Friday, July 30, 2010

Bringing About Change in the Red Dead West

All stories – all good ones anyway – include some sort of change. A transformation of sorts, brought about by conflict. A world is one way, a character decides it needs to be another way. A girl is betrothed to one man, her admirer decides she’d be better off with him. Even stories in which “nothing happens” must contain some sort of shift, if even just the realization that there’s nothing to be done.

Videogame narratives are no exception, though they generally tread in water no deeper than your ankles. A fantastical land is oppressed/under attack/magically falling apart and a hero/band of heroes/silent protagonist must stop it. The stakes are high, but rarely personal.

Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption – the surprise smash hit of this summer (though perhaps not too surprising considering it’s from those people what made Grand Theft Auto) – approaches the idea of change thematically. It’s set in the used-to-be-Wild West at the start of the 20th century. Change is coming to the province of New Austin in all shapes and sizes. And a cowboy, a scarred leopard eager to change his spots, arrives on a mission he didn’t choose to take.

What’s remarkable about Red Dead Redemption is not how this cowboy changes New Austin, but how New Austin changes him. (I will warn you that spoilers lie ahead, things I wouldn’t have wanted to know before I’d finished the game myself.)

In Red Dead, you play as former outlaw John Marston, coerced by government agents into finding and eliminating men from his past. Trouble is, John’s not that interested in doing dirty work anymore. He hung up those spurs a while back. As Rob wrote a few weeks ago, Marston – as written, not always as played – is prone to restraint and remorse. Should he find himself desperate enough to loot the body of a fallen foe for some crinkled dollars and a few shotgun shells, he at least has the decency to apologize.

The g-men pushing Marston’s buttons use more than the law for incentive. They’ve taken his family and will not return them until Marston’s mission is complete. But John’s mission is about more than saving his wife and child. He’s fighting to prove that a man can change. That a man can learn from his mistakes and transgressions. That he can build a life over top of the tattered remains of a troubled past. His wife, a rough-and-tumble woman, used to be a lady of the night, and the son she and John share represents their shot at reformation – redemption, as it were.

Marston isn’t the only one struggling with change. The entirety of Red Dead’s world is experiencing the growing pains of progress. Of course, progress is rarely objective. The good people of New Austin strive to eke out an honest existence, raising cattle and harvesting crops, while criminals seek refuge around and among them, bent on dominating the region. Nuevo Paraiso’s freedom fighters overthrow an oppressive (but ordered) regime, only to give power to a man more in love with himself than his country. Government officials drive fancy new automobiles through the bona fide city of Blackwater, a civilized oasis in the spacious Great Plains, mere minutes from snowy, forested mountains crawling with untamed cougars and grizzlies.

It’s not an accident the game was set in 1911. When one talks of the Wild West, rarely does the 20th-century factor into the conversation. 1911 was the year of the monograph, of Pierre Prier’s first non-stop flight from London to Paris, of the first Indy 500. Technological advances invade the land and culture of this fictionalized West, rendered on the beautiful plains with telegraph lines hanging limply from their poles.

Unfortunately for the reactionary folks of Red Dead, this change is inevitable. What can be authored, however, is how one reacts to the change. Marston, in between occasional quips about the sluggish speed of an automobile, would rather be inquiring as to the whereabouts of his family than marveling at the latest locomotive innovations. His change is deeply personal, beholden to the whims of no man – well, perhaps Edgar Ross, the official for whom Marston works.

More so than in any other iteration on the GTA model, Red Dead invited me to share the story with its protagonist, rather than construct two disparate narratives: one where I abide and follow the mission objectives and one where I crash cars and annoy the police. This is in itself a change from previous games in the developer’s vast oeuvre. Red Dead doesn't shy away from the tropes of Rockstar storytelling, but it does add a few wrinkles to keep it feeling fresh.

In line with tradition dating back to the GTA III, you will travel to specific quest-givers (to borrow some MMO jargon), a cutscene will roll, and then your mission will begin. Red Dead isn't content to sequester its story to these cutscenes, however. Many missions will begin with a (sometimes) brief sojourn to the pertinent location, allowing time for characters to converse with one another. Characters will question Marston’s motives, declare their own, and flesh out Red Dead’s world by commenting on the way things were or the way things ought to be.

Marston has a particular view of the way things ought to be. He yearns to reclaim his family and settle down on a small ranch in New Austin – a modest living for a former criminal. After three acts, three large environments, and the defeat of his former mentor, Marston spends Red Dead’s revelatory fourth act doing just what he wanted: herding cattle, eating his wife’s terrible cooking, and attempting to forge a relationship with his sixteen-year-old son, Jack. The tone of the available missions change entirely. Instead of shooting bandits, he clears crows away from his corn silo. Instead of chasing down stolen wagons, he teaches his son how to hunt. By rolling these moments into gameplay, instead of providing yet another cutscene, Rockstar crafts an emotionally resonant chapter that warms your heart until it breaks it.

One man may change – or attempt to – but some won’t. Agent Ross remains as conniving, unpredictable, and dangerous as ever. Unable to let hang the loose string that is John Marston, he besieges the ranch with army cavalry. A showdown ensues. Marston doesn’t make it. When the game relinquishes control back to the player, you now control Jack Marston, a former bookworm of a boy now wearing his father’s mantle. The tragic failure, the fall of an angsty yet normal boy into shortsighted emulation of his father’s past, is all too palpable.

The more things change in Red Dead Redemption, the more things unfortunately stay the same.