Red Dead Redemption: The Narrative Relevance of the Tutorial Level
Red Dead Redemption is where Rockstar Games reached their magnificent storytelling peak. This is heavily emphasized by the level construction and gradual character development presented throughout the main storyline. The game’s introductory missions act as tutorial guidelines, explaining the different gameplay functions at protagonist John Marston’s disposal as well as highlighting the importance of environment in New Austin.
But the most important and enthralling aspect to these early missions is their appropriate narrative relevance. Whereas many tutorial segments in games come off as contrived and unnecessary (especially to the modern era), building a starter stage singularly established to teach the player the often-familiar controls, Rockstar fortunately understands the tedium of such level construction and instead brilliantly opts to infuse Red Dead’s tutorial acts with rich narrative semblance. When Marston/the player meet Bonnie, she is introduced as an independent farmer with a myriad of responsibilities beholden upon her, responsibilities which often require violence and cattle-driving, yet far different than the kind Marston is (and video game-players are) used to.
Her first task for Marston involves aiding her with shooting rabbits who have been eating her backyard vegetation — a task which Marston feels obligated but humble to oblige, especially when he’s handed a rifle (“This is a fine weapon,” the retired outlaw feels compelled to mention). What allows a mission like this to dispel tedium or contrivance is due to the idea that the player is given a glimpse at the new John Marston: a far cry from his past thieving persona, who is able to utilize his “Dead Eye” marksmanship and horse-riding abilities to instead support a small ranch’s stability rather than plunder it. It’s a first glance at the new life Marston wants to attain for his family’s sake, and it also introduces Bonnie as the strong, independent, “woman in a man’s world” character she is. A pool of blood lays at Marston’s feet after silencing the last invading coyote; and though a familiar sight, the blood wipes away clean in this amiable context of aid.
But Marston understands that he remains unable to escape his villainous past until Bill Williamson becomes dirt in the ground. By seeking help from Armadillo’s Marshal Johnson, he hopes to bring an end to his old partner in crime through the establishment of law and justice. The first mission the player is tasked alongside the Marshal has them silencing a gang of bandits who have taken up residence in a nearby desert outpost. Here, Marston feels more familiarized with the intention to kill as opposed to hunting small varmints; but the nature of his newfound, family-oriented character sets him apart from the violent man he once was, instead bringing justice to outlaws rather than joining their pillaging.
The irony is soon confronted in a later mission where the band of lawbringers investigate a small community under siege by members of a local gang: one of the badly-beaten wives rescued by Johnson and company makes the claim, “I thought you were supposed to protect us, Marshal? You folk ain’t men. You ain’t nothing. You’re just some man on a government payroll, taking money that the rest of us have to pay for with our lives! What is wrong with this country?” It’s a telling moment so early in the game, a dialogue that draws the line between what’s right and what’s wrong and asks the player to pick a side to stand. This allows for the game’s Honor system to thematically resonate — thus uniquely and satisfyingly linking narrative and gameplay — and also indicates the hypocrisies which befall men when pondering the inaccuracies behind moral decision-making. Marston is a killer, and so far Rockstar are indicating his inability to change due to the circumstances charged by his past catching up with him as well as the very definitions of his character: violence not only follows Marston, it defines him. Whether or not he can utilize his violent “talents” towards more beneficial occupations seems likely irrelevant, for murder is murder whether a bandit or a pedestrian or even a coyote is the concerned victim.
As for world-building, Rockstar also inventively — and rather majestically — establishes the gorgeous environments of New Austin as both the Easterner Marston and the real-world player are introduced to these unfamiliar landscapes. When the Marshal leaves Marston on his own after they take out the small bandit gang together at the desert outpost, the player is left free to explore the area, engage in the Challenges offered, encounter random civilians in need of help or looking to place a bet. The game deliberately leaves the player out here to impede narrative progress and instead become more affiliated with the vivid world they now occupy. Even as they ride the lengthy trek back to Armadillo or MacFarland Ranch, the player is never far from another task to complete or even just a bit of scenery to bask in. New Austin remains arguably Rockstar’s most fully-realised open-world environment, and by introducing its vigor and liveliness through these cautiously-constructed means, they are placing an emphasis on the importance of environment within the contexts of a successful narrative experience (which is once again further enforced by the thematically-resonant Honor system).
Red Dead Redemption is fortunately far from the only game to implement intriguing introductory sequences that facilitate vital importance to the overall experience. The infamous Dark Souls features one of the most compelling tutorial levels in history: proposing its theme of player-choice through experimentation and discovery, the Undead Asylum features numerous environmental components that appear all throughout the game’s entirety, ranging from a myriad of message prompts which explain the game’s controls (and may, might I add, be entirely ignored if the player so chooses) to a seemingly unconquerable boss fight which is designed to be avoided until a later encounter. By spinning familiar video game contrivances on their heads, FromSoftware are not only remarking upon the virtues of patience within the confines of a world enriched by upgrades and exploration, but also the thoughtful preparation necessary to surviving it.
Games have become notorious for holding the player’s hand. While too often games implement tutorial segments in order to rehash familiar gameplay tropes and mechanics, it’s titles such as Red Dead Redemption and Dark Souls alike which keep the notion of gameplay and storytelling innovation fresh and alive within the marketplace. And given their immense influence and popularity (despite each being only a few years old), it marks an auspicious future for the narrative status of the medium.