Red Dead Redemption (2010)

Unearthed from the hoard this week!

What is the West? Survival. Hardship. Sudden death like a thief in the night. Frontier villages surrounded by miles of untamed wilderness, civilization an afterthought amid steppe grass, dangerous animals and bandits. Lawmen struggling to keep order while chaos reigns around them.

Despite the danger and disorder, the people have carved this land into a place they call their own, and they don’t want outsiders laying claim to it. But like a cancerous bog, change rolls in from the east, bringing with it apocalyptic horsemen. Their names? Government. Bureaucracy. Modernization. One can sense it via the power lines alongside the beaten dirt roads. New Austin and Mexico still evoke open space and independence, but the northeastern city of Blackwater has paved roads and store fronts with an early 20th century aesthetic; you might even spot one of those newfangled “horseless carriages.”

In short, the Wild West is terminally ill. Nobody knows this better than John Marston (v: Rob Wiethoff). John claims the gang he once ran with was a Robin Hood type deal, but he admits to being a vicious son all the same. Having escaped the outlaw life, he wants to live the rest of his days as a rancher and family man with his bookish son Jack (Josh Blaylock) and his wife Abigail (Sophia Marzocchi), who used to be the gang’s live in whore.

This isn’t Stardew Valley though, and no sooner has John found solace than the suits come knocking. They kidnap Jack and Abigail and present John with an ultimatum: bring all of his former gang members to justice or the family suffers. Left with no choice, John must pick up his old guns to reclaim his loved ones.

Capturing or killing John’s former friends isn’t as simple as walking into their fortified compounds, as he learns the hard way. To succeed, John needs help. Unfortunately, the folks on hand to lend assistance are lowlife scum, ranging from snake oil salesmen to unscrupulous drunks to borderline necrophiliac treasure hunters, two-faced revolutionaries and beyond. John works alongside the worst people in the world, a compromise that challenges his values as he works toward his goal.

There are story missions that involve activities like cattle herding and horse breaking, but most deal with intense shootouts: you and your arsenal versus bad men and their hails of gunfire. Run into a bullet storm and you’ll go out in a blaze of glory. John’s health regenerates over time, but if he isn’t taking cover during a firefight he won’t be able to wait it out.

Fortunately Marston has a handy ability called Dead Eye, which slows down time and allows him to paint markers on targets with a moving cursor. When Dead Eye snaps back to real-time, John blasts each marked target with rapid-fire precision. Dead Eye is pretty danged useful, essential in many spots.

Getting around in Red Dead Redemption can be accomplished on foot, on a train or by stagecoach. Your main means of transportation will be horses. Horses are reliable creatures. They come when whistled for and will never disappear, no matter how far you walk away from them. Spend time with one long enough and it learns to trust you, increasing the stamina it can expend before tiring out. But don’t push it too hard or your steed will buck you. Horses can also die like anything else, so it pays to be careful. You don’t want to get stuck in bear or cougar country with a dead mount and tired feet.

In typical open world/sandbox game fashion, John can ride out into the blazing sun and ignore story missions indefinitely. There’s plenty to do in the dying Wild West. You can hunt wild animals and trade their spoils for money; if you’re into more dangerous game there are always bounties to collect, dead or alive. Desperate types, called Strangers, provide multi-threaded side quests. Break in horses. Play Poker or Blackjack in the various saloons. Challenge people to arm wrestling, Five Finger Fillet or gun duels. Seek out buried treasure.

While I’ve enjoyed Rockstar’s games going on 18 years now, writing has never been the company’s strongest suit. They are good at world building and constructing a general story framework, but their scripts and subtlety have glaring issues. Rockstar’s idea of “social commentary” is shoving beaten and bloodied points in the player’s face.

For instance, did you know these folk don’t take kindly to big bad government overreach? If you don’t the game reminds you, over and over again. This point harboring is especially evident once John hits Mexico, where I can picture the discussions in the writing room:

“How do we make sure the player understands the Mexican government is bad?”

“Remind them the army loves raping women.”

“We already implied that in more than one cutscene.”

“Yeah, but rape is bad. Villains who rape are bad. Keep pushing that rape angle!”

Later, a downtrodden Native explains the oppression and atrocities inflicted on his people to a coke-addled, racist anthropology professor. This dialogue is cringe inducing. RDR’s strength is in its gameplay and world, not its script. The narrative is every revisionist Western trope from the past fifty years crammed into a rolling tumbleweed.

On the other hand, as a sympathetic protagonist John shows a lot of improvement over previous Rockstar leads. He’s self-centered in the sense that he cares about getting his family back, damn everybody else, but beneath his rugged exterior lies a solid moral bedrock. Oh, and no matter how much they insist he utilize their services (“Is there anything of yours you’d like to stick into something of mine?”), ever-faithful John cannot and will not hire prostitutes, even in free-roam mode.

Decent and upright as John may (try to) be in story mode and cutscenes, he can be as good or bastardly as you wish in free-roam, whoring excluded. ‘Honor’ measures how you behave on your own. If you play the savior on white horse kind of boy people treat you accordingly, except if you find yourself in Thieve’s Landing. If you’re the type who enjoys gunning down innocents and other naughty deeds, you’ll not only find store prices skyrocketing, you will get a bounty placed on your head.

Keep or purge? John Marston’s journey, despite being marred by Rockstar’s typical writing, is a worthwhile Grand Theft Horse-type sandbox. After completing a 100% run, I’d say Red Dead Redemption deserves at least one more foray across the treacherous Wild West landscape. I’m going with keep.