Spoilers ahead for 2010’s Red Dead Redemption.
I remembered 2010’s Red Dead Redemption as one of my favorite games of this decade, possibly of all time. It was an easy thing to remember because I would grow increasingly agitated with each passing year and no official news of a sequel. “If the wait between Grand Theft Auto IV and Grand Theft Auto V was only five years, why should I have to wait any longer for Red Dead Redemption 2?” I asked with complete obliviousness to the realities of video game development. But with the sequel finally arriving this Friday, I decided to fire up the original Red Dead Redemption and see if it was as great as I remembered. The results were surprising.
To save time, I didn’t attempt a 100% completion like I did when I first played the game back in 2010, and it definitely altered the flow of the game to just do story missions with the occasional “Stranger” sidequest. You see how crucial all the little side tasks and missions are to the flow of the game, because without them, the main story can be fairly repetitive. Once you get past the tutorial missions at the outset, most missions involve planning to do a thing, the thing being disrupted by enemies, you need to kill the enemies, and then you complete the thing. The way you kill the enemies might vary—Kill them from horseback! Kill them with a Gatling gun!—but the song remains largely the same, so you better find the story compelling.
And this is where the Rockstar formula starts to fall apart because you can see that they’re not really reinventing the Western as much as they’re just playing to its broad strokes and then layering in their patented brand of nihilism and comical antipathy. This becomes uncomfortably clear in the second act of the story where protagonist John Marston heads to Mexico to find the men he’s supposed to kill. The story drags on as it’s clear both the corrupt government and the idealistic rebels can’t rush to help John along, so it’s mission after mission where John gets increasingly annoyed and the values of both sides are rendered grotesque. The player doesn’t get much choice in the matter—all missions must be completed to advance the story—so at some points you’ll be assisting the disgusting Colonel Agustín Allende who rapes peasant women, or you’ll be helping the rebel leader Abraham Reyes, who’s too egotistical to understand the responsibilities of governing. Everything is terrible, everyone is a buffoon, head to the next mission.
The equal-opportunity offender nature of Rockstar Games is nothing new. It’s part of their brand at this point, and for some, they love the studio’s attitude. But eight years later, it now feels oddly safe. By offending everyone, they don’t ever have to worry about taking a position that may upset people. They just want to show they can say anything, but they don’t have anything real to say. If you believe autocratic colonels and self-indulgent rebel leaders are two sides of the same coin, that’s fine, but it’s a weak position that doesn’t really engage with anything realistic. It’s simply preaching moderation at best, and nihilism at worst. Either way, it makes Marston’s journey feel thinner, populated with stock parodies rather than a real place.
And Red Dead wants something real at the end. It wants you to have real emotions for Marston and his journey, which is why the ending is set up as a gut-punch of sorts. It wants to show the closing of the frontier by killing off an original outlaw like Marston, and that death is meant to have weight. You can’t say, “LOL nothing matters except for our story, please take our story seriously.” And it’s not like that’s the most original take on the Western. If anything, that’s simply a defining attribute of the Western genre—the modern world closing in and crushing the pre-modern world.
But I still love Red Dead Redemption, or at least what Red Dead represents. The gameplay mechanics are still pretty solid (although trying to ride your horse and shoot enemies is still kind of a pain, and the cover mechanics could be a bit more robust), and let’s face it: no one else is making AAA games set in the Old West. Even Hollywood isn’t really making Westerns anymore. If you want to play in that sandbox, then Red Dead Redemption is kind of your best option, and I’ll admit that it scratches that itch. It’s also a game where you get out what you put into it. I’d probably find the game more rewarding if I had tried to unlock every outfit, defeat every stronghold, hunt every animal, etc.
My recent playthrough on Red Dead Redemption showed me that while the game may not be as pure as it was in my memory, I still like the central idea of the open world western in the mold of GTA. Yes, there are story problems and pacing issues that will likely reappear in Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar is one of the most successful video game studios in existence; they’re not going to tear everything down), but at least my expectations have now been tempered. The sequel isn’t going to war with nostalgia. I’ve now got a good measure on Red Dead Redemption and I’m more than ready to head back to the Old West.