Red Dead Redemption: Is It the Last-Gen's Biggest Zero?

Ah, Red Dead Redemption. Where do I begin? Do I talk about how you were terribly buggy? Do I explore your excessive dissonance? Maybe just chatting about the deeply troubling, problematic writing would be enough. Or, hey, what if I just spent an entire essay discussing the bad, broken gameplay? Pff. I got time. Why not explore all of it?

Everybody seems to love Red Dead Redemption. I don’t. I can’t.

I go into every game hoping it’s going to be the best game ever. Some, I go into totally blind—and this works out really well. I knew nothing about Dragon Age: Origins, for instance, except that I’d seen one screenshot (that did nothing to convey gameplay) and knew it was from the guys who had developed my much-beloved Mass Effect. It ended up being my most-played game on Steam and one of my favorite games.

Red Dead Redemption sold me with its launch trailer. I’d been skeptical before, but that trailer sealed the deal. I was rewarded with one of the best opening acts I’ve ever encountered in a video game… but I found myself constantly explaining away the problems, too.

See, Red Dead Redemption is buggy. Really buggy. I’ve had my fair share of experiences with buggy games—STALKER’s the buggiest game I’ve ever played, but it’s also one of the best—so bugs I can handle. Still, my trying to climb a cliff and having John Marston run in a little circle 345 degrees to the left, rather than turn fifteen degrees to the right when I push forward on my sticks… well, that’s more than a little problematic, especially when that circular, backwards jog results in John running towards a camera, off a cliff.

You can crash all you want, glitch my visuals, send me a cougar in a man’s body, and reset my progress, but if you make it hard to play your game, I swear I will gut you. Getting launched into the stratosphere and killed because your wagon has the ability to generate energy in its suspension, running backwards off a cliff, suddenly having a gun that refuses to fire despite all logic and reason… these things rob me of control, or pervert my control inputs.

So right off the bat, a neat game with cool ideas had some of the worst bugs, not in the way they broke the game, but in how they disconnected me from the game experience.

On top of this, you’ve got some pretty poor gameplay. “But wait,” its fans protest, “it had a lot of interesting things to do!” That it did. You could hunt, you could tame wild horses, you could play a plethora of minigames—I myself spend hours playing Poker and Liar’s Dice—you could take bounties, do missions, kidnap people, stick ‘em on horses… but the thing is, having a lot of gameplay doesn’t mean that said gameplay is any good.

Redemption’s controls are a little awkward. Aiming sucks—it’s easier to exploit sticky aim than manually doing so. And I say this as a guy who won some multiplayer matches without dying, or even taking any significant amount of damage. Inventory navigation is silly, running is awkward, the enemy AI isn’t very engaging, duel controls are problematic, level design for specific missions are frequently subpar, flat arenas…

The game’s fun to ride a horse around in. It looks nice. The sound design is a work of genius, pulling its Foley effects from classic Westerns, from the Red Hawk scream to the ping of bullets. But… that’s the thing. For all its amazing focus on audiovisual presentation and variety of things to do, Red Dead Redemption’s core gameplay experience just isn’t very good. When I find myself wandering through the woods, back to civilization, attacked by the ninth bear in a row, whilst fighting awkward controls and questionable level design… I’m not having a worthwhile experience.

On a fundamental level, Red Dead Redemption is not a good game.

At its best moments, it shows promise. It’s amazing to ride over a rise, watching the sun break on the horizon. Taking out a bandit with a headshot just feels right. Being able to take vengeance on a random character who chose to wrong you by tying him up and placing him on a train track… it’s good stuff. Red Dead Redemption has the power to craft great moments, and instead, it wastes them all with sub-par gameplay and one of the most offensively-bad scripts of all time.

Oh.

Yeah.

Let’s talk about how absolutely poor the story is.

Okay, right off the bat, you’ve got problems with something called ‘assumed empathy.’ Do you remember playing Skyrim and just not caring about the game’s main plot because why bother? Many people weren’t just happy to avoid the game’s plot, they were proud of it, which is why it’s so silly that Skyrim’s main story keeps insisting that it’s all very serious business. Skyrim pretends we care about its world because, well, it’s the world. It never tells us why—indeed, we enter the game as prisoners of one unjust empire, and the opposition is similarly problematic. There’s nothing for us to want.

Honestly, discussing the nature of motive in games is a big topic that’s worthy of its own essay, and since we’re talking about Red Dead Redemption, I’ll try to pare it down to one simple idea: games are about play. That means doing something. The reason we do things is because we want to. Therefore, if you don’t give us a good reason to do something, we don’t have an experience worth playing.

Assumed empathy says that we want to rescue John’s family because they’re John’s family.

But we’ve never met them. We don’t know John. We don’t know anything. We’re just dropped in a world and told “if you want to see these people (who you’ve never, ever seen!), then you’ll need to what we tell you!”

Right away, we go meet Bill Williamson, who shoots us in the face.

