Per usual, I’m late to the party on a game, but I recently picked up a used copy of Red Dead Redemption and had a few things to say about it.
Forget for a moment the beautiful, seamless graphics and impeccable gunplay. RDR’s greatest attribute is its pace, which is brought about both by its physical architecture and the structure of its quests. The game does a great job of conveying the vastness of late 1800s Western America. While the world is enormous, very little of it is settled or usable in any functional manner. You ride your horse from place to place on beaten down paths that end up feeling a lot like city streets: some are larger than others and you often run into other cowboys riding along them, but it’s a good idea to stick to the roads because they’re the fastest way to get where you’re going. That said, you can ride off into the wilderness if you want. There are both innocuous (rabbits, deer, wild horses) and aggressive (mountain lions, wolves, snakes) wildlife that you come across, and if you want to chase them down, you’re more than welcome to, but you always get the sense that you’re in imminent danger when you travel too far from the beaten path. If you couldn’t immediately look at a worldmap, you could easily get lost in a deserted field.
That sense of danger also extends to people, as well. Unlike a lot of shooters, a few bullets will kill you, which makes you skeptical about nearly every stranger you come across–the game does a good job disguising who is in genuine need and who is out to kill and rob you–and every valley that you ride through. Often, when riding through one of these crevices that seem perfect for an ambush, I’ll push my horse to its limit to escape these areas (often without the hint of bad guys).
Because you’re alone so frequently, you constantly feel exposed. Falling for someone’s roadside trap–“Why don’t you take a load off for a minute” bang-bang-bang you’re dead–almost always ensures that you’re a goner. Once, I saw a stagecoach stopped at the side of the road and decided to slow down and check it out. As I pulled even with it, there were four bandits standing with weapons drawn that immediately killed me. These moments are relatively rare, and there are plenty of times where people are genuinely broken down and seeking help, but because you’re always exposed and susceptible to these elements, you quickly start to take things more cautiously, approaching slowly from distance and sometimes coming in on foot.
When you get into towns, there aren’t many people to interact with. You can buy things from the general store or weapon store or, in some towns, play poker and blackjack in the saloons, but other than those NPCs, various town folk are just digital apparitions that will take offense to you running them over with your horse. There’s no ability to have random, stock conversations with people, which is both good and bad. I feel like I want to talk to people every once in a while–about what, I don’t know–but the inability to interact increases your sense of being alone: none of these people want to talk to you so don’t linger in this city too long because frankly, there’s not much to do. So you get back on your horse and hit the open road again.
Resources are sparse as well. Bullets are easy to come across because almost everyone you kill gives you some ammo and you can always refill at the various houses that you buy throughout the world (I currently own three different rooms in three different cities). But things like money and health are relatively hard to come by. No one carries more than about $6 at any time (guns cost $150-$300 that I’ve seen; houses about $100) so you can’t just stockpile resources inordinately. If you want to save up to buy a gun, you really have to start engaging in a lot of side quests, which are generally organic in the world.
The main quests are done in an interesting way, as well. Early on, you encounter four different people who matter in the game, all of which send you on different types of quests. The girl who saves your life during the game’s intro owns a small farm and needs you for menial tasks like herding cattle, watching the farm at night, and roping wild horses. You get your fill of cinematic gunfights with the Marshall of a neighboring town who usually calls on you to ride into battle with him*. And then there’s the riff raff: a snake oil salesman and a grave robber, both of whom ask you to help out with tasks throughout the game. It appears that you can decide to progress any one of these characters’ storylines at your own speed. If you don’t want to do any of the homey, around the farm stuff, you don’t have to. But it’s nice that they include those as a diversion from your typical shoot’em up quests.
It’s precisely those menial fetch quests that give RDR such a worldly air. It would be easy to turn a Western game into a constant gunfight: lawless bandits on the trails, constant duels in cities, massive gunfights in shanty towns, etc. None of that would establish a very engaging, realistic world though. That I can sit down and play Texas Hold’em in the back of a saloon when I’m looking to make a few extra dollars is the kind of pacing that authenticity demands.
Finally, it’s the game’s saving function that fully draws you into the world. In order to save, your character has to go to sleep, either by setting up a campsite or buying/renting a room at the nearest town. Traversing the wide-open trails is harrowing enough when you’re alone at high noon, but doing so at night when you struggle to see what’s ahead of you brings a whole new sense of impending doom. Taking a nap (6 hours to be exact) often puts you on the other side of the day/night cycle. So despite the fact that you’re not eating, going to the bathroom, and whatever other bodily functions are required of humans, the need to sleep engulfs you in the universe.
All of this is to say that the world of RDR feels genuinely like the frontier. There are tons of areas to explore but as a lone cowboy, it’s both dangerous and probably fruitless. You’re terrified that everyone is trying to kill you, and the people who aren’t couldn’t care less that you exist because they’re just trying to get by themselves. There’s a good balance of thieves and regular townsfolk and the inclusion of the homestead is a really crafty way to add tutorials and a sense of place/real life. But its your solitude and perpetual sense of impending doom that sucks you wholly into the gameworld.
* Riding in tandem with people is done really well. You don’t do it often, but when you do, the game makes it easy to keep pace with your compatriots and there’s generally some kind of character-building chatter going on. It’s also nice to ride with people that you know are armed and on your side because it makes you relax a little bit.