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Video Game Review: Way Down Deep in the Wild, Wild West
May, 17 2010

Seth Schiesel

Red Dead Redemption: The good, the bandits and the coyotes, and a vivid scenic backdrop, from Rockstar Games.

The leading edge of interactive media has a new face. It is filthy, crudely scarred and belongs to John Marston, the protagonist of Red Dead Redemption, the sprawling and sublime new western from Rockstar Games.

Blackmailed in 1911 by unscrupulous federal agents into hunting down his former comrades in Dutch van Der Linde’s notorious gang, Marston straddles more than the border between Mexico and the United States. He also stands between the Old West and modernity — between the celebration of the individual and the collective requirements of organized society — as he tries to salvage a family life from the smoldering legacy of his criminal past. Along the way, he and his creators conjure such a convincing, cohesive and enthralling reimagination of the real world that it sets a new standard for sophistication and ambition in electronic gaming.

Like our own, the world of Red Dead Redemption — its cantinas, dusty arroyos, railway stations and cragged peaks — is one in which good does not always prevail and yet altruism rarely goes unrewarded. This is a violent, unvarnished, cruel world of sexism and bigotry, yet one that abounds with individual acts of kindness and compassion. Like our own, this is a complex world of ethical range and subtlety where it’s not always clear what the right thing is. This is a world where revenge often tastes not sweet but bitter, like the dregs at the bottom of a mug long since drained. (If all this reminds you of Sam Peckinpah, and in particular of “The Wild Bunch,” that is no coincidence.)

One of the buzzwords in the game industry these days is immersion. Rockstar scoffs at that. Red Dead Redemption, which is scheduled to be released Tuesday for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 consoles, does not merely immerse you in its fiction. Rather, it submerges you, grabbing you by the neck and forcing you down, down, down until you simply have no interest in coming up for air.

Rockstar, the video game industry and millions of players (not to mention investors in Rockstar’s publicly traded parent company, Take-Two Interactive Software) have been waiting a decade for this moment. Ever since Grand Theft Auto III redefined single-player gaming in 2001, Rockstar has been known as The Company That Makes G.T.A., nothing more. Sure, the company has found moderate success with its noirish Max Payne franchise and its Midnight Club racing series, but Rockstar has been eager to demonstrate that it can create a blockbuster out of more than the profanity-spewing drug dealers and submachine-gun-toting thugs who populate the world of Grand Theft Auto.

And now it has, though this project involved no small leap of faith (and no small expense: between $80 million and $100 million, according to industry executives). For a genre that has been so essential to the film business, it may seem surprising that the western has traditionally never lent itself to video games. Then again, western games, like Activision’s Gun from 2005, have never sold well because there has never before been a western game that was truly made well.

And that may be because the western, perhaps more than any other genre, exposes how much more work is required to make a convincing game than to make a “realistic” film.

John Huston set Hollywood on its ear in 1948 with “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” by shooting on location. But all of those mountains and plains and ridges and gorges were already sitting there waiting to be photographed. But if you want mesas and forests and gulches and rivers in a video game, you have to build them by hand, from digital scratch if you will. Moreover, in a game you have to build all of it. In noninteractive entertainment — be it a play, film or television program — the director controls exactly what the audience sees at every single moment. That is why it makes sense to build sets that are nothing more than plywood facades: if the audience can’t see it, it has no reason to exist.

By contrast, a great western game allows players to roam the frontier as they please. See that outcropping over there in the distance? You can climb it if you like, or just keep riding. When you come into one of the many towns and villages there may be dozens of buildings to explore, and they are all populated with folks going about their daily lives, even if you never visit.

Riding along in the desert, you may see two groups of men shooting it out. Whether to intervene is your choice. If you do, it may not be clear which are the good guys. Perhaps there are no good guys and instead it is two groups of bandits, or it may be the Mexican Army battling a band of rebels. Or perhaps you are riding along a remote trail and a woman cries out that her wagon has been stolen. That may be true, or she may be bait for an ambush. Do you help?

Red Dead Redemption bursts with such moments over dozens of hours and even features a convincing natural ecosystem. Hunting a group of deer, I heard coyotes approaching from a distance. I shot the deer quickly, only to have the coyotes turn on me and my steed instead. Later, hunting beaver in the mountains, I found myself more afraid of wolves and bears than any human threat.

In an interview last month, Dan Houser, one of Rockstar’s founders and the company’s creative leader, described the challenge and opportunity quite aptly. “Westerns are about place,” he said. “They’re not called outlaw films. They’re not even called cowboys-and-Indians films. They’re called westerns. They’re about geography.”

“We’re talking about a format that is inherently geographical,” Mr. Houser added, “and you’re talking about a medium, video games, the one thing they do unquestionably better than other mediums is represent geography.”

But for all of its technical achievement and gorgeous landscapes, Red Dead Redemption is perhaps most distinguished by the brilliant voice acting and pungent, pitch-perfect writing we have come to expect from Rockstar. From snake-oil hucksters to wizened old gunslingers to traumatized rape victims to cynical revolutionaries, Red Dead Redemption teems with characters you may never forget. Of course I am sure it is purely a coincidence that the addled, Gollumlike grave robber that Marston enlists on his mission is named Seth. Rockstar’s creative trademark has always been a mordant, knowing wit. And so I was hardly surprised to read in the game’s local paper about the eventual fate of the fey, drug-addicted anthropologist, Professor MacDougal, upon his return to Yale: “A Connecticut newspaper reports that MacDougal attacked Mr. Fortisque after an argument broke out over Polynesian cannibals at a garden party. After beating Mr. Fortisque with a croquet mallet, the agitated professor fled to the roof of Woolsey Hall where he removed his clothes and threatened to jump if somebody did not bring him a plate of Beef Wellington and a bottle of ’94 Claret.”

Of all the world’s game developers, only Rockstar would even dream of a passage of such relevant hilarity. No other game developer has been so willing, and quite so able, to riff on the real world rather than sticking to elves or dragons or aliens or fantasized battlefields.

In the more than 1,100 articles I have written for this newspaper since 1996, I have never before called anything a tour de force. Yet there is no more succinct and appropriate way to describe Red Dead Redemption. Rockstar rides again.