Now, what do you think our motivation for the first act of the game is? It’s more likely that we’re interested in shooting Bill Williamson, who did something to us, than we are in saving John’s family, who we’ve never met. That’s why, when we reach Mexico, the game really starts to bog down. It’s just “constantly do stuff for me, get this guy you don’t know, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.” We players have no reason to do any of it beyond the fact that a bright, shiny marker tells us we can’t beat the game unless we do.

Rockstar, I should mention, are masters of making voices sound unique. Not dialog, but the actual sounds that humans make. When a character speaks, he or she is very distinct. Nobody else in the game is going to speak like that. When John says “Bill Williamson! I come for ya, Bill!” it feels right. It feels like a classic Western.

The problem is, they suck at actual characterization and dialog.

Characters are inconsistent—John’s as malleable as he needs to be. One day, he’s a man of few words, the son of a whore, the next day, he’s an erudite scholar. The FBI agent’s voice changes—not his actor, not his sound, but the words which he’s saying. At one point, he breaks out into some flowery soliloquy about something or other, and it just seems completely unlike anything else he’s said all through the game: it’s as if someone else has begun inhabiting his body.

It’d be nice if they were just limited to bad characterization, but there’s a reason for that: they’re often bad plotters. Good stories make things happen because characters make choices that lead to various situations. Where Rockstar is concerned, things don’t happen in their story for natural reasons, they happen because the folks at Rockstar are trying to make a point. That’s why character voice changes. That’s why certain events happen. They’re violating the fundamental rules of storytelling—like ‘keep characters consistent,’ and ‘make sure things happen in a logical fashion’—because they have something they want to say.

What’s worse than that, of course, is that what they have to say just isn’t worth saying.

Actually, it’s a problem with Rockstar’s writing as a whole: they’re all “nyah nyah nyah, the gubmint’s out to get us, blah blah blah.” They joke about inappropriate things because they’ve got the same grasp on satire that an average South Park fan does. They drop the morals of whatever story being told like they’re anvils, and worst of all, they’re incredibly misanthropic—not because that’s impressive, but because it’s shocking that they’ve not gotten beyond the high-school-level “everyone sucks” mentality. Rockstar games have this incredibly inane, puerile view of the world that masquerades itself as profundity. I used to write like Rockstar does when I was sixteen.

So: bad character, poor plot, excessive preaching from a myopic and childish viewpoint.

Surely they can’t be worse?

Sorry, I have bad news for you: they are.

Ever heard the term “ludonarrative dissonance?” Plenty of people have, and they think it means some high and mighty, la-de-da technical jargon that just means “games and stories,” so they think it’s a dumb term. They’re mistaken: ludonarrative dissonance is when the story and the game don’t jive. Do you run around slaughtering people in Red Dead Redemption? In cutscenes, John’s not like that, so it’s pretty strange to see him being all nice and humble not ten minutes after he slaughtered an entire town.

For a more concrete example, let’s return to the bears I talked about earlier.

Red Dead Redemption’s bears are mean. Seriously. One day, I was simply riding on my horse, on a road, minding my own business, when I got charged by a bear, which killed my horse and nearly killed me. Fortunately, I put it down. After a few minutes of jogging, blam. Got attacked by another bear. Again, barely survived, skinned its carcass, and went on my merry way. Found a horse. Called the horse. A bear came out of nowhere and killed the horse.

By the time I made it someplace safe, I’d defended myself against nine bears. As such, it was rather surprising when the mission immediately after involved a cutscene where an Indian chided us dumb white people for killing animals. The bear, he explained, would not have killed me.

…I JUST GOT ATTACKED BY NINE BEARS I THINK I KNOW HOW BEARS WORK THANK YOU VERY MUCH YOU SANCTIMONIOUS JERK.

In gameplay, bears are vile, abominable monsters, but in cutscenes, they’re cute little things that wouldn’t hurt a fly and how dare the player ever try to harm one. Stupid white people, always screwing up nature. That’s ludonarrative dissonance in a nutshell, and Red Dead Redemption is rife with it.

At this point, you might be thinking “okay, okay, you’ve made your point,” but we’re not finished yet, amigos. There’s more to learn from my bearscapade than the simple fact that Rockstar’s storytelling doesn’t jive with the gameplay.

The Indian was played straight. If you’re not familiar with the term, it means that we were supposed to take his point seriously: white men really hurt North America by colonizing it. Not a bad point to make, except for the fact that plenty of people have made the argument before in the exact same way, so not only is the point undermined by the gameplay—it’s also cliché. Of course, you’ve got the deeply paranoid “the government’s out to get you,” plot, which both serves to spew hilariously misinformed beliefs (I’ve worked for the government; they’re not out to get you, or even screw you over, they’re out to preserve their own existence, and any harm to you is an accident, not a personal vendetta), and which serves to Make Plot Go (because God forbid that internal player/character motivation—“I want”—make the player do things).

Another of the game’s themes is that The West Is Dying.

It’s a common theme: Sam Peckinpah explored it wonderfully in The Wild Bunch, as did George Roy Hill in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. That said, The Wild West as it exists in Hollywood never really existed in real life—in these films, it serves as an allegory for, among other things, getting old. Letting the world pass you by. The inevitability of and regret that follows progress. Rockstar… kinda touches on this theme, but doesn’t really explore it in depth. If anything, Rockstar merely apes the theme, rather than having anything to say about it.

