Sunday, January 6, 2013

Gamer Drama: A Story Critique of Red Dead Redemption

       I’m going to begin this edition of Gamer Drama with a quote from the IGN review of Red Dead Redemption, written by Erik Brudvig (you can find the full review here).

"It's tempting to say that Red Dead Redemption is ahead of its time, but the reality is that this is a game of and for the times. Rockstar shows an uncanny ability to hold a mirror up to society and remind us that present day hot button issues like racism, immigration, federal government power and personal freedoms are not only nothing new, they are deeply ingrained in American society. They are forces that helped to shape America into what is is, and their inclusion in Red Dead Redemption gives it a sense of authenticity that videogames in general lack."

       This is a grandiose statement, to be sure. I enjoyed my time playing Red Dead Redemption, but I wouldn’t say that Rockstar produced a social commentary. I think that it’s difficult to say that when the game is an RPG, where the options are so broad and you could play the character in any way. Games are better at being social commentaries when the player’s actions are more restricted. It’s not that I didn’t see the “presence of racism, immigration, government power, and personal freedoms” in the game—it’s that I didn’t see the game make any grand statements about these hot-button issues. However, that could possibly be the result of the fact that my moral compass in games tends to point toward “amoral” in the first play-through—the good and the bad that I do cancel each other out, meaning that the game’s reactions to me will lean toward neutrality. I’m not convinced that is the case, though I don’t think it makes the game any less enjoyable.


       John Marston was once an outlaw, until his friends left him for dead and he decided to settle down with his wife. But the law has finally come for him, in a way. His former gang partners, the ones who left him bleeding to death, are causing quite the disturbance in the American West. The Bureau of Investigation takes Marston’s family into custody, in order to ensure his cooperation in capturing the men who were once his friends. He travels between the American Southwest and Mexico in an attempt to track down Bill Williamson, Javier Escuella, and Dutch van der Linde (the leader of the gang), and bring them to justice. Along the way, Marston meets a variety of people and helps or hurts them through quests, earning allies and making enemies.

The Setting

       As stated above, Red Dead Redemption takes place across the border of the American Southwest and Mexico (in an area inspired by the Rio Grande basin). Marston travels through deserts and woodlands, spending time in small towns, growing cities, and ranches. Rockstar Games did an excellent job of presenting the vastness and promise of the American West through the open-world setting of the game. While on your horse, you can travel from one end of the map to the other, with no breaks in the gameplay. You can get lost, you can travel for periods without seeing another person (or NPC), and you can approach a destination from almost any angle.
       While the setting in Red Dead Redemption is nuanced and detailed, it does not really act as a constraint on the character or (like in the last edition of Gamer Drama) as an entity itself. However, it does provide challenges to the character and the gamer—even if it doesn’t really mold the gameplay itself, it still manages to contribute to the atmosphere. Also, it was obviously crafted with passion, which makes it that much easier to appreciate.
        How does a great (though not excellent) setting contribute to the storyline? The wide, open spaces of Marston’s story reinforce the fact that Marston is alone in his quest—although he makes some allies, few stay with him for long and few provide support that go beyond their desire to achieve their own goals. Marston has few friends, and riding through the desert between quests makes this highly apparent.

