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Red Dead Redemption was the blueprint. Other games like Assassin’s Creed were trying to do similar things but only Red Dead Redemption and its sequel would perfect the flawed desire for endless freedom in an open, hostile game world. It was fantasy and escapism. It was the myth of the American West in its dying days brought to full and realised life. It took pieces out of every western fable that had ever been put into print or on screen and made the player, you, the protagonist. Red Dead Redemption 2 might be Rockstar Games’ magnum opus but Red Dead Redemption was where it all began.
We live in an era of unprecedented freedom in video games or at least we think we do. It’s no longer an achievement when a director at E3 – be they Todd Howard or Hideo Kojima – says “See that mountain in the distance? You can go there”. Back in 2010 not only was it an achievement that those mesas in the distance could be visited but it was shocking that such a huge world could be so empty and yet so full of life at the same time. Wild horses forded rivers, rabbits sprang between cacti and the majestic, dwindling buffalo herds roamed the western plains. Here was a world that was soon to be dominated by man but it’s wildness could still be seen in the roving gangs, in the pouncing mountain lions and in it’s empty, unforgiving landscapes. It was yours for the taking or you were it’s for the taking.
Rancher and former outlaw John Marston has been forced to pick up his guns again after government agents hold his wife Abigail and son Jack hostage until he finds his old gang members. Bill Williamson leads a gang of killers in the rocky desert of New Austin. Javier Escuella aids the tyrannical Mexican government against rebels. Lastly John’s surrogate father and former leader Dutch Van Der Linde has eschewed modern living for a life in the mountains. With the aid of a colourful cast of characters John Marston hunts them all down with each act of violence seeming more futile than the last.
Bullet time, a staple of Hong Kong action cinema, moved into games with Max Payne. If there’s one thing you can say about Rockstar in the last decade it’s that they really loved bullet time. A slow motion aiming mode for a western shooter in 2010 sounded and felt great. In 2018’s Red Dead Redemption 2, not so much. If one thing hasn’t progressed in Rockstar’s wheelhouse in ten years it’s the company’s attitude to combat. By the end of all of their – very long – games the shooting felt rote and boring. Still, in 2010 blowing out a fellow cowpoke’s knees in slo-mo was a unique and fun experience. It’s a shame that it never really progressed past that.
The bones of what made Red Dead Redemption 2 so good were there in Red Dead Redemption, they just didn’t have the musculature and blood to drive them yet. The body count of Rockstar’s games has always been high but before Red Dead Redemption 2 it never felt like any of these bodies ever really mattered except, of course, John Marston. With hindsight it was clear where the game was going.
John Marston’s mission to hunt down his old friends and bring them to justice is not some path of redemption he must walk. It’s a forced death march on a path paved in bones with death beckoning at its end. Story-wise Red Dead Redemption never properly came into its own until the end – the game was always better at building atmosphere rather than character – but what an end.
The game allows you some hope. After delivering on his promise to the despicable Agent Ross the Bureau of Investigation releases Abigail and Jack Marston. John returns to his farm and his family. Together with their surrogate grandfather/lazy dog Uncle they resume their lives. Everything is normal for a while as John farms, ranches and raises his family but then Agent Ross comes knocking again, this time with more guns.
Red Dead Redemption is one of a few games that forces players to reckon with the futility of their journey. Had John refused it is likely he would have been killed. He still dies in a hail of bullets at the end but he does so in an act of self-sacrifice so that Abigail and Jack can get away. If the game ended there it would be easy to convince players that Abigail and Jack got away and lived better lives thanks to John’s sacrifice but like I said futility is ever present in Red Dead Redemption. Three years later as Jack players bury Abigail and hunt down Agent Ross, forcing Jack to walk the same bone strewn path his father walked.
As players we’ve been forced to die in games before – Call of Duty made an entire habit of it – but those deaths at least meant something. It’s hard to find much meaning in Red Dead Redemption’s ending. As the forest must be felled and the horse tamed so must the son avenge the father. Jack, like John, was born unto trouble and that trouble will follow him every moment of his life.
There’s a moment that many players will experience in the epilogue of Red Dead Redemption if they choose to return to Beecher’s Hope – the Marston family ranch – as Jack. The place is dusty and desolate and bears little trace of the conflict that tore it apart three years before. If you enter the barn and look up at the ceiling you will see the words “Oh my son. My blessed son” carved into the wood. Although this can be seen during John’s portion of the game and can be used as a cheat to play as Jack early it’s also a good thematic endpoint for the game. Those six words express all of the hopes, now dust, that John Marston had for his son. Red Dead Redemption may have been the blueprint for the plague of open world games we currently suffer through but it’s ending felt like a brave new step into wild, uncharted territory for AAA games.