It’s a kind of cargo cult storytelling.

One of the reasons Rockstar is such an interesting developer is that they explore genres most others aren’t. Traditional Tolkienesque fantasy? Leave that to Bioware. Sci-fi? Bungie can take it. Modern military combat? Yeah, let’s give that to DICE and Infinity Ward. Just about everyone tries their hands at these genres. Rockstar, conversely, tries genres that are common in film, but less so in games: Scorsese-esque crime, Peckinpah-like Westerns, the bildungsroman* that is Bully, and whatever Manhunt is supposed to be. Maybe one day they’ll figure out a way to make an interesting Doctor Drama game.

A cargo cult is a concept that sprung up in the South Pacific. To understand, imagine being a native on an island, then seeing an airplane fly overhead. Imagine having tidbits of knowledge about airplanes, driven by some mistaken belief about how airplanes work (perhaps they bring good luck), so you try to do something about it, like making a runway out of straw; you’ve never even heard of Marsden Matting, nor are you aware that airplanes don’t actually bring good luck.

Rockstar writing’s a lot like this: it imitates form without understanding meaning. Max Payne 3, for instance, isn’t just a terrible story because it’s poorly written and executed, it’s a terrible crime story because it’s so busy trying to imitate things without ever understanding their purpose.

Rockstar’s storytellers seem to completely fail to understand the underlying semiotics of any genre they approach. They copy the form, but rarely explore the function, instead using it as a means to launch into some screed about how the government is bad or white people shouldn’t go overseas or whatever. Red Dead Redemption can’t live up to The Wild Bunch. Max Payne 3 will never begin to touch City of God and Elite Squad. Grand Theft Auto V is not Goodfellas, nor will it ever be.

And that’s why Red Dead Redemption is so problematic: things happen because they’re supposed to happen, because that’s what seminal works in the genre did, or because Rockstar’s making some ridiculous point. The West isn’t dying because Rockstar’s got something to say about getting old, it’s dying because that’s how Westerns are supposed to work!

Red Dead Redemption isn’t even a good Western.

We can split the Western genre up into five different eras, more or less. First, we’ve got the era of Roy Rogers and the people like him, wearing their fancy, hilariously inappropriate clothes, all tassels and bright colors, doing all the things Cowboys were supposed to do, like gunfights and stuff. Following that, we’ve got the era defined by John Ford and John Wayne: more realistic stories, often epic in scope like The Searchers, True Grit, or High Noon. Fast-forward a few years, and you’ll find the revisionist Western—films like Hombre or, yes, the Wild Bunch. Over in Europe, people like Sergio Leone were filming Spaghetti Westerns, like The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, or Once Upon a Time in the West, which were defined by their almost mythical quality; rarely about real places and real events, these stories play with the archetypes, exploring the idea of the Western. Once Upon a Time in the West is the pinnacle of the genre, with dozens of scenes and symbols that directly reference many of the influential Westerns that came before. Revisionist Westerns continued on, morphing into something much more grounded and realistic, with films like Jeremiah Johnson and Unforgiven.

Red Dead Redemption is none of these.

It imitates the Western, most closely the Revisionist subgenre, but never really finds a home. It references plenty of stories, as if name-dropping matters, but it doesn’t adhere to anything beyond “do things because the government is mean and keeps threatening you,” and “the government is really mean, guys, come on.”

A good Western is tightly-driven, finely-constructed, whether to tell a story about people and the things they do, or to explore the mythic nature of the concept. Red Dead Redemption wanders, first telling a revenge story, then going to Mexico for some boring subplot about founding a new, equally terrible government as the last (because all governments are bad, mmk), and then finally a pointless quest to kill a dude because you'll die otherwise, which, of course, happens anyways.

It’s all pointless.

Rockstar is nothing if not childishly nihilistic.

Oh, and hey, the title is “Redemption,” so, just by looking at the box, it was pretty clear that John Marston was going to die. It’s a pretty boring pattern in storytelling; I wasn’t that surprised to discover others had already written about it.

So yeah. It’s a game with bugs, poor gameplay, and some of the worst writing in the industry, but, hey, great audiovisual presentation’s all that seems to matter to people. Give ‘em a beautiful world and glorious sound, just make it feel like a Western, but it doesn't actually have to be, and they’ll be hooked, because that’s all that matters in games, right?

Red Dead Redemption is the worst ‘best’ game of this generation.

…or is it?

See you soon.

Apologies for the quicker-than-normal writeup today and lack of pictures; my time’s getting tighter and tighter lately. You can find me on Tumblr, on Twitter, and with the DocTalk tag here on Kotaku. I’ll write just about anything, so long as I think it’s interesting. I was kind bummed that more people didn’t read that STALKER post of mine—it’s a really personally important game to me, and I’d really like to share how amazing it is. Yes, I really think Red Dead Redemption is terrible.

*I have such a hard time with this word. I keep calling it “a Slartibartfast.”