[This is my closing salvo in a conversation Chris Green and I have been having for a week now on the topic of Rockstar’s latest – Red Dead Redemption]
Disclaimer: There are spoilers in this article but I make a conscious effort to limit them to events only up to the end of the Mexico chapter – there is no talk of the climax or the endgame. I may end up writing a separate bit about that, but hopefully we’ll have a podcast going next week and I won’t have to write about this game again.
John Marston isn’t conflicted. He’s confused. I’m confused. The whole of North America is one hotbed of confusion. It’s probably the opium. I don’t have any, but then I am eating a muffin with poppy seeds on. Who am I?
“Who am I?” indeed. It’s the question Red Dead Redemption has been asking me for two weeks now. Am I an action/RPG? Am I a sandbox third-person shooter? Am I a revisionist western masterpiece or an exploitative spaghetti B-lister? It’s also the question John Marston’s been asking me regularly before either answering his own question or pretending he knew all along. I am sick of this question, frankly. I want it, and I want him, to know the answer. And if John Marston wants me to show him who he is he should do as he’s told. Right now.
It’s been a long ride, this trail from New Austin, down through Nuevo Paradiso, and up West Elizabeth. I am drained emotionally and cognitively by what has been an epic experience for John Marston and I. Here at the end of the road I feel compelled to write some words that in some way conclude my business in this weird and wonderful iteration of the West, and commit to words my impressions on this ambitious, beautiful, somewhat flawed, but ultimately career-best work from Rockstar.
I expunged most of my energy on this game in the last piece I wrote where I analysed the storyline and the narrative experience’s place in the fiction of The West. I argued that it was fractured and unfocused due to it borrowing greatly from a number of sources and aesthetics in the western genre that were in conflict with each other at a narrative level. I feel that piece speaks enough on that subject but there are one or two issues that impact the narrative I have discovered since on which I’d like to note.
The first one I barely skirted on in the last piece that only now I grasp entirely – John Marston does not know who he is – it would seem, but he sure ain’t gonna be told by likes of me. There is an odd relationship between avatar and player. I have no problem with a divorce of this kind. This isn’t a complaint because of something in the story I don’t like, or because there aren’t dialogue trees, it’s a complaint (or perhaps just a contention) that by offering us the stats of “fame” and “honour” the game is creating the illusion of a persistent world, and critically one where your character building plays an important role. The first is half-true, and second is totally false.
The first is half-true in as much as it says it is, stuff about bounties being cheaper, letting you get away with certain crimes, and getting challenged on the street more often. However that is a façade in the sense that enforces the unreality of the world by remaining persistent while nothing else does. The random encounters become wildly bizarre if we are to believe they are taking place in anything like a real world. Their juxtaposition against the more rigidly present “stranger missions” (which are flawed in the sense that they have no relation to time’s passing) and the fact you can go a very short distance before they literally cease to exist – the characters and all trace of them and their vehicles vanish completely, sometimes in plain sight – betrays this. I wouldn’t have a problem with that if I thought for one moment unreality was an intended part of the narrative; alas I’m not sure it is. Far Cry 2 took advantage of its unreality to create a constantly hostile Africa with aggressively respawning (but persistent) enemies, and a frail avatar, to make the narrative point that you were only going to succeed by becoming what you are hunting – a killer thriving in chaos (I wrote a piece on this here). One possible explanation for the disappearing encounters in Red Dead Redemption could be that ever since Marston has taken his mission he’s been constantly faced with the kinds of situations he would have been on the other side of in his outlaw life, and he gets a brief opportunity to atone for another sin each time by acting honourably, and attain his redemption one encounter at a time. I don’t buy it, however, since they are infinite and yet still add to your fame and honour stats – betraying how unimportant they are that you can max out either by just hanging around. You can’t cheat redemption, Mr Marston –no matter how much you try. No, these encounters are self contained and interesting, but deemed by design to be thematically irrelevant.
