Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Having Found Its Hero, Rockstar Bids Farewell To The Sandbox

red-dead-redemption-john-marston Grand Theft Auto III was the first sandbox game – that is, the first game to let you bludgeon an old woman with a baseball bat, scream away in a sports car and launch rockets at national guard helicopters before Thelma-and-Louise-ing yourself off a bridge. Many, myself included, ditched the storyline and settled for hours of sheer mayhem. While designers coined the term ‘sandbox’ to describe the open-world structure, the phrase carries a sense of play. You were five again (still?), building sandcastles and knocking them down.

Since Grand Theft Auto IV, developer Rockstar seems to be growing up – that is, they aren’t sponsoring mayhem and dickery as a gameplay element. Narrative, plot and character are taking the place of murdering hookers, running over pedestrians and beating cops with sex toys. Nowhere is this more evident than in the studio’s latest title, Red Dead Redemption. As John Marston, a reformed outlaw, the Great West is open for your exploration. Never has the phrase “sandbox game” been more literal.

And yet, this is Rockstar’s most reined-in game yet. You are John Marston, a character with a past, a family, and incredibly, an ethical code. As it turns out, it’s a lot harder to butcher a prostitute while thinking: would I want my son to see this?

If the last time you played a game was Mrs. Pac Man, be advised: we’re moving past the concept of levels. Instead of a game ushering you from sequence to sequence, games like Red Dead Redemption let you find your own way. The story progresses by traveling places in the game world. You choose to initiate missions and set the story in motion – or you don’t. The tiered structure suggested by the word “level” is entirely absent. The story moves forward, but it doesn’t move up.

Plenty of games adopt an open-world format without qualifying as a sandbox game. Far Cry 2 lets the player roam about its virtual Congo at will, but beyond completing contract killings, story missions and murdering the occasional Zebra, the jungle is something to be navigated, not played with. Not so for Grand Theft Auto III, which implicitly encouraged you to blow off story missions in favor of aimless anarchy. The gold stars it uses to signify police alert – one star will get you a cruiser, five will get you a National Guard battalion –feel more like the stickers we got in second grade, accompanied by a “Good Job!” and a smiley.

Red Dead Redemption is very much the son of Grand Theft Auto, its parent franchise. Any veteran of Liberty City will feel at home in New Austin, having traded up for sprawling, beauteous western vistas. Rockstar aimed to spark a longing for a land we never knew, and they succeeded beyond my admittedly high hopes – the stark beauty of even your favorite Clint Eastwood western can’t compare to Red Dead’s landscapes. Players will spend hours galloping though what is, for all intents and purposes, a painting.

But like a painting, there’s little we can alter. Sure, you can spend all day sniping armadillos. More will come. New Austin is populated with your standard spread of frontier guys and gals, but they do little more than tip their hats to you. Most GTA veterans will try to spice things up by pulling out their six-shooter and spilling some blood in the saloon. It doesn’t work like it used to, turns out.

Unlike GTA III, which practically cheered you down a path of indiscriminate massacres, Red Dead Redemption tracks your sins and gives little reward for your slaughters. Killing too many good guys puts a bounty on your head, and with a large enough target, lawmen will pursue you relentlessly. This is different from GTA’s police, who dropped as many one-liners as they did shell casings. Red Dead’s marshals are on your tail because you, John Marston, did a bad thing.

The real problem? John Marston doesn’t do bad things. From my perspective – 12 hours in, just reached Mexico-land – John Marston is a skillfully-executed archetype of the Knight of the Old West. He respects women. He’s courteous, but not deferential. He’s willing to kill, but prefers not to. He’s a simple man, and he plans on leading a simple life once he finishes his federally-mandated mission of atonement. Because he’s a well-written, well-acted and enjoyable character, players will want to respect that. They’ll start coloring within the lines, whereas before they would have burned the coloring book.

I found ways to sneak in a bit of random violence, but it felt more like an homage to Marston’s outlaw past. Losing a game of poker, I might shove my opponent. I might kill a horse thief rather than hogtie him for the extra bounty. I mean, you save prostitutes from getting murdered by drunken clients. Is this the Rockstar I knew?

I’m not griping because Red Dead redemption won’t reward me for unleashing chaos, death and black-hearted anarchy upon the west. It isn’t GTA, and that’s fine. I’m not saying it should give me a rocket launcher, a jetpack and a scorecard. But John Marston is no blank slate, and when you slide onto his saddle, you’d better leave all notions of hooker-death behind. It just isn’t in character.