Thursday, October 21, 2010

Redemption Song, Part 2

I should have mentioned yesterday that I haven't even gotten to Mexico yet in Red Dead Redemption. Which means I'll probably be coming back to revisit these posts later on, since by all accounts that's when things take a sharp narrative turn for the worse (link contains spoilers). And with the game so heavily encouraging "taking the high road" in all encounters, I'm beginning to understand the big question in this review: "What's the point of a 'Moral Choice System' when so many moral choices are made for you?"

So: here's hoping "revisit" doesn't end up meaning "delete in embarrassment."

I haven't experienced enough of the story yet to make any pretense of intelligible analysis. Instead, having spent just north of ten hours roaming New Austin with John Marston, I want to talk about two other factors I think make the game successful - or at least more enjoyable than GTA IV.

1. Use of Space. It's only natural that a Western game would feature plenty of wide-open spaces. This is a welcome contrast to Liberty City, where I spent most of my time being chased down by cops for unintentionally flattening pedestrians on every street. You could make the point that GTA IV uses the cramped environs to make a thematic statement about Niko being trapped in his violent nature, and you might be right, but that's an annoying-ass way to make a (pretty obvious) thematic statement. Even when you're galloping full tilt down a narrow trail in RDR, you still have plenty of room to avoid any wagons or riders who happen by. This is enormously freeing: instead of tension being built by wondering when my janky-ass-controlling vehicle will accidentally smash into a cop and fail me out of my mission - a kind of Resident Evil tank control artificial difficulty - that job is left to the missions themselves. Whether RDR's missions succeed or fail at building tension effectively isn't my point, but rather that the designers' use of open space has largely liberated the player from this concern. Most of the time, you're not worrying about crashing into things - although, in typical sandbox game style, I did still manage to back my horse over a woman I'd just rescued from bandits the other night. Whoops.

Because towns and buildings are so few and far between, and traversal objectives so plentiful (see below), RDR encourages the player to truly explore the world in a way other sandbox games fail to. The "free roaming" in GTA IV, Crackdown, Red Faction: Guerrilla or Mercenaries 2 is an illusory at best and often simply tedious. Despite claims of "verticality" or "destructability" in these games, there's nothing intrinsically open-feeling about them; the worlds may be detailed, but you're always aware you're either in or between cities. Just Cause 2 avoids this trap somewhat by incorporating nifty traversal mechanics in the grappling hook and parachute and by featuring a massive map. Open space is an illusion in RDR too, of course. But there's nothing quite like an empty horizon - and, I think quite tellingly, a lack of motorized vehicles - to give you a satisfying illusion. The only other games I've played that pulls this off well is Oblivion and to some extent Fallout 3, although neither fantasy world felt as believably expansive, or as easy to traverse, as New Austin.

Yet when you enter a gang hideout or head into the hills to capture a bounty in RDR, the space inevitably narrows to allow for solid third-person cover shooting. I know this choice has caught some criticism - how convenient, there's cover in this combat location! - but think about it: how exciting (or long) could a gunfight in an open field be? There's a reason shootouts in Western movies always take place on horseback or in town - they'd be over in seconds otherwise. I'm a little baffled at the complaints here, especially since 100% cover-based shooters like Gears of War 2 make you press buttons in the game world to pop up cover during battles. As if the alien architect who designed Alien Palace anticipated there might be a firefight on the Promenade some day.

2. Traversal is Fun. I've fast-traveled, I dunno, five times in my ten hours with the game. The environments are so gorgeous, and full of so many sub-objectives - collecting herbs, hunting and skinning animals, rescuing strangers from bandits or coyotes, beating a fellow gunman in a sharpshooting challenge - that the only incentive to fast-travel is to save time between missions. So far, the "story" missions have been, by and large, the least interesting activities in the game for me.

I should pause here to note that I have a personal aversion to hunting for sport: I understand why some people like it, I guess, but it holds no appeal to me. It seems bizarrely anachronistic and unnecessary in 21st century America. I guess I view hunters in the same way I view people who refuse to use email: I can respect their reasons for doing so if they make sense, but I don't see much gain to it. Hell, I don't even like killing animals in videogames. (Humans are another story, but that's a topic for another post, and possibly for therapy.)

And yet, hunting is probably my favorite activity in RDR. I can't quite explain why. It's not the tangible rewards - the progress toward the Challenge objectives and the money from shopkeepers for the skins and meat - because in a way, there's so many sub-objectives in the game as to render them meaningless. Maybe it's the thrill of finding a hidden element and claiming it/dominating it, the same psychology behind pixel-hunt or whack-a-mole games. More likely, it's the first modern game to capture the unadulterated joy of hunting in Oregon Trail. Also, and maybe I just haven't gotten to this part yet, there's no dysentery.

Because RDR does give you all those sub-objectives - which are all, as far as I can tell, entirely optional and irrelevant to your character's skills or power - you have additional incentive, however arbitrary, to fully explore this incredibly detailed world the designers have presented you. This must be a tricky problem for designers of sandbox games - how do we get the player to dig into the nooks and crannies of this amazing space we've killed ourselves creating, to really appreciate the fidelity or polish of this product? I don't think we've quite found the answer yet - achievements/trophies can only motivate certain of us so far - but RDR is a step forward.

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