Nature & Change: The Outlaw West of Red Dead Redemption
The Western film is a grand and important part of American film and entertainment. The cold and savage wild, the isolation, and the transformation of the country as law and structure fought against renegade murder and manipulation are just a few of the hefty and often muddy themes that have served the genre well. Yet, as much as video games had improved and even attempted to dip into the magic and execution of the western, only a handful of games could ever really touch the fantasy and stark realities Western films presented. That all changed in 2010, when Rockstar San Diego created arguably the most faithful video game to ever tap the spirit of the Wild West. Today, we celebrate the release of Red Dead Redemption.
Where its predecessor, Red Dead Revolver was caught up in the transition of Rockstar San Diego (then Angel Studios) being acquired by Rockstar Games in a buyout from Capcom, Red Dead Redemption was created from the ground up by a dedicated staff of over 800, including members from other Rockstar Games studios. Where Revolver was more of a spaghetti western-styled game, Redemption was tackled with authenticity in mind. According to a 2009 interview with IGN, Rockstar lead writer Dan Houser said the team spent days researching photos in Washington D.C.’s national photographic archives in the Library of Congress, as well as watching Western after classic Western to make sure the team had an absolutely clear idea of the style and topography they were going for in building the game.
In the end, they chose to go with the year of 1911 because of the shifting period of American history involved with the timing. In a 2010 interview with GameFan Magazine, lead designer Christian Cantamessa pointed out that “the focus was to create a Western that took place in a fairly unusual time period: the turn of the twentieth century, when the old West started to disappear and the modern world began to take root.” Indeed, a massive portion of Red Dead Redemption’s setting hosts events relating to the so-called “civilization” of the West by the U.S. Government. The game would also use a portion of Mexico and the Mexican Revolution going on concurrently at the time, creating a varied game world rife with conflict, change, and shifting of power balances.
Red Dead Redemption brings players into the boots of John Marston, a former outlaw who wants more than anything to leave his previous gang life behind and live happily on his farm with his wife and son. As usual with these stories, things are never so easy. U.S. Marshals track him down and hold his family ransom in order to coerce him into hunting down his still-active former gang members and bringing them to justice by any means necessary. This sets Marston down a path where he’s constantly fighting between a desire to leave his past behind and his instinctive nature as a violent gunslinger.
Players traverse much of the world on foot, by horse, and by train, moving between settlements, scattered world events, and hideouts as Marston builds the means and follows the clues to hunt his former allies in injustice. Along the way, players can engage in bounty hunting, herbal collection, animal hunting and skinning, horse taming, town showdowns with other gun men, and a multitude of other activity alongside the journey. Despite much of the game’s world taking place in wide open wilderness, there’s always activity that finds its way to Marston depending on where he is. In addition, if Marston’s journey wasn’t enough, there’s multiplayer in which you could take on a multiple online competitive matches or even wander the single-player world, forming a posse with friends or hunting other players as you engage in numerous activities spread across the world.
Red Dead Redemption was a game like few others. Rockstar San Diego was masterful in taking an open-world game and ensuring that it didn’t have too little or too much going on to keep players interested. The world is packed full of outlaws, renegades, settlers, citizens, entrepreneurs and lawmen each trying to make their way in a violent transitional period of history. Even with all that life, a sense of loneliness and desperation pervades Marston’s journey as he runs from the growing shadow of his past and fights tooth and nail to hold onto his dreams. For all of these things and more, Red Dead Redemption stands as arguably the best Western video game out there.