Red Dead Redemption Review
It’s a progressive age, the dawning of a new era. The Wild West is dying along with the outlaw lifestyle that once fueled a violent generation. Cars are replacing horses, telegraph poles have sprouted along newly paved roads; John Marston is attempting a new life, one which will put his murderous days as a gunslinger behind him, for his own sake as well as his family’s. Forced to deliver his old partner-in-crime to a pair of crooked policemen in exchange for his wife and son, Marston once again finds himself shot and left for dead just as before in a previous criminal life. It’s the earliest example in the game’s narrative timeline that significantly alludes to the tragic fate of all men: people can’t change, and our destinies are shaped by the personas we have assumed. John Marston’s eventual downfall is as immediately prevalent as the scar on his face is damning; yet he gradually discovers his inability to reshape his character, as the past he so stubbornly aims to leave behind continually catches back up to him.
Red Dead Redemption begins with a simple objective: kill the outlaw Bill Williamson to ensure the safety of your family. However, as the game gradually descends into chaotic moral questioning and the body count rapidly begins to rise, the objective turns sinister. Marston begins to lose touch with the simplicity of the task, falling back down the path of murder and immoral justification. This brings to light one of the game’s most enduring questions: Is violence ever justified? Red Dead Redemption posits many philosophical debates regarding morality and the tragic nature of Mankind. Although a flawed overall product, the game’s ability to so unite its complex narrative and gameplay makes for a truly remarkable feat for the medium. But how well does it work as a game?
Unfortunately, there are quite a few missteps to be found among the otherwise fluid components. Gunplay works wonderfully, however the auto-aim limits any real challenge during shootouts. Meanwhile, basic maneuvering of the character can also be cumbersome (it’s a wonder why Rockstar still choose to force the player to jab on the X-button to sprint), as simple tasks such as walking through a door can quickly become frustrating. While there are many methods to earn money (looting bodies, accomplishing missions and side tasks, aiding random strangers, finding containers, selling items and animal skins, playing minigames, etc.), there’s very little to spend it on. Both health and Dead Eye (a targeting mode which slows down time when aiming) conventionally regenerate so there’s no purpose to buying replenishing kits; the Basic Campsite tool allows the player to save, change outfits, and even fast travel (from anywhere in the world, mind you) so buying rentable properties is rendered pointless; there’s plenty of ammo and guns to be collected from dead bodies and containers so there’s really no reason to buy any of it. Sure, certain unlockables require specific items to be purchased, but this only exacerbates the issues. Having to buy items is not a challenge, so there is little satisfaction to the reward, which ultimately goes against the defining characteristics of a video game.
In regards to the mechanics, the game also suffers from tedium and certain elements of senselessness. Having to sit through the entire animation whenever picking flowers or skinning animals serves as a repetitive test of the player’s patience — especially because it stubbornly refuses to be interrupted, even when under attack by an enemy. Selling items can also be a ridiculous chore since the player is allowed only to cash in a single item at a time.
Yet despite all of these issues, Red Dead Redemption still manages to amaze, in large part to not only its gorgeous writing but also its gorgeous world-building. Rockstar are pros at creating open-world environments that manage to inventively parallel the protagonist and their conditions without sacrificing player freedom. This works in large part due to Red Dead’s Honor system: a satisfactory take on the usually-unrealized “Morality system,” used here to further explore the concepts of man’s contradicting state of morality. Killing a horse-thief may grant a higher ranking of Honor, but killing an innocent pedestrian will lower it. Rockstar appear to be commenting on the thin line that exists between what is necessarily “right” and what is “wrong.” Regardless of the motive, Marston is too often forced to kill, and though he denies being a moralist, he cannot deny the consequences of the violence he commits. The player’s Honor level is never affected after a large-scale shootout that leaves dozens of dead men lying at their feet.
The game implies a moral neutrality which both befalls Marston’s circumstances and defines the situations which “force” him to kill. Whereas Grand Theft Auto IV’s Liberty City exists as a haven of hope for Niko Belic, New Austin — with its featured desert landscapes, ghost towns, violated Native American tribes, and rapidly-increasing technological advancements — highlights a coming of age, one that may only be reached through the death of the old and birth of the new. This concept is evidenced by both Marston’s own attempt at renewal as well as a tragic ending which brilliantly tests the limits of interactive storytelling — it can only end in cyclical tragedy. Because of this, the vast emptiness of New Austin can be forgiven for lacking sustenance, it serves a constant reminder of the contradictory presumptions regarding human freedom.
It’s faith that separates the conflicting definitions of right and wrong; the belief that when one strives to change — as opposed to sitting and awaiting the fate which so dauntingly enforces their every decision — then fate may ultimately be changed, and the definitions which define society will crack from the pressure. “But me, you, him… we’re all just shootin’ people. Don’t really seem like we’re so different,” hired-gun John Marston claims to Mexican revolutionist Luisa during one defining dialogue sequence. “The difference is why, Mr. Marston. The ideals we hold. There can never be revolution without blood.” There’s good and bad to every decision, and many lives end in tragedy. But what lives on eternally is the purpose for which such decisions are made. Sacrifices ultimately lead to redemption, most often through the legacies we leave behind.