With a franchise like Grand Theft Auto under its belt, it is hard to imagine Rockstar Games needing to deliver other medium-defining titles. Yet that is what the studio does. Dabbling in every genre from noir to high school comedy, Rockstar always manages to craft a unique experience that, more often than not, shapes the video game industry for years to come. But in a catalog of critically-acclaimed and commercially successful titles, 2010’s Red Dead Redemption stands out as the pinnacle of what the company can offer. Not only is it a mechanical marvel for its living world, but it is one of the best-executed narratives in gaming even after 13 years.
Just like every other title in Rockstar’s catalog, Red Dead Redemption can be easily summed up with a simple descriptor: it’s the cowboy game. Just like L.A. Noire is the detective game, GTA is the crime game, and Bully is the ... bully game. All of these are accurate but lack the depth of the games themselves. When it comes to Red Dead Redemption, the cowboy element goes far beyond letting players live their West World-esque fantasies of a consequence less frontier.
Instead, Read Dead Redemption is a deconstruction of the mythologized American West and the idyllic picture of a cowboy. A brutal story of a world defined by the cruelty and betrayal within it, people take more than they need and pay for everything in blood. Players take the role of John Marston, a man who lived by these rules until they caught up with him. Formerly a member of the Van der Linde Gang, Marston got out to live a quiet life with his family. That is until government agents kidnap and blackmail him into hunting down and murdering the remaining members of his old gang.
The player is let loose in a sprawling open world and tasked with killing off each former acquaintance of Marston’s. Combat is fast-paced and violent. Bullets do the talking, and Marston can talk faster than most. So, he keeps on livin’. Despite the perceived freedom that the traditional Rockstar open world offers, Red Dead Redemption makes the player feel like there is a chain around their leg all the time. The government knows how to find you, and how to punish you if they can’t. You are their attack dog.
1911, when Red Dead Redemption takes place, is a time when men like the former Van der Linde Gang members were already out of time. The Old West was over as American industrialization swept through the country. Men were no longer able to live free at the expense of others. This is not a world of the golden age cowboy; it is a world that wants people like Marston gone. That is unless the government has a use for them.
Marston is only ever a tool used to enact the violent will of those holding the reins of his leash. Dutch Van der Linde used him to gain notoriety and wealth as an outlaw which put him on the wrong side of the law. The law is willing to ignore those past indecencies so they can similarly use Marston to do their dirty work. In Red Dead Redemption, Marston helps snuff out the last remnants of a version of the West that the government could not control. Which means it has to go by any means necessary.
It's a brutal and depressing narrative, one that seems to run counter to the cheeky crime simulation of Grand Theft Auto. But both titles, as well as L.A. Noire, act as skillful analyses of moments in history that have been mythologized as part of larger American legends. GTA is a parody of the fallacy of the American Dream, L.A. Noire deals with the dream of honorable police and the glamor of the 1940s. Red Dead Redemption is a sobering portrayal of American expansion written in blood red at the cost of numerous lives.
One character Marston can meet while roaming the hills and valleys of the world is the Strange Man. He knows Marston, despite Marston not knowing him, and is widely accepted to be an omen of bad things to come — perhaps a representation of death himself. But not just for Marston. He represents the death of the West as a concept, the end of an era that requires those who can’t live in the next era to die as well.
Red Dead Redemption’s power lies in how it utilizes the open world of a Rockstar game and incrementally removes power from the player. This is not a world they control. The West was never free. It’s an astounding achievement of storytelling that remains the pinnacle of what Rockstar can accomplish.