Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series has always had a twisted Horatio Alger touch: poor boy makes good through ceaseless, savage violence; immigrant makes his way in the new world through ceaseless, savage violence.
In Red Dead Redemption, the team once again tackles brutal Americana, this time in a setting where constant gunfighting and random assault require less suspension of disbelief than they did on the streets of 21st century New York City: the Wild West. The creators have moved away from their tried and true, but in doing so they've created a fuller world than they ever did before, told a more engaging story, and created a Western epic to stand against any other.
The player controls John Marston, a straight-shooting western hero if there ever was one. He's a noble outlaw gone straight with a few telling scars, a hard-bitten sense of duty and justice , and a mysterious past he never fully explains. He tried to quit his life as a bandit, but to buy his freedom and save his family the government is making him do one last job.
The rest of our favorite archetypes are here too. The game revels in its clichés: snake oil salesmen, twitchy treasure hunters, government agents, noble savages, Mexican revolutionaries, hard-riding frontier wives, and tough-but-fair marshals. About midway through the game it's revealed that the Marston's wife is, in fact, a hooker with a heart of gold.
And yet Rockstar's old west is anything but tired. Westerns may be well-worn territory for films, but they are an undiscovered country for games, at least good games. Others have tried, but until now the west of video games was flat, superficial and empty. Rockstar gave it life. They didn't just create a western, they created the West.
Their setting is near perfect. The map spans plains, deserts, snowy mountain fortresses, red stone mesas white Mexican sands and sparse Texas rangeland. There's a fast travel option, but I found myself skipping that in favor of spending ten minutes or so just riding through the countryside, picking off deer, wolves, and rabbits to skin and sell back in town. A day in the game world lasts about half an hour, meaning near-constant opportunities to ride into the sunset.
Against such a grand backdrop, it's the little things that make the world. The animations on everything from horse-breaking to dueling, skinning, poker, dice, and horseshoes feel fluid, natural and engaging. Even going to the bar and ordering a drink--which serves no in-game purpose other than getting the protagonist a drink--feels strangely satisfying.
The basic game structure isn't much different from Grand Theft Auto IV. The player wanders a wide-open world, receiving missions to advance a main story, picking up side adventures along the way. While the story itself is less sprawling than recent GTAs, the game feels grander. And detached from GTA's relentless irony Marston's quest achieves a dogged earnestness that lets the player closer to the protagonist then ever before.
Rockstar has grown up since they sent C.J. Johnson parachuting into military bases to steal harrier jets and jetpacks, displaying an elegant simplicity with Red Dead Redemption that that's quite an accomplishment from the ridiculous Rockstar. The story is small, grand, vicious, and touching.
This isn't the glorious frontier of early Ford, or even the uncomplicated badassery of Eastwood. The story begins in 1911, 19 years after the Frederick Jackson Turner decried the death of the frontier. Railroads, government interests, and the end of the outlaw loom large, and there is always the sense that by doing the government's bidding Marston is sealing his own fate as well. It ends quiet and alone on a riverbank.
The game is an elegy and a celebration of the western myth. The team shows such love for every character, for every homesteader's ranch, every animal, revolver, rock, and piece of sagebrush that the player can't help but fall in love with their vision.
In the end, Rockstar does such a good job closing their story that even the rich world they've created seems hollow and sad at the end of the adventure. It may be a coincidence, but the game ends three years after it began, a year when it seemed the industrial age had finally stamped out a vision of the romantic past for good: 1914.