Red Dead Redemption Still Stands as Rockstar’s Crowning Achievement

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.

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I Miss Demo Culture

A few days ago, the always controversial (but never boring) Jim Sterling discussed developer Arkane Studios’ approach to its demo distribution of their game Prey. The latest Jimquisition episode examines the ludicrous practice of not offering a demo version of the game for PC users, as they can obtain a full refund from Steam anyway if they’ve played the game for less than two hours. While that situation itself is worthy of an entire discussion, Jim covers it about as well as one can, so I don’t have any interest in putting the studio under further scrutiny. The video did make me realise just how non-existent the culture of playing video game demos is in this day and age though. It’s not that demos have ceased to exist altogether (although offering demos for games has become a rarity as time’s gone on), but the entire quadrant of gamers whose playing experiences were shaped by them has disappeared completely.

The featured image for today’s post illustrates my point perfectly in regards to demo culture. In 2001, Zone of the Enders was released and became the sixth best-selling video game in North America for the month of March. Such a high chart position for a brand new intellectual property that wasn’t particularly aimed at a Western audience is an impressive feat. However, the game’s success came with a rather large caveat, a caveat so large that there were people who bought the game and never even played it. I’m of course talking about the fact that Zone of the Enders was packaged with the demo disc for Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, one of the most hotly anticipated video games of all-time. Three years removed from Hideo Kojima’s stealth action masterpiece Metal Gear Solid, the sequel had an ungodly amount of hype surrounding it. So much so that people were paying full price for a game they had no intention of playing, all so they could have access to the first level of MGS2.

Casting my mind back to those early 2000s days of gaming and I’m filled with a sense of nostalgia. I know that it’s all too common to criticise the current state of the video game industry in favour of championing classics from our childhoods, but I feel like this organic and natural level of hype is more subdued nowadays. Now that we’re all older, with our own jobs and personal income, the magical veneer of video games has worn off for us. I bought Mass Effect: Andromeda not because of excitement, but because it was the new thing that was out and I wanted to be distracted for a while. When I think back to being younger, it starts to resonate with me just how much of a part demos played in my life. I didn’t have much money growing up, so my gaming growth was a little stunted as it’s such an expensive hobby. I was always one generation behind, I was making do with my PS1 when everyone else was revelling in the digital playground of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on its successor. By the time I got a PS2, everyone had yet again moved on to the seventh generation. Hell, I didn’t get my first current gen console until last year.

This lack of funds I feel humbled me as a gamer, relishing what I did have and learning to be grateful. This is why demos were so integral. My parents couldn’t afford the hottest new game out, so I’d have to use my imagination. Every month, a new demo disc would be released, containing a library of samples for upcoming games that contained so much content that I could make it last as long as the real thing. Even though I would only be playing a snippet of something, to me it was my training ground. Even though I knew that each session would be cut short once I reached a certain point, I would replay the same sections over and over until they were burned into my brain. Through constant repetition, I was playing the game in a sense. While I wasn’t making any story progression, I was mastering the mechanics and understanding the level design of each title. Now, the vast majority of these games were never played in full and I’ve long forgotten what most of them were, but every once in a while, I’d get to have my very own copy of one of those delicious samplings.

Playing the full version of a game that I’d already devoured in short form felt almost like using cheat codes. Like I’d been spying on another team’s training sessions so I knew exactly what they’d do before the big game. The element of stress in learning how to play a new video game had disappeared as I breezed through each level, every mechanic and AI attack pattern committed to muscle memory. The further I progressed, the easier it became as my arsenal was only bolstered via character and weapon upgrades if it was a game with such systems. All those hours spent slaying the Hydra in the God of War demo almost made me feel like a god, only I was omnipotent to the extent of murdering bundles of pixels as opposed to running the universe.

In a way, I’m glad that I can cherish these memories with such fondness. There’s a romance to it all, I was part of a generation that engaged with video games on an entirely different level. I can talk to friends in my age range about picking up the latest magazine and what demo disc was attached to it, as if we’re Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson reminiscing about when everything was shot on 35mm film. It’s an era that I truly miss in video games, and one that is sadly not likely to return anytime soon. However, I’ll always be able say that I experienced it; and if you love something, sometimes you have to let it go.

