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Post by butters @ 02:30pm 30/11/18 | Comments
An old contributor friend in Andrew Bulmer drops by to share some in-depth thoughts around both Red Dead Redemption 2, and the road to how we even got here...

I never finished Red Dead Redemption. How could I? To finish Red Dead Redemption would be to admit that it was over, to knowingly remove myself from a world that I had been fascinated with as a child, teenager and am still, even now.

Then along comes Red Dead Redemption 2. I haven’t played Red Dead Redemption 2, which is a combination of relief and frustration. Relief because I have so much on my plate already I’m not sure when I’ll fit it in, frustration because I’ve been daydreaming about getting lost in its world.

But how did it get to this point? How is it that Redemption has captured not just my imagination, but the imagination of so many. Why does Red Dead Redemption 2 seem to be so special? Why does it seem to communicate with so many players?

Well in my mind it's simple: the metamorphosis from its early form of Red Dead Revolver to Red Dead Redemption 2, has been transformative for the Western genre as well as for the development of open-world gameplay. A genre, I might add, that could have been perfectly epitomised by a rolling tumbleweed in a vast desert when Revolver hit retail. That metamorphosis then, perfectly pinpointed the cross-section of technical mastery and immersive storytelling this genre had waiting in the wings. And because of that, it truly resonates with players. It resonates with anyone who has ever dreamed of traversing the wide plains of Wild West America, being a deliverer of justice; icon and a pariah rolled into one.

But, obviously, Red Dead Redemption 2 didn’t come from nowhere, it is the culmination of the lessons learnt since the start of the Red Dead series. It started with the tumultuous production of Red Dead Revolver, before Rockstar purchased early developers Angel Studios and had them continue with the release of Revolver under the name of Rockstar San Diego, where they would go on to also create the powerful RAGE engine that not only powered Red Dead Redemption, but Grand Theft Auto also.

"Yet while Revolver succeeded in offering players a glimpse of the Western atmosphere it lacked the technological prowess to pull it off..."

If you remember Revolver it was more of an arcade-style Western. While you played the role of different characters it was ultimately a traditional Western story of revenge. Revolver was an important step, not because it was the first game, but because of the elements it thought to bring in. The protagonist was a loner of mixed race who seeks revenge -- a classic combination of outsider with a moral compass. It represented both the theme of Once Upon a Time in the West and Fistful of Dollars.

Yet while Revolver succeeded in offering players a glimpse of the Western atmosphere it lacked the technological prowess to pull it off. Without the expansive open-world, the continuity of it was broken up by both the mission-based element that harked all the way back to Doom and the choice to have you play as different characters.

The developers at the time, I believe, failed to realise the immersive potential of the genre. The approach was to put players into the Ol’ West by having them control characters that were integral to the story. In this way you played as Annie Stokes, a Union Soldier, your Native-American cousin and the British gentleman gunfighter Jack Swift. The problem was that all of these characters represented tropes from the genre. So while the intent was to create a bigger picture, it reinforced the fictionalised nature of the story.

"You could dip your toes into the world, but never became part of it. This would be the crucial lesson that helped lay the foundation for Redemption..."

Revolver was also a product of its time. You, as well as your enemies, had health bars represented on-screen and the HUD as a whole was quite obtrusive. When the level ended you were given your score based on accuracy and damage and rewarded with cash. This further underscored the unreality of it all. Making your way from point A to point B for a showdown, cutscene and end of level. There was an overriding narrative but it lacked freedom and nuance. You could dip your toes into the world, but never became part of it. This would be the crucial lesson that helped lay the foundation for Redemption.

A year later Activision released GUN, developed by Neversoft. In some ways this was a glimpse of what could be possible. An open-world, a serious cast of voice actors that included Ron Perlman and Kris Kristofferson, among others -- it would be a serious throwing down of the gauntlet for Western games. It did have some similar flaws: again the intrusiveness of the HUD and mission details as well as kill combos. But it did tease so much possibility with the way the story played out, mixing cutscenes and player action into one.

