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Playing a classic for the first time, 10 years on: Red Dead Redemption

Despite eagerly anticipating the release of the first Red Dead Redemption a decade ago, I never ended up taking the plunge in getting the game at launch. As a game that was lauded on release and considered by a quite a few people to be Rockstar’s masterpiece, the urge to get around to finally playing it has been in the back of my head each year since.

Having finally done so this year, it didn’t quite meet my grandiose expectations. The narrative aspects were surprisingly lacklustre and the core gameplay loop of the story missions is dire. It’s far from the well-rounded generational title I had imagined in my head, yet I can’t deny that it is a lovely and expansive Wild West sandbox that I will remember fondly.

John Marston is not a complex character, but he carries an interesting struggle between his strong sense of personal conviction and a bloodlust that he ultimately can’t shake off. He’s a sufficiently charming and well-acted protagonist who can carry the game. But while he’s a great fulcrum to base the narrative on, the further you move away from him the more it falls apart.

There is shockingly little depth to the supporting characters in this story. Almost everyone is an extreme, one-note caricature – with a few exceptions in Bonnie MacFarlane and Dutch van der Linde. Rockstar games have always featured ensembles of the goofiest possible characters and yet manage to get away with it, but in RDR1 they falter because they seem to lack any sort of background, context or interplay with anybody else.

John forms practically no relationships with anybody over the course of this game. The pretext is that he’s already a family man committed to settling down in his farm, but we’re not been given any reason to care about his family until we meet them in the last chapter. This is an unfortunate issue that extends to the main villains: for a game where you spent practically 30 hours hunting down two old rivals, you are given very little to go on in caring about them.

The story has it good elements. Rockstar deliver on a good number of satirical riffs during the nascent rise of the US superpower. The highlights include the completely off-his-nuts anthropologist Dr. McDougal, the silly moralistic short films in the cinemas, and the diatribes about government intervention, class, brutality towards Native Americans and the death of the West that are sprinkled into conversations as you gallop miles towards your mission objective.

The Mexican Civil War backdrop in Act 2 also cleverly embeds the plot into a fascinating event in world history that is rarely touched on in Anglophone media, and you can experience it from both sides. But here especially it runs into another problem that plagues this game: the characters in Red Dead Redemption talk a lot, but never to John, and only ever, it seems, to themselves.

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Marston entertaining their ridiculous monologues allows for both exposition and the opportunity for a few good one-liners, but it is hard to feel any sorrow for, say, Luisa Fortuna at her death in the battle for Escelara, when the writers have given us no opportunity to actually bond with her among the reams of dialogue scenes she’s in. Reyes and de Santa are basically pantomime characters, memorable but with zero depth. With Bonnie on the other hand, the game was crying for something more that could have added some genuine tension to John’s loyalties back home. Instead, it toys around with for a bit and then bails, a decision that ultimately draining the story of any heart.

It’s hard to look back on Red Dead and see it as a proper plot, it’s really more a chain of bizarre but amusing vignettes. Most of the characters are so wacky and such complete stereotypes that… it’s actually endearing. In how many games can you say you’ve made mates with a gravedigger who hasn’t washed in 20 years, the Monopoly man, Mexican Lord Byron and a cocaine-riddled eugenicist professor?

But it’s here where I don’t understand the general praise Red Dead 1 receives for its story. While enjoyable in isolation, a series of Punch and Judy sketches shouldn’t stand-in for an actual narrative, and it make some stretches of the plot excruciating to wade through. John Marston is consistently duped, hoodwinked and swindled in his journey to find Bill, Javier and Dutch, to the point where my suspension of disbelief collapses when Marston falls for the 27th bullshit promise that the location of his foes will be revealed if he helps massacre another small army for a side character.

Speaking of massacring small armies, I really can’t believe how many people I’ve killed in this game. Ludonarrative dissonance as a concept has never really concerned me, as it’s usually just a natural by-product of an action-based video game. But there’s no real reason why John Marston should have a kill count of over 1000 come the end of this game. This is less a conflict between story and game (as ludonarrative dissonance refers to) and more a clash between game and genre. For a Western, I was expecting a much more subdued gameplay rhythm, revolving around duels, small, tense shootouts and regular stealth segments. However, practically every single level involves me landing countless rounds into dozens of poorly scripted dudes hiding behind rocks or riding past me on horse. I think I must have permanently killed off the vaquero population of Nuevo Paradaiso after my excursion in Mexico.

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This is arguably something Rockstar have still not fixed in their games — and Red Dead 1 is, after all, a ten-year old game. AAA games have progressed quite far in this respect over the last decade. Titles like MGS V, the Witcher and Horizon: Zero Dawn have normalised multiple approaches to gameplay situations in open-world games, while Naughty Dog’s advancements in enemy AI have meant that fewer intelligent enemies can provide thrilling scenarios that would previously needed to be compensated for by fighting off huge hordes. Sadly, RDR is firmly in this latter mould and that’s made worse by the stiff and monotonous gunplay. It got so bad that I had to switch to free-aim to salvage any sense of agency in these story missions.

Where RDR does shine, and why I think it was deemed an instant classic, is how successful it is in putting you into the boots of a cowboy when you’re free to roam the world. The smoking revolvers, the duels, the lassos and the horse-breaking, the long nights spent playing poker and Liar’s Dice at the saloons all added to, what was in 2011, an unprecedented level of period immersion. This is the one aspect of the game that can fairly be called ground-breaking and it’s easy to see the effect it had on players – it had it on me a decade later.

It’s these times between the repetitive story missions that make this game for me. The wonderful map helps so much to this end: while the PS3 port in particular looks dated, the vistas are well crafted and the diversity of the settings from grasslands to desert are a joy to experience (leaving us a few surprise trips to snowy climes right in the home stretch of the game).

The final act of the game is a bit of a redemption itself. As his notoriety in the West mounts and his personal responsibilities heighten, the contradictions in John’s ego are swiftly exposed. Continuing to leave a trail of devastation in his wake, the chickens finally come back home from all sides to roost as Dutch’s warband seem insurmountable and the deal with the feds looking increasingly unlikely. Sadly, what should have been the game’s best moment – the sudden reunification with his family – is undermined by really poor voice acting and direction on John’s wife Abigail, and son Jack. The conversations with Jack are particularly jarring and pale in comparison to the filmic dialogue achieved by The Last of Us only a couple of years later. Perhaps it’s an artefact of its time, but these scenes with his loved ones are not convincing to me at all, and I’m not sure they would have been in 2011 either.

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But the very final few moments make up for it. The last showdown with the FBI Agent Ross and the now all-too-familiar untouchability of American military might makes for a fitting end to John Marston’s tale. Then, the revenge you take out on Agent Ross as grown-up Jack, neatly disguised as a side mission, ends the game on a perfect story-beat that I would have loved to see more often in this massively long game.

Overall, the lack of depth in its supporting characters, or genuine relationship to any of them, make it hard to come away with an emotional connection to this game. The dramatic qualities of this game fall squarely on Marston’s shoulders – while he carries all the way to the end, it’s nowhere near enough to make for the compelling story-piece I was expecting it to be. The combat and mission structure in this game is also sadly so dated that I can’t really recommend it to other patient first-time players. Outside of the story missions though, it excels in putting me in the boots of a cowboy and letting me experience a faithful recreation of the Wild West in its twilight years.

I can't call this Rockstar's masterpiece and find it difficult to rank it among the games of that generation. For the genuinely great bits it brought to the table, I may have been better off jumping straight into its sequel RDR2 to get all of those and more.


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