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Autism and Me (and RPGs)

Last week, I talked about the brilliance of how the recent Power Rangers movie handled its portrayal of autism and the effect it had on me. The piece received a response that I found emotionally overwhelming, I was even invited to write a guest post for a website called GeeksGamers.com, which can be found here. Such positive feedback has inspired me to start a series of sorts, linked by title and what popular culture components have done for me and my autism. While last week was focused on my own interpretation of the representation of autism, today, I’ll be exploring my own integration of autism into role-playing games, more commonly referred to as RPGs.

Video games in general have always played an important role in my life. Along with autism, I also have dyspraxia, a neurological condition that drastically hinders my motor skills and hand-eye coordination. My earliest video game memories involve Spider-Man on the PS1, an action-oriented game and a fan favourite. Through relentlessly playing this game and teaching my brain how to associate the movements made on a controller with the actions that were happening on screen, video games were rewiring my neurological connections. My dyspraxia is not as severe as it once was, but it’s changed the way I live exponentially. I couldn’t walk in a straight line on my own until I was 14, for example, and my right foot still twists at an awkward angle whenever I take a footstep. I’ll most likely never learn to drive, either, so relying on the temperamental luxuries of British public transport is my only real option.

Those early developmental stages of my gaming life planted the seeds for a world I was yet to discover, one that would spark my creativity and love of narrative storytelling. I’m not sure what the first RPG was that I ever played with an emphasis on character creation and influence over the story itself (I, like most in my generation, was a Pokémon addict as a young boy), I just have a whole host of favourites. I can remember being 8 and the hype surrounding the hotly anticipated Fable. Despite Peter Molyneux pulling a, well, a Peter Molyneux in hyping up his game far too much (trees growing in real-time, come off it mate), I was still about to devote my life to this game.

Fable opened my eyes to a world in which I could control what happened. I could be good or evil, thin or fat, a mage of extreme power or a warrior wielding his sword with deadly precision. In retrospect, Fable’s approach to RPG mechanics was relatively one-dimensional, ultimately condensing every decision down to whether or not you wanted to be naughty or nice. But if you put that aside, a video game love affair had begun, I was having an influence, I felt important. The biggest issue I’ve faced throughout my life has been social interaction. Initiating conversations scares me, making friends and keeping in contact with them is not a natural instinct. I’ll go long stretches without talking to my friends, not because I don’t like them, but because I don’t understand how friendships work.

My life is defined by rules, the fact that our time on this Earth isn’t dictated by rules, but rather by having to understand the complexities of the human mind has always been a source of distress for me. There is no real step-by-step programme on getting a girlfriend (aside from ones that expect you to already possess the ability to read other people) or getting friends, we’re just expected to know how to navigate this elaborate minefield. The clearly defined rules of video games are comforting to me and stimulate my very human needs of social and romantic fulfilment. I can have a strong circle of friends that look to me as a leader if I play Mass Effect, I can have a wife and a home in Skyrim.

Purpose is something we all search for, even though I don’t believe we all have one. It sounds bleak, but sometimes there are people that are born, they live and then die, having never achieved anything of note or making a lasting impact on anybody. Was their purpose to be a forgettable face in the crowd? No, they never had a purpose to begin with. RPGs endow the player with purpose through their very nature, the sense of empowerment one gets from creating an avatar and being granted with a mission of great importance is like a high for me. The world is looking to my guidance to save them, along the way I’ll meet people who I can choose to love or fear me. The intention of an RPG that relates to providing a sense of power is an escapist fantasy for neurotypicals, but for me, it’s an alternative lifestyle in and of itself.

In terms of character development, I’ve been presented with the chance to retroactively add autistic representation into the games I play, creating an environment of autistic empowerment. I particularly enjoy the freedom afforded to me by Bethesda’s Fallout games, most notably Fallout 3. Through the dialogue options in the game, the personality of my character can be shaped into an ASD badass that roams the Capital Wasteland of Washington D.C., executing tasks and threats with the cold efficiency of a well-oiled machine. Legends quickly spread about a man who has no connections, drifting from settlement to settlement, accruing bottle caps and lending a helping hand to the good, preferring to terminate the evil. The life I want to live will never be accessible to me in the real world, but that blow is softened with the soothing digital splendour of gaming.

With the sheer volume of RPGs currently out there on the market, there’s a lot of putrid waste to sift through in the search of a true diamond in the rough. I still have my criticisms of the Fallout and Elder Scrolls franchises, as for whatever reason, I’m even more critical of video games than I am of films. But the sense of escapism I’m given through the genre gives me purpose in a realm that I have full mastery of and, most importantly, I get to feel like a normal guy.

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