacDougal. All and more are voiced, animated, and brought to life in comical cut-scenes bursting with the type of character indubitably spouted from the end of Dan Houser’s pen.
In no one is this more obvious than Marston himself. Dressed in an unkempt Stetson and entwined in a criss-cross of bandoliers and belts, his weathered face and gravelly intonation mark Marston out as a true product of his environment. Like Unforgiven’s Bill Munny, Marston is a reformed outlaw, trying to get by as an honest man. However, the Bureau – an agency created to tame the West – has different ideas, kidnapping Marston’s family and forcing him to track down and kill the remnants of his old gang.
He’s a signature Rockstar lead; trapped between his own desire for a quiet life and the violent agenda of others. Like Niko Bellic, Marston is a man who laments his evils, trying to find meaning in a world that no longer has a place for him. Taking place during the turn of the 20th Century, when the old ways of the Frontier collided with the encroaching technology of the modern age, Redemption sees the onset of the industrial revolution shifting the ways of the west. While outlaws cling to an old way of life, Marston knows he’s a dying breed, and it’s his grim acceptance of this fact that makes him such a tragic figure. Few developers beyond Rockstar are able to inject such subtle strains of pathos into a game that otherwise busies itself with shooting and killing for entertainment.