The Characters

       John Marston is the main character. He has turned from a life of crime and wants nothing more than to create a thriving ranch with his family. However, his family was taken away from him and he was forced to return to a life where people are constantly trying to kill him. He wants to finish the task of reigning in his former gang partners, and get back to his family and farmstead. Which he tells us again and again. And again. Marston lets us know that he’s a changed man. However, because of the player’s ability to choose between moral and immoral actions, he does not always show that he has changed. Marston makes many decisions that show that this change may not be that deep. He is willing to do “bad” things to reach his goal—and often puts the blame on others. He chooses to associate with people who are doing amoral things (and do these things alongside them). I know that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s a bad person. I know that the game is written so that he really has no choice. However, it would be better if he acknowledged these misdeeds and stopped asserting how he has changed. I could shoot an entire street of innocent people, and in the next cut scene John would bemoan the fact that he had changed and the government won’t leave him alone.
        There is another issue related to John Marston’s character—because the choices that the player makes determine Marston’s moral alignment, there really isn’t any sort of character development for him. (Most of the other characters remain underdeveloped, as well). This conflicts with the idea of “redemption”—do Marston’s actions truly redeem him, when he can act as immoral as the player desires? Has he changed at all? There’s another possible argument for the “redemption” aspect of the game—that Marston isn’t redeemed in his own eyes or the eyes of the law, but in the eyes of his son. Of course, the interactions between John and Jack are limited in the story. You see his son warm up to John after his return to his family, but there’s not a lot to indicate that he has truly been redeemed.
        Outside of John Marston, Red Dead Redemption has a very large cast of characters. Few of them are redeemable or likable, as you’d expect from a Western. Still, they are all interesting and intriguing (which you can’t really say for the protagonist). It is these minor characters that drive the story. Marston’s first attempt to capture one of the members of his old gang leaves him bleeding by the side of the road. This leads him to depend on others to get him near his targets—which also means that he must work for their goals before he can ultimately pursue his. While there is little character development for these individuals, this isn’t a problem—many of them only last two or three quests, and then disappear (or are killed). Each of these characters plays an important role in helping Marston’s story to progress—I cannot think of one that seemed extraneous. Overall, the minor characters were more intriguing than the main characters (Marston or any of his former gang partners).

The Payoff

       Is John Marston redeemed at the end of the game? As I mentioned before, you could argue that he’s been redeemed in the eyes of his son, but not in the eyes of the government. Some people have argued that the lack of redemption related to the government meant that he was trying for redemption, but wasn’t able to achieve it. I think that people who argue this are ignoring a vital part of the story. However, fearing spoilers, I’m unable to elaborate on this (the internet hates spoilers).
       Did I feel like the ending repaid my efforts in playing the game? I’m not sure. It feels like the main storyline ended abruptly, then the game dragged out until it finally ended. For the last half hour or so of gameplay, I kept hoping that the game would end after current quest. I felt like one of those people who complained about the ending of Return of the King.   

Grins and Gripes

  • I probably had a lot more fun playing at being a ranch owner in the last chapter of the game than I should have. I remain unashamed, however.
  • Despite the fact that the game was released in 2010, it was still very glitchy (and I downloaded a few patches for the game).
  • I was extremely annoyed by the character Luisa. She’s a smart and passionate young Mexican freedom fighter, dedicated to the revolution. When she meets John Marston, she tells him about her fiancé—Abraham Reyes, the leader of the local rebellion. When Marston meets Reyes, it becomes obvious that Reyes is only using Luisa. I felt that Luisa’s character would be smarter than that—however, she remains completely faithful to him and the rebellion.
  • A particularly good female character is Bonnie MacFarlane. She is helping her ailing father, but basically runs the family’s ranch herself. Bonnie is strong and passionate about her life’s work. Although it becomes apparent that she has feelings for John, her character doesn’t become secondary to these feelings (she doesn’t even allow John to see them).
  • The graphics in this game are excellent—especially the animation. As someone who has spent a lot of my life around horses, I appreciated the attention to detail and lifelike movements.
  • Don’t play the game on an old television set. I mostly played this game on a hand-me-down tube TV (though it was an older set, it didn’t have that poor of a picture). I rode my horses off cliffs more often than I would like to admit. However, I bought a Plasma TV over the summer and picked up the game again (I was frustrated with trying to play it on the old television and stopped for a while). I didn’t have any problems with the graphics once I started playing on the plasma.

Rating: 7/10

For the upcoming edition of Gamer Drama, I'm going to review the Ghostbusters Wii game. Spoiler alert: I loved it. However, I want your help in choosing the next next game. Here's the poll--I'll announce the winner at the end of the next edition of Gamer Drama (due in two weeks).

Which game should I play and review for the next Gamer Drama? free polls 

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