Revisiting Red Dead Redemption: A Work of Art


Originally published on October 9. 

“Step in front of a runaway train just to feel alive again,

Pushing forward through the night, aching chest and blurry sight…”

The music is gentle and heartbreaking, strumming the death knell of the Old West. Lyrics invade to underline moments of potent, intense tranquillity – your arrival in Mexico is one of these, easing you into the calm acoustics of José González’ ‘Far Away’. Surrounded by wide-reaching plains of sundried scrub and pale sand, a subtle contrast to the arid greens of New Austin, the score calmly swells beneath the sudden quiet and underscores your distinct isolation.

Red Dead Redemption feels almost literary, especially compared to other Rockstar productions. Themes of change and fatalism, of legacy and power, are covered with a poignancy that’s rare to see in videogames. Its story is straight-forward but intentionally long-winded, while the cast of characters build on its underlying themes. Seven years later, Redemption is still evocative and powerful, though only if you let it.

Redemption’s characters can be exaggerated, built off Western archetypes in the same way Grand Theft Auto’s are based off their crime fiction equivalents, but there’s a sadness to each of them to replace the satirical bent of GTA characters. In their own ways, they symbolise the slow death and transformation of the Wild West and its brutal remnants that linger into the 21st century.

The Snake Oil Salesman, the Aging Lawman, the Forgotten Gunslinger, the Obsessed Treasure Hunter, the Corrupt President flanked by the Corrupt Revolutionary, and so on. Each character in Redemption is an archetype with a broader purpose. There’s an element of caricature like the Grand Theft Auto series, but they all speak directly, almost bluntly to the weaknesses of humanity during a formative period in Western civilisation. (This is getting more existential than I expected.) It’s a cynical portrayal of the period but also a very pointed one, one that doesn’t get lost in itself – impressive in such a broad game like Redemption.

In Red Dead Redemption, John Marston embarks on his final quest: to kill or capture three of his former brothers-in-arms, outlaws he rode with in his youth. It’s a quest in the style of myth: forced by America’s new Gods ­– the expanding and encroaching federal government – Marston must destroy the spectres of his former self. With his own hands, Marston is forced to do his part in ending the fading barbarism of the Wild West in exchange for his new life. A life in the Civilised Heaven of the New America.

Redemption’s pacing is slow, even and methodical, with almost no momentum at all. There’s an objective – Marston’s quest, starting with the proud coward Bill Williamson – but there’s next to no urgency. Marston isn’t one to fret or worry, he doesn’t complain or rush, and this becomes a defining trait of Redemption as characters keep (and keep) exploiting Marston to further their own goals.

It’s a purposeful crawl through the archetypal bureaucracy of the Old West. There’s always a need, another step in the process, another exchange. Marston journeys through a crystallising capitalist society and culture, shifting from one brutal form to another.

* * *

The sounds of wildlife and pops of gunfire, with the rare crack of thunder in the distance, meld for a unique composition. The parallel rhythm of horse hooves and train tracks, the barks and piercing cries of wolves and cougars – the twisted nature-sound of an aggressively expanding civilisation.

The world of Red Dead Redemption is a vast work of art, profoundly evocative in a way few games are. Spread across New Austin – a fictionalised version of Texas – and Mexico, it mirrors the brutal decay of a transitioning, warping nation.

It’s slightly jarring at first, playing in 2017, but Redemption’s slow pace is a major reason its world is as evocative and intensely atmospheric as it often is. It pushes you to slow down and engage with the world as something alive instead of treating it like a toybox. It pushes you to embrace the act of travel and journey itself, embrace and enjoy the act of questing, similar to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild earlier this year.

Redemption’s structure isn’t dissimilar to other Rockstar releases. In fact, it’s pretty much the same: travel here, do a mission, then travel all the way over here for another one. It’s intentionally, unavoidably tedious. Every Grand Theft Auto is the same, just with cars instead of horses.

However, Redemption pushes its world to the forefront. It doesn’t exist as a backdrop to be glossed over by the tunes of a radio or the chatter of your passenger, and while there are ways to skip across the map and story and speed through the game’s content, you’re playing against the game’s intentions. You skip and miss the opportunities for discovery: stumbling upon treasure, across new missions and people, dynamic events, new animals or plant life, across the changing weather and time of day. You miss the feeling of personally unveiling this world.

This sense of discovery and life is a huge part of Redemption’s impact. Travelling across a changing America and Mexico, without the usual noise of modern locales, is a unique experience that encapsulates Redemption as an interactive work of art.

* * *

Red Dead Redemption is a gorgeous game, which I didn’t realise the extent of until revisiting it recently. The world, the characters, the music: it all comes together to create a remarkably comprehensive, beautiful, pointedly-cynical title. It tells a tragic story of a man and his world, fading away as a newer world takes its place. A world of violence and chaos replaced by one of violence and ‘order’. It’s a world this man has no place in, according to its rulers.

I hope Red Dead Redemption II reaches similar heights in 2018, creating a new world that evokes such a powerful atmosphere, but, for me, it doesn’t need to. This evocative, chilling depiction of the Wild West already exists. Like any classic, Red Dead Redemption stands tall all by itself.

John Reeves writes about videogames in depth, but also on other topics occasionally. He watches a ton of TV. You can follow him on Tumblr, and on Twitter and Medium.

All images attributed to Rockstar Games.

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