Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Redemption Song, Part 1

In Thieves' Landing, I watched a pig flick his ears to wave away invisible flies.

Meandering to the edge of his pen, the little porker snuffled the grass for a few seconds, then hunched down his front legs and slowly rolled onto his side. After a moment's pause, he squirmed onto his back, hooves raised in contentment as he wiggled in the mud.

I wandered over to the newsstand and bought the latest Blackwater Ledger. At the bottom of the one-sheet was an advertisement for a combination dining room chair/commode. "Relieve yourself without having to leave the table!" it proclaimed. Shit where you eat, indeed.

As the sun set, I mounted my Kentucky Saddler and rode west, back toward the MacFarlane Ranch.

About halfway to my destination I dismounted to pick some herbs for old Billy West, who had asked me to help put together a bouquet for his wife, Annabel. Annabel, it later turned out, was a rotting corpse propped up in a rocking chair, Mother-of-Norman-Bates-style.

It was at this point in Red Dead Redemption, when the game referenced a famous Edgar Allen Poe poem, that I was finally won over.

Admittedly, I'd been ambivalent about picking up RDR. After my bad experience with GTA IV, I was hesitant about plunking down money for what had been described by more than one source as "Grand Theft Horse." And Rockstar's history of asshole protagonists we're supposed to enjoy embodying didn't bode well for its Wild West outing. (There are convincing arguments for why they do so, however.)

And so RDR was maybe the first game I've bought with the express purpose of "being part of the conversation." It had popped up on so many "Game of the Year" lists that I'd have felt negligent not at least giving it a shot.

So far, I'm glad I did.

There are, of course, problems with RDR. In addition to the inevitable open-world jankiness, there are some serious disconnects between the game's fictional world and its sandbox structure. Many of these are detailed by Michael Abbott in this excellent post, so I won't bother going into more detail. But I do want to quote a passage from Michael's piece that perfectly captures my sentiment about RDR:

The GTA template is easily seen in RDR, but Rockstar has filled its new sandbox with rich atmosphere and an iconic landscape rendered with extraordinary attention to detail. GTA IV impressed with its skewed fidelity to New York City, but RDR's take on the American West transcends it and approaches visual poetry. The lighting alone is worth a studious blog post. I've grown so fond of riding my horse at sunrise and sunset that I've timed my sleep/saves to make the most of them.

Landscape is mythos in Westerns. RDR's pictorialism and environmental ambiance convey a sense of place more effectively than any game I've played. Its evocative, understated soundtrack amplifies the visuals, and its score echoes Ennio Morricone without aping him.

Very few games make me put down the controller and just stare, but this one does. In this world, wild horses still roam the plains; hawks circle overhead while the trail under your steed's thundering hooves coughs up clouds of dust. Look closely at the grasses and you may spot an armadillo nosing his way through a clump of desert sage. Standing atop a cliff overlooking the ramshackle town in the valley below, not feeling to the need to shoot anything or rescue anyone or fetch some item for a few experience points - that's a rare moment in a videogame, and an unexpectedly valuable one.

Which is why it's especially ironic that for a game that almost gives the player too much to do - too many activities and too much freedom - its best moments are the quietest ones.

RDR's most impressive achievement is, as Michael says, transcendence: the scrupulous attention to environmental detail results in an experience that transcends its own sandbox trappings. As a player, having broad freedom of action is secondary to the powerful feeling the game creates of being in this place. One might even argue, if one were feeling mildly pretentious, that RDR even transcends the myth of the Western, presenting a world that, even within its own internal fiction, both challenges and reinforces that myth. The early 20th century was a time of rapid social and technological change - change that came at a high cost and faced lots of resistance in "the last frontier" - and to some degree, I suppose, RDR is more effective as an exploration of that tension than as a sandbox shooter, or even a "Western" game.

And it's odd to say this about a Rockstar game, but damned if there isn't a lot of love that went into Redemption.

Tomorrow I'll write about the specific elements I think make RDR a success, and elaborate on how they illustrate key issues in game design. Until then, pardner.

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