One of the most romanticized time periods of American history is undoubtedly the era of the Wild West, a time when ambitious settlers would head to untamed lands to try to make a new life for themselves. Of the many iconic symbols of the period, few are as ubiquitous as that of a rugged cowboy with a revolver on his hip and a disdain for bureaucracy. Countless forms of media are based around this stubborn symbol of American ideals. This includes, but is not limited to, countless movies, books, songs, and games. Of these, few stand out in recent memory as vividly as Red Dead Redemption, an open-world game that brought the good, the bad, and the ugly of the West to a new generation.
In Red Dead Redemption, you play as John Marston, a former outlaw who is on a mission to hunt down key figures of his previous gang. In typical spaghetti Western fashion, John isn't risking his life because of some unshakable sense of altruism. Instead, the government is essentially holding John's family hostage, forcing him to risk life and limb to save his new family from the sins of his old family. Along the way, John meets all sorts of eccentric characters, each of whom undoubtedly represents a facet of the dying West and the age to come.
Some of these companions include competent and strong women with seemingly decent intentions trapped in a world run by men, polar opposites of the revolutionaries and tyrants who are drunk on more than just alcohol. Then there are the Native Americans who are tired of being treated like an inferior species purely based on their race, old gunslingers who want to do one more good act before fading into history, and former idealists who saw through the lies of the world, all of whom are weary after the systematic and seemingly unstoppable injustices that existed long before the events of Red Dead. Every character has a story to tell, and for many, it boils down to trying to survive and thrive.
While such characters are hardly subverting expectations, in the world of Red Dead Redemption, they are a perfect fit and likely contribute to a large part of why the game is so highly praised. Simply put, each character also has a role in exposing John's rigid views, and in doing so, they help tell the tragic story of a man who wanted to protect his family the best way he knew how in a society that is popularly associated with violence, greed, and borderline destructive individualism. By the end of the game, it would be hard not to connect with any of the characters. Though they are practically caricatures of a long-gone era, their struggles are essentially universal human struggles.
Of course, no discussion about Red Dead Redemption would be complete without mentioning the excellent work that went into ensuring that the game looked and felt as authentically Hollywood- Western as possible. Dust goes wherever it pleases, cacti litter the landscape and worn and clearly lived-in buildings act as a safe harbor of sorts from the elements. If nothing else, the game certainly looks pretty, even if it is a sobering reminder of the harsh life that settlers had to endure.
If you tire of looking at the landscape, you can break horses, steer cattle, hunt people and animals alike, lasso all manner of things, get into duels, and play that finger-stabbing game. Unsurprisingly, there are also vast stretches of relative nothingness that you must endure before reaching more "civilized" towns and settlements. Normally, saying that you have to endure a long and boring trip between settlements with nothing to do and barely anything interesting to see is hardly a compliment in an open-world game, but in the case of Red Dead, this too builds upon the feeling that you are playing in an extremely thematic, though perhaps not 100% historically accurate, recreation of the Old West.
Individually, each of these features would make for a decent game. When combined with solid gunplay, however, it becomes clear why Red Dead found its way into the hearts of many. That the game also possessed a serviceable multiplayer component and DLC that added hours of gameplay without compromising the feeling of being the star of your own personal Western is just icing on the cake. Well, aside from the zombies, but zombies are always fun. In any case, with the release of Red Dead Redemption 2 on the horizon, Rockstar holds in their hands the blueprints to a best-selling open-world game set in a period that is rarely covered. The real question is whether or not they will be able to show a bit of restraint when it comes to multiplayer microtransactions.