Red Dead Redemption, sans Redemption?

Red Dead Redemption was the most exciting game I didn’t get to play at PAX East. I’d barely heard of it prior to the convention, and I certainly wasn’t going to wait in that line to try a brief demo, but I left PAX craving old western films and quietly counting down the days until the game’s release.

Now that the game is finally out, I am having a blast. After some initial issues with the horse controls the game quickly dragged me in, and hasn’t let me go. In fact, the only reason I’m  writing about it and not playing it right now is that I’m once again stuck on a bus. I haven’t progressed very far in the story due to work obligations, but the writing is solid, and after two years of Grand Theft Auto 4 the thing that most surprised me was how likable I found the characters. The world generally holds together, and the sheer variety of events and emergent situations I’ve encountered in the first few hours of play boggles my mind. Unfortunately, at this point in the game a few narrative elements are still bothering me, and the game’s Western setting prevents me from brushing these minor flaws away.

Hunting is my first big problem with the game—there isn’t any real in-world incentive. Beyond selling pelts for negligible cash, the only motivation I have found for hunting is to complete achievement-style challenges that break my immersion. Although I understand it would have irritated many players, I was disappointed that a game set in a world of scarce resources didn’t include some kind of hunger mechanic to justify your wanton slaughter of wildlife. Hunting doesn’t matter to Marston… it’s just something to do to pass the time. Doesn’t he have bigger fish to fry?

That inconsistency of pacing is the bigger problem. There isn’t enough urgency in Marston’s actions. His introductory confrontation with his old rival is almost lethargic, and once he recovers from his injury the game makes no effort to press you to complete your tasks quickly. In fact, the game’s design serves the opposite purpose, pulling you farther from the core storyline as you explore the open world. John Marston’s wife and child are being held captive by the government, but he seems perfectly at ease, doing odd-jobs for traveling salesmen and gathering herbs! The man should be agitated, driven. Deke Thornton in The Wild Bunch was also forced to turn on his old brothers in arms, and the stress of that order hangs over Thornton throughout the film. Marston looks bored in comparison.

This disconnect of characterization worries me, and I anticipate that when I beat this game I will be satisfied with the game, but disappointed by its narrative. Westerns live and die by their conclusion, and in a perfect world, I believe John Marston would die. His circumstances would slowly draw out the most heroic qualities in his character, and at the end of the game you would have the option to sacrifice yourself to achieve your goals, set your family ahead (in the manner of 3:10 to Yuma), and complete the arc of the narrative.

It’s a well-established progression in Westerns, and some of my favorite films in the genre end with the death of the protagonist. Unfortunately I doubt this will happen, although it would finally offer a narrative solution to the issue of player agency: If you play the game dishonorably, breaking Marston’s essentially noble characterization by indiscriminately murdering your way through the game, a narrative death could be cast as a personal redemption. Having an honor gauge that responds to your actions allows RDR to partially fit itself to your play style, but I haven’t yet seen any indication that honor is narratively tied to Western archetypes in this way.

I don’t normally put so much stress on the narrative of the games I play… Many do not need narrative at all, and others sidestep lackluster storylines with engaging gameplay. Unfortunately, by hewing so close to an established cinematic genre Rockstar has positioned the game within the legacy of Western films, and Westerns live and die not just by their wild settings but by their tough-as-nails protagonists. At the end of the day a game world that doesn’t force you to hunt rabbits to survive doesn’t bother me; a main character who drifts aimlessly and unhurriedly through a narrative does. It is a lost opportunity.

To be fair, the game is titled Red Dead Redemption, so maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this will end up just as I hope, with a stunning, redemptive narrative conclusion to match the exciting gunplay and beautiful game world.

My fingers are crossed.

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