Just how important is the character building, the fame and the honour, and the costumes, challenger ranks, and tat you accrue that you are constantly reminded of? Well it means nothing to the main story in a mechanical sense. As far as the world is concerned what you did between story mission A and story mission B is your business, and should be kept to yourself. I wouldn’t say it was pointless, it all adds to your narrative experience, it’s just a really wasted opportunity that it doesn’t impact John Marston’s narrative experience also. This is evidence of the game wavering on whether it wants to be one of those nerdy RPGs that it secretly loves or hang out with its cool GTA friends.
I said “John Marston’s narrative” there because, as I said, I feel a profound disconnect between avatar and player in RDR. So disconnected, in fact, that I feel like I’m actually just some guy riding with him giving him advice that sometimes he takes, and sometimes he doesn’t. This is either genius on Rockstar’s part, or accidental. I have a feeling that it is accidental, and a result of it containing elements in its design that make it a throwback to the GTA franchise – more on that after I explain my disconnect from John:
The obvious thing to state it’s a third-person game – that’s why there is always the slight disconnect, because we’re always looking at the back of their heads and not through their eyes. That isn’t what I’m talking about specifically but it certainly contributes. The reason I feel oddly disconnect from Marston in a way that I’ve never felt about a third-person character before (in that I still care, yet feel disconnected) is a product of his differences and similarities to his closest cousin – Niko Bellic. Niko, in many ways, was a more straightforward proposition. He had his woes, and rather than let us fill in the blanks of his personality we got to read his emails, and go on his dates. Our only moments where our interaction as Niko really meant something were a few instances where you can decide to kill one person or the other (or spare a man or kill him). Those moments were in the main story, and had an impact down the line. Marston, by contrast, is faced with those moments every time he walks down the street, but they mean nothing. Your response will cause a stat to pop up on screen for your fame and your honour but it’s a bit like cheating at the crossword – no one will ever know but you. What’s important here is that John doesn’t know. He’s like the rest of them, as soon as the missions start they all agree to forget everything else he’s ever done except what jacket he put on this morning. Gone from John’s mind are the countless peasants he’s rescued from government execution in Mexico as in story time he kills three of them himself for wanting to steal his shoes. John Marston is always talking about giving to the poor, and my Marston is carrying over $1,000 in cash. Surely the game should recognize that fact and John should just go along with a bit of a gentle mugging, instead of him ignoring all I had done to help the people of Mexico and the wealth I accumulated along the way?
Niko Bellic went batshit in GTA4, and I respected that. It provided a bit of narrative context for the fact you could steal a helicopter and drive a motorcycle off the Empire State Building. It shouldn’t be a crutch, but in GTA4’s hyper-real Liberty City it’s kind of understandable. It’s perhaps harder to argue in the DLC, but that’s another piece in itself. Marston’s problem is that there must be more (or less) going on under the surface than we’ll ever know. This came to the fore for me in Mexico. You spend a good 4-5 hours (if you only do the story missions) tooling around Mexico doing missions for both sides of a revolution. Each faction chief promises you the two men you’re sent to find and capture, and just like with Dickens, Irish, and Seth they tell you “Oh next time I’ll help you get them” about five times each before they get anywhere near doing so. And Marston takes it. Marston the dangerous outlaw who shot out an entire gang hideout only moments ago can’t say “No, help me now. I’m not doing another stupid job for you until you help me now.” It’s incredibly frustrating in terms of his characterisation, and in terms of the writing. It’s all derived from its GTA heritage, and it’s most evident in the mission structure.
The GTA mission structure brings three unwelcome things to RDR. Firstly it is the primary cause of narrative conflict in the game. It creates the discontinuity between what you do as Marston and what he does in the story whilst padding it out horrendously for length. Secondly it latches itself onto the dialogue. The travelling to mission conversation goes roughly like this;
NPC: “Blah blah mission blah blah.”
JM: “Blah blah. Mission.”
JM: “I agree/disagree with your rhetoric. Rhetoric of my own that doesn’t reference what you said.”
