Conventional game wisdom says there are two very different types of open world games. Those based around a strong central narrative (such as L.A. Noire or Mafia II, which I wrote about in detail here), and those based primarily around sandbox activities, such as Just Cause or Skyrim, in which exploration and advancement (whether in terms of achievements, stats, gear or completion) take precedent over the main storyline, which many players tend to not even complete.
Rockstar's games have always fallen on both sides of the fence. While the aforementioned L.A. Noire (though developed by Team Bondi, the game was heavily influenced by Rockstar) was based around its story, with side activities amounting to collecting film reels and completing random street crime missions, the Grand Theft Auto series has traditionally been focused around sandbox gameplay, with it almost becoming an in-joke how many hours one can spend playing without touching the main storyline.
[L.A. Noire was a particularly focused adventure. Rumor has it that 'sandbox' features like the side missions and the film reels, as well as the collectible rare cars, were only added by Rockstar themselves late in the development process]
This is not to say that GTA's campaigns, particularly the more recent ones, have not had effort put into them, it is simply to say that Rockstar designs the plot as a small part of a much greater whole.
Prior to RDR, Rockstar had experimented with straddling the line between sandbox and story driven in 2005's Bully. Though Bully has several sandbox elements and a large variety of minigames in which to participate, the focus of the game is clearly on the campaign, and the driving forward of the story. Bully is an intriguing game for many reasons, not least because (much in the same way as Jade Empire) it bridges this generation and the last in some very interesting ways. I'd strongly recommend giving it a go (it's available on PC, 360, PS2 and Wii), especially given its low price and relatively high availability, even today.
But Bully was not without its flaws. Though the storyline was the focus of the game, the plot was still as simplistic and uncreative as that of a GTA game circa. 2003. If Rockstar wished to build more story-driven experiences, they needed to up their game.
[Bully is a fantastic game, and also interesting as a history trip through the transition between last-gen open world games, which were often very varied, and current gen ones, based mostly on GTA IV and TES: Oblivion]
Red Dead Redemption delivers. Not only does the game sit atop a staggering 95% Metacritic average, but unlike Grand Theft Auto IV (which, with a 7.9 user rating, many now agree was 'overrated' for what it did) the game is still praised by critics and players alike. In fact, unlike GTA4, which (in my opinion) compares rather unfavourably to more recent competition like Sleeping Dogs and Saints Row 3, Red Dead Redemption easily stands up to modern games more than three years after its release.
It's clear that RDR is perhaps not only one of the finest open worlds in recent years, but also the first to bring story and sandbox gaming together in such a setting, with an engaging narrative and myriad side activities for the player to enjoy. But when generic terms like 'atmosphere' and 'feeling' are tossed around as explanations for its greatness, how can we learn from its successes. On the hunt for the real reasons why Red Dead Redemption is such an excellent experience, I set off to discover how every aspect of the game, from its environments to its storytelling, combine to build one of the most immersive journeys in gaming.
The first thing you notice upon starting up the game is how quickly Red Dead Redemption sucks you into its world. It's important to note, however, that this isn't necessarily because of the music, or the story, or anything like that. It's because Rockstar literally forces you to sit through several minutes of discussion on the train journey from Blackwater to Armadillo before the player even takes control of Marston. The characters on the train, who (for the most part) you never see again, discuss the conflicts that the game will later touch on- from the role of religion in such a lawless world to the treatment of the Indians who lived on the land before the settling of the west.
The imagery on the trip reflects the journey back in time that Marston goes on with the train. From the elegant Mississippi steamer unloading its cargo of people (and even an automobile) through the cobbled streets of Blackwater to the train station, and then out into the West. Blackwater itself is inaccessible to the player until the final third of the game. Indeed the way in which RDR handles the 'dying West' is interesting, for it is not just (obviously) chronologically last in the timeline of the setting but also in Marston's own adventure.
[The amazing "Far Away"- you know you want to....]
The game begins in Armadillo, a no-name town in the middle of the West, full of all the tropes that the player might expect in a Western film- a world full of Cactuses, Saloons, and Sheriffs galore, with not a single car in sight. It is only as the game progresses, first further and further into the lawless West, and then down south into the midst of Revolutionary Mexico, before finally returning to Blackwater, that the slow demise of the West becomes clear. This is an incredibly bright move on Rockstar's part, for by the time the player 'realises' that the West is dying, they have genuinely begun to love it. Instead of Blackwater's 'civilisation' seeming a welcome respite from the lawlessness of the West, the player feels almost out-of-place, and I know it felt a little weird to me as I heard the horseshoes of my beloved steed clunk against the cobbled streets for the first time after thirty hours of gameplay.
[Armadillo, USA. Home Sweet Home? Not for long]
I could touch on the world's graphics, or the characters, or even the satire present in almost every inch of RDR's world, but those are things Rockstar does well in every game. Some design decisions, though, are far more interesting. [Music, in particular the "Far Away" sequence, has been so widely discussed that I thought I'd leave that out of this as well. Clearly it contributes in immeasurable ways to RDR's atmosphere]
In many open world games, sections of the map are locked off at the beginning of the game, so that players don't explore everything at the beginning, get bored, and quit halfway through (at least that's what I've always assumed to be the reason for it). Rockstar had attempted this before, perhaps most notably in GTAIV, back in 2008. There, however, the islands of Liberty City didn't really tie into one overarching narrative by themselves, and indeed the split seemed more arbitrary than for plot purposes.
In RDR, blocking off Mexico, and then Blackwater, ties into the overarching narrative of the game. There's a real sense of progression as one moves through the 'Old West', past the swamps of the Mississippi, into the deserts of Mexico, and finally the mountains and plains of the North. Tying world design into narrative is something that so few open world games achieve, that its hard to explain at first why RDR feels so 'right', and when tied into the weather system, creates scenes of beauty that are entirely random.
When you see the 'Giraffes' sequence in The Last of Us, or enjoy the beautiful sunset over Rannoch in Mass Effect 3, those scenes have been perfectly created by the developers. They've been placed there quite specifically in order to elicit an emotional reaction in the player. Red Dead Redemption, though, doesn't do this. Many of RDR's most beautiful moments happen entirely at random. In fact the game is so confident in its night skies and midday sun, in its haunting sunrises and overpowering sunsets, that unlike other open world titles, the time of day DOESN'T change when you start a narrative mission, even one as important as the sequence when the player enters Mexico.
It would have been easy to make sure that as Jose Gonzalez's 'Far Away' plays in the background, the sky is lit under a brilliant sunset. But Rockstar didn't. Indeed the atmosphere inherent in the world is so blinding that no matter the time of day, the sequence never loses its impact.
'Journey' is perhaps the most important thing that a developer should strive to achieve in a game based around story. It is also incredibly elusive, especially in an open world adventure. The feeling of having started in one place, whether that be a physical location or a state of mind, and ending up somewhere completely different, is key to immersion. Red Dead Redemption is an excellent game; Its systems are fun, its map is a joy to explore, and its mechanics are interesting and well-designer.
But its world is more than excellent- it is a testament to the power of an entire medium. As the narrative and the world slowly intertwine, they combine to create a sense of journey present in so few games- a sense that should be celebrated and encouraged.
Rockstar may not make the best games in the world, but they do make the best worlds in games. And I certainly look forward to whatever they come up with next.