Somewhere between fiction and reality, there's life. (And other horrible movie-tagline-esque sentiments.)
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Undiscovered country: My early impressions of the world of Red Dead Redemption
It’ll probably be a long time before I can comment on how Red Dead Redemption, the pioneering Western from Rockstar, ends, but I can say that it starts brilliantly. In the opening scene, your protagonist, John Marston, rides a train to the town of Armadillo, giving you not only a glimpse of the beautiful, untamed frontier country where the game takes place, but also a glimpse into the issues that loom large in this rapidly changing America of 1910. Two old biddies behind Marston bicker about the intersection of money and politics, while in front of him, a young lady expresses some bold new ideas about the nature of good and evil, only to be gently but firmly set straight by the traditional preacher who accompanies her. Indeed, Red Dead Redemption seems to be largely about the collision of the old and new, of shifting ideas about religion and politics, but also of the products of industry—cars and telephones both make early appearances--starting to dramatically change the way people live their lives. In the superb Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar demonstrated an earnest desire to explore the cultural forces that shape this country, and Red Dead Redemption seems poised to follow in that game’s footsteps.
Of course, every great Western needs a great protagonist at its center, and Marston seems to be made from the same mold as some of the genre’s greatest. An early scene provides him with the motivation for revenge that drives him in at least the earliest part of the story, but reveals little about him, leaving him with that hint of a shady past and that aura of mystery that can be so alluring in a man on horseback. He’s not so reticent, though, that we can’t connect with him. On the contrary, he treats kind people with the warmth becoming of a gentleman, and has an invitingly self-deprecating sense of humor. Of course, to a large extent, who John Marston is is up to you. My John Marston, like the person controlling him, seems to be something of a ne’er-do-well, and has spent more time in the Armadillo saloon playing poker than exploring the frontier, doing good deeds for troubled strangers. Clearly, this country was built by harder-working people than me.
But now that I’m sitting here at work on a lunch break, I’m positively desperate to get back to the world of Red Dead Redemption, to see what’s waiting for me out in that wild landscape. It’s clear, even at this very early stage, that this game is something special, a product of rare ambition and quality, and, if it delivers on the promise of its earliest moments, of rare meaning, too.