NPC: “Do you miss your family?”
JM: “Lul wut?”
NPC: “You and I are not so diff… wait, we’re here.”
Which I find poor enough – the fact they often put you on a wagon or stage with the NPC means you have to skip to get out of it. I don’t normally do that, but the Mexico section became unbearable, Marston having the same conversation with Capt. de Santa and Louisa, more or less (maybe it was a way of highlighting the similarities of those seeking power and those in it, but it was tiresome). It’s part of the mission structure in the way that they always, always, use that time travelling between the quest marker and the destination to give you exposition that states bluntly whatever theme they want to convey in whatever section of the game you are in. In New Austin it was central government, in Mexico it is US foreign policy, and socialism vs. imperialism. In West Elizabeth it’s colonization. It becomes a dull noise because it’s possibly the least elegant way to convey something in a video game. The other way the missions affect the dialogue is that the NPC you are with always feels compelled to tell you what to do next, and not once does Marston get tempted to say “Shut up, do you think I’m an idiot?” which brings us to the third unwelcome thing GTA’s mission structure brings – text on screen.
Red Dead Redemption has an almost unending stream of text on screen at any one time. It’s mainly there during missions, which the game has already made clear are where all the important characterisation and plot take place, and it makes them feel “gamey”. There is no freedom to accomplish missions the way you’d like to, there is always a “right” way, and deviating from that is disastrous. Considering this is an open-world game where you can otherwise do what you like it feels very confusing to get funnelled down a “path of correctness” all of a sudden. Again, if I were being generous I’d say it was allegorical of you being an outlaw getting henpecked by the US Government, the eternal struggle of the free spirit against the establishment, but I’m not because it’s exactly the same as in all the GTA games, and if every single one of those did it for the same reason then it’s outdated, and tired. The text on screen popping up all the time is informative, but cushions you in a way that you shouldn’t be in the wild west, and combined with the minimap (which you can turn off – at your peril in missions), it gets to feeling less like you’re in the wild west, but brings to the fore the fact it’s a game. You’re in Westworld. The challenges speak to this also – for completing an arbitrary challenge set forth by an unknown puppeteer you are awarded “ranks” that add a small boost to your fame and then you move on to the next for no reason at all. Compulsion? The metagame of achievements and trophies? Marston forgets. Marston doesn’t care. Why should I?
The counter argument there is that I can choose whether or not to do the challenges etc, but then why create content that gives the impression of baring relevance only for it not to? It’s the heart of my problem with RDR – the story and the game are seen as separate entities, and the two should interact as little as possible, and that to me is possibly the worst thing you can do to a game – the mechanics don’t support the narrative, and creates a conflict that weakens the game as a whole. It’s been hard to describe, but playing RDR I’ve had trouble caring about it at times, partly the writing (within five minutes it had aped a scene in Tombstone, and quoted the Wild Bunch almost verbatim), but mainly the fact you can identify how clearly the mechanics have been forced uncomfortably inside the story, and vice versa. There are about 20 more missions than there have to be. There are half a dozen characters that have no purpose at all that are there to pad out the length*, and where Marston should be a complex and interesting character he comes across as inconsistent and unreadable as our agency over him is either too much or too little, an issue RDR doesn’t try to resolve at all.
It would be unfair to pile all of this criticism on RDR without stating that there is no better attempt at this kind of game than RDR. It is truly astounding in a number of ways. The world itself is compelling, beautiful, huge, and alive. The time when you are not in a mission will be the best time you will have playing the game. Maybe it won’t be the most thrilling, but it will be the time you actually appreciate the grandeur that RDR spends its entire story grasping for. It communicates its grandeur in the visceral things that words don’t communicate. The power of the lightning storm, the burning brightness of the sun, the beauty of the sunset or sunrise, against a backdrop of mountains you can reach out and climb. The problems only started when they decided that in order to sustain our attention they needed to make the main quest incredibly long, and use all those locations in it – rather than taking the approach of something like Fallout 3, where you could wander off and find expansive side-quests miles away from anywhere the main story takes you. RDR doesn’t trust you to have the desire to do this, which is wrong – they made a beautiful world and they have no faith in the fact people want to explore it.
