Spaghetti Westerns are named as such because they’re films made by Italian auteurs who romanticized the Wild West. The crux of last year’s Quentin Tarantino epic wasn’t completely made-up: Western films were made in Italy, and they’re really damn good at making them. Director Sergio Leone said it best when it comes to crafting films of this nature: “It is a great shame if America is always to be left to Americans”. That quote is meant to accentuate the fact that making a memorable Wild West film and about America in general form a half-in half-out perspective.
Essentially that’s what you can say about Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption, a 2010-released Wild West action-adventure game written by Englishman Dan Houser alongside Michael Unsworth and Christian Cantamessa. Sure, the game was developed by Rockstar’s San Diego team, but the influence, tone, and narrative are completely by Rockstar Games’ hands and vision. And also influenced by tons of Westerns from its pastels and period (1969’s The Wild Bunch) to its music (anything from Ennio Morricone & his signature “twang” note).
The result? A (mostly) serious gaming tale about a man writing his past wrongs by hunting his old gang down while adapting to the dying Wild West in 1911. In contrast, GTA 4 is a tale of an immigrant trying to make it big via crime, centered in a satirically-laced facsimile of New York. GTA V is about a trio with their own dreams and aspirations from different perspectives, set in a parody of Los Angeles.
For a brief moment, Rockstar proved that once in a while, they can grow up. I applaud them for it.
Large And In Charge
The death of the West wasn’t really explored much in video games: you have way too many Wild West period games like the Call of Juarez and Desperado series doing that. Red Dead Redemption tackles this period because it’s an interesting case study on how someone who is accustomed to a particular era gradually gets used to the sign of the times.
And you can tell from the game’s world and its harrowed NPCs that they’re stuck in a changing climate. Deserts, horizons, and expanses are ripe for exploring and fighting rogue bandits & rabid wildlife in. But when you reach civilization, especially in the third large district of the game, you see bits of technology creeping in like the automobile and the train at the start of the game.
And that’s where RDR completely captures to a tee: scope. It’s all about how packed and breadth-filled the world is when it comes to meaty & meaningful sandbox titles.
You either have a big open world with checklists to do ala an Ubisoft title post-FarCry 3. Or you have an organically-created and developed world with a lot of landmarks you recognize, characters and oddball NPCs you can interact with (or kill), or a lot of random scripting happening behind the scenes that can lead to moments like getting jacked by random bandits, or coming across an unintentional horror show like the Donkey Lady.
Red Dead Redemption completely charms players with its many, MANY locales and key moments like the McFarlane farm to even Mexico when you cross the river and ride off. You remember that awesome song that plays at the latter? The power of music goes hand-in-hand with scope: as the song croons on, you just ride off in your mission to find remaining gang members while the game’s draw distance tech immerses you enough to make you a part of its Western illyiad.
Rockstar’s 2010 opus also showcased a side of the company that is rarely seen: restraint. You don’t see much of this in GTA V and even Red Dead’s sequel in 2018, both from a gameplay, production, and story standpoint. Thanks to the technology back then and how its producers and developers worked around the usual game development limitations, Red Dead Redemption was paced perfectly, balancing both the sandbox gameplay and its single-player narrative well.
As John Marston, you can still faff about and perform random acts of violence and victim hogtieing on railroad tracks, but there’s a ton of dignity and seriousness to its presentation.
Marston himself is not a saint, but amidst his fatalistic point of view you still root for the guy to get his government assignment done and get back to living an idyllic life with his family. Stubborn, polite, tough, and patient, he knows his lot in life and makes the best of it amidst a waning age.
And that makes his final moments profound.
The End Is Always Everything
Just when you thought it’s over after you axe Dutch Van der Lind, the game still soldiers on. Marston does what he’s coerced to do, goes back to his ranch, and goes through a bunch of usual Rockstar “go here and story stuff happens” bits that pushes the story forward. Herding, hunting; the usual character-building bits between him and his family (wife Abigail and son Jack).
And then, his past comes back to finish him off. In a standoff that would make Sam Peckinpah proud, Marston had to slay waves of horsed invaders and also make a last stand ala Butch and Sundance. Only here, there’s no freeze-frame; a follow-up to Marston’s death at the hands of the government.
Of course, he did get his revenge in the form of legacy. His son Jack takes up the mantle of outlaw, delivering retribution in a satisfying-yet-depressing final act.
A pity that the cycle begins anew -violence begets violence. But being in John’s shoes for the majority of the game spells out the fact that men like him do not live long, no matter how noble they become. At the very least, they lived the life they wanted and took in the consequences; no regrets.