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Opinion: Why  Red Dead ... Works

Opinion: Why Red Dead... Works

March 8, 2011 | By James Bishop

March 8, 2011 | By James Bishop
More: Console/PC

[Each week, Gamasutra contributor James Bishop probes the depths of the characters, dialogue and writing in video games. In this column, he explores the reasons behind Red Dead Redemption's impressive showing in 2010.]

Out of the entire catalogue of 2010, it feels as if no game has received as much attention, as many accolades or as few gripes as Red Dead Redemption.

That isn't to say that there weren't any other amazing games released last year -- I'm looking at you, Mass Effect 2 -- but only to imply that somehow Red Dead Redemption has managed to avoid the variety of pitfalls that have befallen others. It wasn't critically or commercially snubbed despite its fair share of flaws.

The fact of the matter is that Red Dead Redemption, despite being a Western, having immersion-breaking bugs and including a second act that most folks didn't care for, resonates with more of the general public than any of the other offerings this year.

As a vehicle for an experience, it pushes the right buttons in a way that goes beyond mere entertainment.

The West is an iconic place and the death of it is seen as a tragic necessity. As our frontiers continue to shrink and our governments increasingly gain the ability to do as they please with their populace, a story about a man clashing with what many might define as progress while also trying to provide for his family is something that people of all nationalities and creeds can relate with.

The Filial Connection

It gets a little more complex than that, however. Over the past year, there's been a distinct trend in the industry that many refer to as the 'daddening' of video games. As the traditional bracket of gaming audiences skews older, it makes sense for more content to be released that would engage with a more mature group of individuals.

Case in point, video games have begun to deal more consistently with the issue of children and the relationships parents -- and especially fathers -- have with them.

Red Dead Redemption is just one of many 2010 games that had strong filial attachments. Heavy Rain deals with the death of children and situates the player firmly in the shoes of at least one parent of two sons. There's a pivotal scene where he runs through a mall yelling for one of them.

While the voice acting may have dulled the impact and made the scene laughable for some, the feelings of responsibility, anxiety and fear that it elicited were not easily shed by others.

Another easy example of this development is seen in BioShock 2. Regarded as an inferior sequel to one of the most exemplary games of this generation by many, BioShock 2 has managed to become a bit of a critical darling in some circles.

The game's plot hinges on the relationship between Subject Delta and his Little Sister, Eleanor. From the very beginning, it's clear that your main focus is finding and rescuing Eleanor from whatever diabolical prison Sofia Lamb, her biological mother, has her stashed away in.

Perhaps BioShock 2 deals with the relationship more directly and thoroughly than Red Dead Redemption, but the gameplay in the former is repetitive enough to turn off many of its reviewers while the gameplay in the latter is still lauded. It helps as well that John Marston's relationship with his son Jack is merely a facet of the greater narrative imparted in Red Dead Redemption. It's an integral part but still just a part.

Depopulating A World

Beyond the traditional narrative elements in the game, Rockstar San Diego also managed to provide just the right amount of environmental storytelling. The engine behind the game is the same that was used in Grand Theft Auto IV save for some tweaking.

Many of the NPCs function in similar ways and while the art assets are all seemingly new, it's clear that they're being utilized within an engine we've seen before. The major difference and clear emphasis is on the sheer lack of people.

The depopulation of the environment allows for the ambient natural elements to sort of take over from whatever else is going on and gives the player a sense of vastness that so many open world games squander in urban jungles when real jungles -- or in this case the mostly temperate plains and prairies -- are what they should truly showcase.

The number of stories populating the internet about players traversing the world as Mr. Marston en route to some objective only to find themselves sidetracked by a randomly generated rainstorm or the rising sun is astronomical. There's no need for a personal anecdote here as likely as not you've heard a few from friends or family. In fact, it's likely that you have heard more than a few. Player narrative is obviously alive and well within Red Dead Redemption.

The Diamond In The Rough

The last major point of contention between critics is that pesky second act in Mexico. Some have viewed it as a classic example of the Americans sweeping in and solving the problems of the poor foreign nationals while others have seen it as simply a poor choice in plotting or more than a little bit racist.

Though it can be ceded that perhaps it doesn't work as the middle of Marston's plight, the act itself can instead be viewed as a historical reference to all of the meddling that pesky Americans have initiated within other nations since time immemorial.

It's practically an American institution to be at least partially if not entirely responsible for the change of government leaders in countries south of the border. Be it Mexico, Cuba, or anywhere in Latin America really, chances are that the United States has had a hand in displacing one tyrannical ruler with another that's just as bad if not worse. This illustrious tradition continues in Red Dead Redemption.

At the end of act two, Marston replaces Colonel Allende with Abraham Reyes. At the beginning of this chapter, Reyes is cast as a sympathetic character but over time it's revealed that he is a misogynistic womanizer with delusions of grandeur.

None of this is terribly surprising for a character in a Rockstar game, as they are often caricatures of reality, but neither should it be surprising that it hits home more often than not.

Allende is painted as little more than a dictator willing to give Marston what he wants in order to receive his help. But the moment it's made clear -- in a hail of bullets -- that Allende will never truly acquiesce, Marston backs Reyes' rise to power with a new urgency.

Another character, which Marston took to much more emphatically, is killed in the process but this doesn't seem to bother Reyes too much as he has an empire to carve. Marston gets what he wants and he leaves Mexico with a tumultuous revolution on its hands.

If they were to be represented as schoolchildren, the games of 2010 would likely unanimously answer that they want to be Red Dead Redemption when they grow up. It's a sophisticated piece of work with a number of historical and psychological contexts working just below the surface. It's for these reasons and more that it garnered so much attention from so many people.

[James Bishop is a mild-mannered English graduate by day, by night he writes for Hellmode. Sometimes he tweets too. (@jamesbishop) If you're not one of those, however, he also has a website and can be reached at jamesrollinbishop at gmail dot com.]

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