Most of the problems in RDR could be fixed with slight tweaks to the design. Fable 2 made it clear that what you did in an area affected that area over time, something like that should have been implemented in RDR to make your actions really make a difference outside of a meaningless stat. Those same decisions should affect how people see you and how situations unfold in the main story. A good opportunity for that, which would have added only a small amount, but would have helped create a cohesive character, is the mission with Landgon Ricketts where the German accuses you of cheating at cards. Now had you been a good guy he’s wrong, but had you been bad maybe you see that Marston was indeed cheating. It’s only a small change, but it shows the game acknowledges how you’ve been playing it. Other things I think would have helped would have been a main quest that perhaps was shorter in its number of missions, but also bore some relationship to the in-game calendar (at least some of them, there would still be times you were free to explore). Maybe if you have to organize your time for meeting people and such, you could explore the game world but still have the feeling of tension that the storyline is attempting to convey, in that you want to get back to your family. It would create the frustration of those impatient waiting that Marston would be feeling. Instead, by giving you complete freedom to do those missions when you want it dispels all tension from the story, and makes it all a bit of a holiday – which killing outlaws to save your family shouldn’t be, really. It would also take the impatience away from the missions, which quickly turns to resentment.
Insofar as creating an open world it is clear we are at a point now where the GTA formula and the RPG world need to meet heads and discuss the best way to go on. Games like Crackdown, Infamous, and such all make big pointless playgrounds. The sandbox, as Chris Green was saying is a limiting term and is stifling design. RDR is a perfect example of how the imprinted notion that the world is there to mess about in can cause problems in the gameplay and narrative alike. RPGs are also set up in this way but with a different kind of play at their heart, that is all. What needs to happen is the emergence of a school of thought where the game’s narrative and ludological aims are brought to the top of the table before discussion can take place about what world the game takes place in. With a Rockstar game it was always going to be an open world game, but perhaps they should think about what that really means to the narrative experience. John Marston, for all the hunting, and the flower picking, is not the kind of man to dick about, so why is the design telling me I should? Also, the thing that RPGs get right that is lost on the sandbox game is the people. Even if it is one line of text, the RPG lets the NPCs you encounter tell you something more about the location you are in, or gives an impression they have a personality (not all RPGs obviously, Oblivion is atrocious for this). Open world games rarely let you interact with the nameless sacks of blood wandering around the place. It enforces their unreality in a way they increasingly don’t want. I’m not suggesting everyone in Liberty City have something to say, but RDR – being so sparsely populated could have made [even] more of an effort to make everyone able to interact with beyond a tip of the hat. Fallout 3 is the game it’s getting compared to, and it should – as they are both sparsely populated huge open worlds. The problem is RDR feels less engaging because it feels faker due to the lack of interaction with anyone who isn’t giving you a quest and Fallout 3 avoids this. RPG worlds in the past have been big for the sake of being big, with comparatively little to discover, and that isn’t a problem in RDR so much. But it certainly feels like what you do discover is transitory. It’s a fun adventure that perhaps drags on too long (like this article), but in the end you wonder why you did it (like this article).
I suppose what I’m trying to say is RDR could have achieved greatness, but it is too hung up on its past – like Marston.
Mike Dunbar (Follow me on Twitter at MikeDunbar and for Chronoludic updates click here)
* Seth Briars is particularly pointless – I recall Roger Ebert saying English Bob in Unforgiven was pointless as he never interacted with Clint Eastwood’s William Munny – but I disagree on the grounds he is a spirit level for Gene Hackman’s Little Bill. Seth is pointless as he teaches you nothing about any of the characters other than nobody likes him because he robs graves, and looks like Alfred Steptoe.