In the wake of the second trailer for Red Dead Redemption 2 dropping, my anticipation for the game is already at a fever pitch. Fond memories of its predecessor have been occupying my brain over the past few weeks as I replay my all-time favourite video game for the umpteenth time. Red Dead Redemption was the first game whereby I closely followed the development process. As a fan of the oft-forgotten, cult favourite Red Dead Revolver, the spiritual sequel from by the minds behind the Grand Theft Auto franchise had me chomping at the bit. I distinctly remember being 14 and every single video game outlet in my town being sold out of copies. My mum had to phone my dad (who was working in London at the time) to get me one, my desperation to play was at such an extreme level.
Extreme is the perfect word to encapsulate the following weeks of my Red Dead consumption. I would get home from school, boot up the 360, and play all the way through to bedtime. This was a game I played so much, that I was banned from my Xbox for two weeks after failing to come downstairs for dinner one too many times. If anyone ever questions my love for the tale of John Marston, the fact it’s the only game that’s led to a flat out ban on me gaming should say it all. In truth, I’m an avid fan of Rockstar’s whole catalogue, having devoured most of it over the years. However, their cowboy epic is what I always find myself coming back to. I’ve invested the same amount of time into RDR as most people have in Skyrim or The Witcher 3, games far more notorious for racking up the hours on.
Despite the untouchable legacy of the heralded GTA saga, as well as the underrated Bully, Rockstar are yet to make a finer contribution to the gaming world that surpasses their tragedy-soaked Western. As a keen fan of the genre, Red Dead Redemption offers up everything I could ever want: a morally complex storyline, memorable and exaggerated characters, gorgeous music, stunning art direction, and a shit load of shootouts. There is a certain beauty and maturity to the game that can’t be found in the developer’s other offerings. Grand Theft Auto prides itself on wanton mayhem and destruction, it’s in many ways a self-indulgent, immature fantasy. And while I have praise for the wonderful mechanics and raw gameplay of GTA V, it ultimately tells a simplistic story, led by characters who are entertaining but one-note psychopaths.
Aside from the more nuanced storytelling of GTA IV, the bulk of the franchise can be broke down as doing bad things to get money. And while it is a fun little piece of escapism, we’re hardly dealing with narrative genius on the level of The Last of Us or Shadow of the Colossus. What was proven with RDR was that Rockstar wasn’t all about cops and robbers; themes such as moral conflict, governmental corruption, remorse, and family could be the anchor for a grounded, humanistic adventure. John Marston is essentially the aftermath of what we usually play as in a Rockstar game. He was once a criminal who murdered and stole, who must now hunt down his old gang to absolve his sins and be with his family. The player is thrust into Marston’s position straight away, his motives are easy to connect and empathise with.
What follows is a riveting plot that takes one all over the length and breadth of the West as it comes close to dissolution, with World War One looming on the horizon. Marston is both literally and figuratively in a race against time, with his own fate and the frontier’s left in doubt. The usual mass killing sprees found in other open world games are still possible, but the moral positioning of Marston’s character causes the player to take pause. Such level of engagement within both the narrative and the protagonist is more meaningful than, say, Michael from GTA V robbing a jewellery store to pay for a mobster’s balcony that he accidentally destroyed. There is an adult-oriented tone at play here, one which rivals the construction of any high profile TV drama or award-winning film.
This pathos and character depth is a key factor in Red Dead Redemption being the only video game that’s ever reduced me to tears. The heartbreaking climax of John Marston’s journey sees him betrayed by the government after doing what has been asked of him. John is unceremoniously executed to tie up any loose ends, and the emotional punch that is packed still affects me to this day. I’d never felt a deeper bond with a character, and all of my efforts to get him back home were seemingly for nothing. Even though one can avenge Marston’s death with his son, Jack, the wound can never truly heal.
The true brilliance in the game is that our actions took with the protagonist were not rendered enitrely useless by his demise. Despite the cruelty of his punishment, he did a lot of good that one could consider a part of his redemptive arc. Over the course of the game, you can help save a farm, play a part in the Mexican Revolution, help an old gunslinger find some purpose, and even wipe out the buffalo (okay, maybe that one isn’t so noble, the pelts are worth a pretty penny, though). There’s a real impact to be made on the game’s world, and your deeds can unlock certain perks as you continue to play. I haven’t even talked about the content element, as that’s worthy of its own entry. But in short, you can hunt, play poker, catch bounties, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The infusion of Rockstar’s sandbox environment and Oscar-worthy writing forms a perfect storm of gaming prowess. With the sequel on its way, I’m looking forward to re-entering this world of six shooters and horseback riding, as I’ll be revisiting my dearest friend who has new stories to tell.