For a long time they represented your choices. Yes Call of Juarez came along, but with its ham-fisted exposition buttressing the main story and gameplay that felt like a Medal of Honor skin, I would say that the true Western had a long wait before Redemption came along. Players, I should say ‘we’, were waiting for something that embodied the spirit (of the West) that we had come to understand of that time and tie it to, not just great mechanics, but a sense of openness, discovery and wonderment that was communicated by the early American landscape. We were waiting for Redemption.

Do you remember going into Mexico the first time? The combination of having made your way there (given Marston’s water troubles); of taking a journey, combined with the cinematic direction and that flawless soundtrack? That moment Jose Gonzales just re-paints the entire game and what this experience actually meant? Redemption was the leap forward in both technology and storytelling that players dreamed of. The move to the RAGE engine allowed Rockstar to create a game that could allow the story to be your own.

You see, the mission-based element in Revolver was like breaking the fourth wall. Yes it was necessary at the time, but it was a roadblock to the story becoming your own. The romanticism of Westerns comes partly from the freedom the protagonist represents. They are not tied to a job, trapped in a city, burdened by a mortgage. They do not have terms dictated to them, but are the ones that dictate the terms. And Rockstar even now, has cleverly played with this while also flipping it on its head.

In Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars (a glorious homage to Kurosawa’s Sanjuro), Clint Eastwood’s character sets to playing two gangs against each other. With the choice to join one or the other, he chooses to do it his way. He is not controlled or beholden to anyone, and this is the kind of freedom we can experience in Redemption. We have tasks, but we can ride off in the other direction, collect flowers, hunt animals, go gunslingin’. We are given the feeling that we are not beholden to anyone (even though we are). This is continued early on in Red Dead Redemption 2, when you are jumped by an NPC. You can choke your attacker to death, beat them even more or let them run away. This is an indicator that it’s your game, and ultimately you control who you are.

It’s true that the GTA series had this element, but set in a familial city environment we reduced our freedom to running people over, stealing cars and escaping police. In this we are simply trolling the real world, in Redemption we are seeking to create our own sense of the world, to find where we fit into it and to explore it on our own terms.

Such a goal has been fully realised in Red Dead Redemption 2. A quick look on Metacritic and the 97 aggregate score from 96 critics to date, certainly indicates as much. Consider also the words from AusGamers’ own review:
Red Dead Redemption 2 is the most engaging game this veteran games writer of 21 years has ever played, or had the privilege to review. It’s overwhelming in its majesty. Absolute in its promises. Paced to perfection. It features the most detailed open-world ever created. An ecology David Attenborough would spend years making a BBC series about, and then win every BAFTA for. It’s a microcosm of romanticised period media; a place you can hang your dusty hat and call home for an ungodly number of hours. It’s as close as we’ll ever get to experiencing the Wild West, unless a real-life Ford goes a step further and brings Westworld to life.“
So will I ever get around to playing Red Dead Redemption 2? Interesting question. I remember when Half-Life 2 came out (finally). I spent the preceding two months getting together the most hi-spec PC parts I could get my hands on. The goal was to make sure I gave myself the best experience I could, that nothing I did would cheapen it. The truth is I can’t wait to sink my death into Red Dead Redemption 2, but only when I can afford the time to truly live it. Many gamers have a genre or style that they gravitate towards and for me it’s exploring the wild plains in the Ol’ West.

The journey to this experience has been more than 14-years in the making and it has had ups and downs, and hits and misses. But it’s been a journey that has allowed the technology and understanding of how to craft an artful story to grow. Red Dead Redemption 2 succeeds because it has been willing to grow.

Just as the genre itself grew from the stale portrayal of John Wayne to embrace the flawed, even tortured characters epitomised by Eastwood’s “Man with no Name”, so too has Rockstar evolved the gaming genre to embody the essence of what we so crave -- to straddle a horse, strap on your irons and ride off into the sunset.

Andrew “Butters” Bulmer is a former games journalist who worked alongside AusGamers’ own Stephen Farrelly and Kosta Andreadis all the way back to N64 Gamer and Nintendo Gamer. He currently resides in South Korea as an English teacher and is genuinely considering a substantial console and TV purchase to play Red Dead Redemption 2, even though his apartment is the size of an Aussie bathroom.
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